Devil’s Advocate – What the Romans did for us
Groupthink is a terrible thing, one of the greatest threats to critical assessment of the available evidence and one of the easiest to slip into. It’s all too appealing to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, and to settle into self-perpetuating thought patterns that are increasingly extreme and complacent because dissenting voices are filtered out. And that’s why you have to give the Roman Catholic Church a lot of credit.
I think the invention of the role of Devil’s Advocate in the 16th century under Pope Sixtus V was one of the most impressive acts of critical thinking in history. It created a formal role purely to challenge and question the received wisdom. For someone to be considered for canonisation, opinions of them would have to be overwhelmingly positive, but the Devil’s Advocate would ensure that groupthink didn’t turn the process into a mere formality.
Sadly, the post was finally abolished in 1983, and it’s notable that the rate of canonisations shot up after this. It’s also interesting that many CEOs of major corporations now recognise how useful it is to ensure that dissenting voices can be raised at the highest level without any fear that it will damage career prospects. British Airways even went so far as to employ Paul Birch as an official Corporate Jester, although he was sacked within a couple of years for “taking the piss”.
It’s very important to make sure that we’re open to considering alternative views, and that we don’t just settle into a routine of affirming our existing views, or retreat to a virtual echo chamber. So with that in mind, I’m going to make an effort to periodically look for the positive in religion, and Christianity in particular. It’s not necessarily going to be easy, but I hope it will be a form of protection from narrow and self-justifying thought patterns.
Image by Marlton Green, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0