A few days ago I looked at the number of christian denominations with different beliefs, as a first step to examining the argument that 40,000 denominations (as some said) showed that God couldn’t exist, or couldn’t get his act together.
I concluded that there were not nearly so many differences in beliefs as that figure suggested to some people. Now to see how this affects the argument.
If we expressed the argument formally, it would look something like this:
- If there was a God, he would reveal himself so clearly that christians would all have similar beliefs.
- Christians do not all have similar beliefs.
- Therefore it is unlikely that God exists.
It is clear that proposition #1 is the key. But how could it be justified? I suggest we need to answer four questions:
1. What beliefs should be clear?
The universe and our world show an enormous degree of diversity. People come in all sorts of colours and sizes, and with many different abilities and personalities. If God created this world, it seems he enjoys diversity. So the fact the christians do things differently and have minor differences in belief would hardly be evidence against God. So to support the argument, we would need to identify teachings which are crucial to the way we please God, obtain salvation and live in the world.
The really important matters, if christianity is true, are probably these:
- God as the powerful, loving creator.
- Jesus as the son of God and saviour, who taught, healed, died and was resurrected.
- Each one of us needs to respond to God, receive forgiveness through Jesus, and follow his teachings.
- The importance of the Bible, the Holy Spirit, meeting with other christians, sharing the good news and making a positive difference in the world.
2. What is an ‘unacceptable level’ of diversity?
I think this depends on what we think about God’s character and what he expects of us. If we see God as being controlling, demanding, severe and pedantic, then we might conclude that little diversity is allowed. But if we see God as loving, accepting, understanding and compassionate, then we might conclude that he is quite accepting of diversity, especially on less important matters. The former is the God rejected by many atheists (it is in many cases a caricature of the God portrayed in the Old Testament), but the latter is closer to the God revealed by Jesus and believed by christians
We might, however, at least expect christians to disagree in loving ways that accept that God allows diversity on many matters.
3. How different are teachings in these important areas?
To determine this would require a careful assessment of the teachings of the major denominational groupings noted previously, which I haven’t done – nor have I seen anyone else do it. But I would expect beliefs on these core matters to be reasonably common. The major diversity occurs with less important matters – views on healing, leadership, evolution, the end of the world, the nature of the authority of the Bible, how churches should be governed, the style of church meetings, sexual ethics, etc – matters which are not so crucial.
But it is clear that christians can be very divisive and disagreeable about many of these matters – some churches believe they are the one true church, and arguments about Calvinism, evolution, gay marriage, charismatic gifts, women ministers, etc, can get very heated and unedifying.
4. What is the cause of unacceptable diversity or unedifying disagreement?
If people have free will, they will sometimes exercise it wrongly. People disagree and argue about everything from politics to football teams. Human nature is surely a significant cause of the disagreements among christians, and it is shameful that christians don’t always rise above petty disagreements and unloving behaviour. But unless critics have an insight into God’s purposes, it is hard to see how they can blame God for the disagreements.
It is surely true that the inability of some christians to agree, or even tolerate disagreement, is a negative for the christian faith today. It is quite reasonable that non-believers will look at the church and be turned off. (At the same time, fairness also requires that critics recognise the good done by many christians, who volunteer and give to charity in greater numbers than non-believers.)
But using this to argue against the existence of God requires too many leaps. We don’t know how much freedom God wants to give people, but it seems to a large amount – he even seems to allow us to gradually come to an understanding of important matters. We don’t know exactly how God judges us, and we can’t avoid the fact that much of the problem can be blamed on obstinate human nature.
Thus sceptics have to make a number of assumptions to get the argument to work, which means it is based more on their own assumptions and expectations than anything else. Christians who believe God is very controlling and strict may find the argument has some impact (though they will likely blame human nature for the problems), but christians who believe God loves diversity and gives us a lot of freedom will likely remain unimpressed.
Summing up …
The argument has many holes in it. It will likely continue to be used by sceptics, but in a very vague form that hides the difficulties. But it is unlikely to make an impression on christians because it is so general. It probably confirms that one of the main differences between believers and unbelievers is the assumptions each makes.
Nevertheless, I believe christians divide and give themselves denominational-type names too easily. Jesus said his followers should be “one”, and many of these separate organisations are the result of serious divisions. It would be better if we emphasised what we have in common more, and worried less about these divisions.
Fortunately, a new christianity is already becoming visible, much more humble and less dogmatic, much more concerned about people’s welfare and the environment, much more inclusive and peaceful – in fact, much more like Jesus. Carpe diem!