Friday, February 03, 2006

is belief voluntary?

a while back i asked ned if i could do a guest post and he said "yes." the only problem was that i had no idea what i was going to post about. i've been reading his blog pretty much since the beginning and really identified with a lot of what ned was going through, but life got busy and it took me a few months to actually get around to doing a post. anyway...

by way of introduction, i'm a thirty-something guy, mormon all my life, mission, married in the temple, relatively new dad and all of that. not quite two years ago i stopped believing in mormonism. i'll spare you most of the nitty-gritty details, but let's just say that i was never what one would consider an orthodox member (by this point in my life i had become pretty good at being a cafeteria mormon), but when push came to shove i still believed in it, and tried my best to live life as an active member. then one day i got a book that changed my life, a copy of krakauer's under the banner of heaven. i had read and really enjoyed some of his previous books (into the wild and into thin air), and wanted to know what all of the fuss regarding this book was about.

i found the book fascinating, but it also brought up a lot of issues with mormonism that i had either never heard about or had a slight awareness of but had never really looked into on my own. just the classic laundry list--seer stones and hats, papyri, polyandry, crazy quotes from ol' brigham from the journal of discourses, etc., etc., etc. upon finishing the book i still had my belief in mormonism intact, but was left with a nagging feeling that i had to learn more about the issues that were bothering me to 1) see if there was any validity to them, and 2) to figure out how to reconcile this new information with my belief in mormonism.

well, after one night of binging on whatever i could find on these topics on the internet i was no longer a believer. i actually remember the exact moment. i was reading some sermon by brigham young from the JOD and just had a "what the f***!" moment and that was it. i remember saying to myself "oh my gosh, it's really all just made up." from there on out it was over. i kept on going to church for a while, and did a ton of reading and some serious soul-searching over the next few months, but i wasn't able to make myself believe like i had before. i know that when i finally get around to telling my mom about all of this that she's going to cry and beg me to believe again. but she might as well ask me to believe that the intergalactice warlord xenu is the cause of all mental illness, because it would do about as much good. and so this brings us around to the my opening question, "is belief voluntary?"

after thinking long and hard about this my answer is "no," but i'd like to know what others think. it seems to me that my choices are voluntary, as in i can choose to read my scriptures or not, i can choose to go to church or do something else on sundays, and i can choose to live a mormon lifestyle. but belief to me is more of a reaction to our emotions, information and how we process it, our experiences, upbringing, and our own desires. i know plenty of people who have done everything on the mormon checklist (scriptures, pray, go to church, bear testimony, be nice) and then stop believing, and on the other hand have met many jack mormons who have not set foot inside a chapel for years and yet will defend the faith to their death.

i often hear people say that they choose to believe and i just don't buy it. i think that belief chooses them, and that in their current state they have no option but to believe. this makes it much easier for me to be tolerant of those with different beliefs, because i see them as currently having no choice. whatever it is they believe in has them in a bearhug, and unless something happens in their lives to change that they're going to continue in it. slumming around in the bloggernacle i used to wonder how so many people could know all about the issues that made me stop believing and still have such a strong testimony, but now i realize that they don't choose to believe any more than i choose to disbelieve. none of us have any agency in the matter.


wendy said...

...belief to me is more of a reaction to our emotions, information and how we process it, our experiences, upbringing, and our own desires.

Hi m, your thoughts are much like mine. I cannot make myself believe anymore, even if believing would make my life here in Utah, with my LDS family and neighbors easier.

The changes in my beliefs started with the temple ceremony, like yours started with reading Under the Banner of Heaven. Once I was exposed to what went on in the temple, I was pretty much helpless in stopping the changes to my beliefs. As much as I wanted to continue believing, I could not.

Ian said...

I think that beleif is absolutely a choice. It's funny that two different people can be exposed to the very same information, and have two completely different reactions.

The ones who still beleive after having read all the anti material are the ones who want to beleive, and the ones who walk away as unbeleivers after it, are those that no longer want to beleive.

I think that saying that we don't have a choice is a good justification for choosing not to beleive.

...and our own desires.

b bowen said...

