The many faces of Christianity

May 29, 2006 | By | 23 Replies More

When I was a kid, I was always curious about why there were so many different kinds of Christian churches in America: Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Unitarian, Congregational, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, Reformed Church of Christ, Mormon, Quaker, Shaker, Greek Othodox, Russian Orthodox, Christian Science…the list seemed endless. It seemed like there were more different versions of Christianity in America than there were non-Christian religions around the rest of the world (Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Bahai, Shinto, Confucianism, etc.). Later, I learned that those other religions also had many different versions (Orthodox Judiasm, Ultra-orthodox Judiasm, Hasidic Judiasm, Reformed Judiasm, Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, etc.), so Christianity is not unique in that respect.

Meanwhile, Christians were fond of telling me that the Bible was written by God and, thus, was both perfect and complete. Naturally, this made no sense to me given the cornucopia of churches. If the Bible was perfect and complete, then why didn’t all Christians understand it the same way? Didn’t God know how to write clearly? More importantly, why were there so many different kinds of churches and what were their actual differences? To my immense frustration, churches of different denominations didn’t have signs out front explaining how they differed from the other churches down the street.

Only recently have I learned some answers to these questions. First, it turns out that the number of different versions of Christianity and other religions that I can name are only the tip of an enormous iceberg. According to the “Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance” website (http://www.religioustolerance.org/reltrue.htm), there are more than 10,000 distinct religions on our planet, each one claiming to be “the one true religion.”

Second, it turns out the many versions of Christianity differ in more ways than I could ever imagine — some seemingly trivial and some seemingly central to the notion of what it means to be a Christian. For example, seemingly important differences relate to things such as communion, confession, baptism, free will, hell, predestination, marriage, women, sexuality, abortion, contraception, etc.; while seemingly trivial differences include questions about whether or not music is an allowable form of public worship, and whether or not the name of the church building can include the name of the town or community in which it is located. Turns out, Christians disagree about almost everything related to Christianity. Other religions appear to have similar problems.

Third, it also turns out many of the biggest divisions in Christianity derive not from theological differences (which is what I would have expected), but from struggles over *political* power, usually involving one group of “Christians” deliberately persecuting another. Makes me wonder not only how “perfect and complete” the Bible is (that it could foster such infighting), but also to what extent these warring “Christians” have actually read their holy book.

Fourth, speaking of the Bible, it turns out there are many different versions of that as well: King James, New King James, New International, English Standard, American Standard, New Life, etc. And these are just the English versions — there are versions in other languages, too, sometimes even multiple versions. Seems strange to me that a “perfect and complete” book would exhibit so much variety. Then again, maybe not, given that the earliest known versions of the Bible were written in Old Aramaic, a language that went extinct almost two thousand years ago. No wonder Christians disagree about which translation is the right one.

Fifth, not only are there many different versions of the Bible, but it turns out one reason why Christianity (as well as the world’s other major religions) has so many followers is that its holy book can be interpreted in many different, even self-contradictory, ways.  That’s why it appeals to so many different people. Thus, regardless of whether you support a woman’s right to choose, or want to stone to death women who have abortions, there is a branch of Christianity for you. Indeed, there is undoubtedly a direct correlation between the number of followers a religion has and the number of self-contradictory ways its holy book can be interpreted. In other words, the more powerful and influential a religion is, the more likely it is to be self-contradictory.

So, what is the point of this essay? It is to remind you (regardless of your religion) of two things: first, that you are almost certainly wrong if you think your personal religious beliefs correpond to the “one true religion” (even if such a thing actually exists, which seems unlikely); and, second, that since you are almost certainly wrong about the infallibility of your religious beliefs, then you should confine those beliefs to your home and religious sanctuary…and keep them out of public government. Public government should deal with public problems; it should not have to referee theological disputes caused by: (a) Believers trying to force their particular religious beliefs onto the rest of their community; or (b) in-fighting among competing groups of Believers who cannot themselves agree on how to interpret their own holy book. The more that public government must battle such religious problems, the less time it can spend on the real problems that public government was created to solve and which it is best equipped to solve.  People rant about frivolous lawsuits clogging American courts; I think it’s time to rant about frivolous religious bills clogging American legislatures.  Bills such as those that seek to ban abortions, ban stem cell research, ban marriage rights for homosexuals, or force the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools.  Such bills all have as their driving force a particular relgious belief — a belief that, as we have seen, is almost certainly wrong.

