Bold Atheism recently tweeted the following meme:
#atheist #god #religion #bible #faith #church #atheism #noreligion #religionfree #antireligion #freedomfromreligion #goodwithoutgod #nogod #godless #heathen #nonbeliever #skeptic #secular #humanist #freethinker #think #logic #reason #prayer #sin #atheis… https://t.co/C6MpS2iS9J pic.twitter.com/85cipxGvbH
— Bold Atheism (@boldatheism) March 18, 2019
What should we make of this meme?
I have mixed feelings about this meme. On the one hand and at first glance, there’s an intuitive appeal to the idea that if God exists and wants us to hold correct beliefs, especially correct theological beliefs, we wouldn’t expect 41,000 different denominations. On the other hand, the idea that there are 41,000 unique denominations can seem pretty implausible, depending on how one defines (and thus counts) “denominations.” I suppose a lot of this depends upon whether one is a “lumper” or a “splitter.” At the most basic level, a “lumper” might say that Christianity has three denominations: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (with Protestant functioning as a catch-all for everything which is neither Catholic nor Orthodox). But this might seem overly simplistic.
David Barrett, George Thomas Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson represent the “splitter” perspective. They are the co-authors of the World Christian Encyclopedia (2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2001). (n.b. I have not directly consulted their Encyclopedia and am instead relying upon secondhand sources which reference it.) Their Encyclopedia states there are over 33,000 denominations, but this number could be misleading because of how they define “denomination.” For example, if you thought “Catholic” counts as one denomination in their model, you’d be wrong; Barrett et al count each country in which a denomination has a presence as a separate denomination. Thus, instead of just one denomination for Catholic, there are 242 (broken down for various rites)!
Following biology, perhaps a more reasonable “middle ground” approach would be to impose a taxonomy of Christian denominations on top of Barrett et al’s work, with phyla as the highest category, followed by classes, orders, families, genuses, and denominations (species). If you did that, you’d end up with six phyla: independents, protestants, “marginals,” orthodox, roman catholic, and Anglicans. Borrowing from biological taxonomy, let’s divide these phyla into classes, orders, families, genuses, and denominations. We would then get something like this:
|Anglicans||High Church Anglican||High Church Anglican||High Church Anglican|
|Independent||Apostolic||Independent Apostolic||African Independent Apostolic|
|Protestant||Lutheran||Lutheran World Federation||Evangelical Lutheran Church in America|
|Marginals||Latter-day Saints (Mormons)||Mormon Fundamentalism||Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints|
|Orthodox||Greek||Greek Orthodox||Greek Orthodox|
|Roman Catholic||Latin-rite Catholic||Latin-rite Catholic||Latin-rite Catholic|
Note: For readability purposes, I have excluded the rightmost columns (for denomination and genus).
In taxonomic terms, it seems misleading to use a raw count of denominations, genuses, families, or maybe even orders as a way to represent theological diversity in Christendom. On the other hand, counting the number of phyla or classes does seem appropriate. I’m not sure what the number of unique classes in Barrett et al’s work is, but I’m confident it is much less than 33,000.
I’m not really sure what follows from all of this, but this is interesting. What do you think?