Religious Conviction and the Refusal to Admit Error

Religious Conviction and the Refusal to Admit Error October 7, 2015
“Dictatus Papae complete”, 11th century. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –


Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come? (Cyprian, Epistle 59 [55])

No Christian ought to argue that something the Catholic Church believes with her heart and confesses with her lips is not true (Anselm, On the Incarnation of the Word, 1)

Few people know this about me, but for a few years of my life I was very heavily invested in some religious/spiritual traditions that intersect with those that we might characterize as “apocalyptic cult.”¹

Now, I don’t mean that I gave away all my possessions and shacked up in some compound; but what I do mean is that I/we expected an imminent eschaton: dates were predicted, and I wholeheartedly believed that within a few years there would be a moment, or series of moments, when the world would change forever. (This was much the same situation that the earliest Christians—almost certainly including the historical Jesus himself—found themselves in; but I’m getting ahead of things here.)

To be sure, there was much more to these than just predictions of the end of the world as we knew it—which, for the record, we expected to be a decidedly positive event for all. During this time, these traditions were without a doubt the most important things in my life; and in many ways, this was genuinely one of the happiest and most exciting times of my life.

Further, even though I was overly idealistic and not nearly as critical as I am today, even then I was no fool. Despite that, in retrospect, several of these traditions were more transparently implausible than others, I gravitated toward the more intellectually and theologically sophisticated ones, like those advocated by Terence McKenna—an undeniably brilliant man, even if misguided.

If this seems like the beginning of a deconversion narrative, you’re not totally off-base. (And if you’ll bear with a bit longer, there’s a more specific point I’m driving at with the following.)

Now, the purpose and audience of conversion or deconversion narratives can vary. Nowadays, from those that you might casually encounter them online, I think the function of these narratives is pretty mundane: they seem to be somewhat of a welcome message to like-minded members of a new community that someone is now entering. But I think there’s another common aspect that speaks toward another purpose, and consequently to another audience: that the person who has converted or deconverted has now left behind their “erroneous” ways.

One major strategy here is to put yourself on the same level as those (now) on the other side of the aisle: to show that you put in the same sort of emotional investment and intellectual effort that they have, and yet you “evolved beyond” it. There can be a palpable amount of hubris in this, to be sure. Much of the impetus here is in extending a sort of invitation to people who are still (un)believers to take the next step in putting away childish things—one that you’ve taken and yet that others, stuck in their ways, aren’t quite mature enough yet to.

At this point it might be asked, are there any notable differences between conversion narratives and deconversion narratives (or, more importantly, with the process underlying these narratives itself)? I think so, especially when we speak specifically of deconversion to atheism vis-à-vis religious conversion. With this deconversion, more often than not there’s a movement from a very specific set of beliefs to a much more expansive one; whereas with conversion, it’s much the opposite. Even a conversion to a sort of vague, non-denominational Christianity is really the story of conversion to a very specific ideology—one where the crucifixion of a 1st century Galilean Jew (and its cosmic effects) becomes the epistemological and indeed ontological center of one’s spiritual life.

For me, personally, there was no earth-shattering moment where I lost my faith—it went out with a whimper, not a bang. At first, the failure of key predicted dates in our eschatological schema to yield any tangible results was rationalized, in the exact same way that often happens when prophecy fails: maybe there had been some sort of miscalculation; or maybe the sort of transformation we were expecting did happen, but was somehow more subtle or intangible than we could realize. But over the course of several years, as I began to think about these things critically in a way that I hadn’t been able to before, things changed.

At heart, all that happened was that my internal epistemological compass shifted from conviction to thinking that it was more probable that these traditions were mistaken. Again, in retrospect, it doesn’t feel like this shift was monumental. From a distance, the line between the two looks much thinner; and it seems like this could easily happen to anyone, given just a little critical room to work with.

There’s something simultaneously humbling and empowering about losing your faith. Empowering, because of the sort of realization that you are the ultimate arbiter of your own beliefs, what you accept as true or false in the world; humbling, because the process entails admitting that you were wrong, and the often painful process of working through that new instability.

