I think this is a fascinating question and the answers here are fairly consistent. I took the religion I grew up with seriously enough to think about it seriously. Religion cannot survive that. I had to reconcile believe with rigorous inquiry. I tried choosing to be a theist when the precepts of Xianity became so blatantly obscene. Then I asked myself what I had to support that belief. The answer was that If there was no god entity then I would be alone. Hmm. It was obvious that believing or not believing is irrelevant to reality, at least on this level. Yes there was an epiphany when I realized that any such belief was absurd regardless of preference. Then I felt an incredible liberation.
The bottom line... I had no choice. Though perhaps at an earlier stage I could have chosen to not ask.
I don't see how it can be a choice. I can't suddenly decide that some god exists any more than I can choose to believe that 2 + 2 = 1.5. I need proof.
That's easy - introduce a second dimension. 2@90 + 2@316 = 1.5@22 degrees.
If I could do that vector sum in my head, I'd be able to claim that the second dimension is unseen.
'On ne devient pas athée par souhait' Napoleon Bonaparte
The difference between being afflicted with a religious delusion or being free and having the healthy state of atheism is as little a choice as is the difference between mental illness or mental health.
Very good Paul! Your affirmation of the dichotomy between those of us constrained by reality and (I would add critical thinking) and those who seek comfort and hence choose not to think, is perfect. This dichotomy is only valid with those who think a little but recoil from the implications.
A friend once asked a physicist how he reconciled his scientific inquiry and his church attendance. The answer was something to the effect of "I just do not think about the contradictions." This is a perfect illustration of what you are talking about.
However for a really deeper understanding we need to analyze those who through socialization, or indoctrination, seem to have lost all ability to think for themselves outside their received dogma. There might not be such a sharp dividing line but I do think it worth understanding.
I think Darrel Ray's book, The God Virus, is instructive in this regard but there is so much more that we need to understand.
My position is pretty similar to many already stated, but I'll throw it out there anyway: Belief is not a direct, conscious act of will (choice). It's more complicated than that. If belief were a choice, then you could simply choose to believe that I am hovering over your head whacking you with a tuna as you read this. You might be able to sort of visualize what that may look like, but unless you have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, I don't think you can just choose to begin sincerely believing that. Nor can you force yourself to believe it by "trying harder" because belief is not a direct act of will.
This is not to say that you can't influence your beliefs or that beliefs can't change. Your consciuos mind acts as a gatekeeper of information. You can largely determine what information you allow your brain to be exposed to. Once information enters your mind, though, the subconscious takes over. The new information will either fit nicely within your current mental model of reality (your belief system), or it will contradict it to some degree. At that point, you must either reject the information as false or adjust your mental model of reality to accomodate it, and this adjustment takes place in your subconsciousness. It seems to me that change to any belief often requires an external catalyst of new information that is inconsistent with your mental model.
Let's not forget 'hope'. Many are afraid of there being no mitigating or fair supreme presence in their life. Existence without god is a scary place. There are also those, like my wife, who goes to church, considers her self a catholic and has nativity scenes and virgin Guadalupe idols all over the house. But ask her what the first book of the bible is, or who the magi were, who wrote the bible or did Jesus write anything down or is it all second and third hand news and she can not tell you. This is blind faith, instilled at childhood or convinced as an adult. It is social (herd) mentality and although mindless at best gives comfort to those who couldn't exist in a universe without it.
And so, as Dan Dennett said, we should seriously think about abolishing religion because what we might be stuck with is exactly what the faithful are preaching: Armageddon or something that looks a hell of a lot like it.