The Paradox of Religion; Choosing Your Beliefs

Alright, now I’m sure this has probably been mentioned here and there before in all the religious threads that have been brought up, but I wanted to get a fresh opinion on what I (and probably many other people) see as the paradox of salvation through religion.

The paradox, as I see it, stems from my assumption that a person cannot choose their own beliefs. Do you make an active choice to believe that murder is wrong? Or that Jesus was the son of God? Do you choose to believe that you love your family, or that they love you? Do you choose to believe that God exists? Or do you believe these things simply because they make the most sense to you, given your life experiences, gut feelings, verifiable evidence, etc?

If we are not in control of choosing our beliefs, then how could an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God punish us for failing to accept his existence? If, when I die, I find myself before God, flabberghasted and astounded that he actually exists, when he asks me to account for all of my sins, and why I didn’t have faith in him, I’d have to tell him that I simply didn’t have enough evidence to believe. I rationally considered his existence, and came to a conclusion based on my life experiences. I couldn’t force myself to believe in him based on what he was choosing to show me throughout my life, because a belief simply cannot be forced. It would just be a lie. I would HOPE that he would understand this, before casting me into the fires of hell for all eternity.

So then, those of us who are religious are also not making a conscious decision. The religious folks are simply believing in something that makes the most sense to them based on what they have learned from others, their life experiences, and gut feelings. They believe what they believe because it makes sense to them, not because they are afraid of burning in hell (we can all agree Pascal’s Wager is a silly idea, right?), or because they have to make an active choice.

Anyhow, I wanted to get your opinions or insights into this apparent paradox. Does it actually exist, or am I making a faulty argument based on a bad assumption or bad logic? Can anyone refer me to the name of this paradox/argument/idea (if it has a name?) I’m sure I’ve heard this argument or something similar; I doubt I just came up with it myself. I just can’t remember who I’ve heard it from.

I guess the idea can be boiled down to this: If we act according to our beliefs, and we are not in direct control of our beliefs, can we truly be held accountable for our actions?

All belief in the fundamentals is a choice; long before we begin weighing evidence* we hold certain assumptions about the world. These are our fundamental beliefs, and they are not susceptible to logic because they rpedate logic. You can argue someone out of cheating if they have a basic standard of value which has circumstances which might not permit cheating. You can’t if they have no such thing. Our most basic beliefs are always chosen, consciously or unconsciously.

Now, finally, you would be happy to learn that more or less all educated Christians have not generally believed that those who do not expressly worship God are damned; that is a rather ignorant folk belief, of which you will find many contradictory examples in Christianity. A man who geniunely considers God, but disregards because he honestly does not find the evidence compelling, is not violating his religious duty to worship, though he is very wrong. It does not in any way excuse him from his other duties to man or God.

We don’t have a simple choice about what we believe. I cannot decide that tomorrow I will believe that the moon is made of puff pastry, but we can be persuaded to believe things - either by exposure to evidence or by persuasive argument.

We dont necessarily arrive at a belief in the real truth of the matter in either of those cases - we may misunderstand, misperceive or misinterpret the evidence, and persuasive arguments may be a function of the artifice of those presenting them, as opposed to being naturally persuasive because they fit the truth.

This interesting question boils down to a free will one, actually. But ignoring that, there are a couple of other questions we can ask.

  • If susceptibility to belief is somehow genetic - which I think it is - why should those of us with doubting genes get punished.

  • We know the religion one chooses depends strongly on that of the parents. If there is a penalty for wrong belief, is it fair to levy it equally on those with parents with the right religion, for whom the choice is easy, as on parents with the wrong religion? This isn’t quite the pagan babies problem, since this is a problem even inside a culture.

  • Given that our world often penalizes decisions made without evidence or without proper weighing of evidence, how much evidence must God provide to allow for a reasoned choice. I know belief on faith is considered to be a virtue, but it isn’t for the rest of our choices.

We are not in control of it, therefore the conditions that set our beliefs will not lead to our ultimate end. We will live out our initial conditions till we want to be excused from them, then we are take back into salvation.

Whether or not something is a choice is not strictly binary. Sometimes that’s hard to see because most circumstances we encounter in day to day life fall solidly into one category or the other.

The question of whether we can choose what we believe is a good borderline example. Most other borderline examples I can think of involve mental disorder. Does a person with OCD choose to go through their compulsions?

It boils down to faith, as there will never be proof. I believe faith must be a divine gift. I personally have yet to be blessed with the gift of faith required to believe in things like an invisible man in the sky, a virgin giving birth, or a zombie god that rose from the dead. Sigh… maybe someday. One can only hope.

I just want to note that the problem established in the OP is “The Paradox of Christianity”, not “The Paradox of Religion”. Life rules, eternal punishment, etc. are not things which are replicated across all (or even most) religions.

