The Humanist Dilemma: Is Faith a Choice?

(Editor’s Note: Joan is no longer taking questions. Please submit your humanist dilemmas to What Would a Humanist Do?,

Can’t Fake It, Can’t Make It: As long as I can remember, I’ve been a nonbeliever. I’ve tried but failed to find a religion I could believe in. I’m involved with a wonderful, very religious girl who wants me to share her beliefs, but I can’t. Meanwhile, I’ve asked her to share my nonbelief, but she can’t. I’m wondering if faith is a choice we can make, or if it’s something we’re born with and can’t change. It seems like people are admired if they’re believers but looked on as immoral or amoral if they aren’t, as if they could just will themselves into faith if they really wanted to.

—Sow’s Ear

Dear Sow’s Ear,

Great question! I don’t think there’s any solid scientific answer yet from the fields of psychology or neuroscience or genetics on this question of religious belief. It may well be like sexual preference. Some people feel they’re innately straight, some  gay, bisexual, or asexual, while others place themselves somewhere on a spectrum of sexual preference and experience. And most reputable experts completely reject the validity of conversion therapy. (In fact, a growing number of states are banning that practice.)

But there are people who take a long time to recognize their sexual preferences, and I think the same can be said for religious convictions.

People tend to have strong faith if that’s how they’re raised. Due to threats about what could happen if they’re not faithful, along with emotional and other benefits they derive from their faith community, they may be afraid to even think about whether their beliefs hold up under scrutiny. Some people can’t deny their lack or loss of faith, others seem to be immune to questioning.

Not being able to summon faith is no problem unless someone makes it a problem. If you live in a religious family or community—especially if there’s intolerance of nonconformity—it can be a problem. If you happen to be a member of the clergy when you realize you don’t believe what you preach, that can be a problem. And if you’re in a relationship with a believer who wants you to convert to her point of view, and vice versa, that’s a problem. I can’t encourage you to stay together and have one of you adopt the other’s perspective, or even agree to disagree—that gets messy as families and children become involved.

Whether it’s sexual orientation or belief, it’s not healthy to fake it, unless you’re in a situation where being honest could cost you your support system, livelihood, or worse. That doesn’t sound like what you’re dealing with. It may be painful in the short run, but in the long run you’ll be happier when you find a partnership where you love each other for—not despite—what you believe.