I'm not sure I agree that belief must be involuntary. as many others have articulated to me, for some, the choice to believe (something) occurs when one is faced with the choice between disbelief (nihilism) and belief, and given the lack of appeal of nihilism (all things considered), those people make the active choice to believe in something (broadly defined).

NFlanders said...

Great post, m! VivaNedFlanders is lucky to have you.

I think I'd agree that belief is generally not a choice, but hugely influenced by our cultural and social milieus. It's a lot easier to believe something if you are surrounded by believers.

That being said, I think someone *could* force themselves to believe, but I don't think it would be very healthy psychologically. The human mind has amazing powers of ignoring inconvenient things.

Watt Mahoun said...

It's interesting that some folks think this idea of involuntary belief is just a justification for not believing. As the post points out, it could also be a justification for believing in the face of contradictory evidence...a rather charitable view of folks who's belief is irrational.

I'm not so sure that believing because you "choose to" is as virtuous as it initially sounds.

jeff g said...

I do think that belief is a function of what we 'will' but this is not to say that I agree with ian at all.

First of all, in each belief there are two motivating factors: reason and motive. The reasons push us whereever they will and the motives pull us in certain directions. How much we allow each of these to influence us, I believe, is a matter of choice to a large extent. This is why we have people who simply refuse to let go of their motives while clinging to young earth creationism. Also, to suggest that a conversion to a fully naturalistic outlook on life doens't involve a decision to follow reason regardless of whatever motives may being pulling us away from such a position is untenable in my opinion.

That said, however, I don't think that we really get to choose the reasons and motives which will present themselves. Additionally, any choice that we do have in allow whichever one to influence us will be highly conditioned by our current paradigm which is already fixed by our past and present motives and reasons.

Furthermore, cognitive science is beginning to show that the intuitive role which belief is supposed to play in our minds is largely incomplete. Consider some passages from Pascal Boyer's "Religion Explained":

"So far we have assumed that there are some bits of information represented in the mind, which people THEN bleieve or reject...
"However familiar this may seem, does it really describe what happens in a mind when information is acquired and used as a basis for action? The judicial model seems to break down if we take a look at the various systems that collect and report information in a brain. Among the hundreds of special systems that compose a normal brain, many seem to be their own attorney and judge at the same time. That is, mental systems do not present their evidence in front of a mental judge or jury. They DECIDE the case even before it is presented to any other system. Indeed, many mental systems do not even bother to present a coherent and unified brief. They just send bits of evidence to other systems, presenting them as fact rather than in the form of an argued brief...
"What is contained in [an] explicit thought - what we usually call a 'belief' - is very often an attempt to justify or explain the intuitions we have as a result of implicit processes in the mental basement (subconsciousness). It is an INTERPRETATION of (or report on) these intuitions... In fact, there is a lot of evidence that people spontaneously adjust their behavior without having the explicit beliefs that would justify the change...
"The crucial point is this: All inferences delivered by specific systems are COMPATIBLE with an explicit interpretation ... but none of these systems actually handled the general, explicit question [which such beliefs are supposed to have answered]. [The explicit belief] is a statement that people would agree with although it has not been treated in that general format anywhere in thier minds."

Sorry for the long passage, but I believe it to be a good one. Thus I conclude that while we do exercise some control over which beliefs we will accept and allow to govern our lives, this control is highly resticted.

Geoff J said...

"is belief voluntary?"


In the causal determinism vs. libertarian free will the libertarians have it right.

But I can see the appeal of determinism -- in that scheme nobody is actually responsible for any thought, word or deed!

Anonymous said...

If belief were voluntary, what would be the point? We could decide or not decide to believe and the truth of the matter would be irrelevant. We may as "choose" to believe in the Force or disbelieve in the Law of Gravity.

Presumably, the claims of the church are either false or true and what we wish to be true has no bearing on the matter. So doesn't it all come down to investigating and either finding the evidence convincing or not|?

Anonymous said...

I don't know about you, but with me belief is voluntary.

I've heard Krakauer's arguments, I've seen a lot of garbage on the internet. I believe that Joseph Smith lied about his polygamist wives to Emma. I've read plenty of loopy Brigham Young quotes. I've even had personal experiences with a General Authority where I felt he was completely off-base and didn't know what he was talking about.

