I recently heard a Christian author promoting his book, and in doing so he claimed that the book’s message must truly be from God since it had sold far more copies than anyone had expected. In essence, unexpected book sales equaled evidence of divine inspiration.
Churches often use a similar metric. Attendance up? We must be following God’s plan. Conversely, churches that are struggling to fill the pews are often looked at askance: that’s what you get for failing to preach the Bible and properly minister to your flock.
This argument also crops up in apologetics: Christianity succeeded against daunting odds, so it must be true. Early Christians faced horrible persecution and death; the nascent faith surely would have fizzled out if wasn’t truly from God.
But is this the right way to go about understanding God? Does he speak to us through book sales and church attendance? Does the numerical success of a religion reveal something about the truth of that religious belief? These are really just examples of argumentum ad numerum — appeal to the number — a fallacious form of reasoning that evaluates the truth of a proposition not on its own merits, but instead on the basis of its popularity.
The astounding and unexpected success of Fifty Shades of Grey hardly means that it’s a message from God, or even that it has literary merit. The largest church in America doesn’t have a corner on truth over and above all other American megachurches, and isn’t necessarily any closer to God than the neighborhood church down the street from where you live. Christianity’s success owes as much to a fortuitous conversion as to divine fiat. And if Islam gains the upper hand in the numbers, does it then become the “true” revelation of God?
Arguments based on numerical achievements generally don’t accomplish what was intended by those who use them, but such successes shouldn’t be discounted entirely. Book sales and movie box office receipts rarely reflect the quality of the content being consumed, but they do say something important about those doing the consuming. Such statistics mirror our inclinations and proclivities in a way that is sometimes disturbingly honest. And while it might be easy to scoff at the whims of popular culture, religious practice is not immune to the superficial fancies of human existence — and all too often seems especially susceptible to the very worst of cultural conformity.
Of course God might speak to us through numbers — but who’s to say he’s a fan of large numbers? Maybe he’s rooting for the underdog (you know, like the whole deal with Jesus?), so we should be taking a closer look at cinematic bombs and literary failures rather than the over-achieving successes that occupy but a fleeting moment in the public eye.
Or better yet, maybe we should respond to successes and failures with gracious humility, recognizing that there’s no shortcut to truth, that our own ego and desire for affirmation often cloud our judgement and that God is bigger than book sales or church attendance.