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Category: American Culture, Culture, Current Events, Education, Good and Evil, Law, Politics, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Science, Sex

About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (23)

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  1. Sujay says:

    Interesting interpretation about why Christianity has so many followers!

    And I think you are quite right. I think a religion is likely to gain more acceptance if it is not rigid, and can blend with other accepted beliefs, and gain a local character. That is most likely the reason why Hinduism survived Buddhism in India. Buddhism was born in India, and it reached its peak in the country at around 200 BC. That period in the country was called the "Golden Age" and "The Age of Enlightenment", and Indian kings were generally keen to explore new ideas and ideologies. Most kings of the time were fascinated by Buddhism's agnosticism, simplicity and clear philosophy. It caught on like a rage in the courts of the time, and though kings at that time considered it wrong to force religions on the people, they still encouraged it by building monasteries, and openly endorsed the religion. The religion soon caught on, and was soon threatening to usurp Hinduism, which was India's dominant religion.

    It was at this time, that India's Hindu leaders, perhaps unintentionally, found a way to save Hinduism : by accepting Buddhism. It was soon stressed by Hindu saints that Buddhism is perfectly compatible with Hindusim, and that Buddha was actually an incarnation of a Hindu god. Thus is effect, they said that if you are a Buddhist, you are Hindu as well, as you are only worshipping one "form" that Hindu god. Thus, Buddists, soon began to worship the original Hindu god (Vishnu), and his various incarnations considering Buddha to be only ONE of his "incarnations". And gradually Buddhists returned to mainstream Hinduism, with Buddha becoming a 'minor god' and eventually disappearing.

    The fact that Hinduism has thousands of gods has clearly been to its advantage, as alien gods can simply be integated by adding them to the list of the already many existing incarnations of god. But this can work to its disadvantage as well. Often, Christian groups here use this strategy to introduce Jesus. Jesus is initially introduced as a 'miracle god' to many people here, who usually just add him as one more god that they can worship, when they want miracles. Thus, first generation converts usually believe in both Jesus as well as Hindu gods. However, Christian missionaries do encourage believers to give a slight push in their attention given to Jesus, ensuring that he gradually comes to attain the position of "No.1 god", over several generations, until a point comes when the Hindu gods are close to forgotten.

  2. Horizon says:

    I can see where you have a good point. But let me say a few things. I have studied Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. I have also spent the last 15 years a christian. I know very well that the language translations are not perfect. I also understand as an Ancient History Major, that without understand the language and the culture of a time period it is near impossible to fully comprehend what is written.

    That being said, the biggest problem with christianity is not the bible or churches, but christians. When there is a document and people of various experiences and cultures, it is not suprising that certain moral issues would vary. People see everything in a different light. That is exactly one of the things Jesus said to his disciples and also against the Pharasies and Saducees. It is another reason the main concept taught by the Apostle Paul(who wrote most of the New Testament) was that the foundation for christianity was not laws and regulations but Jesus Himself. Which is the one chain that links all of the various denominations together. It is not what they think about controversial issues but about what they think about Jesus that matters in the long run.

    Another thing about morality. There is a factual difference between religious morality and social morality. Religious morality varies by the religion and doctrine. Social morality is different all together. It is set by the communities, social status, media, and a small part by personal comfort. That is why so many of these issues vary from state to state. A community in a small town in Georgia will have different viewpoints that a busy city in Sacramento. So they would both have different opinions on what is moral and what is not. You could never have a nude beach in the middle of Arkansas if there was a beach. Not because it is wrong or anything of the sort. But because the social enviroment is not familiar or use to it. Change takes time. And it also takes the right conditions.