I've had plenty of reasons to question this religion. And I never did. This is the one true religion on the face of the earth and all other philosophies and theologies shall ultimately bow to it.

So you've heard loads of disturbing stuff about the church and decided to leave. I've heard loads of disturbing stuff about the church and decided to stay.

Now where does that leave us?

Seth R.

Ian said...


I agree with you.

If belief is not voluntary, that means that neither our thoughts or are actions are voluntary. That means that we are like animals, acting on instincts alone. If our instincts tell us to believe in God, then that is what we do. If instincts tell us that we should beat our wife, that is what we should do. We don't really have a choice.

This system denies accountability, which, if you don't beleive in God doesn't matter. This creates a viscious cycle though doesn't it? :-)

Steve EM said...

Thanks for the candor m!. Fascinating.


I believe you are more with-the-program orthodox than I am, but you and I are far more alike in outlook than I ever gleaned from previous Nacle comments/exchanges.

In brief, I believe. I'm with the program in most areas, but where things don't make sense to me, I go my own way. I’ve developed no hesitation in writing off and ignoring past and present GAs that spout nonsense. What perplexes me is people like me really get under the skin of Joe and Molly Mormon types, whereas someone who questions things and walks, typically doesn’t even make their radar. Is it perhaps a subconscious realization that, at a certain critical mass, no church can maintain a rigid common belief system that they cling to? So they would prefer the unorthodox believer join the “apostate” and disappear from their sight?

NFlanders said...

"If belief is not voluntary, that means that neither our thoughts or are actions are voluntary. That means that we are like animals.."

Whoa! Ian, I think you have made a huge logical leap here that is not warranted. I don't think m is stating that we are powerless before our beliefs.

We have choices whether to investigate our beliefs and decide how much scrutiny they deserve. If our beliefs clash with our conscience or with other beliefs, we have to CHOOSE how to resolve these conflicts.

Human beings have so many beliefs (religious, social, political, emotional, etc.) that it is inevitable that many of these beliefs will contradict each other. We have to choose how to prioritize and organize our beliefs.

I think what m was saying (and I may be off-base here) is that we don't choose whether or not to find religious (or otherwise) claims credible.

Unless I actually observe a flying saucer and fly it around a bit, I will never find UFO claims credible. I just won't. I can't control my skepticism. I think m is drawing an analogy here to Mormonism.

Ian said...

Perhaps you are correct nflanders, but I think that you choose not to beleive in UFO's. Some people have chosen to beleive in UFOs, and they have roughly seen the same evidence you have.

bob mccue said...

I come down on the determinism side of this question. See for a summary of my views.

What we start out believing is determined by genes and social conditioning. Whether we can change that is determined by genes, social conditioning, the social and others costs of change, access to information, etc.

And the idea that compatibilist determinism (see the link above) of this kind entails nihilism, a loss of responsbility, etc. merely evidences that not enough thought has been given to the matter.



NFlanders said...

Interesting, Ian. I think that is a defensible position.

I do think, however, that there is another defensible position (in my opinion, of course). Let's say we have two people A and B. A is disposed to believe in UFOs and B is not. If you asked them about the existence of UFOs, A would say yes and B would say no.

Now, let's say that A happened to read a book debunking claims of aliens and agreed with it. At the same time, B was walking around at night and saw some things he couldn't explain in the sky. Now if we asked them, A might say no, and B might say yes.

Have A and B made a direct choice about their beliefs? I say no. They have made choices about how they interpret what they have observed, however, which informs their beliefs.

Maybe we basically agree and are just using different terms. (I should also point out that I don't speak for m, and he may have a completely different interpretation.)

Enochville said...

"They have made choices about how they interpret what they have observed, however, which informs their beliefs."

I think it comes down to one's ability to find a way to explain evidence that does not fit your original model. We can either incorporate the new information into the old model, ignore the new information or create a new model (a paradigm shift).

