Can We Choose Our Beliefs?
By Rev. Dr. William C. Myers and Scott Blair | March 22, 2018
Why is it about belief? Christianity calls on people to believe in Jesus, to accept and revere the narrative that Jesus is divine yet suffered death as a human. And the event is said to somehow provide a path to being accepted by God and living eternally with him in paradise. But we must believe the story to participate in this.
Why would the ability to believe an implausible story be the central criteria in determining who is fit to know God? How is it virtuous to strive to believe something inconsistent with the observable workings of the world around us? Nonetheless, many do strive to believe and succeed at it. Some may even find it easy. Perhaps for these people, belief is, in fact, a choice.
But not everyone is able to choose what to believe. Some of us are not as affected by rituals or cultural suggestion. We might not be disposed to interpret our most impactful emotions as the influence of supernatural forces surrounding us.
I am fortunate to live during a time when we can discover so much about how nature works. I can see the coherence of its underlying rules and the inviolable compliance of all things with them. I see how the richness of our world and human experience spring from them. I can no more believe that Jesus was born to a virgin and rose after death than I can, by force of will, believe that the Sleeping Bear Dunes were formed by a bear waiting for cubs to swim across Lake Michigan. How could a god hold me accountable to achieve a state of mind of which I am incapable — with eternal consequences?
When one earnestly seeks to align his or her beliefs with what is real, it becomes impossible to choose what one believes. Truths must be discovered. If we “choose” them, they will be only our own motivated constructions. A person can either choose beliefs or choose to conscientiously pursue truth, but cannot do both.
Our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions reflect our true beliefs. This is the simplest answer to Scott’s question, “Why is it about belief?” Jesus has a heart for people who are poor. If I believe in Jesus and what he stands for, I, too, will have a heart for people who are poor. I will say and do things that reflect a generous and compassionate spirit toward people living in spiritual and material poverty. If I am callous toward people who are poor, or show apathy, then my behavior should raise questions about my true beliefs. What Scott doesn’t realize (because he chooses not to see?) is people of faith are pursuing truth by earnestly aligning our beliefs with what is real: God!
Our beliefs are formed from many sources. As children, we are taught by parents and teachers, siblings and friends, pastors and Sunday school teachers. Some of their beliefs become our own. We learn by observation and experience. We touch snow and discover cold, touch fire and discover heat, touch water and discover wet.
As we age, we hold fast to some of our childhood beliefs and exchange others for more mature and nuanced beliefs. We grow in our capacity to think reasonably and critically. We differentiate ourselves from others. We create a worldview bearing the marks and influence of those around us and of our cultural context, yet uniquely our own.
For people of faith, there’s another layer of influence shaping our beliefs. We have the witness of Holy Scripture, the testimony of those who’ve come before, and the teachings and doctrines of our faith communities. We also have the gift of divine revelation.
With so many sources influencing and shaping our beliefs, it raises the question: Are we able to choose our beliefs? It would seem the answer is both yes and no. Like the age-old nature or nurture question, the process creating and informing our beliefs can be far more complex than might first appear.
Born into a different cultural context (e.g., family of origin, religious tradition, social class, and racial, ethnic, and gender identity), I might hold some of the beliefs I do today, but many might have changed. Regardless of my cultural context, I have the capacity and freedom to reason and change my beliefs. Being a person of faith, my beliefs are informed by my faith community, religious tradition, and the grace of God.
In matters of faith and life, I’m free to embrace God’s word and do God’s will, or not. I’m free to reason and to question, to be informed by my cultural context, or to reject its bias and prejudice. But I can do none of these things apart from the grace of God!
Bill describes beliefs as something emerging from culture, upbringing, religious teachings, experience, and one’s own thinking to form a composite uniquely one’s own — like a personality! I agree; this is often how people’s conceptions of reality are formed. But should it be?
Let’s look at a subset of all human-held beliefs: those we share. That the earth orbits the sun is widely understood. Math is the same in all cultures. The physics that make cellphones work is undoubtedly widely accepted since phones are used everywhere. Practical application drives the alignment of beliefs with the rules of nature. This increases beliefs held in common among people. I suggest that in addition to the utility of it, we also can choose the careful empirical approach to forming beliefs for truth’s sake. And we should. It works better.
Scott and Bill agree that while we might have some freedom in choosing how we form our beliefs, we cannot choose what is ultimately real. In our pursuit of understanding, the atheist and theist might not agree on what kind of experience constitutes evidence but do agree that reason must be part of the process.