    I don't think that the moral conservatives should dictate everything that happens in the country or base laws on what they think is a doctrine. However there are certain social moral issues that run parallel to christian doctrine. A majority of America was not comfortable with same sex marriage 20 years ago, but now those numbers are changing. The same is true with alcohol, hense prohibition, and things like abortion. The social tide changes back and forth and you can never really predict where it will head. The morality in one country may also completely differ from another.

    And let me finish by saying that there are misconceptions in every religion. And that is because many do not really know what they believe and sometimes worse, they do not understand why they believe something. One example in christianity are people who run around and tell people to get "saved" so they do not go to hell. Well you can trust me when I say that it is no where in the bible. The bible itself says thay Christianity's Jesus died for one reason alone, and that was to restore a relationship between God and Man. So the whole "do this or go to hell" theory is completely off.

    But you can't judge anyone too much based on their beliefs. People all have different experiences and are all searching for the same thing. Everyone is looking for one thing and that is the truth. They just all look in different ways and different directions. And as cliche as it is to say, the statement is true; "No one will really know the truth until after they die". So until then it is best to be tolerant of everyone. Because anyone can be wrong.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    I enthusiastically applaud both of the above comments. Sujay's comment about Hinduism helps me understand a religion I know very little about, while simultaneously highlighting an important similarity to Christianity (i.e., that both religions have probably succeeded, in part, by absorbing indigenous beliefs). Likewise, Horizon's comment provides valuable insights into the roots of moral values (e.g., resting them on a foundation that is fluid along the axes of both time and place, making them understandable only within their particular, unique context). I personally found both comments to be very insightful, and I am grateful to the authors for submitting them. Thank you both!

  4. JENNIFER says:

    INTERESTING ARTICLE BUT AFTER READING IT I THANK

    G-D I AM JEWISH……SHALOM MY FRIENDS……:)

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Well, Jennifer, I'm no expert on Judaism, but there are quite a few different faces of that faith, too: Orthodox Jew, Sephardi Jew, Ashkenazi Jew, Mizrahi Jew, Bukharan Jew, Igbo Jews, Samaritans…the list goes on. Moreover, the Bible tells us that "Jews" originally included twelve different tribes of people from all sorts of different geographic regions. And, since the term "Jew" today refers to both a religious faith and an ethnic designation, there are ethnic Jews who practice non-Jewish religions; e.g., Christian Jews, Muslim Jews, Buddhist Jews, etc.

    In other words, Jennifer, declaring yourself "Jewish" does not insulate you from the plurality problem discussed in my post.

  6. Hinduism is a CULTURE, a way of life and it is not an organized religion like Islam or Christianity. It has no founder. It has no hierarchy. Just a lot of scriptures. Since it is a CULTURE it does not convert others to Hinduism.

    Hindu beliefs:

    1. Hindus worship One & Only God Brahman which expresses itself in millions of forms. As per Hindu scriptures, God is nameless and formless. As such human beings cannot comprehend the subtle God. So Hindus are allowed to worship that God in any form they like and worship that God with what ever name they like. That is the reason why a Hindu has no problem worshiping that God as Krishna or Jesus or Allah or Buddha or anything.

    2. As per Hindu scriptures, You DON'T have to be a Hindu to attain salvation. Any one, even an atheist who searches after TRUTH will finally attain slavation. Hindu salvation is known as SELF REALIZATION.

    3. Hindu salvation is the process by which a person is realizing that he/she is indeed the Atman [ the Immortal Soul within] and not the perishable material body.

