What are the chances that if you were born today, you will eventually practise the correct religion? Your challenge is two-fold. You need to know which religion is true, and you need to be in an environment, society, or culture that allows you to be exposed to this true religion. Imagine if Christianity is the one true religion and you are born in Yemen. The odds that you would learn about Christianity and finally embrace it in such an anti-Christian environment would be small. Unlucky you.
Considering there are over 4,200 religions in the world, what are the odds that one of them is the true religion? A devout Christian will tell you that Christianity is the true religion. Her prayers are answered, her God is her consoler and protector, her life has been deeply enriched by her Christian faith, and Christianity’s holy texts are sacred. But a devout Muslim will genuinely also tell you likewise: that Islam is the true religion because his God answers his prayers, his God consoles and protects him, his life has been deeply enriched by his Islamic faith, and that Islam’s holy texts are sacred.
The sad reality is most religions are either in conflict or are incompatible with one another. A Christian and a Muslim cannot both be correct: only one of them can be saved – or perhaps not even them if Hindus or Buddhists have their way.
With so many religions in the world today, what is the probability that, if you were born today, you would be able to find and practise the true religion and thus be saved from damnation? I was intrigued if I could calculate the probability of being saved.
So, let’s get started. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are the four main organized religions in the world today. These four religions are the faiths for nearly 70% of the world’s population. Consequently, I will make my first assumption: only Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are considered candidates as the true religion, ignoring the possibilities that the other 4,200 or so religions could be true. Working from a position of maximum ignorance, I will further assume equal probability for each of those four religions being the true one.
This means Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism each has a 25% chance of being the true religion:
where the notation P(outcome) denotes the probability of an outcome.
Whether you become a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist depends largely on where you will be born. If you are born in Pakistan, for instance, chances are much greater that you will be a Muslim than if you were born in the US or Sweden. The probability you will be born in a particular country (X ) is given by:
Now, having been born in a particular country, what are the chances you will become a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist in that country? To compute this probability, I used the data from the World Values Survey Wave 6 (2010-14) which surveyed nearly 80,000 participants from 56 countries (with the combined population of over 5 billion). I used the World Values Survey data, as it is more accurate. The survey goes down to the ground and asks how religious people are and in what faith, rather than depending on the religion stated on one’s birth certificate. A person may be born, for example, a Hindu but who is really a practicing Christian.Table 1. Your probability of being born in a country (Pb) and being either a Christian (PC), Muslim (PM), Hindu (PH), or Buddhist (PB) in that country of birth. All values are in per cent.
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Let’s take Malaysia as an example: the probability of you being born in Malaysia and becoming a Christian in this country is computed simply as:
What if you were born instead in another country, say, in the US? In the same manner, we determine the probability as:
Consequently, the probability of you becoming a Christian is simply the summation of all probabilities you would be a Christian in every country you could be born in:
where there are 56 countries covered in the World Values Survey.
Finally, the probability of you being a Christian and Christianity being the true religion is simply:
where P(Christianity is true), as stated earlier, is 0.25 (which is the same with the other three religions).
The above steps are repeated for determining the probabilities for Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.
Table 2 shows that you have very little chance (between 1 to 6%) of finding the true religion. Why is this possibility so remote?Table 2. The probability you will find and practise the true religion.
Take China and India, for example. Both countries comprise nearly half of the world’s population. This means there is nearly a 50% chance that you would be born in either China or India. If you were born in China, chances are great that you will be either an unbeliever (e.g., atheist or agnostic) or practice one of the religions that is not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. But if you were instead born in India, Table 1 shows a near 75% chance that you will become a Hindu. So, depending on where you will be born and the probability of you adopting a particular religion in that country, probability theory tells us that you have very little chance being saved because you are unable to find the true religion.
…you have very little chance (between 1 to 6%) of finding the true religion…perhaps even much lower if other religions were considered
The probabilities in Table 2 may actually be too large, considering the generous assumptions I had used. For instance, I considered only four religions out of 4,200 or more religions as potential candidates to be the true religion. What if Judaism is the true religion? What about Sikhism, Baha’ism, or Confucianism? These aforementioned organized religions are among the ten most widely practiced in the world. So, if I were to consider these other religions, the probability that one of them is true would be far smaller than 25%, a value that I had used earlier.
Furthermore, Christianity is not a homogenous group. It is a group of many Christian denominations, some of which in contradiction with one another. Nonetheless, Christianity can be broadly grouped into Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism. Likewise for Islam, which is generally made up of Sunnis and Shiites (as well as the Sufis whom no one seems to like).
So, if I were to add the other religions to the list of true religion candidates and further distinguish between the various Christianity and Islamic groups, the values in Table 2 would be much, much smaller.
My calculations, despite using generous assumptions, show how extremely remote a person, born today, can find the true religion and thus be saved. God may be all-loving, all-powerful, and all-present to some believers, but God has sure made it really difficult for us to find Him. Perhaps religious people might even take my calculations as a warning of the importance of them spreading their faiths, since finding the true religion appears so remote.
I like to end my article by emphatically pointing out that my calculations are merely an interesting, thought-provoking academic exercise and not to be taken, God forbid, as mathematical proof of anything, science or supernatural.