Attribution and Ambiguity: The Choice to Believe

Man walking and relaxing on the beach at sunrise. Beautiful cloudy sky reflected on the beach, pier in the background. Copy Space. .Jacksonville, Florida, USA.

“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love . . . true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things that are worth believing in.”[1]

In a way, the film Secondhand Lions typifies our life experience: wading through ambiguity in formation of belief. In the film, a young boy is sent to live with his uncles for the summer, where he struggles to make sense of rumors surrounding their history. Did they amass a large fortune by outwitting a cruel sheikh, or were they notorious bank robbers during the twenties and thirties? Did the wife of one of the uncles tragically die during childbirth, or was she left for dead as the two were making a getaway from their crimes? Despite the contradictory claims, the film provides compelling reasons to believe either version of these stories. The truth is only revealed at the end of the film.

From an academic perspective, the grounds for belief and disbelief in God, angels, and miracles have compelling arguments. The philosophers quarrel. The scientists bicker. The theologians, who may be united in a belief in God, even feud about what to believe about God. All offer ample reason for someone to accept their cause. Those that choose to believe speak with conviction about spiritual manifestations leading them to their religious denomination. Those that choose not to believe offer alternative explanations for spiritual phenomena. Philosophers, scientists, and theologians all claim to have the clear truth. Yet, if the truth was as clear as they professed it to be, more people would accept that professed truth and change their belief to align with that truth.

Once the choice concerning belief is made, although there are exceptions, people consistently interpret new life experience to fit their chosen belief about God. I will first use personal experience to illustrate the ambiguity that can take place in interpreting events based on a formed belief, highlighting the importance of choosing to believe. Afterwards, I will briefly express the value I have found in my chosen belief.

At age 10, I received what I felt to be a strong spiritual manifestation, which has resulted in me seeing the world through a spiritual lens. That lens has influenced the way I interpret the world. Because of that lens, I am quick to attribute my life experiences as manifestations of God. This is apparent in an experience I had during homecoming my senior year of high school.

My date lived in the suburbs of one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. On my way home, after dropping off my date, I turned onto a wrong road that led me into the heart of the dangerous area of the city. I began to panic as I drove around; sirens were sounding everywhere, and people stared at me as if I was an alien. It was one of the few times in my life that I felt true fear.

I drove aimlessly for 10 to 15 minutes, which felt like hours. I could not figure out how to get back onto the freeway. I had no idea where I was. I had no cell phone. I did not know anyone in the area.

I ended up stopping in an empty parking lot to consider my options. As I sat there, I recalled a being who knew exactly where I was and what I needed to do to make it safely back home. I offered one of the most sincere prayers I have offered in my life. The moment I began to pray, the feelings of intense fear and anxiety were instantly replaced by an overwhelming peace, and an understanding that everything was going to be okay.

I began to drive again. Every time I came to an intersection, I felt distinct impressions almost strong enough to be recognized as a voice saying, “Straight ahead,” “Turn left,” “Turn right.” Within two minutes of my prayer, I was on the freeway, on the way to the safety of my home.

Was this spiritual experience imagined or real? In my social science discipline, a pure attachment theorist could argue that my distress was alleviated by summoning a mental representation of a divinely benevolent being. Then, with my newfound sense of peace, I was better able to orientate myself in my surroundings. The theory is viable, and I have no way to disprove it. However, there is also nothing that can disprove what I have chosen to believe: God intervened and led me safely home.

My personal experience was good enough for me, but I recognize that it might not be good enough for someone else.  Too many viable alternative explanations can be offered. My decision to believe at age 10 was crucial to attributing my safe arrival home as divine intervention at age 17. The choice to believe comes first. After this choice is made, signs and evidence have the opportunity to accumulate and further our conviction in the belief. Without the choice being made, we can easily attribute spirituality to alternative explanations and dismiss their validity.

I personally am grateful for the opportunity to wade through ambiguity in formation of belief, as I believe an overwhelming compulsion to believe would undermine opportunities for learning, growth, and experience.[2] I can speak with confidence about my personal experiences because of my early decision to believe, but I cannot reason someone into viewing life with the same lens of belief. I can only speak of the fruits of my belief that have been manifest in 24 years of life experience. Those years of experience have given me the freedom, confidence, and courage to say that I know my belief in God has brought heightened meaning, purpose, and peace to my life.

I close with a quote from Joan of Arc, the young girl who helped to revitalize the French army with her belief in God, and was later killed for that belief. It seems fitting in a post on belief that the quote is only attributed to her, meaning we do not know for sure whether she actually said these words. But even if these words never escaped her mouth, their validity are espoused by the way she lived and died:

“Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, nevertheless they give up their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe. And life without belief is more terrible than dying young.”[3]

I agree with Joan. I have decided to believe in something worth living and dying for because it is something worth believing in.

  1. 1. Secondhand Lions, directed by Tim McCanlies (New Line Cinema, 2003), DVD.
  2. Bruce C. Hafen, The Believing Heart: Nourishing the Seed of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986).
  3. Dale Jeffery and Ruth Jeffery, The Missionary’s Little Book of Inspirational Stories (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2000).
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