Do We Choose to Believe in Gods Like We Choose Which Movies We Like?

movie ticket

A new movie is coming out, and you are excited to see it. You've been anticipating it for some time, and you are sure you are going to love it. Even if you might be a bit nervous that it might not be as good as you are hoping, you go into it genuinely wanting it to be great. Unfortunately, it is far from great, and you come away feeling disappointed. You did not like the film. I suspect we've all been there. Some of us may have had this experience recently (e.g., Halloween Kills). My question is a simple one: when you end up not liking a film in a situation like this, does that mean you are choosing not to like it? I don't think so. After all, you went into it with positive expectations. You hoped you'd like it; you wanted to like it. It seems nonsensical to claim that you chose not to like it.

Is this much different from how atheists experience religious belief? I wanted to stick with the religious beliefs into which I had been indoctrinated. I wanted them to be true, to provide comfort and all the other benefits they are supposed to provide. But I realized they were not true and found little comfort in false beliefs. Worse still, I begin to notice that they often seemed to cause harm. I did everything I could think of (and my fellow believers advised me of) to find ways I could maintain my god-belief, but none of them worked. I did not choose to stop believing in gods any more than I might choose not to like a movie I really wanted to like.

I suspect our preferences (i.e., what we like and dislike) are not very different from our beliefs. We cannot will ourselves to like something we do not like. We can pretend to like things we do not like, and we can repeatedly expose ourselves to these things in the hope that we might begin to like them. What we like and dislike can change over time, but I don't think most of us can suddenly like something we dislike merely through an exercise of will. Similarly, there are things I clearly do not believe that are well beyond my ability to abruptly begin believing. I could not, for example, make myself believe that Fox News was the only worthwhile source of news.

There have been a number of times where friends have recommended a particular movie or band. These are friends who are familiar with my tastes and often seem to share them. They've steered me toward some great movies or music in the past, so I eagerly watch the film or listen to the band they've recommended. But when I don't like the movie or the band, there isn't much I can do to change that. There have been plenty of times when I seem to be the only one who doesn't like a certain band or film. Even that doesn't somehow lead me to like it.

Atheism has never seemed like a choice I made. My experience of it has been far closer to something that happened to me over my objections than anything I chose. I chose to try to get comfortable with it, but that didn't begin until after I realized I was an atheist even though I did not want to be one. I also chose to learn more about atheism, to selectively identify myself as an atheist when it was safe to do so, and to investigate secular activism; however, none of this is the same as choosing not to believe in gods. That was one choice I never made. In fact, I don't think that was a choice I ever would have made.