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Can you "choose" to believe in something? Really?

Seems to me that my religious friends and acquaintances have an emotional experience when they do religious things. They say they believe with their hearts, and I take them at their word.

Thing is, we can't control what emotions we experience. We can control how we behave, how we react to the emotions, but they happen at a non-conscious, non-rational level. It's like a preference in music or sexual attraction: it's not something you choose, it's something that happens below the level of cognitive volition.

I can look at an image of Jesus but I haven't a clue how I can force myself into believing that Jesus is divine. It's as if someone presented me with a pat of butter and said, "It's actually a gold ingot. All you have to do is believe that it's gold, and that's what it will be." Doesn't matter how much I get brainwashed, or how much I call it a gold ingot, it's still going to be butter and left uneaten, it's going to turn rancid after a while.

Have others had a different experience? Have you been able to consciously select your beliefs?

ErikGunderson 6 Jan 25

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Just this morning, a FB friend of mind posted this meme. I took immediate exception to item #1, and commented this:

I contend that one cannot control one's beliefs. For example, an atheist lacks a belief in gods. He can't just consciously decide one day to believe. It is possible for him to change his mind, but something has to happen to convince him, such as something that he believes can only happen if a god exists. This is out of his control.

He can decide to change his behavior and begin acting and talking like he believes, but that is different than actually believing. It may make the believers around him more comfortable because they don't realize there is a non-believer in their midst, but it also makes the atheist a liar and a hypocrite.

You can't consciously "decide" one day that something you believe is false or that something you disbelieve is true after all. It doesn't work that way.

Not for me, anyway.


I've had people debate me about this, also. At an AA meeting once, one of the other attendees said, "If you choose not to believe in God, that's your problem." I explained to him that it is not a choice. I arrived at where I currently stand because of much research, thought, discussion with others (including pastors,) and arrived at atheism more than 35 years ago. It is not like I just woke up one morning and said to myself, "You know what? I think I'll try being atheist and see how that works out." It doesn't work that way.

For any given "thing", you either believe it or you don't. You can consciously decide to act as if you believe it, or not, but that does not change anything other than how you act. It is not choosing a belief. It is choosing a behavior.

In my case, my arrival at atheism is not what I expected. The original quest was to better understand God, but the more I learned, the more questions I asked, the more I researched, the more I realized that the Christian god is no different than any other mythological being. That conclusion was inescapable, and not a choice. Indeed, in many ways my life, particularly familial relationships, would be easier had I not landed where I am -- the rest of my family is very religous and active in their respective churches. I'm a bit of an outcast -- a black sheep, if you will.

I could act the part -- but that would be dishonest. I can't just turn the belief on, nor would I want to.


Jewish background sort of says, "Huh? Who's this guy you're talking about?" No impact one way or another. As for believing a pat of butter is a gold ingot, I'm with you on that. It would go rancid. One cannot just up and decide to believe in much of anything, let alone the Magic Man.


Yes you can, and do chose your beliefs. I chose to believe in science to explain the world and my feelings. Others choose god because they feel they must believe as a result of indoctrination into the faith. Religious belief is widely based on geography. You don't see a lot of Hindu folks being born in Saudi Arabia. What you do see are deconverted atheists from nearly every, if not all religions.

I would argue that you shouldn't believe in science. You should accept demonstrable facts as they are presented and question everything. For instance I accept evolution because of all the data that has shown us that it's the way of things. Other than that nitpicking I completely agree.

I see your meaning, but, "I believe that the scientific method is a reliable way to collect information based on the data I have available to me at this time," Is a little long winded for the context.

Yes, but using the term belief in the context of science is problematic. It suggests that we in the scientific community are simply basing our ideas on un-testable hypothesis and that it's simply what we want to have happen. I really feel that term needs to be removed from the science side of the conversation.

Belief is not the same word as believe. One is a noun, the other, an adjective. They have different meanings. You're picking a nonexistent knit.


The quote by the amazing Anais Nin sums it up: "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."


As a child I believed in religion because I did not know any better. As an adult, I have always deliberately chosen what I believe, based on evaluation of existing evidence.


Not only can you choose what you believe, you must choose. You have an obligation to yourself to choose what you will believe.
We believe what we do not know. When we don't know something, we can only believe it. Astronomers don't know what Dark Matter is, therefore they can only have a belief in what it is. Every astronomer can have a different belief in what it is, and every astronomer's belief is no more or less valid than any other. Once something real is discovered about it, then we can stop believing and start knowing.
You have an obligation to yourself to choose what you will believe. It is a duty to yourself and your prerogative.
No king, or dictator, or committee, or group, or even God and all the angels in heaven can dictate to you what you will believe. Your choice is yours and no one can take it away.

Astrophysicists can measure Dark Matter. They don't believe in it, they measure the effect it has on the universe around them. While they have no idea what it is it's not a belief founded in nothing it's demonstrable and measurable.


They measure "something"; what meaning they attach to the measurement is their belief, as evidenced by those that believe that measurement points to dark matter and those that believe that those measurement can be explained by something other than Dark Matter.

It's like this. They assigned an arbitrary name, "Dark Matter" to the effect of that they observe. They know that a strong gravitational force is acting on things but they don't know where from. It's not a belief that this is something it's acknowledgement that something is there and they have no idea what it is. So, they call it Dark Matter. Science isn't drive by belief. It's driven by evidence and you don't need belief to accept evidence. They don't assign some mystical property to Dark Matter, that would be belief. The word belief has little to no purpose in science.


No. I'm a cultural Jew. Songs may move me. It's emotional not religious.


You could be over thinking this a bit. There are no images of Jesus. We can conscientiously examine what we trust to be facts. This helps us to truth when we can have complete knowledge. When there are holes in the data, theory helps to bridge some of the gap. In matters where data and theory fail, beliefs suffice to move us toward a sense of completeness. This is also sometimes called faith. My family once had a dog which I did not care much about. Because I was the early riser, I checked to make sure the dog had adequate food and water. I also let it out each morning to pee and poop. It wasn't until the dog died that I felt any love and loss for animal. Over time and unaware, I had developed an affection for the dog. Can the transition from learning facts and filling gap result in belief without our conscious effort. Maybe so. What we believe to be choice is really belief choosing us.


Well...I’ve tried to make myself believe in things. It just always felt ridiculous to me. I once went to God’s Assembly church with an ex Pentecostal friend, even long after I quit believing at age fourteen and I was twenty-two at the time. I thought I was just going through a rebellious phase at age fourteen then decided to try and give it another chance years later to see if I felt different when I met my Pentecostal friend, who invited me to her church. Sadly, I didn’t feel any different. I remember being in church service one Sunday and going up to the front of church where everyone was in prayer. I could remember standing up there, attempting to pray, but feeling a feeling of complete craziness when attempting to speak to something I’ve never seen before. All I could do was return to the pew while everyone remained praying. I think to a degree, some religious people has convinced themselves that their beliefs is real in order to feel good, confusing getting goosebumps are proof of the Holy Spirit existing when, in fact, goosebumps are scientific evidence from our much hairy ancestors when they were either cold or scared and making their fur stand further up was an attempt to intimidate predators. The truth is, I just always felt when people used terms such as,” Jesus loves you” was just a cop out answer to give me when life was hard to give me false hope. I didn’t want false hope. To me false hope was like a temporary high to a drug. You feel good, but once the high starts to run out, reality sinks back in and nothing in the world can take away the hardships of reality.


I have an emotional experience when I do sinful things... so it's even out. Relax and don't believe the hype.


I would also like to pose a couple questions. If you didn't know what either butter or the inget was, how would you know the difference? If you didn't know anything but what you are told about Jesus being divine, had no proof of anything else (which is the reason one religion in particular doesn't like it's members comparing to other religions) then how can you decide otherwise?

AmyLF Level 7 Jan 25, 2018

Engaging with that a bit -- what are one's reasonable expectations for butter and what are the reasonable expectations for gold? They have different uses. I might try to, say, make jewelry out of a gold ingot, or I might sell it in exchange for cash. When I present what is actually a pat of butter to a jeweler, I will not get the reaction of "Here's what I will pay you for it" or "You have enough to make a nice ring here," I'll get a reaction along the lines of "What do you expect me to do with that? It's melting right there in your hands, gross, dude." And I'll see and feel the butter melting, which isn't what gold is supposed to do at room temperature.

When I actually act in reliance on a faulty belief, the world will demonstrate to me how wrong I am. This holds up with belief in the Christian God: experience demonstrates that prayer does not deliver results any more than non-prayer does. And still I'm told to believe. If I still believe the butter is gold after the jeweler rebuffs me, we're entering the realm of questioning whether I am delusional. But if I still believe in God after prayer goes unanswered, somehow that's different. If I were to still believe in X after a test of that belief indicates X cannot be true, wouldn't you say that I am delusional and should seek mental health assistance? My belief is still not a matter of my conscious choice: it's actually the result of a mental illness.

@ErikGunderson Yes, for someone exposed to what everyone else would be, you are right. I'm alluding to the idea that when people grow up only knowing what they are told, and if they grew up being told that the butter was gold and it was for eating. Some people are conditioned into what they think or believe. If you have no real experience with gold and your only known experience with butter is being told it's gold , why would you think differently until enough people and information come to you to tell you otherwise? It happens more than you think.


Yes, I'd say you can. If we were not able to choose then how is it new religions and beliefs turn up? Sometimes, with research and a few different experiences, you can eventually shift how you feel. It isn't a direct and conscious change but knowledge can influence a change of heart. So can fear in large enough doses, or that joy of sharing something with friends.

It isn't all about emotion. Belief is also a mental exercise based only in part on the emotional response. A person chooses to just accept or to do more digging to find out just what these beliefs entale and where they came from. Alternatively, a person can also decide to just not do any deeper research because they enjoy what they feel is an emotional connection to others. Without research the belief stays where it is, also a choice.

Now I do know there are a lot of families that fall into a the fanatical range of worship. Children of such families learn at an early age resistance brings pain and suffering. That can cause enough emotional distress to get most children and even some adults to just accept. I'm not saying that is the angle in which most people come to their beliefs but it is the one that leaves the least amount of choice I'd think... comply or suffer... most do what they can to survive the moment.

I know I've listened to other people (still do sometimes) and asked my questions about various religions to see where they are coming from and if they have done their own. From what I can tell, it often comes down to togetherness, feeling like a part of something larger and just needed to belong rather than any real understanding of what it is they are apart of.

AmyLF Level 7 Jan 25, 2018

That's what faith is; belief in something despite a lack of concrete evidence. A healthy skepticism is vital to survival. Religious types are trying to find reason and purpose in life just like the rest of us. The major difference is that they have a fallback if they choose not to work for a better understanding of life.

the number one definition of faith has nothing to do with lack of evidence. That's blind faith and intellectually lazy. "complete trust or confidence in someone or something."

@Billiwip if you want to be pedantic, sure. Doesn't change my point.

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