See also:

Creating Worlds and Within Them, Religion

Imagine that an alien from another solar system has landed on Earth, and he is trying to find out about the people living here. One of the curious things he discovers about these inhabitants is that most of them believe in some invisible force that had something to do with the creation of their world, and who also has expectations and instructions for them with regard to the way they live their lives.

The most curious aspect of this is that there are many different versions of this story, frequently mutually exclusive, and yet each person is 100 percent convinced that his is right and all the others are wrong; some are so convinced that they are willing to die for their beliefs. In an effort to understand what motivates these people, he collects their holy books and reads through them.

What he finds is most interesting. Each story is populated by beings who have powers that are well beyond those found in the real world. Granted those powers, each story has its own internal consistency. Each story is different from the others, but none stands out, simply from the text, as being more or less believable than the others. Most of them have some story about how the world was created, some with similarities, some quite different; most of them have some expectations of the people, usually common sense instructions to be good to each other.

The point is that people believe what they believe not because it is so obviously right, but because they were raised to believe it.

The point is that people believe what they believe not because it is so obviously right, but because they were raised to believe it. What devout Christian could deny that were they raised by a Muslim family, they would be a devout Muslim? The evidence for this is overwhelming: there are large numbers of devout Muslims who are very well aware of the Christian tradition but who do not accept it. If Christianity were so obviously right, would they not all convert?

By the same token, there are many Christians who are perfectly fluent in Islam, but who are still Christians. The history of the world is filled with people trying to force their own religion on others, and they have been resisted at every turn. The most successful converters have usually used the sword as well as the tongue as a means of persuasion.

People of all faiths have died for their beliefs. Each religion has its martyrs, whose stories are told to reinforce those beliefs. After all, if so-and-so died for her beliefs, they must be right (and she is surely in heaven). Far from convincing me that such martyrs are right, the presence of so many martyrs, for competing religions, persuades me that they are all wrong. If any one of these religions had the direct pipeline to God, how could anyone convert away from it? Yet every religion has nearly as many deserters as converts.

Clearly a belief system fulfills some basic human need-after all, most people have one. There is nothing wrong with that. But the world would be a much more peaceful place if only everyone would realize that no set of beliefs are more intrinsically believable than any other, and we should all let everyone else go their own way.

David Reingold is a professor of chemistry at Juniata College.