Friday, October 2, 2020

Should we see Christian division as a scandal?

[I am now thinking that the main point of this post may be mistaken for the reasons I state my in 11:58 AM October 5, 2020 comment. Nonetheless, I think the Bayesian stuff at the bottom of the post may be correct, and so perhaps the disunity between Christians should not as such count as evidence against the truth of Christianity.]

It is often said that the fact that Christianity is divided into multiple denominations is a scandal and a tragedy. Now, in one sense the question of scandal is empirical: are people led away from the truth by this division? I don’t know the answer to the empirical question. On the one hand, it seems likely that some are. On the other hand, if all Christians had exactly the same doctrine, I suspect many would be suspicious of whether this unity is produced by the strength of the evidence or by social control.

But in any case, the question I want to address is not empirical, but rather whether it makes sense to be intellectually scandalized by the division of Christianity into multiple denominations and whether we should see it as a tragedy. And here there is a point that I have never seen address: when we discuss Christian division, we need to get clear on what we are comparing it to.

For the sake of argument (but not contrary to fact!) let’s suppose that if there is a true version of Christianity, it is the Catholic one. My argument will if anything be more compeling if a smaller denomination is singled out as the best candidate for the truth. Then, rounding to the nearest billion, we live in this world:

  • w1: 8 billion people, of whom 2 billion are Christians, of whom 1 billion are Catholic and the other billion are divided among multiple

But now compare to this world:

  • w2: 8 billion people, of whom 1 billion are Christians, all of whom are Catholic.

This is a world with no religious division. But from the Christian point of view is there reason to think this is a better world? Assuming the true version of Christianity is Catholicism, in w1 and w2 we have an equal number of people who identify with the true version of Christianity. But in w1 there is another billion people who identify with other versions of Christianity. If Catholicism is the true version of Christianity, still these other versions are closer to the truth that not being a Christian is. (And a Christian who thinks Catholicism is not the true version of Christianity will presumably think that w1 is much better than w2.)

If the the relevant contrast to our denominationally divided world w1 is w2, then there is no tragedy and no one should be scandalized by the denominational division.

I suppose that when one thinks of the denominational division as a tragedy and a scandal, one is comparing w1 to something like:

  • w3: 8 billion people, of whom 2 billion are Christians, all of whom are Catholic.

And, indeed, if Christianity is correct and the right version of Christianity is Catholicism, then as far as these numbers go, w3 is better than w1.

So, it all depends on what we are comparing the denominational division scenario to: are we comparing it to a scenario where the actual world’s non-Catholics (still assuming arguendo that the normative form of Christianity is Catholicism) aren’t Christian or to a scenario where they are Catholic?

Moreover, it is clear that even if a Catholic says that it is a tragedy that a billion Christians aren’t Catholic, it is a much greater tragedy that 7 billion humans aren’t Catholic, and 6 billion of them aren’t even Christian.

What if we don’t care about numbers, and just care about the fact of division? Suppose, abstractly, that there is a theistic religion R. Should we see significant division between adherents of R as evidence for R, against R or neutral? From a Bayesian point of view, one question to pose seems to be:

  1. Given that R is the true religion, would we expect to see significant division or unity among the adherents of R?

Here is an argument for the unity answer. If God exists, he wants people to know the truth, so we would expect that everyone or nearly everyone should subscribe to the correct form of R, call that form R1, and if that’s true, then of course nearly all adherents of R will be adherents of R1.

But thinking about it this way mixes up two different arguments against Christianity: the argument from disunity and the argument from the fact that most people aren’t Christian. It’s the argument from disunity that we want to evaluate. To that end, instead of asking (1), I think we should ask:

  1. Given that R is the true religion and yet the majority of human beings does not subscribe to R, would we expect to see significant division or unity among the adherents of R?

But now I don’t think we have much reason to say that we should expect unity. Let’s say that abstractly we have versions R1, ..., Rn of religion R, that R1 is in fact the correct one, and that all the versions agree on some fundamental claims F definitive of R as such. So, should we expect that all those who accept F should accept R1 as well?

I see one main reason to think this: God wants us to know the truth. But it is already a part of the background assumptions in (2) that God’s desire that we know the truth does not result in the majority of humans subscribing to R, much less R1. Given this part of the background, why should we expect the majority of those humans who subscribe to F to accept R1?

Now, it may be that some religions are obviously logically interwoven, such that if one accepts the fundamental claims, the rest follows with sufficient obviousness that we would expect the vast majority of people who accept the fundamental claims to accept the less fundamental ones. But it seems to me that there is little reason a priori to think that the true religion should have such obvious logical interweaving.

