Belief chooses you

You don’t choose what to believe. Belief chooses you.

Steven Galloway (1975-)

This particular quote is one that speaks to me at a deep level.

I often find myself both amazed by and impressed with those who hold earnest beliefs in supernatural and/or divine forces. When I reflect upon those with true faith, I find myself torn between jealousy and bafflement. It would be profoundly comforting and lovely to believe that humankind’s existence has some inherent purpose, but I don’t.

Having dedicated years of my life to studying Judaism, I had opportunity to explore various spiritual practices and related ancient texts; but ultimately, upon serious reflection, I remain more compelled by my secular Papa’s perspective than any other. It bears noting that Papa was by far one of the most honorable and ethical people that I have ever known, regardless of his faith or lack thereof.

Absent supernatural forces, the notion of a big bang makes little sense to me, but nothing has led me to believe that any supernatural force is involved in or even interested in our lives.

Ultimately, it is my understanding that some people are simply more “wired” for faith than others – we do not choose our beliefs. Inclination towards belief is merely one of sundry character traits that one could possess.

71 thoughts on “Belief chooses you”

  1. I find this concept very interesting. I also think ethics and religion are two separate beliefs. I know a lot of people who have religious faith, but when it comes to putting it into practice they fall short.

  2. Interesting. At risk of muddying the water I think I would rephrase it as ‘you don’t always choose what to believe, sometimes belief chooses you’. I think we have at least some scope to choose how we believe, even if how and what we believe isn’t completely in our power. After all it may not be completely in our power to be good, but that doesn’t absolve us from trying.

    1. Chris,

      I love splashing around in muddy water – no problem!

      On the one hand, I agree with you, as I myself am wont to qualify everything with “sometimes” or “most of the time”, particularly when I am teaching my six-year-old about the world.

      On the other hand, I think it simply depends upon how one understand belief. I don’t think that choosing what one believes is as easy as choosing how one acts (i.e. “being good”). Perhaps we can train our minds to “believe” something… but that, I think, would take time, and – I’m not sure that I would call that “belief”. A thought experiment- if one were to hypnotize one’s self to “believe” something – would that be a “belief” or not?

      All best,
      David

  3. I think that initially my beliefs mostly had their origins in my parent’s beliefs and in the culture that I was brought up in! Those beliefs were planted very deep but as I grew up, went to college, worked, moved away, married, had children, those beliefs were tested and broken. Now in my senior years, I look at the world, through very confused and sceptical eyes!

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Ashley. I greatly appreciate it.

      It’s not a coincidence, by the way, that I call this website the skeptic’s kaddish.

      Yours,
      David

  4. I think this is true up to a point. Although I have reasons for my faith, ultimately a lot does rest, not on abstract faith in God, so much as faith in goodness and meaning and truth which I then pull under the umbrella heading of God. However, I came close at times to losing that faith, and other things have bolstered my faith.

    1. Yes, I would have to concede that there are external factors / experiences that are likely to impact our faiths in one way or another – for sure.

      -David

    2. I’m wondering… again, depending upon how we understand “faith”, whether we couldn’t say that the way we react to our life experiences isn’t, itself, a reflection of the “faiths” that we already possess?

        1. I was thinking that we were talking more about general beliefs such as that everything happens for a reason or even in general goodness rather than belief in God per se.

        2. 🤔 hmmnn…

          for me, those things are all connected, if not one and the same.

          at the very least, “God” and “everything happens for a reason” are essentially the same to me.

          “general goodness”, I suppose is different, for me, but it often gets conflated with “God” by those people who believe that God exists…

          I don’t know.
          🤷‍♂️

  5. Yeah, like you, I am a little jealous of those with beliefs or connections to the “supernatural,” but I am also comfortable watching from the outside.

