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The desire to believe vs the disappointing anxiety of a false hope

March 3, 2015

I have gone around in several venues (even here, way back when) arguing against doxastic voluntarism — or, in layman’s terms, the idea that beliefs are consciously chosen. That’s just not the way I see things. Beliefs are a response to stimuli, evidence (although my understanding of evidence is far more subjective than others might like), experiences, etc., — and that response is not chosen. I recognize that what I can do is choose to place myself in certain situations and hope that I will have certain responses…but the response is never chosen. My favorite analogy for changing beliefs is that of gambling — if someone chooses to keep buying lottery tickets, he may one day win. But does choosing to buy lottery tickets mean choosing to win (in the event he does)?

I would say no.

Rejecting doxastic voluntarism really doesn’t mesh well in lots of theological contexts (like, say, Arminianism). But it also really doesn’t mesh well with Mormonism, which fetishizes free will and agency. Many Mormons just don’t know how to deal with the concept that beliefs may not be chosen.

I feel that one common move for Mormons to make is to talk about the difference between knowledge, believing on the words of others, desiring to believe, and hoping. This setup is fleshed out in a Mormon sense on D&C 46: 11-14 or so:

10 And again, verily I say unto you, I would that ye should always remember, and always retain in your minds what those gifts are, that are given unto the church.

11 For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.

12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.

13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

Even though people mean the discussion of gifts in an inclusive way, it seems to me that people read things pretty narrowly. I mean, just because it is given to “some” to know and to “others” to believe on their words…that doesn’t mean that “some” plus “others” equals everyone. And really, if you look at all of the gifts, it seems that not all gifts are created equally. If you don’t know or believe, then who cares if you have the gift of the word of knowledge? I mean, we know from the scriptures that to be learned is good, if they hearken unto the counsels of God.

But I digress. I wanted to get into the phenomenology of hope vs desiring to believe, and why I don’t think these are choices.

I think that for the most part, we can’t lie to ourselves. At least, not outright. We have to do it indirectly, trick ourselves with it. If we don’t…if we instead tell ourselves directly an outright lie, then we’ll know internally that that’s a lie.

At least, that’s how it works for me.

So, when I used to testify, “I believe in God,” inside there would always be a voice crying out — why do you lie?!

I lie to fit in. Because that is what is expected. Because that is how testimonies would be.

When I would try to defend Mormonism to my Bible Belt Bible-bashing friends and acquaintances in junior high and high school, inside a voice would cry out: why defend stuff you don’t even believe? Because this is my tribe and these others threaten it.

When I stopped pretending, that internal conflict let up. For me, my crisis wasn’t a crisis of faith; it wasn’t a loss of belief. It was coming out as the nonbeliever I always was.

OK, so what about desiring to believe? But I don’t even think that is chosen. I don’t desire to believe that I’ll be white and delightsome in the next life (or, at the very least, that I’ll still be black, but straight.)

So, what about hope?

There’s a post on By Common Consent, I Hope that My Redeemer Lives, where I’ll try to illustrate my feelings. Michael Austin writes:

By “hope,” here, I mean something very different than either belief or anticipation—near synonyms in other contexts. The hope I am talking about means longing for something so much that I cannot imagine the world without it; I would rather believe and be wrong than reject hope and deprive myself of its comfort. This is Emily Dickenson’s “thing with feathers”—the beautiful, fragile bird that perches in our soul and sings a warming song without asking a crumb. It costs us nothing to nurture hope, and we only hurt ourselves when we allow it to die.

But is this kind of hope the same thing as faith? Does wanting to believe something so badly that you cannot imagine life without it mean that you have faith in it? This is actually a really hard question that I don’t have a good answer for. Certainly hope can lead to belief. But hope can lead just as easily to disappointment when the thing hoped for turns out to be not true, or (perhaps even worse) not good. Hope, like love, makes us vulnerable to loss. Disbelief, like disinterest, is much safer.