So, I don’t think that given both that R is the true religion and that the majority of people do not accept R, I do not think we have reason to expect unity among the adherents of R. Indeed, we might reasonably expect that if there is a true version R1 of R, there will be a significant core of people who accept R1 and then a penumbra of people who accept some parts of R1 but reject others, thereby landing themselves in some other version Ri of R.

In light of this, it seems to me that once we have evidentially taken into account the fact that the majority of people are not Christians, the further fact that the Christians are denominationally divided does not seem to be significant evidence against Christianity.


ASBB said...

Interesting post. What would you make of our Lord's high priestly prayer in John 17 which would seem to suggest that the one-ness of Christians serves a key evangelical purpose?

(20 “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22 The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. RSV)

It would seem that Christian unity is required to help the world know that God has sent Christ and is present with the Church. Though I wonder if this has *direct* bearing on your argument here.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suspect that empirically it is true that the division of Christians makes people suspicious of Christianity. However, my arguments suggest to me that they are not being rational in that suspicion.

Walter Van den Acker said...


The problem is that Christian division is a division of what started as a unity.
The True Religion claims it has never changed its views/dogmas in any significant way, but Christian division proves it has changed.
At first, 100 % of Christians adhered to the True Religion, but lots of them in fact did change their views/dogmas. So, what actually happened was that the Catholic Church, which was supposedly the true version of Christianity, changed into a multitude of versions.
And that is indeed a tragedy.
If one day only one person belongs to the true version of Christianity, then that person may believe that is not a tragedy or a scandal, but he/she wouldn't be too rational.

Benjamin Stowell said...

One can raise the point that this disunity is overstated. If these 2 billion Christians are Christians in any meaningful sense, then there has to be a unity between them. Presumably this unity would be loving God with all one's heart, mind, and strength, and confessing that Jesus is Lord and believing in one's heart that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Joseph Habib said...

‘And, indeed, if Christianity is correct and the right version of Christianity is Catholicism, then as far as these numbers go, w1 is better than w3.‘

Apologies, but am I missing something? Isn't w1 = w3 as far as numbers go?

Alexander R Pruss said...


w3 is better insofar as it has 2 billion Catholics. I got w1 and w3 reversed in that sentence. Thanks for catching this. I fixed it.


Suppose Alice leaves the correct version of Christianity for a merely partially correct version. We can describe the story about Alice in two ways depending on our emphasis:

Pessimist: Alice rejected 20% of the teachings of the correct version of Christianity.
Optimist: Alice held on to 80% of the teachings of the teachings of the correct version of Christianity.

Maybe a better way to put my main point is as follows. The proposition that Alice suffers from a unity problem is roughly equivalent to the conjunction of:
1. Alice accepts many central Christian teachings
2. Alice does not accept all the Christian teachings.
But the conjunction of 1 and 2 is not a tragedy: the conjunction of 1 and 2 is a conjunction of a wonderful thing and a tragedy. The tragedy is all in 2.

At the same time, you're right that the *transition* from acceptance of all teachings to acceptance of some *is* a tragedy. But my focus was not on the transition but on the current state of things.

Another way to put the point is this. Christians are much more united in the true faith (assuming this is Catholicism) in France than in the USA, but Christianity is doing much better in the USA than in France (because there are a lot more practicing Christians, and indeed practicing Catholics, in the USA per capita).

A yet other way to put the point is this. We come upon the aftermath of an explosion: one person is alive and well; another is missing one leg; and six are missing two or more limbs each. We point to the person missing one leg and say this is a tragedy. That's correct if we are comparing to the one who is alive and well, or if we are comparing the person to their earlier state, but it is misleading given the presence of the six whose state is so much worse.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's just occurred to me that many people will see the tragedy not so much in the non-acceptance of truth, but in other aspects of disunity, such as lack of common worship or even (especially prior to the last chunk of the 20th century) lack of mutual love. Now that I think about it, that may be a better way to see Christian disunity as a scandal and a tragedy.

Seen in this way, Christians will divide on the connection between this kind of disunity and the lack of agreement on doctrine. Some Christians will think that we should should not let the lack of agreement on doctrine stand in the way of unity in worship.

Others will think that a unity of worship absent agreement on doctrine would be illusory, misleading and maybe have some serious problems in regard to sacraments. Those in the second group--which includes me--will think that the lack of doctrinal agreement is the more fundamental problem. They may then mistakenly infer that the lack of unity of worship is a lesser problem. That could be a mistake: given two problems, one may be more fundamental while the other is bigger (e.g., when a viral infection causes heart failure, the viral infection is the fundamental problem, but the heart failure is the bigger problem).

