Thursday, January 2, 2014

Can you choose to believe?

I had a conversation recently with a thoughtful theist where we were discussing raising children and passing on our belief systems to them. I was relieved (but not surprised) to hear that she wasn't feeding her children misinformation about atheists like how we're somehow "broken" or "love sin too much" or some other total strawman. She told me that when she explained nonbelievers to her kids, she started off with how God gives us free will, and we can make our decisions from there. I thought that was a really fair response, but it's kinda stuck in my brain, and while I wouldn't tell her to change what she says, I'm not so sure that whether people believe or not is a matter of choice.

I've been told before that my problem is that I need to read The Bible with "an open heart" and "ask God" to help guide me as I do so. I always respond with how that's a strange request, as how can I genuinely ask a thing that I don't believe to help me? Sure, I can mouth the words and maybe even go so far as to think: "Okay, if there is a God, help me out here!" but that's not the same thing as making a genuine request. I compare it to asking Superman for help the next time you're in trouble. Sure, you can say, "Superman, help!" and you can have the mindset where if Superman actually comes along to help you out, you're not going to question it. The point is that in both situations, you're not genuinely expecting help from something that you don't think is actually there.

I think that this works both ways, and that's why it's pointless to try and talk somebody out of belief. If a person genuinely believes in Allah, for instance, and you offer them a billion dollars to stop, he or she might go so far as to tell you that the belief is gone, but if you believe you believe. No matter how much you tell a person that his or her belief is nonsense, that's not going to get you anywhere. If anything, it'll just make that person dig his or her heels in even further.

I should note though that I'm not saying that there's no point in debating beliefs. If it weren't for people who debated with me, along with numerous debates that I listened to, I'd probably believe a whole lot of different stuff than I do now. The point though is that it wasn't somebody trying to cajole me into changing my mind that did the trick. What made me change my mind was a slow process, but much of it had to do with how I approached the world. Different people introduced me to new ways of looking at things, and once I opened my mind up to the possibility that I was wrong, my faith's demise was inevitable.

I realize that theists hate it when atheists compare the belief in God to the belief in Santa Claus, but if any believers out there really want to understand it from our point of view, then don't take it as an insult when I say that it's as likely that I can start believing in God again as I can start believing in Santa. It's not that nothing will change my mind. If I got some empirical evidence for St. Nick, then what choice would I have but to believe in him again? It's the same with God. Yes, I know, belief in God is a deeper, more life-altering belief than the one in Santa, but that doesn't address the reason why I don't believe - a lack of evidence. If I were to ask you to write a letter to Santa next Christmas, you'd look at me the same way I (really want to) look at you when you ask me to ask God to help me with my understanding of The Bible.

So, if you're on board with me that belief is not a choice, then what can you actually choose to do?

1. You can choose to have an open mind. This is a bit of a loaded phrase, as it's unfortunately come to mean that you should give equal weight to any and all claims that come your way. When I say it, I mean that you should be willing to follow the evidence to whatever conclusion is supported by it, and once you reach that conclusion, be ready to change it as new evidence comes your way. That doesn't mean that you can't feel secure in saying, "There probably aren't any chimpanzees that live in my ear." but just be ready to change your mind when a bunch of chimps start flying out of your auditory cavity.

2.  You can choose to expose yourself to other points of view. This step is pretty much pointless if you're not willing to take the first one. Many people only like to expose themselves to the opposing point of view through the lens of those already on their side. This is why you get so many creationists still saying the same old canards like "If we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" or "If evolution is true, why is it just a theory?" (If you think that those are good questions, then you haven't looked into evolution from the point of view of those who actually accept it - and not even in the most cursory way at that.)

3.  You can choose to embrace your doubts. When a doubt comes along about a particular belief of yours, you can shut your brain down and blame yourself for not thinking correctly, or you can say, "Maybe I'm doubting this for a good reason." From there, you can put your belief into a holding pattern of "I'm not sure about this." until more evidence comes along to sway you one way or another.

4.  You can take the time to figure out what would change your mind. For instance, I personally believe that it's a good idea to let my son decide how much he should eat at dinner time. I don't make him sit at the table until he "cleans his plate". I know precisely what would make me change my mind though. For once, if he started to look malnourished, that would be a pretty big indicator that I could be wrong. (But not quite enough to convince me entirely - there could be other factors at play.) The point is that I have no problem saying what would get me to think differently. Some people seem to act like it's a virtue to say, "Nothing can change my mind." That sounds pretty unreasonable to me.

5.  You can choose to lie. Unfortunately, there are many people out there who do just this, and I don't judge them for it when it comes to this particular issue. Some folks are afraid to tell their friends and family how they really feel out of fear of being ostracized. In that case, you have people who do things like go to church and pray at the dinner table, but they believe about as much as I do. Like I said, I don't judge, but I would encourage more people to "come out of the closet" in that case, so others can learn that nonbelievers aren't evil people.

That's all I've got. If you've got something else, feel free to comment and let me know. 

1 comment:

Kaboom32 said...

6. If that's how God works, he's a dick. Fuck that bitch.