  6. I didn’t read the comments, so this may have been said elsewhere. I don’t know if I “believe” in that quote or not. I also have spent a lot of time, albeit off/on, studying various philosophies and by proximity, religions. In that study, I sort of kind of found ideas that resonated with me, and many others that didn’t. I believe that I did some picking and choosing. Me. Doing the choosing. I don’t believe a belief reached out and grabbed me. In fact, I have yet to come upon a belief system that I 100% believe in… which considering I’m in the early stages of the process of converting to Judaism, might bewilder some people to learn. :::waves to my rabbi, who might just understand::: (And that’s a whole nuther conversation, but I’ll just say part of the appeal to me about Judaism is that, well, you are kind of expected to argue and debate! Or, “wrestle with God.”)

    Some of the most honorable people I know are secular. The. Most. They operate under the notion that you do “good” because, well, that’s the right thing to do. They don’t do it because they are afraid some spiritual mallet will come out of the heavens and smite them. I think we’ve all witnessed the cognitive dissonance of a section of “true believers” to fall behind, lock step, a depraved fascist who was set on upturning democracy for his own personal gain. Acting out of a being a “god fearing” person has always struck me as kind of off.

    About that spiritual mallet… I think there is a creative force. I think it is beyond comprehension. In the words of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” In other words, if you can name it, if you can describe it, then you are wrong and very much NOT naming or describing. But l, like you, doubt that that force gives one whit about whether I say the eff word once or a hundred times today, or who is president, or… extrapolate up and out.

    1. which considering I’m in the early stages of the process of converting to Judaism, might bewilder some people to learn.

      I don’t see any contradiction here at all – in fact, I have a post percolating in my mind about why the deeds-oriented approach of Judaism is perfect for people who are not certain in what they believe.

      Thank you so very much for sharing your beliefs. Are you finding the conversion process to be rewarding thus far?

      Shabbat shalom,
      David

  7. Thought provoking. It reminds me of my son – who is very ethical yet has serious doubts about religion and struggles with the concept of faith…

  8. Thanks for sharing these very interesting.

    I believed strongly that there was no God. Until somewhat suddenly I experienced something within myself that I had never experienced before. It was a feeling experience. I can’t say what it was or meant only that it happened. When I read other people’s ideas, experiences, beliefs about “God” or spirituality in general I realized they probably were trying to put words to their own similar “experience”/feelings.

    I believed that there was a common human experience of what “heart break” feels like or what “falling in love” feels like even before I personally felt them. I knew that one day I might experience/feel the experience of heartbreak or falling in love. Yet it wasn’t until I personally felt “religious feelings” that I believed they were a real human experience. And when they first started happening to me I was very confused.

    Now in terms of what the experience is or what it means I am not sure. The experience certainly didn’t prove to me that a particular detailed God exists, or a particular afterlife, or origin story, or objective purpose to humans, or why we are here. But I do very much enjoy reading other people’s, as I see it, artistic expression of the religious feelings and their thoughts about it as they reflect on it. Religious feelings are very close to my heart now, I feel a deeper sense of connection, acceptance, and love of myself, other people, and everything.

    1. Every word of this comment resonates with me. Especially this line:

      It was a feeling experience.

      That’s what I haven’t had, for better or worse.

      Thank you so much for sharing your perspective.

      Shabbat shalom,
      David

      1. Experiencing religious feelings has been a positive in my life, so I wish all to have their own experiences with them. But I don’t think they are necessary, or I guess I think if they are for a certain person at a certain time they will arise within that person. There are so many experiences in life one can have, and so many we never do. From my perspective all that matters is we find joy in what we do experience of life. We love/feel peace with our life’s journey, the ups and the downs. I imagine religious feelings are not necessary for that.

        So maybe belief will never find you. Which I believe is neither a good or bad thing, it would simply be a fact among many of your life. But who knows whether it will or not, we never know where our life’s journey will bring us.

