A popular idea today is that we have the “right” to believe whatever we want or choose as we wish when it comes to religious and moral beliefs. This concept probably comes from a sense of self-autonomy and the American sociopolitical context in which we live. In large part, it comes from the popular notion that there is no objective truth when it comes to religion and morality–it’s the old Schaefferian upper and lower story split when it comes to what we can and cannot know. Whatever the reasons, the pressing question is, “Do we really have a right to choose to believe whatever we want, especially religious and moral beliefs?”
When thinking about this question, we must first ask what we mean by “right.” In a very general, crude sense, a “right” is often understood as some intrinsic God-given gift that every human possesses that cannot be infringed upon by another individual or institution, whether government or otherwise. From this perspective, we must ask whether we have the God-given gift to believe whatever we want concerning religion and morality. It seems to me that we do not have such a right for several reasons.
First, at a very foundational level, the question seems to imply that people can simply choose to believe whatever they wish. This, however, does not appear to be the case as if someone can by mere will power choose to hold a particular belief. This has been pointed out in different venues by philosophers such as J.P. Moreland. Can anyone, by mere will power, choose (for example) to believe that President Trump is the best president to ever serve? Or could someone choose by mere will power that killing an innocent human being is morally right? If someone were to ask you to choose to believe something by mere will power, most (if not all) humans would not be able to do so. The reason is because one comes to believe something based upon reasoning, experience, and often some kind of evidence, not by merely choosing to believe. In this sense, then, no one can truly choose to believe anything he wants. Humans, by nature, are led to particular beliefs and are even bound by the limits of reason, evidence, and experience to particular beliefs.
In addition to not only being unable to really choose to believe what we want, it seems that God has not given us humans the gift to believe whatever we want. In addition to being bound by reason, evidence, and experience, it seems that we are also bound by human nature regarding our beliefs–there are certain things that we ought to believe. We as humans have an obligation to believe what is factual, or what corresponds to the way things really are. This is based upon the doctrine of creation. The way in which God has created humans binds them to conform their beliefs to what’s real. God, as creator, has made an objective world that operates according to physical laws and can be observed and understood, and he has made humans beings as sentient rational creatures as know-ers. Since God created human knowers, by implication the world was meant to be known. As such, God has placed by nature the obligation upon humans to believe not whatever they want but what is real. Whenever our perception of the world is skewed, we err in our understanding of the world God has created, and an err is not something to be applauded but corrected.
When it comes to moral and religious beliefs, we as humans actually have a moral obligation to believe what is true and not just “what we want.” When it comes to religious beliefs, Jesus himself indicated that false belief is morally wrong (i.e., sin), resulting in condemnation: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18; NASB). It is imperative that we believe which religion is the true one. To believe “whatever religion we want” is sin, and one’s ultimate destiny in the life to come is dependent upon believing what is true.
Moreover, humans are morally obligated to believe what is true about moral values and duties. Imagine saying that we have the moral liberty to believe whatever we want regarding the moral question of whether Jews or gays ought to be slaughtered just like the Nazis believed (and did) during World War II. Do we have such a right to believe this? Has God gifted humans to believe such evil if they want? Certainly, humans have the free will to believe such evil, but this is far from being moral in doing so. One may have the freedom of the will to believe whatever he wants (within the natural boundaries mentioned above), but someone does not have the moral freedom to believe whatever he wants. Having a free will is not necessarily morally good or evil, but believing certain things as morally good when they are evil is in fact itself evil. In short, then, God has bound us humans morally to believe that certain actions are evil and others are good.
It also seems that believing correctly about moral values and duties is not just obligatory for an individual personally. If a person observes that another believes something that is harmful is morally good, then out of love and concern for that person and others we ought to explain to him that what he believes is wrong and could have dire consequences for him or others. Who would allow a blind man to walk into a ditch without attempting to detour him? Wouldn’t this be the epitome of malevolence?
Ultimately, then, no one really has a right to believe whatever he wants. Besides the point that no one can really choose by mere will power to believe something, we are bound by our nature as humans and the creator God to believe what is true–whether concerning the nature of the world or the nature of moral values and duties.