What do you believe? Did you choose it? Why do you believe what you believe? What are your sources? Who are your sources?
I think I always understood belief as a choice. We could choose to join the church officially as adults through confirmation (although no choice about baptism, but that’s a rant for another time), we could choose to go to religious schools, we could choose to marry someone from the same faith. I chose that path in life; it was the path that was stretched out before me with few obstacles and unending family support along the way. The path was chosen for me (and paved and shaded and air conditioned for me), so I chose it. It was comfortable and easy.
When I took my first philosophy class, we were asked whether we could choose what we believed. I thought about how we can pick our news sources and select our friends, and I figured that yes, we could choose what we believe because we can choose to reinforce our biases. It was, I think, a Tuesday. We were asked to believe that it was Wednesday.
Go ahead, do this exercise. Choose a day that it is not, and spend a few minutes convincing yourself that it is, in fact, that day.
You can try to convince yourself that you’re not in the wrong class, that you’re closer to the weekend, that you’ve already lived a day that you can’t for the life of you remember (or alternatively, convince yourself that the entire world agreed to just… skip Tuesday this one time), but can you manage to convince yourself that you aren’t convincing yourself? Despite my best efforts, I could not deceive myself in this way.
Sure, it’s only one example, but it hit me hard. Ever since, I’ve been convinced that we can’t choose what we believe. I tried to hold onto my religion after it stopped making sense, I tried to justify why it must be right, and I tried to keep believing so that I could stay on the easy path, but it still didn’t work. Now, I knew that biases existed, so I attempted that route. If I couldn’t force myself to believe it, maybe I could brainwash myself. Ya know, kinda like how I had started to follow the dang religion in the first place.
I started reading online: Catholic mommy blogs (to learn why marrying a Catholic man and having a bunch of babies is the best), Catholic conversion stories (to see why this one very specific flavor is the correct one), and Catholic Reddit posts (to balance out all the atheist posts I’d been reading on there). I kept finding that they weren’t really answering my questions. They were all so sure because of proof, but what they called proof didn’t prove anything to me. And I could not figure out what made this religion any more legitimate than any other major religion*.
I still think it was a useful exercise to read the opposing viewpoint. And I think we have a moral obligation to hear the other side out with an open mind; if we aren’t looking for new answers, we might as well just use an ancient book and call it gospel. Who knows, maybe someday our beliefs will change.
And here’s the scary thing about it: my beliefs can change against my will. I could read something that convinces me that Scientology or [insert made-up religion here] is real. In fact, my crippled critical thinking skills (from years of believing what I was told without questioning) often cause me to wonder if psychics, Reiki healers, shamans, witches, astrology, and conspiracy theorists know something that I don’t**.
But wait, there’s more! Not being able to choose what I believe scares me, but it also forces me to have empathy for people who believe in things that I think are ludicrous. If I can’t choose, they can’t either. Maybe they were brainwashed as children, or maybe they just don’t try to read/listen to/talk about anything that goes against their religion. But whether it’s lack of opportunity or lack of effort, they aren’t actually choosing to believe it, even if they think they are. Don’t you wish they would keep an open mind and someday see the world the way we do? Yeah, then you better offer them the same courtesy***.
**it’s embarrassing how often I have to think really hard about whether these things are real
***Note: as soon as they start saying that their religion requires them to violate human rights, you may close your mind and resume feeling superior
Guest Writer Contributions are direct-published opinion pieces. They are not always edited and reflect the views only of the author.