Divide and Conquer 

The Lord prayed that His people in this world would be one:

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:20).

But the Lord's body has been drawn and quartered, riven into a thousand pieces. The process of sect formation goes on daily; those interested may observe the toxic matrix of pride, ignorance and the entrepreneurial spirit active on Usenet daily. Believers were dividing from one another right out of the starting gate:

“For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19).

Old Believer by Vasily Surikov
Fedosia Morozova, an 'Old Believer,' hauled off to a convent, by Vasily Surikov

This state of affairs is a shame and a standing indictment of all Christians. Some believers seek to clear themselves by reassembling the scattered pieces into one under the banner of ecumenism. Yet others warn: there are liberal churches abroad in the world who refuse to confess the very basics of the faith, including the deity of Jesus Christ, and His bodily resurrection. What believer desires fellowship with unbelievers?

Nevertheless one cannot question the sincerity of those who address the problem of division by reducing the number of sects; they deplore what Jesus deplored, they desire what Jesus desired. What to make, though, of those who profess concern about the multiplicity of sects, then address the problem by increasing the number of sects...by one, their own? Human gullibility is such that this is not a null set.

Teachers like Alexander Campbell and Muhammad ibn Abdallah explain that they are not founding a new sect, only clearing up the difficulties into which those before them fell:

“Hast thou not marked those who have received a portion of the Scriptures, when they are summoned to the Book of God, that it may settle their differences? Then did a part of them turn back, and withdrew far off.” (Koran Sura 3:22).
"O people of the Scriptures! now is our Apostle come to you to clear up to you much that ye concealed of those Scriptures, and to pass over many things." (Sura 5:18).
"And we have sent down the Book to thee only, that thou mightest clear up to them the subject of their wranglings, and as a guidance and a mercy to those who believe." (Sura 16:66).

The net result of their activity, however, is that there is one more sect in the world than there was before they started. As is agreed on all hands, there were already too many.

You will not find the founder of a new sect who has failed to express, with all sincerity, his distress at the multiplicity of existing sects:

“When about fourteen years of age, I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon inquiring [about] the plan of salvation, I find that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection. Considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a Church it would not be split up into factions, and that if He taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, He would not teach another, principles which were diametrically opposed.” (Joseph Smith, Wentworth Letter).

As to what motivates the formation of new sects, one with experience in the matter diagnoses the problem as "mutual jealously:" "Nor were they divided into sects through mutual jealousy, till after that ‘the knowledge’ had come to them: and had not a decree from thy Lord gone forth respiting them to a fixed time, verily, there had at once been a decision between them. And they who have inherited ‘the Book’ after them, are in perplexity of doubt concerning it." (Koran, Sura 42:13).

The story does not end there. The Poet Dante situated Mohammed in the eighth circle of hell, not because he did not share Mohammed's regret at the multiplicity of sects, but rather because Mohammed himself had added to their number, and was thus a schismatic:

"No barrel, even though it's lost a hoop or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart...While I was all intent on watching him, he looked at me, and with his hands he spread his chest and said: 'See how I split myself!' See now how maimed Mohammed is!...And all the others here whom you can see were, when alive, the sowers of dissension and scandal, and for this they now are split." (Dante, Inferno, Canto XXVIII, 22-63).

While the language is ghastly, Dante must be excused for having borrowed it from the Arabian prophet himself, who begins his tale of the 'Night Journey' by reporting this same vivisection:

"Narrated Malik bin Sasaa: 'The Prophet said, "While I was at the House in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness, (an angel recognized me) as the man lying between two men. A golden tray full of wisdom and belief was brought to me and my body was cut open from the throat to the lower part of the abdomen and then my abdomen was washed..."'" (Hadith, Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 429.)

Mohammed puts a positive spin on this experience, showing you can put a positive spin on anything. Dante sees it rather as a fitting punishment for the crime of schism; he cut the body of believers, and was cut in turn. Truth is one, and consequently the multiplicity of sects is a standing scandal. But how can those who are compounding the problem retain any standing to complain about it? They should be careful lest, meaning to accuse others, they instead accuse themselves.

