To Believe What I Choose to Believe

April 4, 2023[1]

Christian Stephen Smith, a sociologist and professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame,[2] made the following statement in the 2012 edition of his book, The Bible Made Impossible:[3]

I realize that none of us should really expect much of each other. This is so in part because, per Augustine, the human will is usually stronger than the human mind. That means that people are often capable of insistently believing in whatever they want to believe in, even if the ideas are patently wrong to most everyone else and in fact. Evidence of this fact is pervasive in human life—although it is discouraging to most academics, who like to think that good evidence and arguments should decide matters. Yet when people, for whatever other reasons, do not want to have their thinking changed, rarely does a good argument with solid evidence actually change their thinking. Humans have a frightening ability to adhere to beliefs and positions that are contradicted by all kinds of good evidence and experience. Such is the power of the human will over the human mind” (195, emphasis added).[4]

Factual evidence and logical arguments have very little effect unless one wants to have—or is open to having—one’s thinking changed. In all honesty, and sometimes with a sense of shame, I can personally attest to this fact of human experience. Only when I’ve felt the need, and thus wanted, to change my thinking did I become open to evaluating the evidence and considering the arguments for such a change. This is reality in all realms of life and not just with regard to theological beliefs. However, with regard to theological perspectives, it is often even harder for us to want to have our thinking changed than in regard to other issues of life.

To reference Smith’s research once again, Christians of the conservative evangelical variety have a particularly tough time admitting that for some of their beliefs are not supported by evidence and their apologist arguments are not logical. He says that this is so because, 

Christians have a huge amount of social, relational, and career capital—and not merely biblical conviction—at stake in the defense of their particular (biblicist) positions. And this provides the will, the desire, to refuse to consider alternative ideas. I am not saying that people do not firmly believe in their beliefs. They usually do. But the content and importance of people’s beliefs are also highly subject to the shaping influences of social and relational forces that can challenge, ignore, or reinforce them. For many biblicist evangelicals, to abandon their biblicism would have the consequence not so much of destroying some great theological truth as more immediately threatening their jobs, their reputations, their family relationships, their life investments, their identities, their friendships, their church homes, and more. For some, it would mean admitting that the epistemological basis on which they have lived most of their lives is flawed. That is hard. I am not saying that none of that matters. I am saying that it must not be confused with theological truth” (196, emphasis added).

I have experienced this challenge personally over much of the last number of years—approximately 15 years! Gradually, it became obvious to me that I was experiencing an increasing intensity of cognitive dissonance.[5] I decided I could no longer, in good conscience, ignore the growing volume of my internal theological tensions. It was only then that I could honestly consider the evidence and the arguments that were opposed to what I had believed for all of my adult life, with regard to God, Jesus, and several other theological and biblical issues. So, I chose to put myself in situations where I knew such evidence and arguments would be presented by people who were experts in their field of research—i.e., eminent scholars with regard to biblical languages, ancient Near East history and literature, evangelicalism, ancient Jewish literature and religion, theology and philosophy. In this environment, I was also exposed to other Masters’, Doctoral, and post-graduate students with life experiences quite different than my own, as well as being much younger than I.

I found being in those environments and having ongoing discussions with both experts and fellow students, to be challenging for sure—and even disturbing at times—but also enlightening, and ultimately freeing. Gradually, as my thinking changed in the face of factual evidence and logical argumentation, my beliefs changed substantially.[6] I began to experience freedom from much of the cognitive dissonance which had plagued me, and I felt a refreshing of faith, as I acknowledged that what I believed now was what I chose to believe and yet that some of these beliefs were unproveable intellectually. At least some aspects of my reframed theological perspective are more desires and hopes than they are universal truths substantiated by factual evidence. And I’m OK with that. And I’m also OK with family, friends, associates, etc., who have beliefs that are different than those I hold. I can admit freely that much of my personal theology is not what I can “know” or can “prove” but what I hope is true and thus what I choose to believe.

However, as Smith acknowledges, there is a price to be paid when one changes one’s theological worldview. It has created external tensions for me, some of which cannot be resolved and have resulted in losses of relationship, purpose and the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to my faith community. While other relationships have opened up to me—for which I am grateful—I often feel the losses quite deeply. But I try to remind myself that many others, whose theological perspectives have significantly changed, often feel the same. Nonetheless, I often rejoice that I also feel the freedom to believe what I choose to believe as I strive to be consistently open to having even my current beliefs challenged by factual evidence and logical argumentation.[7] 

[1] Today (April 4) is the anniversary of my birth 67 years ago in East York General Hospital and of my immediate adoption into the family of John and Alice Felushko (long deceased, but lovingly and gratefully remembered).

[2] Smith’s research focuses primarily on religion in modernityadolescents and emerging adults, sociological theory, philosophy of science, the science of generosity, American evangelicalism, and culture.[2] Smith is well known for his contributions to the sociology of religion, particularly his research into adolescent spirituality, as well as for his contributions to sociological theory and his advocacy of critical realism.

[3] Smith, Christian. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.

[4] The fact that the human will can have power over the human mind often has very important implications for our survival. For example, when all the facts and the logical arguments support our personal or collective death or demise, we often choose to believe that we will survive anyway and that the suffering we are experiencing now is for our growth and benefit. We choose to believe we will survive in spite of all the evidence that says we won’t…and often, but not always, we do! Why? Because our human will had power over our human mind. However, that very same trait, can lead to our extended and worsening suffering or even to our death and/or demise, when we refuse to change our thinking and adapt our behaviour that would have enabled us to lessen or avoid that which destroys us.

[5] “Cognitive dissonance is a term for the state of discomfort felt when two or more modes of thought contradict each other. The clashing cognitions may include ideas, beliefs, or the knowledge that one has behaved in a certain way.” See:

[6] It is my hope, in future blog posts, to share which beliefs have changed substantially, and why.

[7] Reflecting on the past 15 years or so, theologically, and writing up this brief “summary” has been helpful to my “spirit/soul”. I have been having quite a difficult time with various aspects of my physical health, which has taken a toll on my mental health as well. However, I am choosing to embrace something that the apostle Paul wrote about himself almost 2000 years ago: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” I have numerous tests and potential several procedures, in my future; none of which I am looking forward to. I feel imprisoned in a body that seems to be slowly, but much too early, failing to function well or easily. Nonetheless, if I can experience a consistent renewal of my inward self, I think I will be best equipped to handle whatever wasting away of my outward self—whenever and however it happens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: