Schisms and protests and sects, oh my!

Recently I decided to ask the internet machine how many Christian denominations there were – I can’t recall the precise impetus for the inquiry; nonetheless I encountered a Wiki page listing a number around about 40,000. Which is a lot of schisming in the 1600-odd years since the first Council of Nicaea.

My intergoobling also took me to a blog article from a couple of years ago addressing the same question, which I duly read (because it was short) and found interesting (because it was). The main lessons I took from this post were that many thousands of Christian sects did not equate to many thousands of disparate beliefs; that Christians should concentrate more on what they have in common that on what separates them and that critics of Christianity probably shouldn’t latch too tightly to the vast number of Christian organisations as an argument in and of itself against faith. The writer, unkleE, concludes thusly:

The denominations measured in [the quoted reports] 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.

My personal view is that 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.

Nevertheless, critics of christianity have work to do before they can realistically define the degree of division.

I agreed and then I commented, just as thusly:

There probably is a meaningful distinction to be made between 40,000 different Christian organisations as opposed to 40,000 different sets of beliefs, especially when criticising Christianity or the communication skills of its deity. When a religion – or any idea, philosophy, artistic style or cultural practice – spreads across nations and continents, you will always see subtle differences emerge; the differences become less subtle the further from the point of origin you go.

However, my contention has always been that it isn’t necessary to point out the vast numbers of Christianity’s sects if you’re using schisms as a point against its veracity [or, for that matter, the unwillingness of its deity to settle any differences – H]; the mere fact that there are just two opposing sects is a good enough starting point. The fact that the main sects of Catholicism and Protestantism have been at odds – and, not just historically but within living memory, often at literal, bloody, bitter war – with each other, is more than enough to make an argument against the communication skills of, if not God himself then at the very least the early church fathers. When the argument is over the ultimate question of who gets to Heaven and how, even a subtle difference can, has and does lead to violent disagreement. The fact that schisms have occurred more than once in the history of Christianity also calls into question the nature of the doctrine itself – if kings or theologians or scholars can simply declare certain dogmas no longer applicable, whence the infallibility of scripture? Why should any one part of it be compelling at all if any other part of it can be declared arbitrarily invalid?

It isn’t just Christianity that has this problem, either. Sectarian strife within Judaism isn’t well-publicised, but it happens and has historically led to demonstrable harm and the Sunni-Shia split in Islam has seen, most recently in post-invasion Iraq, decades of sectarian tensions suddenly explode into bloodlust and revenge. When a non-religious person looks upon the gleeful destruction of what should be someone’s brother in the faith, it’s little wonder when they raise an eyebrow and wonder how either side can possibly justify their claim to the actual truth.

Sectarianism and schisms aren’t just an unfortunate fact of religious history, they’re a serious point against the veracity of the faith itself. It might seem trite or flippant to criticise God’s communication skills, but it would make sense that something so important as how to attain post-mortem paradise (and, perhaps more importantly to some, avoid the endless torture promised by Jesus in his Testament) should be unequivocal, unambiguous and not so open to interpretation that people will willingly go to war or dispossess, torture and destroy others over differing conclusions drawn from the same source.

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