Three Case Studies

Mohammed ibn Abdallah
Joseph Smith
Alexander Campbell

Mohammed ibn Abdallah

So the unlettered Arabian prophet signed legal documents: "Then he said: 'Write "This is what Muhammad, the apostle of God has agreed with Suhayl b. 'Amr." Suhayl said, 'If I witnessed that you were God's apostle I would not have fought you. Write your own name and the name of your father.' The apostle said: 'Write "This is what Muhammad b. 'Abdullah has agreed with Suhayl b. 'Amr. . ."' (The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, A. Guillaume, p. 504). People unfamiliar with the Koran sometimes assume Mohammed struck out on his own from the start; that it was always his intention to found a new religion. Yet the story recorded in the Koran is quite different. Mohammed insists he is confirming prior revelation:

“O children of Israel! remember my favor wherewith I showed favor upon you, and be true to your covenant with me; I will be true to my covenant with you; me therefore, revere me! and believe in what I have sent down confirming your Scriptures, and be not the first to disbelieve it, neither for a mean price barter my signs: me therefore, fear ye me!” (Koran Sura 2:38).
"And when a Book had come to them from God, confirming that which they had received already...And when it is said to them, 'Believe in what God hath sent down,' they say, 'In that which hath been sent down to us we believe:' but what hath since been sent down they disbelieve, although it be the truth confirmatory of their own Scriptures. [...] SAY: Whoso is the enemy of Gabriel -- For he it is who by God's leave hath caused the Koran to descend on they heart, the confirmation of previous revelations, and guidance, and good tidings to the faithful..." (Sura 2:83-91)
"And that which we have revealed to thee of the Book is the very Truth, confirmatory of previous Scriptures: for God knoweth and beholdeth his servants." (Sura 35:28).

Mohammed insists at first that the people of the Book know and recognize him, though in time it would become painfully clear they were his most determined foes:

“They to whom we have given the Scriptures know him -- the apostle -- even as they know their own children: but truly a part of them do conceal the truth, though acquainted with it.” (Koran Sura 2:141).
"And when they hear that which hath been sent down to the Apostle, thou seest their eyes overflow with tears at the truth they recognize therein, saying, 'O our Lord! we believe; write us down therefore with those who bear witness to it.'" (Sura 5:86).
"And now have we caused our word to come unto them, that they may be warned: They to whom we gave the Scriptures before it, do in it believe. And when it is recited to them they say, 'We believe in it, for it is the truth from our Lord. We were Muslims before it came.'" (Sura 28:51-53)

Need a Koran?

Mohammed began by urging his listeners to verify the information he is telling them by inquiring of the people of the Book!:

"And if thou art in doubt as to what we have sent down to thee, inquire at those who have read the Scriptures before thee." (Sura 10:94).
"And we sent none, previous to thee, but men to whom we had revealed ourselves. Ask ye the people who are warned by Scriptures, if ye know it not." (Sura 21:7).

The people of the Book, Jews and Christians, would become an insoluble problem for Islam. They are supposed to confirm the truth of the Koran, but are in practice notoriously reluctant to do so. They would ultimately require considerable prodding from the police power of the Islamic state to keep their opinions to themselves.

Mohammed goes so far as to claim his new religion is the innate religion of every human being born into this world: "Islam teaches that every child is born a Muslim. Prophet Muhammad said, 'No child is born except on Al-Fitra (Islam) and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian, as an animal produces a perfect young animal: do you see any part of its body amputated?' He added, 'Had his parents been Muslim he would have also remained a Muslim.' Muslims believe that Allah predestined every child to be a Muslim." (Hussein Hajji Wario, Cracks in the Crescent, p. 173). Since converts from Islam to other religions produce cognitive dissonance, under this scheme, they are done away with.

Mohammed shares our disgust with those contentious believers who cause divisions:

"'And truly this your religion is the one religion; and I am your Lord: therefore fear me.' But men have rent their great concern, one among another, into sects; every party rejoicing in that which is their own; wherefore leave them till a certain time, in the depths of error." (Sura 23:54-56).
"Of a truth, this, your religion, is the one Religion, and I your Lord; therefore serve me: but they have rent asunder this their great concern among themselves into sects. All of them shall return to us." (Sura 21:93).
"And be ye not like those who have formed divisions, and fallen to variance after the clear proofs have come to them. These! a terrible chastisement doth await them on the day when faces shall turn white, and faces shall turn black!" (Sura 3:101-102)

...without displaying the slightest awareness that he, founder of a new sect, is himself of this number. Would that it were only one sect! Islam itself, of course, also splintered into hostile sects:

"Know then, my brothers (may God direct you in the right way), that the diversity in beliefs and religions, and the variety of doctrines and sects which divide men, are like a deep ocean strewn with shipwrecks, from which very few escape safe and sound. Each sect, it is true, believes itself in possession of the truth and of salvation, 'each party,' as the Qur'an saith,'rejoices in its own creed;' but as the chief of the apostles, whose word is always truthful, has told us, 'My people will be divided into more than seventy sects, of whom only one will be saved.' This prediction, like all others of the Prophet, must be fulfilled." (Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, Deliverance from Error, p. 10).

