Reading Time: 3 minutes

by Jesse Galef

Is atheism a choice?  I ask because the issue kept coming up not only in an earlier post’s comment thread, but also independently on my facebook wall. It’s clearly a question that provokes some thought.

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of choice for a long time.  The word is used in different ways by different people, but a recurring theme seems to be the importance of conscious thought controlling the decision. (One of the reasons I like this formulation is that it avoids the sticky issue of determinism and free will – we don’t need to argue over what sparked my conscious thought to get breakfast, only recognize that conscious thoughts occurred and they resulted in me eating delicious waffles.)

So is atheism under the control of our conscious thoughts?  Even that’s a complex question!

I’m inclined to say no.  While it’s a conscious effort that leads us to seek out the truth through study and reflection, we can’t decide ahead of time what the evidence will say.  Evaluating evidence is in the domain of our subconscious.

But there is a way to affect our beliefs with conscious thought by exploiting our capacity for cognitive dissonance:

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The “ideas” or “cognitions” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one’s behavior, and facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. [emphasis mine]

Isn’t it fascinating that behavior can affect belief?  So even if we don’t start out believing that the evidence points to the existence of a god, we could act as though it did.  After a while of going to church, praying, and doing all the “believer” things, there’s a chance that some of us would genuinely start to believe – rationalizing our behaviors by changing our beliefs.  And since the dissonance “can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms,” once it starts to kick in, reverting to our old beliefs would be less and less likely.

That’s the best I could come up with.  In my conception of belief – confidence that something is true – it’s very difficult to argue that my atheism is a choice.

But many religious individuals have a different conception of belief – they don’t see evidence as they only factor.  A friend in college once told me that he didn’t think Mary was really a virgin, but that he still “believed in the virgin birth.”  He was never able to satisfactorily explain what he meant by that and I still haven’t figured it out.  I wonder how the cognitive dissonance is resolving itself in his head…

Theists often seem quite capable of talking themselves into belief without evidence.  I find this to be delusional.  But it explains why religious believers often think that our atheism is a choice: if they put evidence aside to believe, they assume we can, too.  I’ll try not to generalize to all atheists, but for me, belief doesn’t work that way.  I recognize that this is begging the question – in essence, I’m simply asserting that I’m incapable of accepting something as true without evidence.  But why do I feel this way about belief when others feel differently?

I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you used to be one of those theists who was capable of “willing” yourself to believe.

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[Administrative Note] Sorry for any confusion – I accidently scheduled my draft to be published.  For about half an hour my first draft was up, before I frantically noticed the mistake and took it down.  It needed more thought, polish, and editing.  To be honest, it still does – I’m never perfectly happy with posts; I always feel they could use more thought and time.  This is a particularly heady topic and I find myself wanting to go off on all sorts of tangents.