But even if hope never turns into faith or knowledge it prevents doubt from becoming disbelief. To hope, one must at least accept the possibility that something can be true—that God exists and communicates with human beings, that the Atonement gives us the power to change ourselves fundamentally, that eternal life really is a thing. These things don’t make rational sense to me, and they are not supported by anything  I consider “evidence.” I can find no logical reason to believe them, much less to know that they are true. But I desperately want them to be true, and this alone prevents me from declaring them, in any final sense, to be false.

The line that got me here was this: But hope can lead just as easily to disappointment when the thing hoped for turns out to be not true, or (perhaps even worse) not good.

That’s how I feel.

People talk about how hopefulness is better than hopelessness. That hope is better than despair. But I don’t know if the absence of hope is despair. Rather, to me, having hope in something I don’t believe in (and can’t perceive a choice to believe in) is agonizing. It is a constant lying to myself, and a constant expectation of being disappointed.

I’d rather not hope, but be pleasantly surprised…than to hope and be let down.

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  1. Craig S. permalink

    Great post, Andrew. I completely agree with you about belief not being a choice. I’ve never heard any explanation of how it could be a choice that made any sense to me.

  2. Parker permalink

    I choose to believe that belief is a choice.

  3. This D&C that you quote seems to me to be a good example of Joseph Smith paraphrasing the Christian Scripture. I Corinthians 12, I would guess.

  4. Craig,

    The best explanation that I’ve heard involves conflating various actions one takes to change beliefs as being part of the choice to change beliefs themselves. In other words, if I study x instead of y, then if I happen to start to believe x instead of y, then I have chosen to believe x.

    My response to this is precisely the gambling analogy. I don’t think I have “chosen” to win the lottery if I bought the lottery ticket several times and just happened to win.

    I had a conversation a while back where someone was trying to make a distinction between “assent” and “acceptance” or something like that, but I wasn’t really getting it.




    Certainly. Or maybe expanding/riffing off it. I think 1 Corinthians 12 manages to somehow not be as bad as the D&C version…with the body of Christ discussion that comes after, there is more of an emphasis to say that all gifts are necessary “organs” in the body.

  5. Anachron permalink

    Good stuff Andrew. I’ve followed you here several times from Mormon Matters posts where you make some excellent comments.

    I’m curious to know if you ever served an LDS mission? The reason I ask is because now, as a fairly convinced non-believer (funny way to say it, really) in LDS truth claims, I look back on my mission journals and recall writing declarative statements about my own belief that I desperately hoped were true but had no empirical knowledge of (unless one considers personal spiritual experiences as empirical – which I guess can be debated). What’s worse is that I recall that as an elder I would constantly experience feelings of relief when a contact would fall through by not being home when we stopped by to teach a lesson. Conversely, I recall experiencing joy when I was able to perform physical service instead of using my words only.

    I say that because, like your comment “why do you lie?!”, I believe I consistently heard that same voice faintly. Not about everything – not really about basic Christianity claims – but mainly about my LDS claims. I really really wanted to believe. I wanted everything to be so literal because that would mean my poor southern bastard self would have something static to believe in for a change; perhaps no real father to claim, but a heavenly father that actually knew ME and had a grand plan for just me. I wanted that.

    Now being several years “inactive” with no sincere plans to return, I’m not totally convinced that I don’t judge those past experiences through my current lens. It’s unfortunate, really, that in deconstructing a belief system like Mormonism we also deconstruct our guiding paradigms and also the very core of our being. The three are so entwined that complete separation is almost impossible – we repeat an endless feedback loop “arriv[ing] where we started / and know[ing] the place for the first time”.

    Like you, I hold hope at a safe distance. Yet, I will say that most of my actions do derive from a hope that mankind is indeed “good” at the core and if I keep prodding I’ll find that to be a truth. My hope in Christ then, is an extension of that. His teachings encourage me to keep prodding; it’s a fisherman’s hope really – flinging out my line time and time again with the hope that eventually a fish will strike.

  6. Anachron,

    Thanks for the comment! I did not go on a mission — really, the decision of whether to go or not was what made me realize my lack of belief and lack of faith in the first place. It made me realize not only that I did not believe, but that for others to go on missions and sincerely teach, that must mean that they were either a lot better at faking their enthusiasm than I was…or that they were not pretending.

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