June 13, 2010

Is Atheism a Choice?

I have been conducting an informal (i.e., non-scientific) poll of my Twitter followers on the following question:
Is atheism a choice? I mean, could you simply start believing in fairy tales again if you wanted to?
choices2.jpgObviously, the manner in which I worded the question was fairly poor by anyone's standards. But I'm not sure it would have made much difference in this case. The unanimous response I've received is that atheism is not a choice and really isn't even so much a decision as a reflection of the available data.

The question of whether atheism is a choice is an important one, with many implications for how to spread the atheist meme, how to interact with believers, and the like. After all, if atheism is not really a choice, then must we not make the same concession for religious belief?

I'm getting ahead of myself. First, we need to disentangle what we mean by the question of whether atheism is a choice.
  1. Is the mental act of becoming an atheist in the first place (i.e., initially discarding theism as valid) voluntary?
  2. Once one has rejected god belief (i.e., is an atheist), is it meaningful to describe the continued rejection of theism as voluntary?
  3. As an atheist, could you voluntarily choose to embrace theism?
Based on the responses I received to the Twitter poll, I think it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of atheists would likely answer "no" to question 3. Knowing what I know at this point in time, it is difficult to imagine that I could voluntarily turn my back on atheism and return to a theistic worldview. Set question 3 aside for now. We will come back to it later.

It also seems that question 2 can be fairly easily dealt with. It certainly does not feel to me that I expend any sort of mental energy to maintain my atheism. It is a position I have reached based on the available data, and it would only be in the case of new data that I might have to reevaluate it and make some sort of decision. We can set question 2 aside and revisit it briefly when we come back to question 3.

I find question 1 the most interesting and potentially problematic of the three. I have little doubt that the act of identifying oneself as an atheist, adopting the atheist label, and embracing atheism as part of one's identity are all voluntary. Just consider the number of atheists who do none of these things, and you'll see what I mean. But what about the initial discarding of theism? It sure didn't feel voluntary, but was it? I remember struggling to retain theism because I had been taught that it was the only option. But in the end, I simply could not do it anymore. I didn't choose atheism; I had no idea what it was.

Now, where we have to revisit question 3 (and 2 to a lesser degree) is that some atheists do in fact report returning to theism. What are we to do with such observations, and how do they impact our understanding of questions 2 and 3? Perhaps the process through which they arrived at atheism was simply reversed and not necessarily voluntary. Or perhaps they adopted the behaviors associated with theism but not the underlying beliefs to fit in. These unknowns make it difficult to know what to do with questions 2 and 3.

Since this is getting long, I'll address the implications of our questions and what they might tell us about both atheism and theism in a follow-up post.

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