        1. I already have, David, already have, a while ago… 😃 (didn’t publish it though… thought it a bit too emo. ;)) But the good thing is that once belief chooses you, if that’s how it works, it seems to keep coming back… 🌷😊

  9. David, your post is interesting and it resonated with me, even though I have a different perspective, which is exactly your point. I was raised by two honorable and ethical parents who were not religious. In fact, the only memories I have of attending church with them, was for weddings or funerals. They rarely, if ever, spoke of supernatural or divine forces, and yet I believe I came into this world with a strong belief in things beyond myself, things that may be unseen or even unprovable. I have experienced many things in my life that support my early ideas and that make it difficult for me to not believe in divine or supernatural forces. Although I do love learning about different beliefs and practices, and have attended many churches through years, I am not referring to a specific religion when using the word “divine.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Michele, I should thank you for sharing a slice of your personal perspective. As I wrote, I am definitely somewhat jealous of you for having such beliefs. You know, it’s funny – my mother (for example) is less “religious” than I am, but she has more faith in God than I do!

      Shabbat shalom,
      David

  10. I think you might find the Stoic or Confucian “religious” traditions interesting. In both, there’s an analogue to your “big bang” point which, it seems to me, is just a variation on the cosmological argument. There’s also a habitual treatment of this big bang entity which the Stoics call “nature” and the Confucians call “the will of heaven” – that is, we are fundamentally of a different nature than this entity and thus cannot put it in neat little boxes. As such, we should recognize nature/the will of heaven, and try to live in accordance with it, but also appreciate the fact we fundamentally can’t know much about it. Moses Maimonides said much the same.

    Thanks for the article!

    1. Yes, Ben, thank you 🙂

      I’m well familiar with Maimonides’ ideas in this regard, and I agree with them completely. You seem to know a lot about various religions – have you studied them much?

      Sincerely,
      David

      1. Negative theology is my favorite theology. It seems to thread the needle between the arrogance of dogma – WE KNOW THE WILL OF GOD – and the nihilism and despair that is the logical consequence of atheism. Though most people don’t follow their atheism to its logical conclusion and tend to remain effectively Abrahamic in their ethics.

        As for my knowledge on religions, I’m in the last semester of my PhD in Education and Philosophy. Most of my work has been about incorporating Confucianism (and Hindu/Buddhist thought to a lesser degree) with Western philosophy. Of those traditions, I’ve found I consistently prefer the philosophers and theologians of unknowable gods (Kierkegaard, Mencius, Maimonides, Seneca etc) or arbitrary gods (Aristotle, Xenophon, Heraclitus). I certainly like them more than the philosophers and theologians of specifically described, purely good gods. Stuff like Saint Augustine, the authors of the Book of Daniel or Guru Rinpoche.

        1. Wow – that’s really fascinating. I’m just a lay person with no degree(s) in these fields, but everything you’ve written here resonates with me. Based upon my limited understanding, “negative theology” also speaks to me more than any other approach that I’ve encountered.

          Shabbat Shalom,
          David

  11. Interesting read David! I too think we are all wired to our preference of beliefs or the lack of it. Social influence plays its role, as does the literature we read, and the way our mind reasons things. The thinking and reasoning makes us keep faith in the supernatural or only on ourselves.
    Agree the ethics is something totally disassociated with faith, belief and religion. Based on personal trait, any of these are present or absent in any of us.

  12. Is there any higher belief than seeking a Creator? So yes, he spoke first- my belief chose me.

    1. Yes, indeed.
      Psa 27:8 KJV When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek.
      And Hebrews 1.

  13. David, I do agree that you cannot choose what you believe. To me, that would be delusional. Beliefs are our response to knowledge and experience.

    I believe in the Golden Rule, which is common to almost every religion, and I live by my conscience and ethical principles. I think the most important value we should teach children is empathy.

    All religions, cultures, and philosophies are interesting to learn about. I contemplate life’s mysteries and enjoy the wonders of nature, but I have made my peace with the fact that some things may be unknowable. I do not feel compelled to live by the dictates of any particular religion or try to tell anyone else what to believe. I deeply resent and try to ignore those who attempt to impose “the truth” on others.

