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Sidebar: The 38,000 Denominations Argument

We interrupt this ongoing series on Catholicism to bring you a special bulletin, hopefully clarifying something I said in a previous post before some sarcastically impaired person tries to use it against me.

In this post, I stated:

Without submission to the church as a teacher, you have no other way to go other than to split into a separate body of believers with no further fellowship when a disagreement arises.  And there are 38,000 recognized denominations of Christianity proving my point!

Of course, this argument is frequently used by atheists to suggest that there is extreme disunity in Christianity.  It’s also used by Catholics to show the need for a central teaching authority.

Here, I was using it flippantly the same way as a Catholic, to highlight the need for a high church concept and for the body of believers to submit to their local church.  I don’t believe in “church shopping” if you don’t like where you currently attend.  And I hate the fact that people create new denominations on a whim, and sometimes over the most trivial points.

I have often argued that there is more unity in Christianity than disunity, with varying opinions on side issues or non-issues.  I’m not going back on that by making the statement I did, and was reminded this morning that the issue is much more complicated than just a few differences of opinion.  This video from JP Holding does an excellent (and humorous job) of showing the differences in the various denominations:

Denominations are most often formed to serve the unique needs of a specific geographic area.  For example, I’ve often talked about being a member of a Grace Brethren church.  The doctrine comes from the Schwarzenau Brethren (the “German Dunkers”), and was renamed “Grace Brethren” in the United States.  We have no doctrine that is distinct from the original denomination, just a different name for a different geographic region.

The Anglican Church in the United States is called the Episcopal Church.  Why?  Well, “Anglican” is the Church of England, and probably wouldn’t have been a popular name to go by after this tiny, little row called “the American Revolution.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  Anti-English sentiment would have run high in the new republic, so they changed their name.

Over time, the two churches have grown apart.  Episcopal Churches, for example, celebrate homosexuality and bless gay marriages, ordain openly gay clergy and elect openly gay bishops, as well as allowing female pastors.  None of that is condoned by the head of the Anglican Community, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He has, in fact, threatened to expel the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Community over these issues.

Despite the row, at the end of the day, the Episcopal Church is still part of the Anglican Church, just called a different name for a different region.

Geographic region is really the key to understanding denominations.  Sometimes, it’s just easier to form a denomination than to answer to a larger authority who might not understand exactly what a particular church needs.

I just wanted to make it clear that I’m using the argument flippantly.  I meant it as a humorous underscore to my point that people aren’t going to understand the Bible unaided, and that the Bible cannot be our sole authority.  We need teachers to show us how to read the Bible.  I’m not trying to suggest that 38,000 denominations is equivalent to 38,000 completely different and contradictory views of Christianity.

The Textbook Example of Strawman Arguments

A strawman argument is basically arguing against something that’s easier to debunk than what your opponent actually said.

For example, John W. Loftus calls this one of the most asinine claims made by Christians:

It’s claimed that people like Dawkins, or Hitchens, or Harris don’t know enough to reject Christianity. How much should a person know about a religion or the various branches of it in order to reject it? Really. I’d like to know. (source)

If that’s the way that Christians actually articulate this objection, then yes, that’s asinine!  However, I don’t think that anyone is saying this in spirit, even if they are in words.

What I think they are trying to get across is that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris don’t know enough about Christianity to adequately criticize it.  Dawkins is the prime example–one of the arguments central to The God Delusion is the second grade retort, “Well, who made God then?”  That’s pretty sad coming from a man of Dawkins’s caliber.  He’s a decorated scholar and an eminent scientist; you’d think he’d realize that philosophy has long progressed past that point.

It’s undeniable learned scholars such as Dawkins venture into territory which they are not as familiar with as they should be before taking the plunge.  Maybe they know enough to confidently reject Christianity–they probably know at least as much about Christianity as I do about Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roman Catholicism and I reject all of those.

However, before I try to criticize something, I attempt to become familiar with what it actually argues.  These guys don’t.  They stick to surface-level arguments and barely take a nick out of those.  Much of what they do is argue by outrage, which is the direct opposite of the rational inquiry that they always call for.

I have no doubt that, in a slip of many tongues, Christians have probably said that the New Atheists don’t know enough about Christianity to reject it.  However, that isn’t correct.  These men don’t know enough about it to criticize it.  I have a feeling that, while the formulation may have been incorrect, the articles by my fellow apologists would clearly explain that these men have seriously misplaced criticisms due to profound misunderstanding of basic Christian doctrines, theology, or arguments.

And that makes this a strawman argument from John Loftus.