    How can one attain salvation? Hindu scriptures state that people can attain self realization through one of the four methods. Those four methods are:

    A. JANANA YOGA; [path of knowledge]—Hindus have 6 philosophies called Darshanas.

    B—KARMA YOGA; [path of unattached, unmotivated actions and thoughts]

    C—BHAKTI YOGA; [ path of total surrender of one’s will to God]

    D—RAJA YOGA. [path of breathing and Pranayama–eradication of thoughts]

  7. Jesus says:

    First of all, this is my real name. You can thank my over religious aunt for it. I did, however grow up Catholic, although not by choice. I was born into it, period. I didn't choose to be a Catholic. My mother practiced it and so, inevitably, I would, too. That is the reality and the base for all religion. Which, in my view, seems to be the defining reason why these antiquated myths continue to perpetuate in this so-called modern and forward-thinking world. Not because of questioning it's foundation, but the blind faith that our parents have, which in turn gets passed down to their unsuspecting children. This is not freedom of choice by any means. In my opinion, it is the single most damaging and constrictive act that can happen to a child's mind.

    Secondly, your point about the variety of religious doctrine is loud and clear… to the logical mind, of course. One can't help but ask: If it is the word of god, how can anyone argue or question it?

    Well, as you pointed out, the amount of religious interpretation is only overshadowed by the numerous contradictions within those very religions. One prime example is how there are different levels of beliefs. The Fundamentalist or Orthodox sects following the written word to the letter, whereas others tend to be relaxed or Reformed (as in Judaism), only acknowledge some of the written word. Well, that in itself, is a contradiction. You can't be "half pregnant". These "part-timers" lack any credible association with their religion. If you question some of the written word, then it stands to reason, that the rest is questionable as well. Based on this, it becomes more evident that religion to them, has more to do with tolerance than faith.

    Overall, religion does the opposite of what it claims to do. Rather than bring people together, it does a fine job of separating them by emphasizing their differences. Everyone's equal except if you're outside of a certain group. Suddenly, religious tolerance has a short memory. Another example of religious tolerance is the creation of some of the bloodiest confrontations in our brief history like The Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Salem Witch Trails, Mid East Conflict, to name a few. It uses prejudice, hatred and fear as a means of control. It is responsible for the current state of regression and lack of critical thinking in many individuals. It is the one obstacle that the human race has to overcome in order to realize its full potential.

    I don't claim to know who or what god is, if god exists, but I know what god isn't. That is, what was written and claimed to be the word of god. That, is purely human perceptions written by human hands.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Jesus: Well written!

  9. Karl says:

    Jesus Christ was so tolerant of the mistakes of intolerant leaders that he let himself be crucified. Should we all follow the same example regarding the intolerance of others?

    If this were true then in short order the intolerant would rule with an iron fist. Logic and intelligence would succumb to inhumanity.

    Those who would choose to be leaders of a free world must however be willing to die for issues they see as central to law and justice. If the leaders themselves hold to no values they would die for, the freedoms we cherish will soon perish.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a series of cartoons of "Jesus and Mo," cohabiting, engaging in quirky and sometimes thoughtful conversation, trying to get along with each other. http://www.jesusandmo.net/2005/11/24/body/

  11. Vicki Baker says:

    Karl, I take it you are not a christian then. If you are, then what part of "Take up your cross and follow me" don't you understand?

  12. Karl says:

    I take it this is how this is how Vicki determines an individual's real philosophical predisposition, without first stating her own.

    I confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I believe Christ's greatest strength was revealed in His being bodily ressurected from the grave. This is not a scientific matter to be understood as though it could be studied by some hypothesis as to how God used an easily repeatable process that would work the same for anyone else under the same conditions.

    No one can die without sin as Jesus Christ did. We should expect persecution from our fellow human beings especially those who will not confess Jesus as Lord, but the passage you quote from is spoken to sinners with a sinful nature in a sinful world. The passaage you are referring to is from several of the gospels, I prefer the version in the gospel of Luke which reads (Luke 9:23) Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."

    The 'your cross" is not that we are meant to physically expect to be led to the slaughter everyday. We are called upon to die to self interest and pride everyday. Jesus' crisis of the cross happened before he ever was actually on the cross. His crisis began when He first committed himself to be the sinless sacrifice required for God's judgement upon the sinner. His journey began before the foundations of the world and continued every step of the way up until the time the crucifixion was fulfilled.

