Religious membership is based largely on the accident of birth, and the culture one is born into has a significant role in shaping one’s eventual beliefs. There are a small number of people who do make a voluntary choice, but for most, their upbringing predisposes them to a particular version of a supreme being, eternal life (or enlightenment), and to accept self-appointed experts telling them how to interpret what they could easily parse on their own.
But what if one were not familiar with the idea of supernatural beings and the associated business of religion?
Look at it from the point of view of an extra-planetary visitor stupid enough to settle on Earth. How would someone not familiar with all the various religions go about choosing which god, and associated religion, should they join and financially support?
Should our alien go by the numbers, longevity, dogma, or something else?
Based on the latest statistics (http://www.religioustolerance.org/worldrel.htm), Christianity claims the largest percentage of humans. Sounds impressive, but one can look at that 33% of the world’s population and conclude two-thirds of the world population opted for something else. Yet another way is to look at trends, and by percentage, the Christian population is dropping. Of course, it could just be the birth rate for non-Christians is higher, and not so much people are opting away from Christianity.
Plus, on close examination one finds over a thousand faith groups comprising the sum total of Christianity, and of those, quite a number who claim to be the only true Christian denomination. Looking at these groups individually, each comprises very small percentages of the world population. Besides, how would our alien go about choosing between the groups? Oh, sure, if one is planning to reproduce, one would definitively stay away from the Pope-run organization, but truthfully, it’s hard to imagine child molestation restricted to just one of the sects.
At nearly 20% of the human population, Islam claims the Number Two spot and growing. Based on current trends, Muslim adherents will surpass Christian adherents in total numbers sometimes in the later part of this century. Perhaps they are a good candidate for the alien seeking to part with some of his galactic credits. But now we have an even larger percentage of the human race, four-fifths, opting for something else.
And we still have at least two major sects; sects which sometimes clash rather violently and, some would say, in decidedly non-pious ways. Within each sect, you have groups interpreting the books relative to their own self-interests, and even within such groups, self-declared holy men offer very different interpretations of what people could read on their own.
Plus, the religion itself is not a very attractive one; it has a dress code, for FSM sake!! Assume for a moment the alien is female, and she might not be too keen on adopting a belief system where she would instantly be relegated to the status of second-class citizen. Yes, I know people say the Qu’ran is not inherently anti-women, and it is said women outnumber men as new converts to Islam. But, as in Christian fundamentalism, the original message is lost to narrow interpretations resulting in the unjust (and sometimes cruel) treatment of women in many, many countries. (an excellent speech retelling first-hand accounts of what it’s like to be a Muslim woman)
In a way, if you are some sort of deviant, and you happen to be male, this religion is literally a godsend.
Certainly, it would be a coup for Islam if the alien opts to be Islamafied; the alien might possess technology allowing for the extermination of all infidels. There would be dancing in the streets aplenty, and rejoicing in the wholesale slaughter across the globe.
Hinduism claims the Number Three spot, and again one has to wonder why so many people (roughly 5 out of 6 people) chose other options. On the plus side, there are quite a lot of diverse choices for oppressive and limiting thought, and the rules seem a bit more fluid. No central authority, no agreed-upon moral code, many versions of god to choose from, and quite the pedigree, going back at least a thousand years before either Christianity or Islam.
Nearly tied with Hinduism, and not a religion per se, the non-religious make up the next largest group. This would be an attractive choice for the alien were it not for most major religions being legendarily intolerant of non-believers. Sure, the religious occasionally kill each other, but they typically tolerate each other as long as they keep somewhat separate. There is no such tolerance toward the non-religious; few would complain if we were to be slaughtered where we stand.
Then we start to get into religions whose memberships numbers are small, and really the choice is no longer going to be based on longevity or numbers (two attributes believers seem to value above compassion, tolerance, or any other virtue), but rather on the dogma itself.
At this point of the discovery process, I advise the space-faring alien to hop back into their ship (if they do indeed hop), and leave this island of irrationality . . . and to please take me with them.
But for us, those damned to live on this rock, how do we make the choice? Well, in general, we don’t.
Some, like me, arrive at the conclusion it’s all a bunch of poo. An oft-repeated observation is recounted HERE, but for those too lazy to click on the link, here it is:
“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” — Stephen F. Roberts
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Most are born into it and soon are so steeped in it that they lose the ability to reason, to examine, to rationally arrive at a decision other than the complete acceptance of their seemingly free choice.