How did Mohammed, writing seven hundred years after Jesus of Nazareth walked the dusty roads of Palestine, work up original quotations? By introspection, it would seem. Muslim biographer records Mohammed's answer to a question, whether sincere or sarcastic:

"Abu Rafi' al-Qurazi said when the rabbis and the Christians from Najran had assembled before the apostle and he invited them to Islam, 'Do you want us, Muhammad, to worship you as the Christians worship Jesus, Son of Mary?'. . .The apostle replied, 'God forbid that I should worship anyone but God or order that any but He should be worshipped. God did not send me and order me to do that' or words to that effect." (The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, A. Guillaume, p. 261).

Or wait, who said that? According to the Koran, Jesus: "And when God shall say — ‘O Jesus, Son of Mary: hast thou said unto mankind — “Take me and my mother as two Gods, beside God?”’ He shall say — ‘Glory be unto Thee! it is not for me to say that which I know to be not the truth. . .I spake not to them aught but that which thou didst bid me." (Koran, Sura 5:116-117). Jesus, a hand-puppet, says whatever Mohammed would have said under the circumstances.

A frequent theme heard from detractors against the sufficiency of scripture, like Roman Catholics, is that the founders of sects were all geniuses who arrived at their divergent perspectives from intense study of the scriptures. A glance at reality cures this view. Those who watch Charles Taze Russell climb out on a limb, or Mohammed ibn Abdallah, are painfully aware of the very incomplete and imperfect information these 'teachers' themselves enjoyed. Mohammed's effort to reconcile Jew and Christian was hampered by his lack of understanding of what either believed. In the end, even his followers mistrusted his leadership; they withheld from him the writing materials he requested on his death-bed. The 'unlettered prophet' evidently had enough verbal facility to frighten his followers, or were they afraid he was going to doodle? Perhaps they had been burned by prior experience, or perhaps they feared his final illness had disordered his mind:

"Ibn 'Abbas said, "When the ailment of the Prophet became worse, he said, 'Bring for me (writing) paper and I will write for you a statement after which you will not go astray.'"
(Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 3, Number 114).
"Narrated Said bin Jubair:

"Ibn 'Abbas said, 'Thursday! What (great thing) took place on Thursday!' Then he started weeping till his tears wetted the gravels of the ground. Then he said, 'On Thursday the illness of Allah's Apostle was aggravated and he said, "Fetch me writing materials so that I may have something written to you after which you will never go astray." The people (present there) differed in this matter and people should not differ before a prophet. They said, "Allah's Apostle is seriously sick." The Prophet said, "Let me alone, as the state in which I am now, is better than what you are calling me for." The Prophet on his death-bed, gave three orders saying, "Expel the pagans from the Arabian Peninsula, respect and give gifts to the foreign delegates as you have seen me dealing with them." I forgot the third (order).'"
(Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 288. See also: Sahih Bukhari Volume 9, Book 92, Number 468; Volume 7, Book 70, Number 573; Volume 5, Book 59, Number 717.)

What was the third instruction, that his followers forgot? I like to think it was the instruction to retain due modesty, because Mohammed had started out intending to confirm, not overturn, God's prior revelation, and it was only his lack of information that led him to found a new religion:


Joseph Smith

The resemblance of this nineteenth century American seer's career to that of Mohammed ibn Abdallah is so strong as to suggest conscious patterning. Indeed he suggests so himself: ". . .that like Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was, 'the Alcoran or the Sword,' so should it be with us. . ." (quoting Joseph Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, p. 226, Essentials in Church History). Perhaps young Joseph enjoyed Washington Irving's lively biography of the prophet; certainly that would explain the prevalence of 'cimiters=scimitars' in the armory of America's aboriginal inhabitants.

To the revolutionary French savants, it was self-evident that, after their enlightened day, there would be no new religions: "I may venture to say that no more new sects will be formed. . .at least among polished and civilized nations." (Caritat, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas; Marquis de Condorcet; Claude, Antoine Louis; Comte Destutt de Tracy; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien. The Works of Marquis de Condorcet (3 Books With Active Table of Contents) (Kindle Location 4096). Commentary on Montesquieu's 'Spirit of the Laws,' Book XXV). Is it possible to be more wrong? Joseph Smith established a brand new religion in the nineteenth century, as did Mary Baker Eddy. Nor were they even done with new advents of God, as Wallace D. Fard and Father Divine would prove. Though Joseph's religion was new, the tune was familiar.

