It's not as easy as you think to choose to change your mind, literally to unbelieve something that you currently believe.
Try it. Suppose today is Tuesday and I ask you if you believe that it really is Tuesday. If your cognitive powers are functioning properly (that's just fancy philosophy talk for "if your head is screwed on straight"), your answer will be, "Yes, I believe today is Tuesday." Now try your hardest to unbelieve it. Not so easy, eh?
But we all know that people do in fact change their beliefs. Yet, they don't do it in the way they change their clothes, doctor's appointments, or menu options. Belief change usually occurs slowly over time as a consequence of small and seemingly insignificant changes. You may, for example, at one point in your life consider yourself a political liberal, only to discover a decade later that you have in fact abandoned some of the central tenets of liberalism without even realizing it. Perhaps you were a strong proponent of the welfare state because you believed (correctly) that the community has an obligation to care for those who cannot care for themselves. You never actually reject that belief, but what happens is that you begin to doubt the effectiveness of the welfare state (or the current configuration and administration of it) to achieve your belief's moral end. Your doubts do not arise all at once, but begin to germinate in your mind as you acquaint yourself with writers and scholars who challenge you to consider the possibility that your account of social justice may not be the best way for the community to do its proper work in helping the needy and the downtrodden.
Then one day when discussing politics with a friend, she says to you, "I can't believe how conservative you sound," and you realize at that moment that you had experienced a change of mind, even though you were never conspicuously aware of it throughout the transformation process. From there, you may choose to make the conversion "official" by changing your political party affiliation. But make no mistake about it, your mind had changed long before you knew that it had changed. You did not change your beliefs by an act of will at some single moment — as you would change a flat tire, a light bulb, or your clothes — but rather, your careful study and reflection over time slowly informed your intellect so that it could offer to your will the only options your intellect had found to be the most reasonable from which the will could freely choose.
If politics isn't your thing, then pick any area in which you or anyone else probably holds a firm opinion, such as literature, sports, morality, entertainment, art, or family life. We can easily imagine one undergoing the same sort of belief transformation in these areas as one would in politics.
Can we extend the same analysis to religious beliefs? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that conversion, like changing political views, is rarely a matter of exercising your will at a particular moment and literally "changing" your mind as a consequence. In my own story, I returned to the Catholic Church of my youth after years of slowly appropriating into my seemingly Protestant mind Catholic understandings of faith, reason, and the moral life until I was forced to ask myself the question, why aren't you Catholic? (By the way, I actually don't think I had a Protestant mind, but I thought I did. What I had was a confused Catholic mind that would not rest until it found its way home.)
Belief change usually occurs slowly over time as a consequence of small and seemingly insignificant changes.
Before I had asked myself that question in December 2006, four other people had already posed it to me in previous years: my wife, Frankie Beckwith (1998); Amherst College political theorist Hadley Arkes (2003); my eight-year-old niece, Darby Beckwith (2005); and Boston College philosopher Laura Garcia (2006). My answer got worse each subsequent time I was asked the question, for as the years passed I had become more Catholic in my thinking, which meant that the set of plausible responses became smaller and each member that remained in the set became less convincing.
When I finally found the time to answer the question, why aren't you Catholic? I had concluded that there were four issues that kept me from returning to Catholicism: (1) apostolic succession, (2) Eucharistic realism, (3) the sacrament of penance, and (4) the doctrine of justification. On other matters that typically bother Protestants — purgatory, praying to the saints, Mariology, and so forth — I was not particularly troubled, since, in my mind, if the Catholic Church is right about apostolic succession, the Eucharist, penance, and justification, then it is surely right about these other matters. (A confession: while I was a Protestant, even though I didn't believe in purgatory, the doctrine did make a lot of sense to me. For when it comes to joining the saints in heaven, I tended to think like Woody Allen in Annie Hall: "I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.")
Encouraged by my friend J. Budziszewski (one of the contributors to this volume) to examine carefully the Church Fathers on these four issues, I soon came to the conclusion (in March 2007) that the Catholic perspective on these questions was at least a permissible one for a Christian to hold. However, once I conceded that point, it did not take long for me to see that it was blindingly obvious that the issues that prevented me from returning to Rome — the very issues that have divided Protestants and Catholics for five centuries — had united the Church, both East and West, up until the Reformation. Thus, I knew immediately that it was me, and not the Catholic Church, that had the burden to justify my schism with it. So, on April 28, 2007, I went to confession for the first time in over thirty years.
Francis J. Beckwith. "Foreword: Taking Faith Seriously." from Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019): 7-9.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press.
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, where he also serves as Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Philosophy. He tells the story of his journey from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again in his book, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic. Among his many books are Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, and Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.Copyright © 2019 Ignatius Press
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