Chapter 3: Can We Choose What to Believe?

“People believe what they want to believe.”  That implies a choice, and the debate over whether or not we “choose” to believe, or “choose” to do anything is a descent into “Free Will” debates that I don’t want to face right now.  I prefer not, so I choose not to.

However, I can’t totally sidestep the agony of “choice.”  In fact, when I look at how people talk about “choosing to believe” it reveals a little more sloppiness in the meaning and use of “belief.”  And I lick my lips when I see sloppiness.

“Do I choose what to believe?”  My perceptions and experience have led me to conclude I DO choose what to believe.  In fact, actively deciding which Catholic dogmas to abandon or retain catalyzed my decisions to leave the seminary, stop studying to become a priest, and ultimately to “choose to believe” that the best course of action I could take was to leave the Catholic Church.

But all around me there are contrary voices.  Recently I “heard” Richard Dawkins say (actually, I read him typing it in a “live” on-line, text-forum debate) that we do not choose our beliefs.  Here’s the relevant excerpt, including the Dawkins comment that set me off:


15:06 Hannah Devlin (moderator):

We’ve got a lot of questions coming in on why it is possible to “choose” to believe.

15:06 Richard Dawkins:

[previous post by audience member, quoted by RD] “How can you ‘choose to believe’?”

[RD’s words] Yes indeed, how can you? Either the evidence supports something or it does not. Choice shouldn’t come into belief[1] (my emphasis)


Dawkins is not alone in this perspective.  Author Sam Harris writes, in “The Moral Landscape”

“Choosing beliefs freely is not what rational minds do.”

Having Dawkins and Harris (dare I say, the “high priests of disbelief?”) so firmly take a view opposing a foundational position of mine was disconcerting, as I highly value their writing and perspectives.

If one cannot choose what to believe, what exactly was Jamie Coots doing when he handled the snake that bit and killed him[2]?  What were the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult doing when 39 of them committed suicide in an attempt to be picked up by a mothership that they believed was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet?[3]  It’s almost as if they “believed” in Bertrand Russell’s teapot, orbiting out of view behind Jupiter.  But clearly, they chose to believe that an action would help them achieve a desire.

So here I found myself in a veritable “Trinity” of emotions:  First, repelled by the idea that people simply “believe what they want to believe” and yet insistent for myself that I do choose what to believe, and finally repelled by Harris and Dawkins saying that we do not choose.

The problem, I have decided, is in the term “belief” as some “thing” out there, that we can have or hold.

We profess to hold a lot of “beliefs,” but

We act, demonstrating we “truly believe” some things “should” be done to achieve our ends.

What if instead of saying, “Can I choose what I believe?” we said, “Can I choose how I will act?”  The two questions are not the same. The action IS the belief.  Nothing more, nothing less… but it has properties for the actor, and for the observer of any given action.  All the other options and professions NOT acted on?  Not beliefs. Let’s expand…


[1] On-line Debate, September 2010




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