As in all of human behavior, I think we mostly function by default. Being tossed to and fro by a multitude of influences and inputs into our organism, and of course biology dictates the limits of how we can process the data (more intelligent people can process data more efficiently and are more able to create new models). However, we can rise above default processing, and actively choose how we want to confront inconsistent data.

Whatever perspective we choose, if we can find a model that works and fits with our level of skepticism vs. faith (which we can adjust - as one studies science or philosophy one becomes more skeptical at least in some arenas), then we believe, if we cannot find a way to incorporate the new data, then we don't believe.

So, in my opinion, belief is based in part on choice (desire, skepticism, etc) and in part on ability (mental capacity to find a model that fits with the data, data's capacity to be fit into a model).

Anonymous said...

I think there's a pretty relevant post somewhere on the bloggernacle (forget where). It talks about that verse in Corinthians that everyone cites when saying we won't be "tempted" beyond what we can bear.

The post states that the popular wisdom has it wrong. We ARE tempted beyond what we can bear. There are things out there that we just aren't equal to.

But it also says there's a way out.

Ned, you and I are both right, but only partially.

You say that some people simply don't have the ability to "buy into it." And you're right, but that doesn't mean there isn't a choice involved.

I say that there is a choice available. And I'm right. But that doesn't mean anyone can simply "will themselves" into belief.

There is a choice. But there is only one choice. Do you allow God to help or not?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that was my post.

Seth R.

Anonymous said...

Is belief voluntary? What a great question. No easy answer—everyone comes at it from a different angle, and the answer may be different for everyone. To get there you must answer other questions, really honestly answer them: What do you believe? Why do you believe it? And more importantly, what would it take to change your belief? Ask yourself that, what would it take to change your beliefs.

It’s a lot like that last presidential election. My sister voted for Bush. She didn’t like Bush; when pressed she admitted that he was not the best candidate running but he was the Republican candidate and it was as if she was incapable of voting for someone other than the Republican. I was quite baffled to hear her say that people should vote for someone else and in the same breath state that she would not be doing so. My parents could not tell my why Bush was a better candidate, but they voted for him anyway. We had the typical staunch conservative mormon upbringing. Interestingly, the number one predictor of a person’s political outlook is that of the person’s parents. How much choice does my sister have? So how much choice is there?

Much of the truth in Mormonism is based upon a feeling, really. The whole church is raised like an inverted pyramid on a still, small voice. That’s the approach taken by many, and that’s how it’s taught—if the Book of Mormon is true, Joseph Smith was a prophet, and this is The One True Church, and Hinckley is the one true living prophet of God, and polygamy was inspired of God. And because it was God’s will some races weren’t supposed to have the priesthood until 1978 and so on and so on until all manner of little trinkets of this and that get shoved in anywhere. It creates a situation where a person will “believe” anything if it fits what’s already in place. It invites a crisis where one, like a reflex, rejects anything that doesn’t immediately fit or has to do a fair bit of damage control when much of it comes tumbling down.

I don’t think it’s possible for a church to be true, so I can’t believe in that. The Book of Mormon, probably not historically true, but it does teach truth. The gospel, true. I don’t know that Mormonism has a solid corner on truth, but Mormonism is what I know, and there are some things that I think Mormonism gets massively right, like the emphasis on family, and the temple (although, from recent rumblings, the temple may not currently be so right if you are a woman). In honesty, I can’t say that I believe in God and I can’t say that I don’t believe in God. The still small voice tells me that the gospel is true, and some aura of belief spreads out from that—if the gospel is true, maybe, maybe God exists and maybe the Mormon church is His (or Her) chosen church. I like to spread that aura of belief. I like to believe that there is a God, and that there are miracles, and all the wacky shit of life makes sense somehow. It’s a choice to spread that belief and it takes work.

sorry for the long comment.

