Part of The Guardian’s series, “Can we choose what we believe?”
Are we responsible for what we believe? Do we have a choice in the matter? This is not just a philosophical question but one that has considerable relevance to modern life.
At every point throughout history we have treated people as if they choose to believe. The Spanish Inquisition’s treatment of its hapless victims assumed that they could have avoided their heresies. The Chinese government treats Falun Gong practitioners as if they freely flout the law. More controversially, if US authorities end up executing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks, they will imply that he chose to believe he was on a mission from God and that he could have chosen to believe otherwise – and this raises issues about the alleged use of indoctrination in the spreading of extremism and the training of suicide bombers.
The moral issue here is simple enough: we cannot hold people responsible for something they have no control over. But moral and religious beliefs are philosophical grey areas. They are not as straightforward as “facts” which can be empirically or logically proven. They involve some kind of appeal to emotion or intuition.
Whatever the cause of this intuition, personal experience would suggest we do not have control over it. Raised a Catholic but nonetheless a long-term atheist, belief in a God is something I simply don’t seem capable of. Others even talk about wishing they could believe in a God but somehow not being able to. Equally, I know many people from a whole host of different backgrounds who talk about a sense of something higher that they just cannot get away from. People have a tendency to believe one way or another and whilst many will find themselves somewhere in the middle, not quite sure of their religious stance, others like myself will find that the decision has already been made for them.
Recent neurological studies tend to support this conclusion. In the last few years, religious experience has been linked to the activity of certain parts of the brain and some studies have shown an impressively consistent ability to induce religious sensations by stimulating the temporal lobes. What causes some people to have a greater intensity of activity in these areas is, as yet, unknown.
But whether or not we are able to choose to have religious belief, we do seem to have some control over the way in which we believe. A lesser-known but rising trend in moral philosophy suggests that, since beliefs affect our behaviour, we have to take responsibility for them. As a result, it is important that there are ways in which we can regulate the nature of our beliefs. For example, we should make sure we always examine claims from several different perspectives, we must think autonomously rather than simply accepting the opinions of others, and so forth.
Applying the same system to religious belief, we can be responsible or irresponsible believers. If Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is eventually found guilty by the American courts, he will be guilty not for his belief in God but for allowing that belief to manifest itself in a violent way. There are numerous other examples. The Phelpses are not America’s most hated family because of their faith in God but because of the way they allow that faith to manifest itself. In not taking a measured or thought-through approach to their faith, they haven’t been responsible – morally, socially or intellectually – in the way in which they believe.
So my answer to the question is that it doesn’t matter either way. Whether we’ve freely chosen to believe in atheism, God or Astarte, or even if we’ve had no choice at all in the matter, we must take responsibility for the way in which we believe it.