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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.

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