July 19, 2010

Why it Matters Whether Atheism is a Choice


When I asked my Twitter followers whether they thought atheism was a choice, most said that atheism did not seem like anything they had deliberately chosen for themselves. Instead, they described it as a reflection of the available data (i.e., they don't believe in gods because they've never encountered any evidence that gods exist and not because they made a conscious choice to be an atheist).

This fits my experience too. Now it is time to take a brief look at the question of why it matters whether atheism is a choice.

Suppose we were to decide that one's initial discarding of theism and one's continued lack of belief in gods are not conscious decisions and instead reflect one's appraisal of the available data. This has a number of important implications. For starters, it would make anti-atheist bigotry even less tenable. If atheism was not something one chose, bigotry directed at atheists would resemble anti-gay bigotry or racism even more than it already does. It would be as difficult to justify.

What else? Those interested in de-conversion might be wise to abandon persuasive elements and focus primarily on increasing religious believers' access to reality-based information. Then again, persuasion might still be needed to motivate religious believers to engage with the information. Still, I expect that de-conversion would probably change as a result of deciding that atheism was not a choice.

And of course, if we were to decide that atheism is not a choice, it would be difficult to avoid saying the same about theism. What implications might this have for how we interact with religious believers?

As an atheist, could you voluntarily choose to embrace theism?
I couldn't. And based on the responses to my Twitter survey, most of you feel the same way. What would it take for me to start believing in gods at this point in my life? You can read my answer here.