Is Atheism A Choice?

I wrote an article last month posing the question: Can Christians and Atheists Find Common Ground? In exploring that question with both believers and nonbelievers, I came away a bit discouraged. The answer appeared to be “as long as.”

In that article, I made the following statement:

“Apostates such as myself, meaning I once was a theist and have chosen to reject a belief in a deity, often are met with a certain mixture of sadness, incredulousness, and anger for rejecting God and Christ.”

A reader of this blog left a comment and a challenge for me that I’ve long meant to follow up on. He wrote:

“I challenge YOU to seriously question the literal truth of the following statement from this blog: “…I once was a theist and have chosen to reject a belief in a deity,…” I submit to you that you had no more “choice” in being an atheist than you did in being a Christian.”

It was not the first time I’ve seen this challenge of choice proposed and I admit, I spent several days mulling the “challenge” over. Did I “choose” atheism? Did I choose to stop believing in a god? What follows is an expanded response to the challenge:

My wife and I had a discussion on the issue – I asked her if she had chosen to stop believing in God – at first the question gave her pause, then she responded emphatically that it was indeed a choice.

Here’s the rationale behind this: In our case, once upon a time we were both Christians. Along the way, we came to have doubts on the veracity of the Bible. We read many books and did our homework and came to the understanding that the Bible was man-made and not the direct word of god as we were raised to understand. As a historian and an analyst by profession, my analysis of the historical record and understanding of the cultural geography led me to believe that the fundamental underpinnings of the Christian narrative was beyond flawed – and in fact all made up after the fact.

Having said that, we made a choice to explore our initial doubts and to go down the path of discovery. As my wife pointed out – at any point along the way, we could have turned away and “plugged right back into the Matrix.” The choice was in pursuing knowledge to the end, and, being open-minded enough to accept the reality (a choice) and not reject the truth in favor of belief.

I think people that have that “crisis in faith,” followed by the realization that everything they once “knew” was wrong, makes a choice in that moment: either embrace the facts and reject their religion or they can choose to pour themselves back into their faith and chalk the crisis up to a “challenge of faith.”

Last week I was involved in a discussion with coworkers in a social setting. One considers herself a secular humanist, the other two Christians. Along the way I mentioned that I have tremendous respect for people of faith. While a true statement, it is also somewhat facetious. Here’s what I mean: I’ll wager that the majority of Christians rarely, if ever, question their core belief system. They were likely born and raised in Christian households and even if as adults they no longer go to church or read the bible, they hold on to the Christian label – call it brand loyalty. For these people, I have as much respect for their faith as I do their ignorance.

On the other hand, for the Christians that struggle with their faith and their beliefs in trying to reconcile the brutality of nature and man in this world with a loving deity that personally cares about their well being – that search the bible for the answers to the questions that plague them – yet choose to put stock in faith over the stark realities they are confronted with, that is bravery and I have to give it respect. They make a choice, for the right reasons or not, to hold on to their faith – as one put it: it’s better to believe because the consequences of being wrong are such…

The response was pure Pascal’s Wager, but understandable to understand why many choose belief in god. It strikes me that these people have a choice. When they are at the point of understanding Pascal’s Wager they truly are confronted with extremely divergent paths – either continue to believe in the Christian construct because the risk of an eternity of hell in the afterlife is not worth turning away, or break from religion altogether with never the thought or worry of what lies beyond as it is just as real as Neverland.

Austin Cline, a prominent writer on atheism, argues the other side:

“It isn’t true that one chooses to be an atheist. Atheism — especially if it is at all rational — is simply the inevitable conclusion from available information. I no more “choose” to disbelieve in gods than I “choose” to disbelieve in elves or than I “choose” to believe that there is a chair in my room. These beliefs and the absence thereof are not acts of will which I had to consciously take — they are, rather, conclusions which were necessary based upon the evidence at hand.”

I’d like to think I made a “rational” decision to let go of a belief system that “guaranteed” eternal life and happiness. I weighed the facts and consequences – what if I’m wrong? – and came to the conclusion that I was not wrong and there were no consequences associated with making that choice. Choice being the key word. Atheism, especially for those that were once theists, in my opinion is a choice – just as is that leap of faith to continue believing in Christianity despite grave misgivings and unanswered questions.

