Is Religion Really a Choice?: An Ajar Thread

Take the atheist who says their deconversion was due to evidence yet that it is a lack of cognitive function and/or education that makes people religious. The Christian who claims to have freely chosen to have been Born Again but thinks all Muslims are brainwashed by and enslaved to The Devil. The Muslim who openly affirms the shahada without any claims of coercion as they sigh about how many people would convert to Islam if only they knew the truth about it.

Most people, religious or not, will claim to have selected their own belief system or lack thereof without compulsion or too much in the way of influence. At the same time, many (if not most) are ready, willing, able, and even eager to point out the environmental and other external factors that lead others to their disparate religious choices.

The atheist ignores the large numbers of well-educated, neurotypical individuals without cognitive disabilities who are religious as well as as the lesser-educated and/or cognitively impaired people who are religious. The Christian’s feelings of knowing The Holy Spirit would be called Satanic by the Muslims they criticize. Plenty of scholars of Islam are not Muslim despite their deep study of it; for that matter, I the ex-Muslim know more than a lot of Muslims do about my former faith (and plenty of Muslims know more than I do). No one can escape the influence of others and the world around them.

If you zoom out from individuals to consider the societal-level statistics, it is quite readily discernible that all the insistence on specialness means almost nothing. While people’s understanding and practice of their religion certainly tends to change over the course of their lives, the fact remains that the staggering majority of people live and die beneath the banner of the religion that they were taught to believe and/or that dominates their society.

This is despite the claim of Pew’s 2009 “Faith in Flux” publication that “Americans change religious affiliation early and often”; what they actually mean is “Americans tend to rotate between different flavors, denominations, and/or churches that are Christian.” “Church-shopping“, if you will, rather than anything more radical or surprising.

It’s clear that people do change their worldviews and/or religions. Given the low percentage of people who do in definitive fashion when it comes to the latter, I don’t know if religion is as freely-chosen as many might argue.

Anecdotes, statistics, and thoughts on this matter are both welcomed and encouraged.


Is Religion Really a Choice?: An Ajar Thread

9 thoughts on “Is Religion Really a Choice?: An Ajar Thread

  1. 1

    If belief is a matter of complete choice, what keeps one from choosing something else tomorrow?

    I don’t claim that I could choose to believe something just because I wanted. Nor that my disbelief is entirely free.

  2. 2

    I guess it depends. I know plenty of Christians who were raised to believe that their religion is the right religion, and I also know Christians who chose Christianity later in life. (I’m not sure what the statistics show is more common.)

    There was a time when I was having serious doubts that I made a conscious choice to continue believing in God, even though, at the time, I had plenty of evidence telling me it was a foolish decision.

  3. Ed

    I don’t think belief itself is a choice, or even a voluntary action. If you think something is true, you think it’s true.

    But hopefully, one’s beliefs or accepted set of ideas are a work in progress.

    People (if free to do so) can choose to look at ideas besides the ones that are common in their culture or subculture. This increases the amount of content in their mind that can influence their future beliefs.

    Without critical thinking skills along with the new information, though, they may merely be inspired to adopt a different dogmatic religion or ideology.

    I don’t know if I’d dismiss the frequent changes of denominational affiliations of modern Christians as superficial. It’s a wonderful thing that Catholic/Protestant hostilities have radically declined and there are fewer and fewer Christians who think of their denomination as the only true church.

    Think of how these denominations came about. Schisms over mostly minor differences. The increasing lack of interest, even among serious believers, in fighting over the equivalent of the exact height of Bigfoot is an improvement. Also, many Christians today are actually not so orthodox by historical standards .

  4. 4

    Well, the fact that people adopt or change religions for reasons doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a voluntary thing, just that it isn’t done lightly or on a whim.

    I know some people who downplay parts of their religion, adopt bits of another religion, combine them with bits of another religion, in an eclectic mishmash that better reflects how they feel and think about the spiritual in that moment. They’re not changing religion; they’re creating their own from religions that don’t fit them off-the-rack. You can’t point at such people and claim they’re religion-hopping.

    Also, the difference between one person’s experience of a religion and another person’s experience of that religion might be so different that you couldn’t comfortably call what they experience a shared religion at all. I had an interesting conversation once with a Hindu priest I met in Houston; I had asked him whether it was OK for me, an atheist, to use Hindu mantras for meditation. He said there was no need for me to regard it as actual worship–if I chose my mantra well, I could choose to focus on what the deity in question represented rather than the deity itself, so that my Dhanvantari mantra was really a way to concentrate on health, my Shiva mantra on protection, my Ganesh mantra on removing obstacles or scholarship, and so forth. Imagine me trying to explain that to a devout Hindu fresh from his pilgrimage to the Ganges River.

