Is religious belief a choice?

In the ongoing discussion of sexual identity therapy, some have asserted that sexual orientation is not a choice but religion is (“The bottom line is your sexual orientation cannot change and your religion can,” [Wayne] Besen said.”). That struck me as a failure to understand the function and centrality of religious belief for those who are committed to it. On point, a reader and commenter over at ExGayWatch named “jasmine” linked to a blog post by Hugo Schwyzer who in turn linked to an article by ex-LA Times-religion-writer William Lobdell. Mr. Lobdell has experienced a crisis of faith and no longer views himself as a believer.

In his reflections on Mr. Lobdell, Schwyzer notes that his (Schwyzer’s) response to evil in the church has not been to turn away from God. Through this awareness, he wonders if indeed there is something involuntary about belief. Some things just seem right and make sense. I have had a similar sense throughout my adult life. I know there are inconsistencies in my beliefs but I have tried on many other worldviews and have found them full of cognitive inconsistencies as well. It does not seem like my beliefs are chosen as if from a menu. To me, it seems like our brains are wired to believe but not wired well enough to find a system without holes. For folks with religiously based conflicts over sexual behavior, the conflict can be excruciating in that here are two realities, each of which seems given but at odds. The process of resolution for some folks is a dynamic, fluctuating process that may leave some aspects of both worlds intact and others modified. I suspect that the results seem less like a choice and more like a water moving to the lowest level – does water have a choice? For others, the resolution may come in a series of revelations, each with what seems like a new perspective. Sometimes, these moments are so vivid, they seem like the awareness must be the divine intruding and are certainly not experienced as a choice. In any case, I am only scratching the surface and am speaking descriptively and not prescriptively.

Suffice to say, as I experience religious belief and as it has been described to me by numerous clients, friends and colleagues, such beliefs are often not experienced as mutable or negotiable. I do not say this to say, I am comfortable with this. Some religious beliefs are not healthy in my view. However, to trifle with them as if they can be switched on and off is, in my not completely chosen opinion, to misunderstand how the religious mind works.