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9 Responses to Is Atheism A Choice?

  1. Matt. says:

    When I first started considering myself an atheist, it wasn't because I made any sort of "choice" to stop believing. The only choice I made was to stop lying to myself about what I believed.I couldn't have chosen to "reject the truth in favor of belief," as you said; the truth would always have been there (to quote The Matrix) like a splinter in my mind. The only other choice I could have made would have been to ignore that splinter.

  2. Sean Asbury says:

    Matt – it's a good point, but I think it's also a quibble over semantics. I could be wrong, but I think there are many that do make that choice to ignore that splinter for fear of the consequence of examining it fully. As you said, you made a choice to stop lying to yourself – which I think I was trying to characterize. When confronted with the truth, do you double down on faith or let it go? I think at that point we make a choice…

  3. Anonymous says:

    I've never liked Pascal's wager. It suggests that you can arbitrarily switch between belief or disbelief in a deity. It's not an arbitrary choice like, say, choosing between strawberry and pineapple toppings on a sundae. It's a decision that comes from the many events and the observation and bouts of reasoning that a person has experienced throughout his/her life. PW seems more of a social norm of the time ("Say that you believe in God and you will be regarded as a person with a high morality. If you don't we'll label you as a heathen and we'll either ostracize you or cast the death penalty upon you").In the end, it all depends on whether you can call a decision a choice. Kinda like going back to the argument of free will all over again.

  4. necklace says:

    With all due respect. I think this is quite weak. The existence of God is a necessary common sense conclude that science and philosphy needs to make. Everything exists because of something before it. Either we have an infinite self sustaining first cause… or… we have an infinite regress of dependency. Which is it?

  5. Sean Asbury says:

    Anonymous – Completely agree that Pascal's Wager is an inane bet, but one followed to date often enough to retain relevance.Thanks for chiming in!

  6. Sean Asbury says:

    Necklace – thanks for posting! I'm not sure if I understand the point you're trying to make – could you expand on your thought a bit more? Are you saying that god's existence is necessary and common sense dictates people should believe in his existence? Why is your statement "Either we have an infinite self sustaining first cause… or… we have an infinite regress of dependency." an either or proposition? What if it is neither?

  7. Stacey says:

    I don't ever remember believing in God any more than I remember believing in Santa, so my perspective may be different, but I have tried for the sake of my family and friends to 'choose Jesus' and just can't do it. I've read the Bible, cover to cover, have read other religious texts, and it's just like trying to choose to believe in a guy in a red suit delivering toys to the world – yes, it's a nice little story and may make people feel better, but I cannot make myself believe it. I respect other people's right to believe in what they want, I just wish that respect was extended back.

  8. Anonymous says:

    My parents, bless their liberal hearts, chose not to indoctrinate me to any religion. They escaped the perversion of the Southern Baptist faith when they turned 18, and so chose to not subject me to religion as an innocent child. They instead taught me charity, respect for nature and empathy and compassion for fellow humans. At 17 I transferred to a religious highschool because my best friend was sent there by her pentacostal parents. My baptist grandparents were thrilled, and paid my tuition. My parents were confused but nonetheless, extended their support. I look at my two year submersion into the world of christianity as cultish and brutal. Never before and never since have I experienced such intolerance, disbelief in peer-reviewed scientific literature and homophobia. I was thoroughly blown away by the tenents of monotheism. I have never once seen proof of a loving god, not to mention a truly loving 'christian'Mind you that this is only my opinion, but as an athiest, I have spent the last decade working with the elderly, handicapped and ill. I belong to my local human rights organization and fight for marriage equality. I fight for Planned Parenthood and reproductive freedom for women, because no woman can call herself free until she owns the rights to her own body. Consequently, I have been told by those old 'christian' friends that I am hell-bound for my disbelief… To those kinds of Christians.. Which of us is truly more Christ-like?

  9. Sean Asbury says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your story!Just about every atheist I know is incredibly generous with their time and charity. While hard to compare to such a diverse group of Christians out there – many of whom I know are also wonderfully charitable and giving, these characteristics do not seem to be uniformly shared by all…

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