No Choice in Faith: Case for the Prosecution

A reader ask whether belief in God is a matter of choice.

“Your several uses of “accept or reject” leave little doubt in my mind that you think it is. What are your grounds for that assumption? Can you put yourself in the shoes of someone who does not agree?”

As for the second question, let me put myself in the shoes of the freethinker, and you tell me if I have characterized the argument correctly.

Freethinker argument:

I propose that faith in God is involuntary. Those who believe in God have no choice but to believe; that those who disbelieve have no real choice but to disbelieve.

I propose, moreover, that a man cannot make himself, by an act of will, believe what he does not, and, even if he could, it would be morally wrong.

If you approach a man at noon, and say, ‘Convince yourself that noon is midnight’ the mere fact is that he cannot do it. He can, perhaps, say that world is round, and that the words midnight and noon refer to places where the sun is at the zenith or he nadir, so that both, in some sense of the world, can refer to the same thing, that is, the sun’s position relative to Earth … but this is just a semantic argument, and like all semantic arguments, are like the two armies spoken of in the Book of Wonders, who swapped uniforms but continued the war just as before.

So the answer is no. A man under the noon sun, cannot, but an act of will, convince himself the midnight stars are overhead, nor can a man at midnight claim to himself that it is noon, and expect to be believed. It is not within human power.

If you utter any threat however dire or promise however alluring the answer is the same. Even with a gun to his temple, or the thirty coins of purest silver pressed into his palm, he cannot make himself believe what he does not believe.

Now, to be clear, a man can make himself want to believe or want not to believe any number of things. Wanting to believe something is not the same as believing it. I am sure Solomon’s 300th wife wanted to believe she was his very favorite, but I doubt she could make herself believe it in truth.

Even if she did, this would merely be self-deception, which is a double crime: the self-deceiver commits a wrong act by lying, and the gullible self-deceived commits a wrong act by consented to the lie willingly. (I assume the proposition that we all have a duty to know and love the truth is granted, for, by definition, no one can argue the opposite proposition honestly.)

Belief in God is no different. Merely because the subject of the conversation is an invisible spirit does not free statements made about this being from the general rule that no man can assent to a statement he believes untrue.

Therefore those who believe in God believe it because some fact or circumstances in their environment lead them to think this a reasonable belief; or, more likely, they take the proposition on authority that they do not dare question, having been taught that questioning authority is evil.

Since they believe what they believe on authority, but the same authority calls is heresy or taboo to question authority, they are in a thought prison of their own making, but no voluntarily. Parents or teachers or mentors youth has no choice but to trust betrayed them, and now they are trapped.

But the bars of that thought prison keep us penned out as readily as they keep them penned in: for I cannot assent on faith, because an authority says so, to the proposition that God exists even if I wished it, for from the stance of not taking an authority on faith, I cannot, nor can anyone, take on faith the proposition that this is a proposition I must and should take on faith.

The same paradox that locks the true believer inside the thought prison locks the freethinker out: you have to take on faith the idea that you should take ideas on faith. The man who doubts the soundness of faith doubts the soundness of the idea the you should take ideas on faith. The snake swallows its own tail.

Promises of eternal life or threats of eternal damnation for belief or disbelief are merely the gunbarrel or silver coins mentioned above. A man of integrity cannot be swayed by such threats or promises, and a man without integrity, even if willing to give belief in the unbelievable the old college try, cannot do so without self-deception, or cannot do so at all.

Paschal’s Wager likewise.

Any Christian asking me to believe in his God must first answer on what grounds he rejects the plea of the Buddhist that he believe in India’s divinities, the pleas of the Confucian or Toaist that he believe China’s conception of the divine, or the plea of the Aztec that he believe in the gods of precolumbian Mexico?

If he answers that this god or that sates or fails to sate some human appetite for justice or whathaveyou, this is again like asking a man to believe it is noon if you pay him silver coins or threaten him with lead bullets.  The thing is only believed or not believed, as all things are, either as a sound deduction from philosophically doubtless first principles, or as a reasonable induction from evidence and experience.

I submit that evidence and experience cannot prove the existence of God, nor his benevolence, omniscience, omnipotency, and so on. Even Christians admit that God is infinite and incomprehensible, and has various infinite properties, such as infinite wisdom and infinite power, endless duration, begininglessness reaching back before time and outside of time. Evidence by definition is conditional to objects within the range of human senses, and the senses can only portray material hence finite properties of finite objects. No man can see God. Any man, like Moses, alleged to see God cannot see by looking with his eye whether this being is infinite in power as opposed to merely superhumanly powerful; the eye cannot witness to endless life, endless benevolence, or anything else that the endless, because the eye’s range is finite.

So much for learning of God by experience. I say God cannot be learned by first principles, for deductions from first principles are limited to things we can clearly define, such as the property of figures in geometry or numbers in math. But God, being infinite, cannot be defined. The concept of God is mazed in paradox after paradox. He is a omnipotent, and yet apparently he acts in time. But an omnipotent being could achieve any sought goal whatsoever instantaneously without need for any tools or waiting period. He is omniscient, which involves perfect foreknowledge, yet he grants men free will. How can the will be free if its every act is written by the iron pen of foreknowledge on the admantine scroll of fate? He is a being, and yet is prior to all other beings both in time and categorically. He is a timeless being able to regret his creation. He is a moral being able to drown the world in the time of Noah, or to command genocides by the hand of Joshua. He is a loving being willing to let evil enter his creation and send souls he allegedly loves to eternal torment. And so on and so forth. Even well respected Christian theologians will admit that one must first have faith in God to see any way to accept these mysteries, for they are beyond human reason and human understanding.

But the only two ways to come to believe in anything is either by experience or by reasoning, and neither is sufficient to convince an honest doubter. Therefore nothing can convince an honest doubter.

Moreover, even Christians admit that faith is a gift, also called a grace, and that no man can seek God unless God puts the desire in his heart. A freethinker has never been given this gift.

Ergo, a man cannot make himself, by an act of will, believe in God, and, even if he could, it would be morally wrong. Therefore faith in God is involuntary.

Such is the freethinker’s argument. Have I stated it faithfully and fully?

I hope if any reader is impressed at my lawyerly ability to argue on behalf of a guilty client, you will understand why I am deeply, deeply, unimpressed with strawman arguments. A coward faces his opponents weakest and least convincing argument;  a philosopher faces the strongest and best. And only a fool enters the gladiatorial circus with a blindfold over his eyes, and a bucket over his head. If you cannot recite your the best argument you foe can make, you cannot see where and how to strike and parry.

If any atheist or agnostic reader will do me the kindness of confirming that this argument is sound, or will give me clear counsel on where to improve and strengthen it, I will be happy in some future column to recite the errors present in every paragraph, and the one glaring error of what is missing from before the first paragraph.