  5. 5

    As I understand it cross cultural studies show that the vast majority of people adopt the prevailing faith of their parents, who generally carry the prevailing faith of the community. There may be some nuance if the culture has a history of acceptance of alternatives and a strong rule of non-sectarian law that will protect minorities. Of course in a strong theocracy, and where there is little history of tolerance, and in societies that feel under attack, people going against he flow will be persecuted.

    There is also some component of the type of of faith. Christianity, with its wide diversity of sects and denominations, and having gone through internecine battles, reformation, and a thousand years of philosophic and theological reinterpretation has been forced to accept that while the core beliefs may be fairly narrow the specifics, manifestations, couching of those beliefs is still open to out group preferences, and that this is not something to get violent over.

    Islam, lacking that hundred of years of inconclusive and viscous infighting among coreligionists, has not had to learn to be humble to survive as a faith system. It is a matter of age and maturity. It is the difference between convincing an eighteen year old kid to grab a gun and charge up a hill, and trying to do the same with people over fifty. You can shame, cajole, and reference patriotism with the young. With the old they just look at you and laugh. For the vast majority of Christians the shine is off the idea of fighting for God. God will have to do his own fighting.

    The point is that in some of the more liberal, diversified, and free-thinking corners of societies with respect for diversity and a strong rule of law to protect the minority religion might resemble a free and open choice. In a cloistered, theocratic society where there is little or no exposure to alternatives and where people who try alternatives get beat down or killed, there is little or no choice.

    Everyone likes to think that they could be brave and steadfast when faced with coercion. I think it was Richard Prior who had a routine covering all the people who think that if they were black in the antebellum south they would have bravely resisted, and refused to work. None of those people have been beat with a bull whip. Coercion works.

  6. 6

    If I consider the situation here in Germany (and probably most of Europe) I see that in recent decades while the social and political power of the churches waned, quite a large number of people simply drifted out of their religion. I think very few of them made a conscious choice for atheism or agnosticism, it was just when the neighbors stopped keeping track of your church attendance sleeping late on Sunday was becoming more and more attractive.

    The ones who did stay religious seem to be either very conservative or, as badgersdaughter described pretty much build their own religion, even if they belong to a traditional church or switched to another faith on the market (Like I did).

  7. 7

    Per this Pew forum about religion in the U.S. (see Chapter 2):

    Looking only at changes from one major religious tradition to another (e.g., from Protestantism to Catholicism, or from Judaism to no religion), more than one-in-four U.S. adults (28%) have changed their religious affiliation from that in which they were raised.

    Because of their treatment of Catholicism and Protestantism as separate religions, they aren’t explicit about how much of this 28% is composed of people who switch within Christianity. Also people who move from practicing Christian to unaffiliated who may still hold onto Christian tenets.

    If you look at the full chapter, on page 26 there’s a table of the major religions and the percent of adults entering and leaving each group. “Unaffiliated” has had the most net growth in recent years.

  8. 8

    Hoo boy: what, exactly, does anyone means by “choice”? Every single choice we make is heavily influenced by our surroundings and our personal experiences up to that point. That our understandings of reality, our goals, and our constraints influence our choices doesn’t mean we’re not making choices. To take an extreme example, I’m still making a choice if someone puts a gun to my head, but my choice is going to be influenced by the likely outcomes for various options given the context of a gun to my head. I can make a choice that will get me killed (and if it’s me, I might actually make that choice, becasue self-preservation is not particularly high on my list of priorities – threatening to harm me with non-deadly force is actually far more effective coercion in my case), but most people are going to opt to not get killed in that circumstance. That’s still a choice, it’s just coerced.

    So, yeah, people tend to pick religions that are normative in their particular cultural discourses, becasue they are coerced to do so; those choices aren’t particularly more or less free from influence or even coercion than any of the other choices we make. We might also want to draw a distinction between belief, which is not necessarily consciously chosen (though to some degree it is possible to choose what one believes), and identification with/practice of a religion, which is definitely the result of conscious choices.

  9. 9

    Choice is a deterministic response to environmental conditions.

    Arguing that the influence of environmental conditions makes something “not choice” is absurd.

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