I'm Not Convinced Most Atheists Choose Atheism

 woman faced with a choice

The question of whether atheism is a choice comes up often. Many people believe that it is a choice, including some atheists. This has long puzzled me. I've never experienced it as a choice. Not only that, but I did everything in my power to resist when the doubts first surfaced. I sought help from family, friends, and even clergy. I prayed. I re-read the Bible. I was desperate. I wanted to keep believing. I wanted to remain a Christian. None of that mattered. It all slipped away.

When I've had this discussion with others, this is what I've focused on. I've explained how I fought against it and how that didn't help. I've explained that I never chose to be an atheist but ended up one anyway. But that's only half the story. It might not even be the best illustration of why I'm not sure that atheism is a choice.

Choosing to Believe Today

Forget about the past. Set aside what it was like to struggle with doubts and lose the battle, becoming what I had learned to fear and hate. Focus on the present instead. If atheism is a choice, I should be able to undo it any time I want, right? I should be able to decide that I don't want to be an atheist anymore and go back to believing in gods. But is that how belief works?

Could you identify something you don't believe and begin believing in it? I can't. At least, I've never been able to do so.

Gods used to make sense to me. They haven't for over 30 years. That's a long time. Atheism is part of who I am now, like it or not.

Letting Myself Be Myself

What would it be like to resume my god-belief? I used to compare it to forgetting how to read. That may not be the best comparison, but it feels like it would be as difficult. It also reminds me of getting out of bed one morning, declaring "I'm no longer me. I'm someone else," and pulling that off.

I could pretend to believe in gods. I've done it before. I didn't enjoy it, but I'm capable. I could go through the motions, attending religious services. I had to do that for a time after I no longer believed, and I hated every minute of it. I could do it now, but I'm not sure why I'd torture myself like that.

The best course of action seems to be to let myself be myself. I'm many things today. Atheist is one of them. There doesn't seem to be much point in fighting that. It didn't seem like a choice back then, and it doesn't seem like any more of a choice today. 

Why Does It Matter?

Why does it matter whether atheism is a choice? Some religious believers still point to it as justification for hassling us. Bigotry against someone for something they can't control is hard to justify. But if it is a choice we are making, their mistreatment of us seems less bad. 

I know some young atheists spend too much time beating themselves up for their loss of faith. I was one of them. It is easy to see it as a failure. If others can maintain their faith, why can't we? But what if we recognized that atheism might not be something we choose for ourselves? Could that reduce some of the self-blame?

It also matters because it goes both ways. If atheism is not a choice, theism might not be a choice either. That could have implications for how atheists treat religious believers. If we can't will ourselves to believe in gods, we shouldn't expect them to be able to will themselves not to.

Image by GreenCardShow from Pixabay

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