Choosing Religion 

I saw Religulous this weekend. It was an interesting film with a couple of good underlying themes: Be wary of those peddling certainty; doubt is more rational and less destructive. Also, humanity's greatest challenge is to learn to stop wishing for death (end times/rapture/judgment day) before we bring it upon ourselves (nuclear destruction, environmental destruction, etc.). Bill Maher was more dismissive than I liked of some of the points brought up by the people he interviewed, though, and strangely inconsistent in how confrontational and aggressive he was with different interviewees. I don't want to make this a movie review, however, so much as a discussion of the train of thought I followed as a result of seeing the movie.

Consider three religions, A, B, and C. You may think of them as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, or perhaps Catholicism, Mormonism, and Atheism (yes, I'm counting it as a religion), or any three religions in whatever order you choose. The only thing that matters is that each religion, A, B, and C, teaches that their faith is real and true and all others are false and anywhere from misguided to actually evil. More importantly, these religions teach that bad things will happen to members of other faiths as a direct result of being of the "wrong" faith (e.g. missing out on the Rapture, burning in Hell, etc.). If your faith fits that description, feel free to think of A as your faith. For the purpose of discussion, we'll assume that A turns out to be correct; some time in the future, believers in A will be rewarded for their belief and all others will be punished.

Now consider a person born and raised in religion B; let's call him Fred. There are three relevant for Fred: remaining in B, joining A, or joining C. Only one of these is the correct choice, and making that choice randomly gives worse than even odds of success (and his odds are far, far worse when we don't limit the available choices to just those three religions but to all those in the real world). But on what (non-random) basis can Fred make that choice? Having been born and raised in B, the easiest and likely most comfortable decision is to remain in B, but that is the wrong choice.

Even if he rejects the religion in which he was raised, as many people do, he still has to choose between A and C. He is again faced with a random choice and poor odds (and again, those odds are far, far worse in the real world). Based only on probabilities and random choice, changing faiths gives no better odds of getting Fred to the correct religion than staying in his current religion. (For N religions where only one is correct, he starts with a 1/N chance of being in the correct religion. If he is already in the correct religion (1/N) then he is guaranteed to be in one of the incorrect religions if he switches. If he is in an incorrect religion ((N-1)/N) then switching gives him a 1/(N-1) chance of switching to the correct religion. This adds up to ((N-1)/N) * (1/(N-1)) + 1/N * 0, which reduces to 1/N.)

There seems to be no way to improve Fred's odds of choosing one faith over another. Only the one setting up the scenario (us, in Fred's case, or God in a world in which there is a God, which may or may not correspond to our own) can genuinely know which religion is correct. Some people trust their heart, or a voice in their head, or some other internal manifestation that they believe to be God communicating this truth, but since those internal manifestations don't bring all those who follow it to just one religion, it doesn't seem to be a reliable way to choose the right one. Likewise, people who claim to have received this communication and try to lead people to a particular faith are no more reliable since they do not all lead to the same faith. You might be able to improve your odds by limited your choices to one of the faiths that people who listen to an internal manifestation go to, but that requires the assumption that the correct religion is in that group, and there is no particular reason to believe that.

Miracles are sometimes considered a way to verify that one's religion is correct, but it would require directly experiencing such a miracle, rather than just hearing about it, to give it weight. It would also require directly experiencing it in a group, where everyone in the group shared the same experience. Furthermore, the miracle must be sufficiently miraculous, i.e. extraordinary. In Religulous, one gentleman tells of a miracle he experienced in which he asked for a glass of water and was sarcastically told to hold it out the window an pray for rain. He did so, and it began pouring rain. He judged it a miracle, whereas Bill Maher considered it a fascinating coincidence but questioned whether it was really a miracle. A rainstorm is just too common to be a miracle, and a downpour on demand is only miraculous, rather than coincidental, if it is dependably repeatable.

Even what seem like genuine miracles happens with some regularity at the hands of man without providing evidence for one religion over another. People are brought back to life after being dead, for example, in hospitals around the world. People fly through the sky (airplanes). People instantly see and hear things that are occurring far away from them (television, radio, telephones, etc.).

Ultimately, whatever one believes, one must live with the fact that one might be wrong and is, in fact, very likely to be wrong. Certitude is just self delusion. Without certainty in a religion, one must deliberately choose a set of beliefs, goals, and behaviors based on the same basic things that lead to religion: fear of unpleasant consequences and desire for pleasant consequences. Given that the odds are strongly against choosing the set of beliefs, goals, and actions that will lead to pleasant consequences (that one will actually experience) beyond one's lifespan and beyond the world one experiences directly, one can only reasonably choose to avoid unpleasant consequences and seek pleasant consequences in the foreseeable future. Religious certitude can only distract from that.

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