The Won’t To Believe

Given all the chatter around The God Who Weeps and Letter to a Doubter, the quasi-official endorsement of their thesis, and Brent’s excellent response to the latter, it seems appropriate to share a realization that’s been dawning on me over the past few months:

I could do it. I could choose to believe.

In part, this freedom has root in my evolution over the past year or so from an atheism of managed uncertainty to a post-atheism of acknowledged ambiguity. Three years ago I would have argued that theological questions are mostly issues of uncertainty. Make a few modeling assumptions, feed all the evidence into the statistical machinery of your choice, and out comes the probability that the Book of Mormon is a divine work or that Thomas Monson presides over something other than an ecclesiastical corporation. Of course you could never be sure about anything, but between the mountains of evidence and Bayes’ rule you could make reliable inferences. 

But after years of watching — and participating in — interminable debates between believers and skeptics, I’ve come around to the idea that theological questions are problems of ambiguity at least as much as they are of uncertainty. While the tools of probability cut easily through evidentiary problems once they are well defined, religious questions are frequently vague and the outcome turns crucially on prior assumptions. It’s true that with common-sense assumptions I can conclude with confidence that there is no God and that Mormonism is false. But with small tweaks to those assumptions I also can conclude the opposite. I could expand the acceptable definitions of “God” and “Mormonism” until they agree with difficult evidence. I could choose to privilege belief as the null hypothesis in need of refutation. I could revise the likelihood that my spiritual experiences are purely naturalistic. Whatever the details, the conclusion is sensitive to how you frame the question, and it is often difficult to choose between framings.

As I’ve written before, however, I have to hang my hat somewhere, and my current approach has so far served me well. I can admit that the methodology that brings me to atheism is in part only a heuristic. But if I’m to believe, I need a reason to change methodologies.

William James is turned on his head, you guys!

So I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d immerse myself in the bits of Mormonism I still find compelling. I’d bury my nose in the lived experience of Eugene England and the experimental theology of Adam Miller. I would join the local ward choir. I’d finally take out that subscription to Dialogue. I’d avoid anything that tries to defend Mormonism on empirical grounds, focusing instead on works that make Mormonism interesting. In other words, I would stack the deck. I’d become a man intoxicated on Mormonism, contriving an aesthetic incentive to believe, a counterbalance to my current methodology of disbelief.

In this balance, if recent experience is any guide, I could will myself back into belief. Here I lack precise language to describe it — I can no more tell you how I’d will myself to believe than I can tell you how I will my fingers across this keyboard — but inasmuch as choice is a thing, I could gently nudge myself off the epistemological fence and back into belief. It would be familiar and comforting, like mashed potatoes at Sunday dinner.

But it would be different from the belief I left behind four years ago. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not claiming that the will to believe is infinite. Many people cannot choose to believe at all, and I doubt I could muster belief in Mormonism as I used to know it. My reconstructed belief would admit neither singular claims to authority nor tidy prophetic narratives. Instead, it would be of a deistic or even a pantheistic Mormonism, finding a modest spark of divinity in the ambitious religious project of Joseph Smith.

It also would be a belief at tension with its surroundings. It would roll its eyes at the petty homogeneity of General Conference. It would chafe at being infantilized by a church unable to minister to adults. Most of all, it would despair at the trauma inflicted on those not able to choose against belief — those who see the injustices in mainstream Mormonism but who cannot bring themselves to walk away. It would not, as Terryl Givens suggests, be a choice “laden with moral significance.” On the contrary, it would be an aesthetic preference which I am free to indulge because privilege — being male,  being straight, being an academic — insulates me from moral consequence. After the mashed potatoes are eaten, after the intoxication wears off, this belief would look around, see the modesty rhetoric and tolerance traps, and let out a groan of regret.

Sure, I could do it. I could choose to believe. But why should I?