Many Protestants (especially evangelicals) play the "ignorance card" sooner or later, in discussions of comparative religion, or polemical and "controversial" endeavors. It is an approach which is quite familiar to us Catholic apologists. The question is fair enough, I suppose, and has some weight prima facie; at least enough to merit this response! I believe, however, that this argument is fallacious for the following reasons:

1) There is no direct correlation between a religious body being doctrinally correct and the level of instruction and fidelity of its members. Ignorance, nominalism and heterodoxy can be due to many factors, none of which prove the theological falsehood of any given group. We can only judge by "the books" of a religious body, in order to objectively and accurately evaluate its truth claims.

2) There have been many bleak periods in Church history for both Catholics and Protestants: e.g., the Arian period in the 4th century, the 9th and 10th centuries, the 14th and 15th centuries, the so-called "Enlightenment" of the 18th century, c.1890-1960 (for evangelicalism). Corruption and revival tend to be cyclical and recurrent in Christian history. This is true for all Christian groups. And - obviously - it is due to human sinfulness.

3) The Protestants who offer this objection to Catholicism often neglect to consider their own massive problem of ever-encroaching theological liberalism and increasing moral compromise (and Protestants don't have "the books" and Magisterium to confront them as Catholics do). People like Francis Schaeffer, for instance (another mentor of mine, and virtually an evangelical saint) write books like The Great Evangelical Disaster.

4) {For the Calvinist objector}: The almost total demise of Calvinism (which considers itself - with much justification the pure, classical, "Reformation" brand of Protestantism) off the world scene (e.g., in Scotland, Switzerland, Netherlands, even the U.S.) is another analogous problem within Protestantism. "If Calvinism were the one true gospel, this couldn't possibly be . . ." But the Calvinist doesn't reason in this fashion. For him, Calvinism is true no matter how few continue to espouse it. The Catholic looks at things no differently, where matters of spiritual truth or falsity are concerned. So then, the same standard ought to be applied to both sides, and not selectively.

5) Evangelicals today are not so informed (as a group) as many of them would like to think. Ignorance is not confined to any particular religious category, but is a perpetual problem in all times and places. Thus it is unfair and silly for Protestants to throw stones at us out of their own glass house. For example, George Barna and William P. McKay, in their sociological survey of American evangelicalism, Vital Signs (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1984, p.143) found that:

They discovered that 40% of "born-again" Christians felt there was no right or wrong position on abortion (p.142)! This is scarcely different from the general public. I would guess from long-term observation and talking to Christian bookstore managers that only about 10% of evangelicals ever go to Christian book stores or even the Bible studies of their own church. So, sure, evangelicals (at the layman's level) are presently more "informed" on basic Christian beliefs than the average Catholic, but there is certainly a long way to go! Furthermore, oftentimes Protestant slogans are memorized and repeated over and over, but the knowledge behind the slogan is not particularly deep or impressive. I know this firsthand from long personal experience as an evangelical. And when Protestant liberals are included in the tallies, there isn't even much statistical difference. If Protestants are to insist that "Catholic" liberals are my Church's problem, then, to be fair, they must admit that Protestant liberals are their "church's" problem.

The bottom line is that a comparison of doctrine and Christian systems must be made on the basis of creeds, dogmas, confessions, or - generally speaking - the "books" of any given belief-system, rather than on surveys of the man in the pew or the "average" claimed adherent of a particular group. Protestants would expect no less than the most objective analysis of their beliefs, so I submit that they ought to extend this same intellectual and charitable consideration to Catholics as well, and drop the "argument from ignorance," which is invalid anyway, per the above reasons.

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Written in 1995 by Dave Armstrong.