The pagans used to tell the tale of the 'Ring of Gyges,' which made its wearer invisible, posing the conundrum: if you could do anything and get away with it, what would you do? Joseph and Mohammed found themselves in a like circumstance: when they spoke, those around them thought they heard the voice of God. So what did they do? They accumulated wives and political power. When God spoke, He vented against Mohammed's wives for complaining about Mary the Christian slave girl, or about Mohammed's acquisition of his adoptive son's wife. But perhaps God was not speaking at all. After all He has made His thoughts on this type of behavior clear enough. Nevertheless the 'we're married in the eyes of God' pick-up line snares the gullible to this very day:

"A former pastor of a northwest Indiana mega-church who has admitted having a sexual relationship with an underage parishioner exchanged hundreds of text messages with the girl and told her Jesus Christ sanctioned their relationship, prosecutors say." (Chicago Tribune, Prosecutors: Indiana Pastor Told Girl Jesus Sanctioned Sexual Relationship, online March 14, 2013).

Both these men and their followers experienced persecution, to which they retaliated with a tit-for-tat alacrity that rose to the level of actual pre-emption. In Mohammed's case, his readiness to take up arms plunged the world into war for the next millenium. Both men found themselves delivering messages from God, yes sir, bona fide, verbally inspired missives, indicating that God wanted the recipients to have sex with the bearer. Both men began their prophetic venture troubled in conscience by the multiplicity of sects, and ended by founding their own religions. Mohammed ibn Abdallah could not peer through the mists of time and see a kindred spirit in Joseph, but Joseph did look backward and see the parallels himself:

"If the people will let us alone, we will preach the gospel in peace. But if they come on us to molest us, we will establish our religion by the sword. We will trample down our enemies and make it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. I will be to this generation a second Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was 'the Alcoran or the Sword.' So shall it eventually be with us — 'Joseph Smith or the Sword!'" (Joseph Smith, quoted p. 102, Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven).

Alexander Campbell

This Irish immigrant came to America bearing a novel interpretation of John 3:5,-- though it was not really novel, it was the traditional Roman Catholic reading of that verse. His followers do not describe themselves as this man's followers, even when they repeat his views verbatim, nor do they describe their fellowships as 'denominations,' thus keeping clear of the sin of denominationalism. But what's in a name?

The worst that bad religion can get is, tragically, unimaginably bad. Jim Jones sent nearly a thousand of his followers to an early death by suicide and murder. At their worst, false religionists are locked in a contest with rival notorious atheists like Mao Zedong and Pol Pot to see how many innocent people they can wipe off the face of the earth.

The more routine cases of religious malpractice include the dime-a-dozen false Messiahs, date-setters, and opportunists. Some organizations, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, rack up multiple 'wrong guesses:' 1914, 1975. The problem is not that people don't eventually catch on; according to the Pew polling organization, only a minority of those raised as Jehovah's Witnesses stick with the religion. The problem is that when they walk out the door they keep on walking. Would that they would turn and find a church that believes and preaches the Bible! False religion cannot save, but it gives just enough of a dose of religion to immunize the recipient against the real thing:

Like LighningDate SettingErgun Caner

Another common cause of religious strife is acculturation. For instance, in the early Christian centuries, Gentile converts, who lived in an altogether pagan world, often tried to put new wine into old bottles when they first heard the gospel. They tried to fit the new proclamation into their existing theological categories. The resulting Christian/pagan blend is called gnosticism:

Many people wanted nothing to do with the blended product, which is half pagan and half Christian, and so there's a severance between the purists and the compromisers. An instance of this today is the split between fundamentalists and liberals.

'Religion,' offered by New Atheist authors as if it were a compact and homogeneous category, is in reality one of the most far-flung, scattered and heterogeneous categories imaginable. It spans the gap between heaven and hell: between the nihilism and hatred of humanity of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, and the simple love and service of Bible churches. It can serve the devil, or the living God:

New Testament Early Church
Albigensian Crusade Waldensians
Michael Servetus What Went Wrong?
Canaan Constantine
No True Scotsman Pagan Intolerance
Atheist Mass Murder Islam
The Crusades All or Nothing

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