This suggests that there may well be a deep flaw in the reasoning of my post. But I think there is still a spark of truth in it.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


What about Pope Francis's co-signed document with Ahmed El-Tayeb of Al Azhar that says God has willed the plurality of religions? This is not supported by Catholic Doctrine nor Islamic doctrine.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Why did Alice reject 20% of thr teachings of the True Church? This is what must be looked at.

1. Is this a case of invincible ignorance? Can some one raised in the True Church even have invincible ignorance? The answer is yes. It boils down to 2 things:

A. Catechesis and the failure to properly catechize.

B. A failure on the part of those who have the faith to live the faith.

Case in point - only 25% of Catholics believe in the True Presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Yet this is a required doctrine to believe in. Why? Either we are not teaching it effectively, or we are acting by our modern litturgical practices is if the Host were an ordinary piece of bread, by handing it out to people whose dispositions and unconfessed sins would exclude them because we don't want hurt feelings.

2. Alice does not have invincible ignorance. She knows well what the Church teaches. Chances are pretty good that the 20% of Church teaching she rejects is moral. And when we dig deep enough that is what we are likely to find. Alice wants to do her own thing and doesn't like the Church getting in her way. Yes she believes in God and Jesus, says she loves them, but ... And that is when she leaves for another church, one that is the 80% she liked, bot without the 20% she doesn't. Although it is 20% that is neccessary to have a stromg mature faith.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Let's take a second look at that optimistic view that Alice retained 80% of the True Church's teaching. I will use the analogy of Low Cycle Fatigue and turbofan fan disks. We have two fan disks, one 100% titanium and the other 99.99% titanium and 0.01% a hard inclusion. Now what will our optimists say here. 0.01% is not that big a deal after all the disk is 99.99% sound. But, what happens with that engine that has that disk when it is put into airline service? As the engine goes through its main idle-max-idle cycle the inclusion functions as a stress riser. As a stress riser it becomes a point for crack initiation. So far still no apparent problem, because the 99.99% of the disk is solid. However each take-off puts a cycle on the disk. Each climb and altitude change and thrust lever movements puts several subcycles on the disk with each flight. With each flight the crack grows microscopically. We have the following sequence begining with the initial installation of this disk:

T0, T1, T2 ... T crack initiation, T crack growth 1, T crack growth 2 ... etc... T fail.

Eventually the crack grows big enough over time to render the 99.99% disk unsound. There is just not enough to hold it together and it flies apart with serious consequences to the aircraft as when the high energy fragments ripped up the lines of all three hydraulic systems on a United Airlines DC-10 in 1989. The crew did an unrepeatable feat of airmanship and more than half of the occupants survived the wild landing.

Now what will the optimists say? The disk flew for years without incident? More than half the occupants survived let's be positive that means the glass is more than half full. That is better than half full. No. What happened was GE went to a triple melt process for titanium so that inclusions will not be formed.

There you have it. 99.99% truth. 0.01% error. Division grows here. We operate just fine for a long time, until the division reaches a point where a breakup cannot be avoided.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a very interesting analogy. In fact, it suggests that sometimes we may be better off with all-error than with most-truth-and-some-error. (E.g., a 99% titanium disk with a steel inclusion vs. a 100% steel disk.) The most-truth-and-some-error option might involve inconsistency, and from an inconsistent set of propositions one can derive any proposition, by the rule of logic aptly named "explosion" ( ).

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


I had a spiritual director a long time ago who always told me 98% water, 2% arsenic. That it will always be the 2% arsenic that gets you.

Now on the metalurgy of the titanium disks. Inclusions when they form in the melting process are brittle oxides of titanium, not steel. Due to strength and weight requirements, lightweight titanium is the go to material, never steel or steel alloys.

This disk I had in mind when I wrote my analogy was responsible for the infamous Sioux City Iowa United Airlines DC-10 crash in 1989. The disk was in service for 17 years without any problems.

Before we had Sully and the Hudson River landing, there was Captain Al Haynes who was in command of the United DC-10. He was hailed a hero and became a household name back then. I repeat the story, because many younger people don't remember this and he has faded from collective memory somewhat. Less known, but crucial to the cockpit team was DC-10 instructor pilot Captain Dennis Fitch. Fitch was on board as a passenger heading home to Chicago. He could have boarded an earlier flight and he never knew why he got on the later flight which was the ill-fated DC-10. It was masterful teamwork between Haynes and Fitch that resulted in just over 50% of the aircraft's occupants to survive. You can google up and locate interviews with Haynes and Fitch. Dennis Fitch passed away from brain cancer several years ago. Al Haynes passed away last year in his 80's. Today is All Souls day. Please offer up prayers for the repose of the souls of these two humble and courageous airline captains.