Why and how do religious believers choose to accept a particular faith out of the many choices available to them? (4200 is one estimate)
Great question. Here's an ever better one: What makes someone confident that the religion they've chosen is true, while all the other religions are false?
John W. Loftus examines these issues in a book he edited, "The Christian Delusion." The first chapter I read was by Loftus, "The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited." He used to be a minister, until his deconversion.
I loved the chapter.
It lays out problems with religious belief that I've been aware of for a long time, but had never considered so clearly and cogently. The first version of Loftus' Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) can be read here. What I perused this morning includes some responses to objections true believers raised to OTF version 1.0.
Here's how Loftus lays out his thesis:
1) Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and defend a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their upbringing and cultural heritage. This is the religious diversity thesis.
2) Consequently, it seems very likely that adopting one's religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but is causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the religious dependency thesis.
3) Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.
4) So the best way to test one's adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other religious faiths. This expresses the OTF.
It's been observed that every religious believer rejects countless gods and/or other metaphysical entities, accepting just one: what he or she believes in. An atheist just goes one small step further: rejecting that one as well.
So Loftus makes the entirely reasonable argument that people should test their chosen faith in the same way they test other (rejected) religious, spiritual, mystical, or metaphysical belief systems.
Given these facts, the central thesis of the OTF is a challenge to believers to test or examine their own religious faith as if they were outsiders with the same presumption of skepticism they use to test or examine other religious faiths.
Its presumption is that when examining one's own religious faith, skepticism is warranted, since the odds are good that it is false. Remember, brainwashed people do not know that they have been brainwashed.
...I've investigated my faith as an insider with the presumption that it was true. Even from an insider's perspective with the Christian set of control beliefs, I couldn't continue to believe. Now, from the outside, it makes no sense at all.
Christians are on the inside. I am now on the outside. Christians see things from the inside. I see things from the outside. From the inside, it seems true. From the outside, it seems bizarre. As Stephen Roberts quipped, "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
People will reject unsubstantiated claims in holy books... except the book they believe in. People will reject miracle stories... except miracles related by their own faith. People will reject the divinity of living prophets or messengers of God... except the person they accept as a genuine spiritual teacher.
Every religious believer, aside from the few who are genuinely open-minded, considers that he or she has found the One True Faith among the 4,199 or so false faiths. Yet how is this possible, logically or realistically?
It's like Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, where all the children are above average.
Nine out of ten people say that other people are influenced by nonrational factors to believe in weird things, and yet these same respondents turn around and say that they are the exceptions to this. How is it possible for nine out of ten respondents to be the exceptions to what nine out of ten of them recognize to be the rule?
There are good reasons for belonging to a religious, spiritual, or mystical group. But having a lock on cosmic truth isn't one of them. Nobody knows what lies at the heart of reality, or even if there is such a thing: a heart, a core, a central truth.
So the only honest attitude is "I don't know." Along with, "You don't know either." This leaves us all on the same unknowing level.
A non-religious level.
In his chapter Loftus answers an objection to his Outsider Test for Faith: that skeptics and atheists hold onto an unfounded belief system -- skepticism -- just as religious believers do.
This is a pleasingly pithy response:
It's patently false to say atheism is a religion or a worldview which Keller and other Christians do. "If atheism is a religion" as David Eller quips, then not collecting stamps is a hobby."