    Thank you, David, for this thought-provoking post! You have generated a very lively discussion! 🙂

    1. Hi Cheryl,
      I think the Bible is a physical shadow cast by the eternal word of God, Jesus Christ. His word forever expressing himself, to himself.

      I think the Psalms- the whole bible- are the thoughts, words and prayers of Christ in earth, and yet eternal. Expressed to himself, and to his glory, to his chosen children. For his word is to his chosen only.

      So, I think belief is the answer “Yes” to Emmanuel. That God ordain our sin mix with his blood, and pour out on this accursed earth, and redeem his creation. ‘Does this offend you?’

      For me, belief is the answer “Yes” to ‘Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.’ For to God’s glory, ‘it became him in bringing many sons [and daughters], to glory.’ And to his glory, I think the answer “Yes” to God resounds throughout eternity.

  14. It’s an interesting quote, but I’m not sure I agree with it. I think my beliefs are a choice, not a natural inclination. I’ve chosen to believe in G-d. I could have just as easily looked at the available evidence and come to a different conclusion. I do not see my belief in a theistic model of G-d as inevitable fact based on the available evidence, but rather, a choice I’ve made given the evidence (and lack thereof).

      1. Could I? Sure. Do I think that is so likely? Not really, though of course, anything is possible. One benefit of recognizing that my belief is a choice and not an inevitable conclusion based on the evidence is that if a new piece of evidence comes along, eg. “scientists discover fossil of G-d from the Jurassic age” (I’m picking something intentionally ridiculous but you get the idea), that is not likely to shatter my entire belief system. I already chose to believe in G-d in spite of the lack of evidence / evidence in the opposite direction.

        That’s not to say belief is never challenged. At some point, I will write a post about Tisha b’Av 5778, as that was a very core-belief-challenging day for me. I suppose that if something to that level happened today, I might well stop believing. I’d still see it as a choice though, like I could no longer choose to keep believing in this model of G-d or in G-d at all.

  15. This is an interesting topic. I grew up in a non-religious Jewish household… and I was not expecting to find Jesus in my darkest moment while alone in my backyard. Previous to that moment, I hated God and lived my life in a way that was basically sticking my middle finger up at Him… because of what i had seen of religious hypocrisy… there is a beautiful verse in the Hebrew scriptures… the Book of Jeremiah… “Seek me and you shall find Me, when you search for Me with all of your heart”… I have definitely found this to be true… always asking God to reveal Himself to me and to show me who He is… knowing Him more and more as I ask Him for truth.

    🙏🏻

    1. Yes, I think our best answer to him is to ask for him, for to indwell flesh and blood is his greatest glory. ‘Walk in the light, as he is in the light.’

  16. This is something I have thought about for many years: whether belief is internal or external. Do we get to choose or does it choose us? I’ve gone back and forth between the two “sides.” I suspect the question is probably badly framed and the truth is a bit of both. Thank you for writing this. It is nice to know someone else is thinking about these things too!

    1. Now I notice you started with “belief” and then transitioned to “faith” and most of the comments here are on “faith.” Faith is part of what I’ve been thinking about — an important part — but I’m also wondering if there is a something beyond that, how we see the world, and whether we choose that or it chooses us. If we see a world with a place for faith, chosen or not, then the question becomes “what is that faith?” If we don’t, then that question doesn’t arise except, perhaps, as “why do others seem to feel the need for faith?” I’ve thought through both steps but it is primarily the first that concerns me.

      1. yes, that’s true – I found the quote, and it “spoke” to me so I shared it without giving it a great deal of thought.

        my main point was that I have found myself unable to convince myself in the long-term of beliefs or faith that I don’t intuitively believe in.

        intuitively, I believe that there is a supernatural force. I believe that it is so completely beyond our human comprehension as to render it unrelatable for us. That’s about it – anything else doesn’t sit right with me.

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