Not to defend Christian soteriology, but to clarify: Very few christians teach that God punishes anyone for failing to believe in him. Rather, they typically teach that God punishes people for sinning, and failing to believe either (depending on the teacher)

–tends to lead toward sin, or;
–prevents you from being covered under the atonement.

This argument (towards the conclusion that fundamental beliefs are chosen) fails because it makes the false assumption that beliefs arrived at independently of reason are ipso facto chosen.

People have beliefs that they were caused to have by other-than-rational means–yet they did not choose these beliefs.

Beliefs aren’t something it’s even possible to choose, as far as I can tell. I am not sure how to argue for this point except to ask an interlocutor to point out for me an example of a chosen belief. I’d bet I could show it wasn’t an example after all.

(One possible way you could be said to “choose” to believe something–you might think “I don’t believe in God, but I wish I did, so I’ll start making friends with a bunch of religious people and go to church with them, and knowing myself to be a human and knowing how human nature is, I bet I’ll eventually start believing in God.” Or a simpler example of the same kind of thinking: “I don’t believe in God but I wish I did. So I am going to install a switch in my brain which makes me believe in God, and switch it on.” I think we can “choose beliefs” in this sense, but not in the sense of thinking “I want to believe X. I shall now, by a simple act of will, start believing it. There. I believe it.”

And the fact that people do not choose their beliefs rationally does not say that are not chosen. We all have a vast number of influences working on us at cross-purposes. At the end of the day, only we can decide which ones we listen to. That people don’t choose their beliefs logically in no way shows we don’t pick and choose them.

Some people choose to believe in right and wrong; others do not. Still more choose to believe that what’s right for them is good and what they don’t want is evil. I say that we do choose one, even if we don’t realize it at the time. Frankly, talking about God in this context is irrelevant, and has nothign to do with my point. Even to be able to believe in God, you must believe in other things. I’m talking about the fundamentals - the basic beliefs that shape our lives, from which everything else comes.

Like I said, you’re going to have to give me an example of a chosen belief. To clarify, I don’t think any belief is ever chosen–not rationally, not otherwise. Beliefs are arrived at, or they are given to you by circumstance, but they are never chosen.

What’s something you choose to believe?

I believe other people exist. There is no proof, and actually poor evidence, for this theory. Nonetheless, I believe it.

Alright, you’re claiming you choose to believe this.

You can prove this very easily: Stop believing it.

Just for the sake of discussion, just for thirty seconds, choose to believe that other people don’t exist.

If you are unable to do this, then it doesn’t sound like your belief is chosen after all.

Are you?

Done. I don’t like it at all. Sad, really, to discover that you, warts and all, are merely a pale reflection of my own intellect, that the cosmos is nothing mroe than a painting I drew on the walls of my prison - my own mind.

But of course, you’re not telling us the truth.

Feel free to claim otherwise, but the point is made: It’s impossible to choose beliefs, because as everyone can see from simple introspection, we can’t decide to stop believing the things we do in fact believe. We may change our mind because of reasons that have been brought to our attention, but we cannot, by a simple act of will, decide “I shall now believe X” for any X.

I feel the urge to point out that, purposely or not, Frylock hits rather precisely the thrust behind Pascal’s Wager. Pascal did not claim that someone could on a whim just choose belief and should, thus, choose to be Christian. He made the (at least somewhat) more sensible claim that someone who did not believe should try for a while and maybe that would give him faith. Preceded as intended by arguments on the perceived awesomeness of Christianity, this is at the very least a lot less silly than the common interpretation.

I’m no defender of Christianity, but poor ol’ Blaise was a brilliant guy who deserves better than to be unfairly maligned in every discussion of Christian apologetics.

Purposely. :wink: (It’s part of my standard Intro course…)

(I should note I do think that his argument that it’s better to believe in God doesn’t get off the ground in the first place… But on the other hand, I’ve only thought enough about it to be able to present the argument to Freshman non-majors so that adds up to a few grains of salt right there…)

“Faith is believing something you know ain’t so” - Twain

It’s beyond me what role choice has in belief. I believe water runs downhill, and i actually think it’s so, too. For me the two are different wordings for the same statement. I thin water runs downhill regardless of any choice I will ever make.

So, if we act in accordance with beliefs we can’t control, can we be held accountable for our actions? This sounds like a better defined question than it is. The ideas of action and accountability are too simple for this. It’s like the wave particle duality - not really a paradox, but rather an exposition of the insufficiency of our language. You can neatly explain why we are entirely accountable for everything and why we are absolutely unaccountable for anything.

I think a genuine embrace of how we should feel about actions and accountability is for a future age, and we are stuck with muddling on somehow for now. Most significantly, I don’t think the OP question has a yes or no answer.

I’m not quite certain how you intend to proceed. You say, “Nobody can do this!” I respond that I can and have done this, and just did so. I chose not to continue with it.

You evidently chose not to believe me. I don’t appreciate being called a liar on top of it. You ask me to prove what cannot be proven or disproven; just as I am willing to believe you exist and are telling the truth, I generally expect the same basic assumption.