Can you choose to believe?
Some people seem to think so. You consider a menu of possible beliefs and choose which you like best. The American church scene certainly gives you a host of beliefs to sign up for: Not only Catholicism or Mormonism or Christian Science, but a hundred different versions of Protestantism, each with its heartfelt shibboleths. And there are thousands of varieties of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. And let’s not forget that Atheism is a belief, also.
So, you scan the menu and choose.
Blaise Pascal offered a bet: Believe and be saved. If there turns out not to be a God, then you have lost nothing. Fail to believe and maybe nothing happens, but if there is a God, then you lose your bet.
The problem is, of course, that the bet isn’t merely whether there is a god or not — putting your chips on the red or the black — but which god will save you and which will cast you to perdition: With so many choices, the odds are always against you: The house wins.
There are plenty of examples of people choosing one religion over another for political or survival reasons. Composers Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn each converted to Christianity to further their careers and escape the anti-Semitism of their time and place. It wasn’t at all uncommon in earlier centuries when one’s religion could disqualify one for certain jobs.
But did they believe in their adopted religions? That’s another question altogether.
For belief cannot be a matter of choice: You can believe only in what seems true. You don’t choose a religion and decide to believe its tenets; you decide what you believe is true, and look for a religion that offers those beliefs to you.
Believe simply isn’t volitional. You believe because you think certain things are true. Ineluctably true.
That doesn’t mean that what you believe is true — people can believe all kinds of odd piffle — but that those who believe do so because those ideas seem true to them. Whether it is religion or science, fiction or the ravings of a tin-foil-hat Tea Party Republican, you can only believe what rings true.
This is so even for those young academics who profess not to believe in any truth, that truth is all just relative. But of course, they believe it is true that there isn’t any truth. You cannot escape it: If you believe, you do so because you perceive it as true.
There are certainly people who wish they could choose to believe. There are those without faith who suffer from their inability to believe. They desperately want to believe, like the knight in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal.
What holds them back is that they cannot choose to believe something that doesn’t seem to be true, no matter how beneficial it would be if they could enforce that choice. Faith has, after all, many demonstrated benefits.
But if you don’t think there is a god or a savior, you cannot pretend there is.
Our emotions as surely as our syllogisms govern what seems true to us.
Some people are credulous and can accept as true any amount of silliness. I know a man who converted to a new religion every six months or so. He has been Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Methodist, Hindu and Evangelical.
One religion he joined actually worshipped triangles and explained the entire universe in terms of three-sided figures. There was not an ounce of hypocrisy in him: He believed each religion in turn was the true one.
Yet, if you cannot choose to believe, you can nevertheless choose to be open to possibilities, to allow yourself to learn about things you had previously been closed to. You can choose to look and listen.
Maybe you’ll be lucky.