The Burden of Choosing to Believe

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Image Credit: Delphine Devos

“I envy you your faith, somedays,” an agnostic friend in college once remarked as we ate lunch in the spring sunshine.  “I wish I could have faith.”

“You can, you know.   Faith is a choice,” I urged with perhaps a touch too much missionary zeal.  “In the Book of Mormon there’s a famous sermon about how faith is like a science experiment.  If you even have just a ‘desire to believe,” and choose to act on that desire, you’ll feel God’s love, and see results.”

 

“But logic is too deeply engrained in me for that to work,” he responded.  “I’d just dismiss any positive feeling as a weird firing of brain chemicals, a manufactured emotional manipulation.  It’s not tangible or real.”

“What if you had conclusive proof God was real?  Would you believe then?”

“I don’t think conclusive proof of God is possible – isn’t that the point of belief? Of God being God?”

“Well, ok.  Let’s pretend that right now, an angel appeared in front of us and proclaimed that God was real.  What would you do?”

“An angel?  I’d roll my eyes and dismiss it as a college prank.”

“Not this one.  She’d materialize like Scotty had beamed her down, hover eight feet off the ground, and radiate blinding light.  And everyone else around us would see her too.”

“Hmmm.  Well … uh, honestly, I’d have an existential crisis.  I’d question whether everything I knew about the world was wrong.  I’d spend three days freaking out.  Maybe even a week.  And then … honestly, I’d probably either mentally file the experience under ‘that was weird’ or choose to believe it didn’t happen.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because if it did happen, if I actually saw an angel, if God actually is real, then I would need to fundamentally alter my worldview and my behavior.  That would require an overwhelming amount of work.  It’s easier to not believe.”

* * *

It’s easier to not believe.

I’ve often mused on my friend’s refreshing honesty and self-reflection, in the decade since that spring conversation.

Invariably at Church, whenever we discuss Laman and Lemuel (or the Pharisees, or any number of scriptural antagonists) someone marvels about how could these idiots have persisted in disobeying God, even after seeing such indisputable signs and miracles.  I always comment that their reactions are exactly what we as humans should expect.  There’s a reason that Saul and Alma dramatic repentance stories are so notable, and so rare.  My college friend had touched on the answer.  It’s easier to not believe, because belief requires action. 

This is not just a religious phenomenon.  It’s one inherent to the human experience.  We watch it play out in Congress and in the courts and in corporations, each and every day.  A shooting or sexual assault or fraud occurs, but nothing spurs action.  Outrage endures for a night, but skepticism and silence comes in the morning.  Whatever happened was a fluke, a hoax, an exaggerated one-off, against an unsympathetic victim.  We scramble for justifications and minimizations.  At most the incident warrants flowers and prayers, maybe a few mild corrections of minor mistakes, not systemic analysis of structural problems.  It’s easier to not believe, because belief requires action.

It’s a dynamic that also plays out personally, in my own life and in the lives of my friends.  Something terrible happens at work or in the community or within a family, but we’re all too close to the nuanced reality to apply healthy perspective to the facts.  You hear it all the time — It’s not that bad; I’m overreacting; everyone goes through this; their positive contributions override their foibles; they’re a good person and must not have intended to cause harm; this is all an isolated mistake – I’ll ignore the problem and it will go away.   It’s easier to not believe, because belief requires action.

***

When I study the Gospel of Jesus Christ, this theme is pervasive.  God calls us to first believe – and then to do the difficult, soul-searching work of converting that belief into action.  It’s the entire point of the Book of James.

The poor are always with us – so we must succor them.

The sick are always with us – so we must heal them.

The orphaned are always with us – so we must befriend them.

The suffering are always with us – so we must mourn with them.

The sinners are always with us – so we must extend both appropriate justice, and abundant grace.

Institutional failures are always with us – so we must recognize and correct them.

There is more tragedy and pain in the world than we will ever be able to solve.  Christ who bore all our burdens knows that more perfectly than anyone.  And yet, Christ calls us to try anyway.  We, as individuals and a society, must engage in self-reflection.  We, as individuals and a society, must strive to be more perfect.   We, as individuals and a society, must endlessly repent.

