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Free Will and Calvinist Atheists

photo © 2004 gualtiero | more info(via: Wylio)

I have been really humbled by the response from many in the atheist community to my post over at Rachel Held Evans’s blog last month. It has been overwhelmingly positive and I’m very grateful for the kindness that I’ve been shown at Rachel’s blog and in other posts around the blogosphere.

That said, there has been one common criticism of the piece and it’s of this line:

Most atheists who have “deconverted” from a religious background have studied it and other religions thoroughly before choosing not to believe. (emphasis added by me)

The overwhelming consensus from the atheist community is that non-belief is not a choice. One absolutely lovely woman with whom I’ve been corresponding sent this to me (quoted with her permission):

I didn’t choose not to believe. Losing my faith wasn’t something that I did. It was something that happened to me.

In a conversation with my daughter about this, not too long ago, she had this same idea and perhaps still does — that belief is a choice. I tried to explain to her, as a sort of illustration, suppose you’re walking along the sidewalk, and suddenly a bus which is barreling down the busy street accidentally gets too close the curb and kills you.

People gather around your lifeless body. Some are sympathetic and weeping for you. But others condemn you and say “She chose to get run over by that bus.”

That’s how it feels for me and so many other people who were, metaphorically speaking, run over by a bus. It’s something that happened to us. It wasn’t a choice that we made. We were just walking along the sidewalk like everybody else does, trying to get to our destination, and we didn’t choose to get run over by a bus.

When I lost my faith and stopped going to church, not one person expressed sympathy. My husband and children were upset and confused, and that’s my fault because I wasn’t able back then to express what was going on in my heart and mind. I wasn’t able to share with them what was happening, the doubts and questions I was having, and so it all came as a big surprise to them. They were so afraid for me, because they had been taught that people who don’t go to church are going to hell. I was too immature and at a loss for words and couldn’t even begin to formulate a coherent explanation or talk to them about it. I tried to console them, and that’s the best I could do at the time.

Everyone else simply condemned me and shunned me. They truly believed that I had chosen to lose my faith. One or two dear ladies later told me they were praying for me. Other people spread the rumor that I was a Satanist, and a Communist, and that I and my husband were getting a divorce, etc. These people were “Christians”, the “saints”, leaders and respected members of the church.

There was no support group or whatever, in that church, for anybody who was suffering a loss of faith. That’s one thing I wish churches would form — some sort of support network, or whatever, some sort of help for people who are going through this time of such emotional distress that is going to have absolutely life-changing impact for themselves and their families.

Such a support would have as its main focus and goal, to “be there” and to assure the person that regardless of where their search for truth might take them, they were loved and accepted.

Such a support would not be a coercive sort of thing set up to shame the person and attempt to make them conform to doctrine, beating them over the head (so to speak) with dogma and authority.

So anyway, that’s one thing that I wanted to write to you about while it’s on my mind, as I’m reading your blog and Rachel Held Evans’ blog. I wish Christians would understand that neither belief nor non-belief are “choices” — they’re things that happen to us. We can’t make ourselves believe something we don’t believe, and we can’t make ourselves stop believing anything ether.   It’s whatever individual brains are able or unable to do. 

A simple experiment can prove or disprove this — if people would simply think of something they don’t believe, and make themselves believe it. Or conversely, think of something they do believe, and make themselves not believe it.

Needless to say, this gave me a lot to think about!

I admit, I’m still not 100% convinced that these things aren’t a choice. At the very least, I would say that belief or unbelief is the cumulative effect of a number of other choices. I choose to read this book or that. I choose to interact with these people or those. I choose to attend this event or that.

When Jason came out to me as an atheist, I would say that I was faced with a choice. I feel certain that there was a part of me that could have chosen to leave my faith. There are still a lot of areas where I struggle to believe. And while I see where my friend is coming from, I would still characterize my belief as a choice.

That said, I think the larger point of being sensitive to those who are going through a faith transition, whether by choice or not, is very valid. As we talked about on Monday, our natural inclination when someone is going through something difficult is often to either try to fix them or to just pull away altogether. Taking time to simply be there for someone going through a crisis of faith is like being there for them through any other crisis.

When Thomas expressed doubts, Jesus didn’t push him away, but rather invited him closer. If we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus, we must do the same.

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What are your thoughts about faith and free will? How can you offer support to someone going through a crisis of faith? How could someone with strong faith better love you if you’re the one going through a faith transition?