There are more than 700 different religions in the world today, all with their special claims to knowledge about a spiritual realm, unique origin myths, beliefs how the world really works and guidelines or outright demands for right behavior. This estimate doesn’t include the hundreds more religions of earlier times such as those of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc. or the many tribal religions that have come and gone. The largest religions of today are each subdivided by dozens, hundreds, even thousands of different sects that reflect minor differences in doctrine and practice or represent irreconcilable differences in interpretation. Xianity today is estimated to contain tens of thousands of individual sects alone.
The “Big 3” as I’ll call them here – Xianity, Islam and the reincarnation religions of Hinduism and Buddhism – comprise roughly 4.5 billion or nearly two thirds of the seven billion humans on the planet today. Xianity has the largest number of adherents at around two billion, with Islam second at nearly one and a half billion and the reincarnation religions close to one billion members. All religions claim they have the goods for right living and the correct knowledge of which god to worship or not and are certain in their different versions of the afterlife awaiting the human soul at death.
Two things stand out:
1. Their claims are mutually exclusive and contradictory.
2. Religious affiliation is an accident of birth locale.
The Buddhists are unconcerned with the necessity of a creator god, the Hindus have gods enough for everybody and the Xians and Muslims of course are unquestionably certain their Creator is the sole god and the only one to be believed in and worshipped properly, or else. Many theologians have waxed poetic in trying to explicate the old truism that “we all worship the same god” but the Muslims certainly won’t stand for that and a brief analysis of Xian dogmas negates that futile attempt at reconciliation rather quickly. “There is but one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet” and “Allah neither begets nor is begotten” doesn’t wash with Yahweh being one of a trinity, having begotten a son and their relationship spawning the ephemeral “Holy Spirit.” To a Muslim that is such ridiculous and abject blasphemy that one may as well be an atheist.
The reincarnation religions’ fanciful ideas of the soul re-animating in another body after a believer’s death instead of winding up either in heavenly union with God or doomed to eternal and appropriately excruciating hellfire punishment is utter heresy to the Xian as well as the Muslim. It’s perfectly reasonable to believe for example, in fact one is compelled without exception to accept, that a soul will regenerate new skin in Hell to reburn again and again in perpetual agony, but not that one will come back as a cockroach or a steak.
One could go on for hours analyzing the doctrinal differences that make up the absurdities of religious claims, but the second point is worth considering, even as often as it has been made. In the vast majority of cases someone only believes whatever religion they do as that was the dominant religion within a mile or so of their birth and upbringing as a child or adolescent. The predominantly Xian West, the East’s adherence to the reincarnation religions and the Middle East’s near monopoly by Islam and its lateral extensions across central Africa and eastward to Indonesia, dictates by and large what religion you will later “believe” to the exclusion of all others. An example of the same phenomenon in microcosm is displayed so well in the American South. A child could be born properly godly on one side of a crossroad in a hamlet of no more than a few dwellings into the ultra-conservative Church of Christ, and should they have had the misfortune of leaving their mother’s womb on the opposite side of the road might have wound up barely Christian as a First Baptist. Worse still, should they have been born but a mile or two down the road in the decidedly wrong direction they may have (god forbid) wound up Catholic and been looked down upon by both the good Baptists and rock-solid Church of Christ members with certain disdain and reminded as early as elementary school “You’re not a real Christian.”
The secular world would like all religionists to consider those facts before making any noise whatsoever about how their religion is “the one.” Additionally, please remember that even if you belong to of any one of the “Big Three” religions, more than 70 to 80 percent of the rest of us alive today do not belong to your religion, never will, will never read your damn book, get along just fine without it and don’t need nor want to hear about how sure you are of your arbitrary brand of nonsense.
Column by William Zingrone, Associate professor of psychology