What isn’t well appreciated or understood by many atheists is the diversity of thought and doctrine within the Christian framework. When a statement is made against Christianity, almost invariably, there are those who will reply, “That’s not what a true believer believes.” Then it is a simple matter to dismiss anything that particular atheist says and to see atheists, in general, as being misinformed about Christianity. This is unfortunate, but it is a reality that is hard to get around considering there are over 34,000 denominations that use the Christian label and there is little agreement as to what the term “Christian” means.
I think a fair definition is:
..any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe that they follow Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) teachings as they understand them to be. (Christianity: introduction and definition)
Even so, ReligiousTolerance.org, where the defintion was found, readily admits that they have collected over 40 definitions of “Christian” (Who is a Christian). For some believers the definition goes too far. For others it doesn’t go far enough and is woefully inadequate. (In the past, I would have been in this camp.) Many Christians will fight against the above definition and demand that theirs be used. These definitions will often refer to certain core or cardinal doctrines which must be believed in order to be called a Christian. Interestingly, even when core doctrines are listed, there are still wide disagreements.
For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity (three gods in one – father, son and holy spirit – separate but indivisible) is prominent on many lists of cardinal doctrines. Yet, including this as a requirement to be a “true” Christian eliminates such denominations as: Christian Scientists, Jehovah Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, United Church of God and Oneness Pentecostals (Nontrinitarianism). Of course, these groups believe that their interpretation of scripture is correct and the Trinity believing groups are heretics. For example:
The internet is filled with web-site after web-site trying to convince those who are gulliable that the One God of the Old Testament is really three Gods. But, obeying their creeds and confessions they balk at the obvious conclusion of their pagan theories and say they are forbidden to call these three separate persons each a God. But does not their creed say: GOD from GOD and VERY GOD from VERY GOD? God from God is certainly more than one God.(The Trinity Doctrine Is Pagan)
Who is correct? When all you have is an error-ridden, inconsistent, and confusing scripture to appeal to, along with (perhaps) church tradition, almost anything can be proven. This diversity of doctrine, I believe, is a clear sign that Christianity isn’t god-inspired at all. How could an omniscience, omnipotent, omnipresent sovereign god manage to bungle his god-spoken word so badly as to give rise to 34,000+ interpretations? Even if one says, as many believers will, that this is due to the sinfulness of man, how can a god not take steps to correct such errors, especially when one’s eternal destiny (heaven or hell) is at stake?
What the Christian is forced to believe, out of necessity, is that there really isn’t a wide variety of “core” beliefs and that “peripheral” issues aren’t really key in defining Christianity. (Or that they are the only ones who got it right!) So we find comforting statements such as:
Central doctrines should not be confused with peripheral issues, about which Christians may legitimately disagree. Peripheral (i.e. non-essential) doctrines include such issues as the timing of the tribulation, the method of baptism, or the structure of church government. For example, one can be wrong about the identity of “the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) or about the timing of the rapture and still go to heaven, but one cannot deny salvation by grace or the deity of Christ (John 8:24) and be saved. All Christian denominations – whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant – agree on the essential core. The relatively minor disagreements between genuinely Christian denominations, then, cannot be used to argue that there is no objectively recognized core of fundamental doctrine which constitutes the Christian faith. (Essential doctrines of the Christian Faith | Apologetics Index)
This is a wonderful trick to play. You simply state your core doctrines, decide they are the ones necessary to be considered a Christian, define a Christian to be those who hold to your core doctrines, and declare all others as heretics. Throw in some scripture to support your case, shake and you’re done. Simple? Right? I certainly believed that the core doctines I held were true (Calvinism) and that those who disagreed couldn’t see what scripture clearly taught. However, it isn’t that simple. As we have briefly seen, some sincere people who would consider themselves Christian do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity and would see such a “core” belief as heresy!
The truth is that such diversity is a reality and doctrinal beliefs are important. So important, in fact, that groups will go through a painful split from a parent denomination, along with all the emotional drama that entails, in order to be “true” to their interpretation of the word of god. If peripheral issues didn’t really matter, a split into another denomination wouldn’t be an option. This diversity clearly shows that the supposed word of god is far from clear (see Why I am an Atheist. Part 2. The Perspicuity of Scripture – NOT). It is a confusing land-mine where support for almost anything can be found and people can delude themselves into thinking that their interpretation is the one, true, uncorrupted word from god.
Should we really be so surprised? If you genuinely believe a book contains the very words of god, then it becomes of paramount importance to correctly interpret and believe what it says. This is exactly what happens and some believers will defend, even to the death (just think of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Inquisition), their interpretation of “truth” from god. Wars have been fought and people put to death over “peripheral” issues.
Any thoughtful person has to pause and seriously think about a “god” who so poorly communicates with his creatures. They have to engage in some sober thought and reflection about the doctrine they hold, as well as to the whole issue of whether such a god can even exist. What are the chances that, out of 34,000+ (and growing) interpretations, they have the correct one? Indeed,whether there is any correction one. Doctrinal diversity, from a Christian standpoint, isn’t a wonderful thing. It shows, at best, an incompetent god and, at worst, no god at all – just the devices and imaginations of men. If the Christian god does exist, he can’t possibly be concerned with truth or belief, since he has not clearly delineated what to believe, even about such an important topic as how to be saved! (We will look at this issue in another post.)
I believe this diversity of conflicting and confusing Christian doctrines is just one more argument against god and a mortal blow to the Christian god. Over the next few posts, I’ll look at several “core” and “peripheral” Christian beliefs and show the diversity of thought and belief within each one.