This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

Disbelief is not a choice

David Niose is the president of the American Humanist Association.

When the contemporary secular movement is compared to the gay rights movement, objections are sometimes raised by those who distinguish between the two on biological grounds. Whereas sexual orientation is not a choice, the argument goes, one's religious outlook is.

The great weight of science indicates that the first part of that argument is correct (i.e., one's sexual orientation is determined by biology), but the latter part is somewhat misleading and merits scrutiny. After all, though we can choose our religious affiliation, none of us can ultimately choose what we truly believe or don't believe. I disbelieve in unicorns and I could not choose otherwise, just as I also could not believe, absent new evidence that changes my understanding of geography, that New York is south of Florida.

The difference between sexual orientation and personal secularity is not that one is biological and the other is a choice, because both have causal factors that eliminate choice. The difference is that sexual orientation is determined entirely by biology, whereas religious disbelief is a combination of biology and environment.

If Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world's best-known atheist, had been born in the thirteenth century, chances are he would have been theistic, believing in one kind of god or another. But, having been born in the twentieth century, having experienced his life as he has, can it really be said that Dawkins chooses to be an atheist? His status as a nonbeliever is a result of his biological composition (particularly his brain function) combined with the knowledge he has gained through his life experiences. It really is not a choice at all.

If more individuals today are religious skeptics than in centuries past, that is mainly because accumulated knowledge has inclined more people toward such doubt. As Dawkins himself has said, it would have been harder to be an atheist hundreds of years ago, when so many mysteries about the universe had not been answered. Though skepticism has always existed (the history of religious skepticism is covered wonderfully in Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History), the scientific discoveries of the last few hundred years have filled in so many gaps that the idea of a Grand Designer with some kind of special affection for humans seems more implausible than ever to many.

But this does not mean that today's religious skeptics choose not to believe. Instead, we can see that personal secularity is primarily the result of brain function combined with access to knowledge, information, and a social setting allowing disbelief. Given the right conditions, the result will be an individual who does not accept supernatural explanations.

Interestingly, we can see that in many ways believers don't really choose either, but when we consider theistic beliefs we see different causal environmental factors at work. Early childhood indoctrination by family, for example, is a key environmental factor that promotes such beliefs in many, as is the pro-religion conditioning that one receives from the community and broader society. Even if the overt promotion of religiosity by society is mild (which usually isn't the case in much of America), prevailing social views that disapprove of open disbelief will often discourage serious exploration of secularity.

Read More

TAGGED: COMMENTARY, GENERAL INTEREST


RELATED CONTENT

'Where was God in Aurora?' comments...

Dan Gilgoff - CNN Comments

“A lot of millennials who are coming of age have found that the Internet is a fantastic place to talk about their doubt,” says Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance.

Update - Twitter exchange - Hard...

First Aid Kit - YouTube -... Comments

First Aid Kit - Hard Believer

Vicar condemns hotel after it replaces...

-- - The Telegraph Comments

Hotel boss Wayne Bartholomew in unrepentant about his new choice of bedside reading for his guests despite an outcry from church authorities.

Sally Ride, first American woman in...

-- - CNN Comments

Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, died Monday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, her company said. She was 61.

Rbutr finds contrary opinions for...

Tracie Powell - Poynter Comments

rbutr is an application which allows people to follow inter-website debates and easily find and create counter arguments to pages they are viewing.

Pakistani physicist linked to 'God...

AP - CBC News Comments

The pioneering work of Abdus Salam, Pakistan's only Nobel laureate, helped lead to the apparent discovery of the subatomic Higgs boson, or "God particle," last week, but the late physicist is no hero at home, where his name has been stricken from school textbooks.

MORE

MORE BY DAVE NIOSE

Atheist Acceptability on the Rise in...

Dave Niose - Psychology Today Comments

For the first time ever, more than half the American population would vote for a qualified, open atheist for president.

Why More Nonbelievers Are Openly...

Dave Niose - Psychology Today 16 Comments

Misinformation and facts about...

Dave Niose - Psychology Today 28 Comments

Even smart people perpetuate untruths about atheism and religion

MORE

Comments

Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment