Is Atheism a Choice? This is a question that I hear often, and isn’t necessarily as black and white as it sounds.
Although we all like to have a simple ‘Yes/No’ answer to these types of questions, the problem is often much too deep for that kind of simplicity.
The question can also be approached from another angle, one which sheds more light on the complexity.
Is belief a choice? When we look at this question, we are then forced to consider other things. Belief in what? Which God? Which Sect? Which parts of which Holy Book?
When we start to look at these things then we can then start to look at the causes for these ‘choices’. Do you believe in it because you chose to, or because you were raised to? We can relatively safely assume that if you believe, you probably believe largely the same as your parents and/or your local community.
The Nature/Nurture argument is often raised, and rarely solved with any real degree of satisfaction. Are the ‘choices’ you make down to a genetic propensity for a certain way of thinking, or are they down to the way you have learnt to rationalise things?
Either way, are they really your choices at all? I can say that I was raised by people who were, at least mostly, critical thinkers. As were my grandparents. With them being so, I was also raised in that environment though. In that case, it can easily be seen that my critical thinking was both nature AND nurture. This being the case, was my Atheism a choice? No, it wasn’t. The way that my brain is wired, Atheism was the natural conclusion for me.
For me, belief could have been a choice. I could have chosen to fight my nature, to rebel against my nurture and choose to believe. Would that have been a genuine belief? Who can say? But is it a choice to end up where I am programmed to do so? Is it a choice to follow the path of least resistance? I don’t believe so. But that is me, and my situation.
A large number of Atheists are former Theists. In this case then yes, there is an element of choice. But what is the choice? If you were a Theist, then as I said earlier, you were probably raised as one.
This then raises Nature/Nurture again. Nurture is answered already, if you were raised as a Theist, Nurture makes you a Theist. But if your parents were believers, then that should also mean that Nature would result in you believing, shouldn’t it?
Obviously something is fighting through. Here, there is an aspect of your Nature, there is something at the core of your being which needs recognition, that wants out. Here there is a choice, and a difficult choice.
Now you are choosing whether to fight against your Nature and stay in the comfortable realms of what you’ve always ‘known’, or fight against your Nurture and let that Natural doubt grow.
If you choose the former and you suppress the doubt, you stay in your comfort zone, do you REALLY still believe?
Does that cognitive dissonance really let you stay comfortable with your ‘faith’? Are you, at that point, an Atheist clinging to belief?
If you choose the latter and encourage that doubt, then you have made the harder choice. To go against your religion is a hard choice for several reasons.
You risk the fear of “What if I’m wrong? What if it is real, and I go to Hell?”. This is entering into Pascal’s Wager territory. “If I belive and I’m wrong, I lose nothing. If I don’t believe and I’m wrong, I lose everything.” Although this argument has been refuted for a very long time, that is probably of little comfort at the time of thinking it.
You risk being disowned by your family, your friends, and your community. This is obviously very different depending on who your family, friends, and community are. From one extreme to another, some families won’t care what you belive, so long as you’re happy. Some communities have the death penalty!
These are the Atheists which I respect more than any others. It was easy for me, it just happened that way.
But are they still really choosing Atheism, or are they really just choosing to be open about what they would really end up as anyway? Are they really just choosing to get to their unavoidable destination quicker?
so… Is Atheism A Choice? No, but the path we take to it can be.