    The significance of this passage "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me," is that there is a point everyday where we must continually make a conscious decision to either keep following Jesus as Lord, or allow the world and our own sinful nature seek the easiest way out of dealing with the ongoing problem of our sinful nature. That sinful nature is never supernaturally removed from us while we are alive on planet earth. We are called to identify our sinful nature everyday and crucify it when it reveals itself by unrighteous beleifs and behaviors.

    It sure would be easier to accept that my sinfulness is just part of my "animal nature," that way I don't have to be responsible because good and evil are not even matters for concern to an animal. All that concerns an animal is its survival in a fleeting world without thought of life beyond this physical body.

    If a Christian is suppose to just rollover and play dead like a possum and leave the rest of sinful humanity to the clutches of their own sinful nature, then I guess I'm not a Christian by your understanding of the term.

  13. Karl said:—is that there is a point everyday where we must continually make a conscious decision to either keep following Jesus as Lord, or allow the world and our own sinful nature seek the easiest way out of dealing with the ongoing problem of our sinful nature.—

    Binary. Either or. You know, there's a third option, which is never seriously discussed by people wedded to an unprovable creed, and that is that we use our ability to think and feel compassion to overcome our shortfalls and be better. All on our own or in collaboration with other humans intent on the same goal, and without need of resorting to a presumed external power that will punish or reward us if we do what we think it wants—such wants always and everywhere explained by those who claim special relations with said external power.

    As a matter of fact, any forward motion along a path of betterment has been made by just such people, even if they act in the guise of those who claim to do so in the name of…whatever. If you're a better person today than you were yesterday, that's on you, whether you want to give the credit to something else or not. If you aren't a better person today than yesterday, copping out by claiming to be just a sinful human critter is still just a cop-out.

  14. Vicki Baker says:

    Karl, sorry if you felt that I expressed any judgment on your philosophical predispositions or commitments without revealing my own. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to give you a hard and fast answer on that, as I am somewhat commitment-phobic about philosophy. I can't claim to understand what the real philosophy-wallahs are talking about most of the time anyway. My opinions are not exactly a secret around here though and you can research them by clicking on my name under the Authors heading in the left column of the home page.

  15. Karl says:

    That's all well and good for the here and now. If eternity is not set in the heart and minds of some people then I wish them all the self-realization they can acheive.

  16. Susan says:

    I've recently read a book which added a great deal to my understanding of these issues – On Being Certain. I guess I'd describe myself as a cultural Christian, brought up in the church, very much appreciating the music and art that has been produced as a result of religious convictions (Bach's religious works are beyond compare) and feeling that we cannot understand much of what has gone before us without a grounding in the belief systems that governed thinking BUT on the central issues of faith finding it incomprehensible that anyone could be other than agnostic. The author, Robert Burton, mounts a very convincing argument that individuals may have a predisposition for faith/certainty (many athiests are just as dogmatic as fundamentalist Christians) as opposed to scepticism/tolerance for uncertainty. Being certain about things, in his view, is in most cases an emotional state rather than the product of rational thought, and it is a state which had evolutionary advantages. Furthermore, our brain chemistry is probably responsible for experiences which we interpret as mystical – such experiences can be produced by direct stimulation of particular areas of the brain. Fascinating book.

  17. Erich Vieth says:

    Susan: Thank you for your eloquent and thoughtful comment. A few months ago, I purchased Burton's book, "On Being Certain," but I haven't yet gotten to it–it remains on the floor next to my bed, along with dozens of other books I fully intend to read.

    I noticed that there is a lot of information about Burton available on the Internet. For example, here's an interview of Burton and here are some comments about "On Being Certain" from Burton's own website.

  18. Karl says:

    I agree that it is very common to remain agnostic regarding matters of faith, simply because of the way the scientific process operates.

