August 2, 2017

The Question of Whether Atheism is a Choice

decision
Back in 2009, I wrote a post titled To What Degree is Atheism Voluntary? In it, I wrestled with the question of whether atheism is a choice people make, and I explained that my own lack of god belief did not seem to be a choice I had made for myself. I also noted that the idea that I could now will myself to resume the god belief I left behind in my youth seemed far-fetched. In 2010, I became curious whether I might just be an outlier in this regard. I polled my Twitter followers to see what they thought about whether atheism was a choice and sought to provide some clarity around what I meant by the question of whether atheism is a choice. Most of those who responded said they did not choose atheism either.

I returned to this question a couple of times in 2011, noting that there seemed to be little evidence that atheists choose to be atheists and that I did not make any such choice. There seemed to be some consensus among atheists who had been raised in religious households and were once believers that we did not choose to stop believing in gods. Instead, we reached the point where we were unable to maintain the belief (i.e., reality set in).

In the following years, I discovered that this view was not without a significant number of dissenters. I heard from more than a few atheists (and many Christians) who insisted that religious belief (or the lack thereof) was a choice they had made. I was not convinced, and returned to the topic in 2016, addressing some of the implications of recognizing that atheism is not a choice. I think that post was my way of saying that I thought there were some potential benefits to accepting that many of us do not simply decide to stop believing in gods.

The critical responses I received to that 2016 post prompted a follow-up post in which I half-seriously explained that I would resume god belief if I could do so. Again, the point was that I cannot resume god belief because beliefs don't work like that. I wrote:
I cannot simply start believing in gods any more than I could will myself to forget how to read, decide that I will no longer recognize the face of a close friend, or forget my native language. I do not believe in gods, and it does not seem to be within my power to change that. Not believing in gods was not a choice I made; it was a gradual awareness I did my best to deny. I managed to fight it off for more than a year, but it was inescapable. Like my earlier belief in Santa Claus, once it had been lost, it was gone. An atheist was the last thing I ever wanted to be, and if it had been possible for me to avoid it, I certainly would have.
I stand by this today; however, I recognize that other atheists may be different from me in this respect. I'll acknowledge the possibility that they made a conscious decision to stop believing in gods and they could easily reverse that decision today and return to being god-believers if they wanted. This is not true of me, as I never would have made the choice to be an atheist.

I'm not sure we will ever attain true consensus on the question of whether atheism is a choice. Maybe it was a choice for some and not for others. People are different, after all. I think the reason I've returned to this question so many times over the years is that it strikes me as one of the more interesting unresolved controversies related to atheism.
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