Why?  Because we believe in Christ.  And belief requires action.

Comments

  1. sdensley says:

    Well said. Thank you!

  2. I love this. My resting, natural self is agnostic and skeptical. I have to work very hard at theism and become the best version of myself when I do.

  3. I too have taken in all the evidence of our faith for good and bad, and yet-I am a believer. I am not sure I believe in institutions, but I feel God with me and that he listens to my prayers. I certainly have my doubts, but I choose to trust myself and believe. That belief requires action is a hard truth.

  4. I appreciate this post and find it beautiful in many ways–particularly in its societal applications– but I still think we need to be careful when we discuss this line of thinking in a Gospel context. Emphasizing the necessity of choosing to believe is important, but can be interpreted by some (especially the ultra-faithful in the church) that those who don’t believe are lazy, sinful, or simply not faithful enough. Many who have left the church, or who remain but struggle painfully, do everything they possibly can to believe, and the belief/faith/testimony/whatever you want to call it never arrives no matter how hard they try.

  5. Rexicorn says:

    Human brains have a natural tendency to preserve the status quo. This is an important thing we should all know and account for – especially in a faith tradition that emphasizes things “feeling” right or wrong. That uncomfortable feeling you get when you’re confronted with an assertion that contradicts what you thought you knew? A lot of the time, that’s just your brain trying to protect itself from the pain of change. It’s not the same thing as spiritual discernment.

    The most pernicious version of this, I think, is the belief that there’s nothing we can do. I hear it a lot – there will always be poor, or people will always be violent, or politicians will always be corrupt. I wish people could see that for what it is: an excuse not to act.

    It’s especially disheartening when I see it from Mormons – for the reasons you mention in your last section. Religious practice isn’t about pacifying the comfortable; it’s supposed to call you to something higher than yourself.

  6. I needed to hear this – thanks for your thoughtful post.

  7. The real effort is in changing. If you’ve been an agnostic or atheist your whole life, belief (=change) will be hard. If you’ve been a believer, atheism (=change) will be hard. I don’t think you can categorically say one route is easier or harder than the other.

  8. For as much as Carolyn writes, why does she not have a bio under Authors on this website?

  9. kenkatschke says:

    Carolyn, this was wonderful. Thank you! I feel like I’ve attenpted to have this conversation with so many friends and family members over the years. The way you have approached this is beautiful.

  10. I remember being caught off guard on my mission when talking with certain non-members who would mention that the church is true, and then do nothing about it. One similar anecdote being when someone was complaining to us about how the golden plates are missing, and my companion asked him that if we had an angel deliver us the golden plates, and brought them to him the next day if he would join the church. The person thought about it for a second and answered that he would not.
    I was raised with “The church is true. Now repent and do something about it.” But people not raised in the church are not raised with this reasoning. So even if they learn that the church is true, that’s not enough motivation to justify change.

  11. @Curious: I had no idea my name had never been linked on the Authors page after I joined a year ago! Fixed.

  12. @sdash: I really, really, hope this isn’t weaponized against the very people I’m trying to protect. My goal with writing this was to say, “hey church, and everyone within the church — you need to choose to believe the vulnerable, and you need to take action to love and serve and protect them.”

    For all of those (and I know many) who are struggling to believe, maybe the reason belief is such a struggle is because that belief ISN’T true? If you’re struggling to believe that coffee is bad, or that gay marriage is bad, but still fervently believing that Christ calls us to love all — well, that right there may be your divine answer.

  13. Thanks. I enjoy knowing a little background on each author.

  14. With all due respect, the notion that “it’s easier not to believe” does a great disservice to those who have been believers but who, after long and hard study and soul-searching, have come to the conclusion that their belief was misplaced. For decades, I believed for all the wrong reasons. In my upbringing, belief and participation in church were fundamental and unquestionable. Well into adulthood, I resisted anything that would cause me to engage in critical thinking about the church. It wasn’t a question of belief being easy or hard; it was simply the case that unbelief was unthinkable–particularly because I had been taught from an early age to interpret my most profound, positive feelings as evidence that God wholeheartedly endorsed the church, its teachings and practices, and the men who ran it.