    Even one of Jesus' own disciples wouldn't take the word or the other disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. Seeing, touching, feeling and experiencing for himself were required by the skeptic Thomas.

    Being agnostic should never be seen as facing in a wrong direction.

    One could make the case that being atheistic is actually antagonistic to belief in general because it believes something it can't prove yet claims to not believe in anything, that is besides naturalism.

  19. grumpypilgrim says:

    Karl writes: "One could make the case that being atheistic is actually antagonistic to belief in general because it believes something it can’t prove yet claims to not believe in anything, that is besides naturalism."

    Unless Karl is an atheist, he should not speak for them.

    Being an atheist myself, I would say it is not, as Karl asserts, the belief in something it can't prove; rather, it is the disbelief in things that are unproven.

  20. Vicki Baker says:

    Language is a funny thing. We can use the same word, believe, to refer to casual assumptions like, " I believe high tide is at 5 o'clock today" or to deeply held convictions like, "I believe God created the heavens and the earth."

    We can also use "believe" to talk about our values, as in "I believe in hard work" or "I believe in non-violence."

    So saying atheists don't believe in anything can be a back-handed way to say atheists have no values. Some people who honestly believe (that word again) that values come from God will actually say this outright.

    Fortunately, our society values freedom of conscience so we are free to have our own value systems as long as we don't use them to justify behavior that interferes with others' rights. Sorting out the rights and responsibilities of citizens, based on shared values, and codifying them into law is a consensus process in a democratic society. In a democracy, it's never OK to try to impose our values on others solely by appeals to divine authority.

  21. Karl says:

    You are correct, I can not speak on behalf atheists.

    I can only state what I would need to consciously choose to deny my current beliefs. To me, unless a person is a total skeptic they are going to believe in something about life in general. Those beliefs is general are a belief in something nonetheless, no matter if a person tries to state otherwise.

    In my opinion, agnostics are better at the null hypothesis concept. In my opinion, atheists have a full blown vested interest in finding truth that intentionally discounts the possibility of God.

    Therefore the construction of a closely knit, interconnected solurce of reasoned "scientific" perspective that can not be observationally proven or disproven either way suites as the best methodology.

    I do not claim to speak for atheists, I speak as one who tries to consciously reason what I would have to do to adjust my thought process to become one.

  22. Susan says:

    I have some sympathy for the view that values are not determined by rational thought, or even could be. I am an actuary so I make my living being rational and analytical but I think my values have a different source and are not necessarily amenable to the same sort of analysis. For example, it seems wrong (as opposed to irrational) to me to be wasteful, but a retailer might argue on rational grounds that it is good for me to be wasteful – economic growth, alleviating Chinese poverty etc relies on me being wasteful. I can find some countervailing rational arguments to support my view but that is an afterthought, not the basis for my values or what drives my behaviour. I try to question my values or biases; often, however, I come up against the limitations of my knowledge – GM foods feel creepy to me (and I can recognise that's a feeling not a thinking), but on an issue where there are clearly people involved in the debate who have very strong vested interests, I don't have the time or expertise to fully research the issue and, in any case, it may well be the very long term that turns out to be important, I can't reach a rational conclusion. Instead, I rely on my 'irrational' response propped up by the precautionary principle. Popper's thesis about falsifiability is also relevant – we can never prove that GM foods are safe, only that they haven't been proven to be unsafe to date – so 'rationally' it becomes a question of weighing up the risks. However, it is obvious individuals have very different risk appetites and this resists objective rational analysis. (On the other hand, the generally poor understanding of risks might be improved by application of some rational thinking.) A view about GM foods may be a bit different from a life guiding value but introspection suggests to me that the processes involved may not be that different.

  23. Karl says:

    grumpypilgrim stated:

    "Being an atheist myself, I would say it is not, as Karl asserts, the belief in something it can’t prove; rather, it is the disbelief in things that are unproven."

    Then one should be a skeptic willing to question all beliefs, including those with a lack of proof.

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