Can an Atheist “Choose”
to Believe in God?
In a June 16th comment to my posting Empirical Theism: A Thought Experiment P. Coyle said:
“Hmmmm. Can one actually ‘choose’ to believe in God? Speaking for myself, I would find it quite difficult to wake up tomorrow, sit up on the bed, and think to myself, ‘I guess I'll try believing in God today and see how it works out.
“What do you think, Shane? To what extent can a person ‘choose’ to believe in God?”
Missionary efforts for the last two thousand years have all been based on the proposition that a person can choose to believe in God. Their notable success indicates that the proposition is true. There were a handful of Christians when Jesus died. Three-thousand were converted on Pentecost. Many times that number have been converted to atheism by the books and lectures of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and Stenger. The New Atheists wouldn’t argue so vigorously if people could not change their minds on the question of God’s existence. And I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t think so.
A Key to Inward Change
Perhaps the real thrust of your question is: Can a sophisticated widely read atheist in this era choose to believe in God? My answer is an emphatic yes -- but with a qualifier appended: If he wants to. In my essay Is God’s Existence Improbable? I said:
“In our talks about the existence of God my atheist friends nearly always say something to this effect: ‘My feelings have nothing to do with this. Yours clearly do, and you admit it. But mine don’t. I just weigh the evidence and seek the truth.’
“Among several important things I can’t prove but am convinced of is this: In deciding whether or not to believe in God, no one, on either side of the issue, is completely objective. Nor should one be, since the arguments are weighty on both sides, and neither proves its case. Evidence and logic leave us dangling. In forming an opinion on what is unknowable, personal considerations become relevant, even determinative.”
The Role of Desire in Belief
On the question of God’s existence most people end up believing what they want to believe. There is much weighing of evidence and pondering of argument, but these don’t produce a conclusive yes or no. So a subtle – often complex – form of personal preference carries the day. I am a Pure Theist (and a Christian) because I want to be, and you are an atheist because you want to be. Until the wanting changes neither of us is likely to budge. But if the wanting did change, we could change too.
I don’t mean we can push a mental button and transmute in an instant. It might take months or years of intense grappling with evidence, argument, and our inner life. But evidence and argument depend so much on the light in which we view them, and that is so determined by our psyches (which is what I mean by our inner life), that an atheist can, ultimately, choose to believe in God if he wants to.
A theist, too, can go the other way. Every year a great many convert to the opposite view. The New Atheists pull them toward No God. Writers like me in our way – and organized religions in theirs -- try to pull them toward God. Self-determination in such matters is the rule, not the exception.
Three Factors that Make Choosing Possible
To illustrate the difficulty of the change, its possibility, and an essential element in it, let me cite an incident from the New Testament. A father pleading with Jesus to heal his ailing son said, “… if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus echoed his doubting phrase, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” (Emphasis added.) Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Jesus healed the child.
The dramatic episode highlights three principles: (1) The starting point is a desire to believe; the father wanted to think help was there; (2) Belief can be mingled with unbelief; (3) Conscious effort may be needed to acquire faith.
The incident is not presented here as an argument for Christianity, but to show the elements of transition from atheism to Pure Theism. The man in the story needed help. An atheist who contemplates a change of mind (and heart) may – or may not – do so because he feels a need for strength beyond what human resources provide. Someone said, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” I have found that to be so. Those who feel weak are probably more open to faith than those who feel strong. But this doesn’t mean the strong are right and the weak are wrong.
Humility and Truth
In an earlier posting How the Improbable God Probably Works I laid out my God hypothesis. It ended with these two paragraphs:
The ancient mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing said: “By love he may be gotten and holden, but by thought, never.” John said, “God is love.” The atheist Bertrand Russell said, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,” to justify his unbelief. Believing requires not only an act of faith but an act of humility. The prouder we are of our intellect, of its superiority to lesser minds, and of the dazzling science it produced, the harder it is to humble ourselves and believe. Yet the Designer of the Universe arranged it so that he, his ultimate truth, and life’s shining Sequel can be found only by the humble and believing.
We cannot accept his love unless we acknowledge his existence. We can brush aside the outstretched hand. He will neither compel faith, nor make it unnecessary. On those terms, we can take him or leave him. Receive his embrace or turn away. Our decision is our fate. [End of quoted paragraphs.]
The Bold Crossing
A skeptic who acknowledges there may be a God, and would like to connect with Him if it’s possible, must take a bold step. He must move from abstract thought to a new kind of consciousness that is both outreaching and receptive. In Empirical Theism: A Thought Experiment I describe a bridge from the mental to the spiritual, and try to walk the reader across it, as I crossed it decades ago. It shows how an atheist who wants to, can begin moving toward belief in God and a relationship with Him.