    Eventually, I was confronted with so much evidence that the church was not what I was raised to believe it to be that I felt I had to make a choice, and I chose not to believe–not because that conclusion was “easy”, but because I felt it was right. Leaving the church was hard. My parents and some of my siblings shamed me. The vast majority of my social network evaporated. Well-meaning but unhelpful believers applied pressure on my wife and children. My children in particular found the experience confusing, because we’d diligently indoctrinated them like the good Mormon parents we were, and then found ourselves having to contradict our previous teachings. The transition out of the church was depressing and scary and hard. My family and I still feel repercussions from it.

    I have tremendous respect for people who examine their faith, find significant problems, but choose to stay out of solidarity with their “fellow saints”. That is indeed a choice, and not an easy one. But the vast majority of those who leave are not leaving because it’s easier not to believe, whether or not that is in fact the case. They are leaving because their conscience tells them to. Hopefully those of us who leave will continue to choose to believe in performing good works, even as we reexamine our motivations for doing so.

  15. axonation says:

    I think this article confuses belief and faith. Respectfully, I don’t think belief is a choice. A person cannot force themselves to believe something they just don’t believe. For example, no matter how hard I try, I can’t force myself to believe Santa is real. Faith, however, is entirely different. One can choose to exercise faith despite belief. This is true, because faith is a principle of action unlike belief. I can always choose to act despite how much I believe in something. Ultimately, the results of taking such action (i.e., exercising faith) can influence and modify one’s belief, but that modification isn’t a conscience choice.

  16. Jenny Harrison says:

    I agree with Aric and say Amen and Amen!

  17. I think the underlying cause is our adversity to change. If one starts in a state of belief, moving to unbelief is equally avoided, for it, too, requires change.

  18. Jack Hughes says:

    I agree with much of the OP, but like Aric, I don’t agree with the suggestion that atheism/agnosticism/humanism/other non-theist paths are “lazy”. I’ve known plenty of people who have gone inactive or resigned because doing the “hard work of faith” had completely burned them out to the point that there was nothing left. I also have friends who, after earnest, faithful inquiry and self-examination, decided to leave the LDS church and adopt some form of atheism–often at a cost, socially, but ultimately finding personal fulfillment therein. I don’t fault either category of people for those decisions, and I recognize that it’s also easy and convenient to categorize anyone who isn’t willing to make the high-demand sacrifices of Mormonism as “lazy”, whether intentionally or not.

  19. I completely agree, for what it’s worth. I meant the OP to be about the difficulty in ANY human context of converting belief into action and change. But I have a post I’ll write someday about how my “atheist” friends are often far, far, far more moral than “Christians” are, precisely because they ARE doing the hard work of figuring out EXACTLY what they believe, what their morals are, how to make those morals internally consistent, and then holding themselves to strict standards in practice. Conversations with several of said atheist/agnostic friends — including the one anonymously quoted above — have exposed deep flaws in my own beliefs and reasoning in the past.

  20. There is a certain conceit in this OP. From the conversation with the atheist, it is implied that to be a Christian or theist requires major changes in one’s life. Then Carolyn goes on to point out what some of these changes might entail: helping the poor, etc. I would dare say that many atheists and agnostics are very charitable. And they are charitable without a promise of blessing in this life and the next. We Mormons need to get past our conceit.

  21. It’s a fair criticism. I should learn that perhaps subtext I think is obvious is totally not — while subtexts I did not intend shine through brightly. What I was trying to do was (a) subtly call the Church to repentance for saying they believe women and condemn abuse when in practice they shove it to the side and fall far short. Also (b) call myself and all others who say they believe in Christ to repentance for not realizing just how throughly Christ calls us to love and serve and change, rather than make excuses for sin.

  22. Thank you Carolyn. For me this is one of the most helpful pieces of devotional writing I’ve read in a while. We might be suddenly confronted with the possibility of religious conversion, or we might be comfortably settled in a lifelong pattern of belief. Either way, the problem of action is the same: it’s easier to ignore the things that require us to be good and do right.

  23. Carolyn, I totally missed point (a) and I totally agree with you about point (b). I love the message of the latter. Beliefs should engender action. And I like your list of actions.

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