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40,000 christian denominations show the christian God doesn’t exist? (1)

April 22nd, 2013

Church

It’s another common statistic and argument by critics of christianity: there are 30,000 to 40,000 christian denominations in the world, which shows that the christian God doesn’t exist, because he would communicate better.

How good is the argument, and the statistics?

The numbers

The numbers seem to be based on just a few sources which are fairly consistent where they can be compared:

  • The World Christian Encyclopedia (David A. Barrett; Oxford University Press, 1982) apparently estimated almost 21,000 denominations, and the updated World Christian Encyclopedia (Barrett, Kurian, Johnson; Oxford Univ Press, 2nd edition, 2001) estimated at least 33,000. “Denomination” is defined as “an organised christian group within a country”.
  • The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimated 34,000 denominations in 2000, rising to an estimated 43,000 in 2012. These numbers have exploded from 1,600 in the year 1900.

What do these estimates mean?

These “denominations” are defined in terms of being separate organisations, not necessarily separate beliefs. This is a critical difference, not commonly noted by critics. For example, almost three quarters of these totals are “independent” churches, mostly in Africa, many of which would have similar teachings, just different locations, different leaders, etc. The national branches of the same denomination are counted as separate organisations. Thus these figures do not indicate anything like 40,000 different beliefs.

Differences in belief

The sources suggest christian denominations can be divided into “6 major ecclesiastico-cultural mega-blocs”: Independents, Protestants, “Marginals”, Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Within these, Wikipedia lists about 40 major divisions, each of whom would have some variation in belief.

The degree of difference in belief is hard to define. For example, most of these denominations would have similar beliefs about major christian doctrines such as God, creation, Jesus, salvation, Holy Spirit, forgiveness, etc, and the differences would mostly be on less essential matters. How much these differences matter is subjective.

The bottom line

The denominations measured in the reports referenced above are not indicators of separate belief, and quoting them as such is a mis-statement of the data. Due to the large number of independent churches, it is impossible to know how much christian belief varies beyond that defined by the 40 or so groups listed in Wikipedia.

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, even if not over doctrine. It would be better to emphasise what is in common more, and worry less about these divisions.

To be continued

Next post I’ll look at the argument that christian differences show that God doesn’t exist.

Photo: MorgueFile

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