A reader took issue with this claim, saying:
For me, this represents the fundamental flaw in Christian logic and ultimate judgment - that we can ‘decide’ to believe, or not believe. That we are ‘free’ to believe, or not believe. This is crucial because in the end, we’re judged on our heartfelt belief . . . as if it were our conscious decision. If you really had a choice in what you truly believed, you could decide to believe that Islam is the one true faith. Of course, you’d have to become familiar with the basic premises and claims of Islam. You’d have to learn that not believing would result in eternal punishment. And then, Tuesday morning at 9am, you’d simply turn-on your belief... THIS CONCEPT IS ABSURD! There is no free-will when it comes to heartfelt beliefs! ...But it is irrational to punish or reward someone for their most heartfelt beliefs. That’s because, in the end, they cannot control what they truly believe.Now this challenge is interesting from a number of perspectives. First, if the writer really “believed” what he was saying, he would not bother to write. Consider the claim he is making: he thinks Christianity has it wrong in its doctrine regarding free will. He thinks instead that “heartfelt beliefs” are not things that you have any choice in, because no one can control what they truly believe. But by this reasoning, I may simply be one of those who have a heartfelt belief that free will actually exists, even though it really does not. So, why try to convince me that I’m wrong? Why try to get me to see that my view on free will is actually false? The argument self-destructs; to convince me to change my view of free will, the challenger must also agree that beliefs, heartfelt or otherwise, are things that can be changed.
Secondly, the idea that it is irrational to punish or reward someone for their heartfelt beliefs cannot survive scrutiny. Consider legislation outlawing “hate crimes.” Are these not a reflection by society that certain views – when they cause a person to act antisocially – are worthy of condemnation? Was this not the point of the Nuremberg War Trials – that Nazi ideology and the evil it spawned were volitional, however "heartfelt," and worthy of punishment?
In fairness to the writer, part of what he is saying is no doubt accurate: it is nonsensical to claim to “believe” something which one holds to be not true. I cannot “believe” in Santa Claus while at the same time concluding from the evidence that he does not exist. By contrast, however, “belief” in something isn’t a mystical experience that is separate from the mind. We don’t close our eyes and “feel the force,” as if belief in God required access to a power source that we could tap into or manipulate. God gave us minds and the capacity for reason so that we would use them, not sit idly by waiting to be overwhelmed by a fairytale “conversion experience.”
A moment's reflection will show that there are indeed times in which we “decide” to believe. Take for example the issue of commitment to a relationship: a person can decide that true love means staying committed to their spouse, even if the relationship is shaky. Acting on that belief, they can work on restoring the relationship. By contrast, a person can also choose to believe that divorce is a better option in the event that they are unhappy. There is "evidence" to support either position, so action must be based on "belief" despite not having perfect knowledge of the future.
Or take for example the choice that a soldier makes. He “believes” in his country and wants to serve it, even though he does not have full knowledge of each of the principles upon which it once stood, now stands, or will stand in the future. What he does know, however, supports his commitment of will to defend it against all enemies. He may have moments of doubt, but a properly grounded belief will see him through those doubts.
In each example, there may be moments in which belief falters, and that is usually due to temptation – to jettison the old for something new, to run from danger. But consider what this temptation is: often, it is simply the desire to think first and foremost of oneself and not of others. The deeper we dig, what we find time and again is man in his natural condition. This issue of free will – this question that we are examining - is the question of man’s rebellion against God. Man chooses to throw off the shackles of the creature and exercise instead – or at least try to – the prerogatives of God. What better way to do this than to ignore – no, to reject – God’s very existence? Despite the overwhelming evidence built into nature of incredible intelligence, sublime artistry and immense power, the modern atheist insists that this vast complexity can be explained by human minds as the product of random chance and time. The hubris of such as position, when viewed from the perspective of God, must indeed be laughable.
In the end, a person is free to reject the evidence of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Perhaps some do for what the challenger calls “heartfelt” reasons. But most, I suspect, never take the time to assess the evidence, to consider its plausibility, to weigh and balance what has come to us from antiquity. Doing so might require them to make changes in the way they view the world... and their place in it.
The atheist who rejects belief in God is not the object of unfair treatment; he is not unfairly prevented from having faith by some“heartfelt belief" that he can't seem to shake, as if he wants to believe and is being punished for lacking the ability. It is not as if his mind, though seeking God, is being "overcome" against his will by his "heartfelt" but erroneous beliefs.
No, he is freely choosing how he will view the world. He is directing his will away, rather than toward, his creator. He is choosing to reject God because he remains in rebellion against God. But God remains, as does the evidence, for anyone who wants to give the question a closer look.