You’ve probably been told faith is a choice. I certainly was. As a curious child wondering why God never talked back to me, I was given the same reason many times by different people.
“If you just have faith,” they said.
“How do I have faith?” I asked.
“You’ve gotta choose to have faith.”
“But I do choose.”
Guys, I chose. And chose and chose and chose. At seventeen I wrote in my prayer journal, “God, I choose by faith to have faith.” Still never heard from him.
Of course, we all know God doesn’t talk in an audible voice. Not an objectively measurable audible voice, I should add, thinking of people whose brains are more fragile than mine. My dad once told me, “God’s voice is like a thought that doesn’t come from you.” I didn’t know how to tell which of my thoughts came from me and which didn’t.
I played mind games, like, if it’s a thought that gives me peace, then that means it’s from God. If it’s a thought that makes me feel troubled, then, well, it’s from Satan. But what people said God called me to do was often troubling. Like participating in a Halloween hell house, an evangelizing ministry disguised as a haunted mansion.
The goal was to scare people so badly with visions of eternal torture, pain, and regret for sins like abortion and gay sex that they would be terrified into accepting Jesus as their personal savior at the end.
“Scare them to heaven!” someone said.
My heart did not feel peace about this proposition. I tried to keep my hand steady as I raised it during the preliminary volunteer meeting.
“But wouldn’t God want people to come to him out of love?” I asked.
“What?” somebody said. “Speak up.”
My pipsqueak teenage voice wavered, both from fear of being the one to go against the mission and from the conviction of my stance. I rephrased my question as a statement. “I don’t think Jesus wants us to come to him out of fear.”
An awkward beat lingered in my youth group auditorium. It was quickly brushed aside with condescending rhetoric of how God will do whatever it takes to get peoples’ attention. Even scare them. Because he loves them. I swallowed my questions about why God even created hell if he knew so many people would choose to go there.
I didn’t end up participating in the Halloween hell house. The notion of choice in one’s beliefs never stopped nagging at me. Today, years after leaving Christianity, I still ponder whether or not we can simply choose to have faith. Maybe some can. Others like myself cannot.
Have you heard of the God gene? Its name is VMAT2. Dean Hamer is the geneticist who proposed in his book The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes that to have faith or not may not be a choice. A separate study of identical twins led by two academics, one an atheist and the other a preacher, concluded there is a 40-50% genetic component to whether or not one believes in God - even among twins separated at birth. Yet another study verifies that genes may account for up to 50% of our religiosity. And, deductively, our lack thereof. [Click to Tweet]
Studies like this are often flawed. Most rely on self-reporting, which is a bit immeasurable to say the least. It may be oversimplifying to suggest there is one gene responsible for your core beliefs. People are understandably reluctant to reduce a cultural axiom as significant as religion down to the presence of a single variation in our genetic code. When we have little reason to suspect brain scan images are lying, however, or the genotyping results of DNA, self-reports become easier to verify.
The field of neuroscience continues revealing insights into the biological effects of faith. Technology like fMRI machines and SPECT imaging allow us to see these inner workings, convincing some scientists there is not a ‘God spot,’ but several parts of the brain working together to create the foundations for religious belief. Furthermore, different religious practices can activate different parts of the brain. For example, the research of leading neurotheologist Dr. Andrew Newberg shows that praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhists both have increased activity in the brain’s frontal lobes, while praying Muslims showed decreased activity there.
What does this have to do with whether or not faith is a choice? Just as brain scans confirm certain activity in the brains of spiritual people, other studies verify the different neural wiring of those who are atheists. For instance, the faithless may have a larger hippocampus and less dopamine in their brains. Some researchers suggest atheism is the result of mutated genes. (Not gonna lie, being called a mutant kind of tickles my fancy.)
If faith is not a choice, how do some people change their minds? Atheists convert to religion. I was once a Christian and now I am not. My take is simple: A change of faith is less a choice and more an admission. As young children, we tend to take in everything as truth. We don’t readily question the apparent laws of our environment. Our survival depends on it. As we get older, we experience our own truths. We might try to deny them, or justify them. Some of us become so good at ignoring our truths that we die without ever admitting them, never mind fully living in them. I think the changing of one’s mind is the result of accumulated experiences. Not a choice, but a surrender.
Maybe this surrender is the other 50-60% determining a person’s faith or lack thereof. In addition to our genetic makeup, our personal experiences must account for at least some of what we believe. Maybe your beliefs evolved as the result of something that happened to you. Or maybe it was the convincing story of someone else’s experience, or perhaps logical reasoning, or the interpretation of a series of events your brain was wired to make sense of. We all change for our own reasons and at our own pace. Sometimes those changes are rushed, like when a violent attack or the death of a loved one forces us to examine our beliefs more abruptly. Often these changes occur slowly, perhaps as the result of reading, travel, or conversations spread out over time. All personal experiences can draw us toward or away from faith. Perhaps this is the nurture that mixes with the nature.
Why should humans have the capacity for faith at all? One theory suggests faith may have given us a significant evolutionary advantage. Supernatural beliefs help us make sense of the unexplainable. Practices like deep breathing, singing, and meditation can give us stress-decreasing - and therefore lifespan-increasing - benefits. Shared faith can also provide cooperation within communities, a personal sense of meaning that gets you through hard times, and an incentive to procreate and continue the survival of the species.
So what about those of us who don’t have faith? It would appear nonbelievers are an evolutionary anomaly. Ongoing studies are trying to determine why. In the meantime, I’m content to accept that faith is not a choice. I forced myself to pay lip service to faith for years, repeating, “I choose to have faith,” over and over in effort to stifle my doubts. The quiet knowledge that I was lying to myself rang through me with the injustice of being forced to apologize to a kid you weren’t really sorry for hitting - after all, they hit you first. If God wanted himself to be known to me, he would have made himself undeniable in a way he knew my skeptical mind would be thoroughly convinced of.
I think it works the other way around, too: just as I never could make myself believe, I think some people can’t force themselves not to believe. I’ve met people raised secularly who are convinced of a higher power, a mystical connectedness, or a reason for us all being here. They may not even be able to explain why. For me, they don’t have to. The scientific evidence supporting the evolutionary value of faith as well as the brain scan images and genotyping showing differences in our biological makeup are all I need to accept them as they are. As I hope they accept me.
Acknowledging how little choice I have in my faithlessness gives me compassion for myself. It also gives me compassion for others. For a long time, I believed there was something wrong with me. Something defective in my soul that the belief system around me affirmed. The adults who told me faith was a choice were also the people who eventually told me I must be sinful if I wasn’t hearing from God. It broke my earnest little heart. But I can look back now and see they were only trying to share with me their own source of love and self-acceptance. Their mistake was in assuming that what was true for them was true for all. I endeavor not to isolate others the same way. We must be responsible for what is true to us and have the courage to let go of what is not. Honesty is giving ourselves permission to find out. [Click to Tweet]
So this is just to say that whether you do or don’t believe, don't be hard on yourself. It might not be in your control. There is nothing wrong with you either way.
Is faith a choice in your experience?