Howto choose a religion

Why do you believe as you do? The proximate cause may be family or voluntary conversion, but what created the milieu in which your family or adopted god became one of a limited number of likely choices, as opposed to one of the thousands of religions that do or have existed and the infinite number conceivable?

The proximate historical cause seems to be violence — religious war, forced conversion, torture, slaughter or enslavement of believers in a slightly different myth.

I understand (from being told by several people who have done this, all in the U.S.) that adults who seek a religion or particular sect within a religion are as much choosing a congregation they like as a set of beliefs.

What if all religions were true, for this world and whatever mystical worlds each religion posits? Suspend disbelief for a second — the multiverse is a crazy set of places, so let’s allow it an infinite multitude of contradictory realities, including self-contradictory realities. Which religion would it be rational to choose? Presumably community would be a minor consideration for a rationalist, for the implications of the choice would be far greater than choosing a set of people to hang out, do business, and breed with.

Let’s evade all prohibitions on changing one’s religion by assuming one can choose to be born into the religion of one’s choice. Let’s also only consider religions that “exist” — a related fun game would be to design the best religion, assuming it would be true, but that’s a very different game.

Many religions have vindictive gods and offer a high probability of eternal torture — choosing any of those over the null choice (atheism) seems irrational. Which existing religions exceed this seemingly low bar? Which exceed it by a lot?

It would be hilarious if no existing religions beat atheism, even if they were true, but I doubt this is the case.

6 Responses

  1. Beat atheism, how?

    IMO, choosing a religion is a lot like accepting axioms in any other system. I wrote more on that here: , if you’d like to give it a read. I think, at the end of the day, it is more or less a pragmatic decision.

  2. Sarven, that’s a fine essay. I find nothing to disagree with. Note the “What if…” above.

    No god offers nothing. All any god has to do to beat no god is offer some net benefit.

  3. Gavin Baker says:

    It’s an interesting question, but if you’re actually interested in answering it, you can’t exclude social and cultural factors.

    Religion has always been a means of identifying with an in-group. Judaism and Hinduism, for instance, are pretty explicit about this: this is a religion for our people. (Not to say there haven’t been evangelist Jews, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.)

    Even for religions that want everybody to get in their boat, like Islam and Christianity, religion is a major part of self-identity for many believers — often down to the particular sect or ideology. A Jesus fish on the bumper sticker is much more about “this is who I am” than “this is who you should be” (whether the car’s owner thinks so or not).

    Religion is still one of the major factors in determining “nations” of people. Nowadays, we’re more likely to consider ethnic and linguistic aspects, but that doesn’t mean religion isn’t significant (and historically it was certainly seen as a bigger factor than today).

    So your question of how to “rationally” choose a religion only makes sense if religion is merely a system of beliefs. In fact, religion is always also a system of practices, ranging from relatively internal practices (self-identification) to obviously external ones (communal worship and celebrations). Participating in those practices can provide very tangible benefits.

  4. Hi Gavin,

    I think you also missed “What if…” Re-read that paragraph.

    Now if you thatought the question was what a rationalist should consider sans that thought experiment, I would say completely ignore religions’ systems of ridiculous falsehoods, I mean beliefs, only evaluate their practicies and community.

  5. Gavin Baker says:

    I don’t think the “what if” makes it much different. We have to assume that most practitioners of a religion believe it, more or less. So the status quo ante is, “whoever is religious believes their religion is true”. Your thought experiment adds, “what if all other religions are equally true?”. If you already thought your religion was true, and you’re already part of that community of practice, even if it turns out the others are true too, why jump ship?

    It seems like saying, “The town a few miles away is as nice as this one, why don’t you live there?” To which anyone would respond, “If it’s just as nice as this one, why move?”

  6. There are several parts to this:

    * I assume most practitioners of religion are on the “less” side of belief, whatever they profess. The extreme version of this would be “there are no theists outside a foxhole.”

    * I assume that the universes painted by different religions are not equally nice. There are substantial choices to be made.

    * I’m not interested in the masses who accept default choices, eg the person who stays in their hometown, but the [wanna be] rationalist.

    By the way, “all religions are true” could be simplified away — you get to chose the universe you are born into, ie one in which the religion of your choice is true.

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