Why we believe

Why do we adhere to our faith, and not another? Or indeed, why do we have any faith at all? Anthony Gottlieb , a former executive editor of the Economist suggests that even in the 21st Century we tend to inherit our faith from our parents.

If a Martian were to look at a map of the Earth’s religions, what he might find most surprising is the fact that such a map can be drawn at all. How strange–he might say to himself–that so many of the world’s Hindus are to be found in one place, namely India. And how odd that Muslims are so very numerous in the Middle East. With the disconcerting curiosity that is so typical of Martians, he might wonder what explains this geographical clustering. Do people move countries in order to be close to others of the same faith? Or do people simply tend to adopt the religion they grew up with?

The answer, of course, is the latter–on the whole. There are exceptions: Jews moving to Israel, for example, and there are many other cases of religious migration. Still, the huddling of the faithful is mainly explained by the fact that religion runs in families. If you have a religion, it is probably the same one as your parents. Earlier this year a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly three-quarters of American adults professed the religion in which they were raised. But instead of finding this glass to be three-quarters full, newspapers preferred to notice that it was one-quarter empty. It was the minority of Americans who either switched religions, or abandoned religion altogether, who were highlighted in reports of the survey (“Poll Finds a Fluid Religious Life in US”, ran a headline in the New York Times). Plainly it does not count as news that religion remains largely a family affair. Yet it should do, because of its largely unnoticed consequences. Some religious groups are dramatically outbreeding others, in ways that have an impact on America, Europe and elsewhere.

Read it all here.

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