-the angry m

m said...

thanks for all of the comments.

wendy: yes, it would be easier to still believe. but the problem is we both now have to figure out what this means for us.

ian: for me it never had to do w/ want. i don't think i'd ever really asked myself whether i "wanted" it to be true. i just assumed it was.

b bowen: i believe there are far more options for someone faced w/ a crisis of faith than simply to keep on believing as if nothing happened, or nihilism.

jeffrey: i think there's a rule against comments being longer than the original post. but i do agree w/ most of what you said.

geoff j: whoa! i never said we weren't responsible for our thoughts, words, or deeds (especially the latter two). i was simply commenting on the act of believing itself, which to me seems much more like a reaction than a decision.

seth r: i'm not sure where to start, but i think that it's difficult to discuss a crisis of faith w/ someone who has never experienced one, kind of like the discussions on LDSLF about fowler's stages of faith. and i haven't yet decided to leave, i've simply realized that i can't believe the way i used to, and have to figure out what that means for me (i still have a choice when it comes to the questions of how to continue participating in the church).

flanders: i never knew you were such a nerd until you brought up ufo's as a teaching example.

bob mccue: thanks for the comments, and for reiterating that there are more options out there than nihilism.

enochville: i like your explanation a lot. usually i've heard the term "paradigm shift" used in a business setting, but it's very applicable to my situation. i like the term "shift" because it doesn't imply a progression or regression, but rather a lateral movement. who's to say which position is better?

agnot: good to see you coming out of the shadows. i think that earlier in my life i attempted to ask myself why i truly believed in the church, but just wasn't ready to answer, it just seemed a little scary. i'm not sure what happened, but this last time was the first time i really asked myself sincerely "what if it's really not true?" and by true i mean the generic fast sunday recitation of "i know the church is true." i just laid it all on the table and said here's the good stuff, and here's the stuff i don't like or that doesn't make sense. i think that when you only deal w/ one issue at a time it's not too hard to keep one's belief intact, but when i tried to make everything fit together at once it kind of crumbled right in front of me.

thanks again for the comments, i'm thinking i'd like to try this again sometime.

Square Peg said...

I think there's some interesting stuff in this short passage that applies to this discussion:

"... Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast..."

--Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking Glass"

Anonymous said...

Well, I'll admit my first comment was a trifle combative and didn't really address your main point. But I think I'll stick with my later posts.

However, I wonder how the idea of "spiritual gifts" ties into this? You know that part where it says that to each is given different gifts? For example:

"To some is given the gift to believe on the words of others."

I'm starting to think that part actually describes me pretty well. I've never had real spiritual epiphanies. I've not witnessed any miracles that I was astute enough to identify. No "burning in the bosom."

But nonetheless, I believe so firmly that I could no more deny this religion than I could tear my own lungs out.

But maybe, like you say, this reaction isn't as voluntary as I might like to think?

Maybe this is just a manifestation of my own unique "spiritual gifts?"

Maybe you will just have to make do with the gifts you have?

Anonymous said...

Dang! Gotta get me one of them blogger accounts! Once again,

Seth R.

Ariel said...

Belief may or may not be voluntary, but one can, with effort, work up a desire to believe.

m said...

seth, i appreciate the comment. like you, i never really had any spiritual epiphanies, i simply believed because of what i had learned and experienced while growing up. but when i began to have serious questions w/ no apparent answers that could keep my belief intact, the lack of any real spiritual experiences was very troubling to me. had i had something like that to fall back on it might have been easier to keep on believing.

Geoff J said...

M: whoa! i never said we weren't responsible for our thoughts, words, or deeds (especially the latter two). i was simply commenting on the act of believing itself, which to me seems much more like a reaction than a decision.

Beliefs are thoughts. (If not, then what are they?) If we are not responsible for our thoughts (which again, include beliefs) then how are we responsible for anything? Our words and deeds are results of thoughts after all. You are proposing a deterministic scheme here whether you realize it or not. I believe we have free will therefore beliefs are voluntary. (Or at least should be -- we are capable of above or sinking beneath our deterministic "destiny" because we have free will.) And because we have free will, we are responsible for our thoughts (which include beliefs), words, and deeds.

Square Peg said...

Beliefs are much, much more than thoughts. I can force myself to think something a thousand times—and still not believe it. I can perform a series of actions that are supposed to lead to belief—and still not believe. I know this because I tried my very best for many years to think the right thoughts and perform the right actions, and yet here I am, a non-believer.

