AFTER giving it enough thought, even the deeply religious of nearly every faith should be able to agree that religions, taken as a group, have spread more misinformation and false belief than pretty much any other belief systems ever conceived by humankind.
For the sake of this argument, lets be generous and assume that one world religion is actually true in the sense that its teachings and scriptures are factually accurate and are based on the actual will or commandments of a God or Gods. Furthermore, let us be generous and assume that this true religion happens to be the most popular one in the world today, which is Christianity, and that somehow the thousands of denominations† of Christianity agree enough with each other that they all can be basically true at once. Now, we know that approximately 33% of the world’s population is Christian, and 16% is nonreligious† which leads us to conclude that, at the very minimum, an overwhelming 51% of the world believes in false religions (which in this example are those people who believe in religion but not in Christianity). That means that at least 51% of the world worships a god or gods invented by humans for human purposes, and propagated through mass delusion or deliberate fraud.
If it is instead the case that rather than Christianity it is one of the smaller world religions that is the one true religion, or if parts of Christianity are true but not all of it, or if there are no gods at all, then things look much worse for religions taken as a whole than even my disturbing estimate above. In the end, we can conclude that somewhere between 51% and 84% of the world believes in false gods today (depending on whether Christianity is true, or one of the smaller world religions is true, or every religion is false), with those numbers likely looking far worse if we average them over the last 5000 years of human history. There are many many religions, for example, that were believed for a long time but are now extinct (such as those from ancient Egypt and ancient Greece).
At this point some will object to my analysis (especially those people of a spiritual but not deeply religious bent) who would like to claim that many religions of the world might all be true at the same time. It is of course the case that most religions agree on many basic things, such as that you should not kill other people for no good reason (though they do disagree about what constitutes a good reason with, for example, the Bible decreeing the death of children who dishonor their parents in Exodus 21† which is reiterated by Jesus in Mark 7†). That being said, religions usually disagree about most of the biggest questions, such as what happens to us when we die, and what specifically we should be doing to get the best possible reward.
To give just a few of the many profound differences between world religions:
1. Christians and Muslims believe that after death the soul (or body) goes to some sort of heaven or hell, whereas Hindus and Buddhists believe that the dead are usually reincarnated and appear again on Earth.
2. There are statements in the Quran like “Pagans indeed are those who say that GOD is the Messiah, son of Mary”† , and “The Messiah, son of Mary, is no more than a messenger like the messengers before him, and his mother was a saint”† which deny the basic principles of Christianity, whereas Christians deny that Mohammed was a prophet.
3. Some Christian denominations believe that a lack of faith in Jesus can be enough to damn one’s soul to hell for eternity, a notion highly incompatible with every non-christian religion. Biblical support for this idea is found (among other places) in Acts of the New Testament, where Peter, one of Jesus’s twelve original disciples, says “and it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.”† Later, again referring to Jesus, he says “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”†
Even if we are willing to ignore the many important ways in which religions contradict each other, in order to believe that religions are generally true as a group we will still need to decide where to draw the line on which religions to include. Is every suicide cult as true as every major religion? Are the religions of the ancient Greeks and Babylonians and Incas and Egyptians as true as the religions today? Are we to accept religions that claim Jesus was the son of God at the same time as we accept ones that deny this?
Any way that you slice it, most religious belief throughout the history of the world has been belief in false religions. But do not distort my words: I have said that religion has spread an unprecedented level of false information in the world, not that religion is bad or wrong, which is quite a separate question. If one religion is indeed true, then one cannot blame the believers of that religion for their belief or even their proselytizing. However, the effect of this analysis should ideally be to give the religious some pause to wonder how they can be so certain that it is most of the rest of humankind that has been duped by religion, and not they themselves. It is important to consider the fact that no matter how deeply you believe in your religion, there are millions of people who believe just as strongly in religions which contradict your own, and who believe for reasons quite similar to your reasons. If you were born in Spain today, would you not most likely be a Catholic? If you were born in Saudi Arabia would you not almost certainly end up a Muslim? If you were born in Cambodia would you not now be a Buddhist? And if you were born in Ancient Greece, would you not have been a worshiper of Zeus? The religions that we choose have a great deal to do with uncontrollable and coincidental events in our lives, such as the places and cultures in which we are raised and religions of our parents, and rarely are due to a careful analysis of each of the world religions while searching for the truth.