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.

DevilI 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

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

3 responses to “Devil’s Advocate – What the Romans did for us”

  1. unkleE says :

    “I’m going to make an effort to periodically look for the positive in religion, and Christianity in particular”

    Excellent. It’s easy if you look at the evidence! : ) You can do it!!!

  2. Takis Konstantopoulos says :

    Hi, interesting posting.

    I discovered it after publishing this posting on my blog, trying to find an answer to some questions posed there:

    We can’t be sure that whatever caused the Advocate to stop being used wasn’t the same as cause the rist. It is a causality thing — a science issue. Thus, we still don’t know why the rise.
    We don’t know why the advocate was invented so late either?

    Would you happen to have an answer or reference?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      No, afraid not. There’s no way of demonstrating where the causation lies from a simple observation of the facts as you have them, because we can’t run a control. The best we can do is to draw some inferences based on the facts available.

      In fact, I’d note that the exponential growth in the number of saints that you observe is already underway long before the post was abolished. This suggests to me that there’s a separate cause, leading to the twin effects of more saints and the abolition of the Advocate.

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