When I was a boy of about sixteen or so, I had a conversation with my godmother, a Canadian lady of great warmth and generosity. She was a Christian and she asked me, having not met me face to face for a year or two, whether I was also. I said: No. She said: Why not? I said: Because it isn’t true. There is no God, Jesus was not his son, there was no virgin birth, and so on. Her answer to my atheistical declarations stuck in my mind, because it seemed then to be and seems still to have been such a very odd one. She said that I might want to consider being a Christian on the grounds that Christianity was, potentially, very comforting. In adversity, it is nice to believe that there is a God who is looking out for you and who is on your side.
The oddness of this comfortingness argument for Christianity is that it suggests that you can decide what you believe, or to put it another way, that you can be comforted by deciding to believe something that you did not believe until that moment. But belief – surely – doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t mean that. What you believe is what you believe. If you do not know what you believe but are curious (perhaps because someone else has asked you), then you face a task of discovery, not a decision. You need to study the claims being made about the alleged truth in question by others. If you already know about these claims, to the point where you are able to identify what you believe about them, then you need to look inside your own head to see what is there. But you don’t decide what is in your head. And you certainly do not decide what you “believe” to be true merely by thinking about what you would be comforted by if you thought it was true, but which you have no other reason to think is true. Truth is one thing. What would be comforting if true is something entirely different.
On a closely related matter, it would be very comforting if the world always rewarded virtue, but most, me included, agree that it does not. So, say some Christians, Christians not unlike that godmother of mine, wouldn’t it be nice to believe that if the world does not reward virtue, God does? Well, it might be, if you really do believe this. But, I don’t, and my reasons for not believing that God rewards virtue are likewise nothing to do with how nice it might be if he did. What a very bleak world you live in, say the Christians. Maybe, say I, but you live in it also. You just don’t realise it.
My central point here does not concern the truth or falsehood of my atheist beliefs, or of Christian beliefs. I believe what I believe and you all believe what you all believe, and no amount of commenting here or anywhere is going to change any of that. Rather, I am making a point about the nature of belief, and it is surely a point that many Christians would agree with me about, because they too often speak of their beliefs having been discovered by them rather than merely decided. I didn’t decide that Jesus is my savour, they say. I realised that he is, and he is. (When people really do believe something, they often omit the bit where they might say “I believe”, because they are dealing with truth itself, their own belief in the truth being a somewhat secondary issue.) I didn’t choose my atheism as if choosing a bag of sweets in a shop, and Christians mostly don’t choose Christianity in that kind of way either.
It would seem, however, that some people at least really can and really do decide what they believe. (I recall a conversation with a religious believer who described having chosen his religion in exactly this sort of way, as if choosing a house.) Others believe what they believe about such things as politics in a similarly decisive way. They really do seem to possess the power of wishful belief, as it were. They really can decide what they believe. To me, this is very odd.
The above – somewhat strange – ruminations began life as an attempted start to a rather different Samizdata piece to this one, about the kinds of things I believe that got me writing for Samizdata in the first place, and about some of the other things I also believe, all of which things I also believe because I believe them, rather than because the truth of them is any great source of comfort to me.