To the moderators:  I have chosen the category 'science' because I believe it is a question which has been/will be answered by scientific inquiry but you might think it more appropriate to post as Atheism; assuming of course you feel it makes the grade.  I certainly think it is relevant and important as I have had several discussions about it on this and other forums and also with people face to  face (Sean Faircloth's response to Sam Harris and Making Marriage Work When Only One Spouse Believe In God, are the two most recent on here) .  I am concerned that my question might be rejected on these grounds, "Don’t post questions that you could find answers to yourself by doing a simple Google search or by doing some elementary reading", because I believe the answers can be found in that way.  Despite this, I think it remains relevant and my aim is in part, to raise consciousness about our choice of terminology and in part, to establish a thread on this forum that clearly deals with this issue.  Thanks for considering my topic.


I often hear it said that, ‘people can believe whatever they like’ or ‘you may choose to believe…’

I have heard this from the most unlikely sources; renowned critical thinkers and scientists.  Whenever I hear it I feel an immediate sense of indignation.  It just seems so far from the truth to me.

To be fair, there is a distinction to be made.  The phrase, ‘People can believe whatever they like’ can be used in a political context to mean that people have a right to believe whatever it is they believe and in this sense, at least, it is coherent.  However, I would suggest that even used thus, it is a poorly judged choice of expression as it seems to imply a control over what we believe which it is far from clear that we actually have.

I do not intend to make an argument about free will here and, purely for the sake of this discussion, I shall assume that we do have free will to make at least some choices.  Yet even if that is true, it seems very improbable to me that we can simply decide to believe something that we didn’t previously believe.  I offer the following example.

You're a young teenager. You have been brought up in an evangelical Christian household. You have a really strong faith and you really believe all that stuff. You decide to read the bible thoroughly and carefully with the intention of strengthening your belief but, shock horror, instead of the outcome you had expected you begin to have grave doubts. You desperately want to keep your faith alive but the further you delve the worse those doubts become. You then begin to investigate other points of view. After several more years of experience, reading, considering, discussing and arguing you finally realise that you have no faith left and you are, in fact, an Atheist.

Did you choose to become an Atheist or did it simply happen to you as a result of the other choices you made?

So my three questions are…

Can we choose what we believe?

It strikes me that, when asked this question people often answer a substitute question such as, “Can we make choices that will affect our beliefs” and I think it entirely plausible that we can but I am hoping that in this discussion people will try to answer my question as it is.If your answer to my first question is yes then can you explain the mechanism by which we make that choice i.e. how do we decide to stop believing one thing and start believing another?

If your answer to my first question is no then, as people who believe in reason, science and secular values should we be more careful about our choice of words when what we are trying to say is that ‘people have a right to their beliefs’ and not, in fact, that ‘people can choose what they actually believe’?