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