This post was motivated in part by Homer Price's excellent blog post, The Theology and Science of Free Will.

An important question in my mind is whether free will applies to belief. I can choose my behavior, but can I choose what I believe? Some people apparently think so. In the brand of Christianity to which I was subjected in the past, it didn't seem to matter whether my behavior was "good" or "evil"; either way, I was condemned to Hell, because I was "born in sin". But either way, said the preachers, I could avoid that fate by "believing in Christ" (or "on" Christ -- not sure what that was about). I took that to mean I must believe that there was a fellow named Jesus who was "the Son of God" and whose hideous death somehow compensated for my sins.

But could I really have chosen to believe such a thing through an act of will? To me, belief feels like something that is served up autonomically by the logical part of my mind, a conclusion based upon the available facts and probabilities. Even if I wanted to, I don't think I could choose to believe that the Earth is flat, or that wine is turned into blood by a priest's incantation, or that the Jesus narrative is true.

What is your own experience? Can you change your genuinely held beliefs by choosing to do so? Are you aware of any scientific inquiries into this question?

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Homer, the discerning mind requires practice. We had lots of opportunities to be discerning when listening to sermons and bible study groups. Once questioning starts, there is no bottom to the hole. The bible, centuries old, has lots of discrepancies. 

When we really want to believe in something, we happily let our imaginations paint in the details.

Hilton Radcliff, in Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks.

I concur completely!

Yes one can change ones beliefs by choosing to do so. I would not argue by will or self delusion but rather by studying the facts. When one chooses to make the dertermination of what is real based on facts, one is making a conscious choice to change ones beliefs.

My understanding of climate change has changed dramatically from when I was a fundamentalist. I decided to investigate it further as an atheist. It came down to how the scientific process works and peer review that changed my mind. I did not choose to accept climate change, I simply decided to investigate the facts, that was a choice. Once I did I came to the conclusion that climate change is occuring in our world today.

  My favorite quotes is from Christopher Hitchens. "Atheism is not chosen, it is discovered."

 He was very correct I did not choose to become an atheist, I discovered It after investigating the facts. The investigation was my choice.

Free will in the christin context does not exist. If God is all knowing and does know the future then we can not change that future no matter what. If we change our minds to trick fate then god would know that also. Thus in thier theology we are indeed predetremined to make the choices we do and are condemned to Hell or Heaven before we are born.

I should have phrased my question as "Can you choose to be a theist?" That's a more interesting question than whether you can choose to be an atheist, because there are no "facts" that prove the existence of god. Even theists themselves admit this. You simply must "have faith", they say. By this they mean you must expend tremendous amounts of effort to sustain a delusion. You must pray a lot; you must read a special "infallible" book that declares the delusion is true; you must attend rituals in which you proclaim your belief over and over; you must associate exclusively with other people who share your faith. You must endure "tests" of your faith -- events that prove you are not being watched over by a loving god -- and show that you are able to ignore that evidence. I guess my question boils down to this: If theists have to go to that much trouble to sustain their delusion, do they really believe it?

Yes, I think theists believe there is a god, superhuman powers, angels, all focused on the health and happiness of the individual. If a person's life is dreadful, he or she has the assurance that unwavering support comes from prayer, angels, and god. Some believe a devil exists that can explain away every grief, and real heaven and hell exist. God remembers the evil that one does on judgment day and a simple declaration of belief in Jesus and god on Judgment Day earns a pass into heaven. There is no need for time to prove the reformation occurred, forgiveness goes with surrender. A deathbed conversion works as well as an old person's childhood promise to follow Jesus. A lot of forgiveness takes place for that old curmudgeon, male and female. 

Those who believe in god can find comrades wherever they go; belief provides the key for entering the fraternity of community. Many people require "godly" service and goods providers. Those who support themselves through religious books, homeschooling materials, trinkets, and regalia have a captive market.  

Vine wrote “I should have phrased my question as ‘Can you choose to be a theist?’”

Vine, phrasing it as you did and seeing responses here has been a learning experience.

I had a similar learning experience. In 1957 I quit Catholicism and all religion in 1957 when I was in a Florida university. I kept some of the habits of religion, not by choice but because I was not then aware of them.

In about 1980 I was in San Francisco doing volunteer work and on a bulletin board saw the advice someone had written, Don’t should on yourself.

i recovered a little bit that day.

I'm not sure I understand.  Does "Don't should on yourself" mean that I should (!) not tell myself what I should do?  Or does it really mean "Don't 'should have' on yourself ", i.e., don't dwell on my past mistakes?  Or does it mean something else entirely?

 "Shoulda," Oughta," "Gotta" are Killer Words, similar to Killer Phrases that stop critical thinking. 

If someone tells you that you shoulda, oughta, gotta do something, stop, breathe, think, make a decision that is right for you, take action, evaluate the outcome.

If the desired outcome happens, continue. 

If the desired outcome does not get you what you want or need, stop, breathe, think, make a decision that is right for you, take action, evaluate the outcome.

These are also the ways to block free will.

Vine and Joan, read “Don’t should on yourself” as “Don’t shit on ....”

Or as “Don’t oughta on....”, or “Don’t gotta on....”

Can people change what they believe?

In a word, YES.

ln a Darwinian sense, if they would survive they will adapt.

Offer a guy a higher salary than his present employer pays and, with other things being equal or better, he will change one or more of his beliefs

Because belief too easily follows benefits or costs, I don’t say I believe no gods exist.

Evidence, to its credit, stubbornly refuses to appear or disappear.

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