Can we be Morally Responsible for Belief?

The argument is often made that God is immoral because He holds people accountable for their beliefs. But, as the atheist claims, they don’t choose their belief. They are forced to believe or not believe by evidence. We do not “choose our brain”, instead we just apply whatever standards of evidence we use in order to determine what is correct, and involuntarily believe whatever is best supported by the evidence. I think this is in error.

Suppose someone accused me of “refusing to see evidence”, as occasionally happens. Does this seem like something someone could possibly do? It does to me. There’s nothing strange about thinking that someone might actively decide to not change their mind when confronted with evidence. Their belief here is a conscious choice. That seems natural.

There’s also an element of ethics here too, there are beliefs that we ought to hold and beliefs we ought not hold. If I met someone who, for example, believed that all black people were inferior and should be subject to eugenics or something equally horrifying, I’d certainly hold them accountable for that belief. Believing that thing is in itself an evil action, regardless of what other evil actions it might motivate. So in some circumstances, we should blame people for their beliefs.

The effort to remove our own conscious choices when it comes to belief is an effort to remove moral responsibility. It’s an effort to justify intellectual laziness: “Well, since my belief hasn’t changed, there’s nothing I can do to change it”, even when you should do something to change it.

So yes, we do normally think about beliefs being somewhat voluntary, and we normally think of ourselves as being somewhat culpable for our beliefs. Making them totally involuntary and totally amoral is wrong.

I’d contend that we do choose our metric for belief as well. It’s not unreasonable for me to say to someone “your standards of evidence are too weak” when they read some article online that states something strange, and immediately believe it. They might agree, and then in the future choose to adjust those standards. Suggesting that these are involuntary is again just an excuse for laziness or an attempt to remove moral culpability. The fact is that we are responsible for everything we believe, and everything that goes on in our mind.

I also contend that we do in a sense “choose our brain”, as you say. We are capable of introspection, we are capable of modifying our thought patterns. That’s just how we learn. People go to great effort to be rational, to properly think about things and come to right conclusions. And they should be applauded for doing so. People who do not make that effort should be considered responsible for not doing so. This seems very natural.

So no, belief is often thought of as deliberate and often thought of as something that could be blameworthy.