IMO, beliefs are the incredibly complex sum total of our personalities, education, desires, experiences, backgrounds, upbringing, and many, many other factors—and that each person’s reasons for belief (or disbelief) are as intricate and unique as their own fingerprints. Some of these factors are within our control. Many are not. But to say that someone does not believe simply because they are not choosing to think the “right” thoughts seems dismissive and almost insulting.

That’s why I posted that Lewis Carroll passage a bit earlier. The Queen accuses Alice of not being able to believe in what Alice considers “impossible things” because she’s not trying hard enough. She just needs more practice. This enables her to pity Alice. It allows her to lay the blame for Alice’s inability to believe squarely at Alice’s feet. It makes it easy for her to dismiss Alice’s skepticism and remain secure in her own belief.

I certainly don’t expect any believer to agree with my disbelief, or even accept my reasons for disbelieving. But I do wish there were more willingness to at least consider the notion that I can’t just up and choose to start believing any more than a fervent believer could up and choose to stop—and that the inability to believe is not always tied to desires or behaviors.

Watt Mahoun said...

I still don't get what exactly the virture is in choosing to believe something?

Since, when it comes to religious convictions, there is precious little evidence upon which to base a comes down to who happens to make the right comes down to odds.

And when folks go around saying that they've chosen to believe something which others find unbelievable; suggesting even that this choice is virtuously based on the excercise of free-will...rather than good, solid, repeatable, verifiable evidence...

Where is the virtue in this?

And I won't even go to that place where the "choiceful" believer is superior to the thoughtful doubter. What kind of god inspires/places such value in the application of will over wisdom?

square peg,

Thanks for the Carroll quote. Somehow I get the impression that there are many who don't see the ridiculous words that Carroll put in the words of the Queen:

"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast..."


annegb said...

I thought Under The Banner of Heaven was well written.

I think we can believe what we want. I think it's with God and He doesn't care that much. I don't think He's keeping score as much as we are.

m said...

just for the record, reading under the banner of heaven didn't cause me to disbelieve. it simply brought up certain issues that i wasn't familiar w/, or hadn't really thought deeply about, and led me to do further research.

Anonymous said...

Not that it's really relevant to this discussion ...

But the Church has posted two rebuttals to "The Banner of Heaven" on their official website under press releases. One is from a PR department guy, the other is from a BYU professor.

Seth R.

Beijing said...

It looks like I'm the only ex-believer who thinks I made a choice not to believe.

I choose not to believe that women must accept polygamy or be destroyed. I choose not to believe that D&C 132 is inspired.

I choose not to believe that God has any such thing as a "chosen" people or that there is just one "only true and living" religion.

I did continue to believe those things (and many others) for a long time after I felt uncomfortable with them. So I can testify that it is possible (though very painful) to choose to hold beliefs that one finds offensive. I chose to believe that the level of emotional and spiritual pain I was personally dealing with in order to maintain belief was unacceptable, and I chose to find the way out.

NFlanders said...

Thank you for a different perspective, Beijing. I think the idea of our beliefs causing us pain is very interesting.

Perhaps another way to frame m's post is that we can't choose whether our beliefs make us unhappy.

m said...

thanks beijing. i think we're more or less on the same page. for me it was coming to the realization that there were a lot of things i believed in that (at least in my mind) seriously conflicted w/ my professed belief in the church. when i really became conscious of this and tried to reconcile it is when i realized that i didn't really believe in the church anymore.

Square Peg said...


Thanks for your perspective. I love the nuances and complexities of this whole “Is belief voluntary” question. Interesting stuff.

Like Ned, I was intrigued by your comment that, “it is possible (though very painful) to choose to hold beliefs that one finds offensive.” I’ve certainly experienced a kind of pain and conflict that seems similar to what you experienced. But I perceived that pain as a clash between emerging beliefs I had developed on my own and the old beliefs I had mostly acquired from parents and church leaders.

Over time, what I’d been taught and what I actually believed began to feel more and more separate—until I found it impossible to reconcile them. I suppose that deciding to trust what I’ve felt, experienced, and learned rather than what I’ve been taught to believe is a choice of sorts. But the sometimes-painful evolution of my beliefs has always felt more like a natural, inevitable process over which I have limited control than a conscious act of will.