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Inheriting Religion

Many years ago, so long ago that I've forgotten the source, I encountered the idea that it's remarkable that the vast majority of people are the same religion as their parents. This struck me as obviously true — both that people do tend to be the same religion as their parents, and that it's a remarkable observation.

The obvious explanation for this phenomena is that most people are taught their beliefs by their parents, so it's natural that they believe the same things as their parents. The reason they stay with the religion they're raised in is because most people do not perform a serious comparative study of religions in order to select the best one. They just stay with what they've already learned and are already comfortable with.

About a week ago, I spent the entire evening after work (until 10:30!), at work, having a wide-ranging discussion with several of my co-workers. We talked about this issue briefly, and I had my very first encounter with someone who denies the position that most people do not seriously study their own beliefs. This was surprising to me, because in college I hung out with several different groups with widely divergent fundamental beliefs, both religious and secular, and I had never discovered this attitude among those people. Yeah, I have a nearly infinite endurance for this stuff. (However, the people in these groups genuinely had made an intellectual study of their beliefs. They had no trouble agreeing that most people aren't so studious.)

With that long-winded introduction out of the way, here are some interesting facts. According to the CIA World Factbook, India is 81.3% Hindu, 12% Muslim, and 2.3% Christian. The United States is 84% Christian. How do these percentages persist for generations, unless by the hypothesis that most people simply inherit their religion instead of studying to find the "right" one? Why doesn't the Indian population have an incidence of Christianity closer to the United States, and the United States an incidence of Hinduism closer to India?

Which is more likely — that Indians and Americans generally do not study each others' religions, or that they study them intensely but ultimately are convinced by what they already believe? Are religious truths contingent on one's geography? Clearly no, both because that would be absurd, and because isn't it obvious that Christianity (say) runs in families even in geographies where it's the minority, such as India? Do 81.3% of the children of Christians in India become Hindu? I don't think so…

I don't think most people make a serious comparative study of beliefs. That's the simple and persuasive answer to the observed facts. I haven't ever heard a credible alternative explanation. (And my discussion opponent didn't offer one, they just said I "can't say that.")

This isn't meant as a criticism of "most people" — it's completely natural for children to accept what their elders tell them as truth. It is important to learn from others instead of rediscovering everything on our own. (There simply isn't enough time.) Without a predisposition toward philosophy, or a person or event to catalyze the study of such issues, believing what your parents taught you is the default condition. However, it would improve the public discourse if people who haven't seriously studied the diversity of beliefs would be a little more humble in the face of the fact that no matter what religion you believe (if any at all), two thirds of the population of the planet disagrees with you. And they feel exactly the same level of stammering emotional indignation that you do.

Tiny Island