But there’s an aspect of “humility” here that I think could be easily overlooked, having to do with the interplay between the personal and the collective, and yet to my mind is vitally important.

In many of these cases, it’s not just “I was wrong,” but “we were wrong”—the group with which you had identified, who shared your convictions.

On one hand, group dynamics seem to produce some new, emergent phenomena here that can’t exist in isolation. It’s easier to deflect criticism when you can cast one individual’s dissent as their having going rogue. This is easily characterized as their arrogance—thinking that they, a single person, could possibly know better than the collective wisdom of dozens, thousands, millions.

Of course, there are plenty of things in the world that the thousands/millions are right about and that the dissenting maverick is dead wrong on.
But people can also be right for the wrong reasons; and they can also be wrong about something even though they seemed to have the right reasons for believing it, or at least had the right intentions. This is the burden of being the ultimate arbiter of your own beliefs.

To take some examples: the fact of biological evolution is true, and accepted by every serious authority out there; but it takes serious effort for any one person to truly have a high-level understanding of the mechanisms of evolution. At the same time, there are thousands, possibly millions of otherwise reasonable and well-intentioned Mormons out there who nonetheless have little-to-no critical grasp on the origins of their religion and its myriad impossibilities—an understanding that some lone voice in the wilderness may indeed have, and yet be drowned out by the numerical majority of their community.

But the worst violation against reason comes from those who insist that they cannot be wrong, while also ignoring all standards of critical inquiry that might legitimately challenge their beliefs. Yet this ideology is in fact a fundamental aspect of some major Christian movements—including the largest one in history.

“Let God be true, but every man a liar,” as the apostle Paul proclaims in his epistle to the Romans. Again going back to evolution, this has been adopted as one of the rallying cries of fundamentalist creationists, who have no qualms about proclaiming that the most competent and well-intentioned scientists can simply be dead wrong on evolution. (Though whether they genuinely think that scientists are “well-intentioned” here is a matter of debate, and not a small number seem to sympathize more with the “liar” approach.)

Yet this claim of immunity to error (in the face of all evidence otherwise) is also an integral part of Orthodox Christianity, too—specifically Catholicism.

One of the most (in)famous examples of this claim appears in the 11th century Dictatus papae, attributed to Pope Gregory VII, and consisting of decrees on the Catholic faith. The 22nd of these reads Quod Romana ecclesia nunquam erravit nec imperpetuum scriptura testante errabit: “…That the Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness.” Although this is a particularly strong statement, this in fact picks up on earlier teachings, e.g. in the letter of Pope Agatho, written in 680 to Constantine IV and accepted at the Third (Ecumenical) Council of Constantinople—a letter which which the Council called divine perscriptas, “divinely written”²—where we read

Peter . . . received the spiritual sheep of the Church through a threefold commendation by the Redeemer of all, to be fed by him—under whose protection this Apostolic Church of his has never turned aside from the way of truth into any error whatsoever.³

In the late 19th century Pastor aeternus, the dogmatic constitution of the First Vatican Council, we read (echoing especially the 6th century Hormisdas formula)

And indeed, all the venerable Fathers have embraced, and the holy orthodox Doctors have venerated and followed, [the successors of Peter’s] doctrine; knowing most fully that this See of holy Peter remains ever free from all blemish of error [ab omni semper errore illibatam permanere], according to the Divine promise that the Lord our Savior made to the Prince of His disciples: “But I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail, and so that you, once converted, may confirm your brothers.” (Luke 22:32).

At first there may be some ambiguity here, especially with the phrase Petri Sedem, the “See of Peter.” Does this refer to the Holy See in general, or specifically to the Pope? (And in either case, what exactly does it mean that they’re free from all error?) The larger context of these lines is the idea of Papal infallibility, of which First Vatican Council represented the most monumental affirmation of. Interestingly enough, though—and probably not a coincidence—the ambiguity of the reference here was precisely an issue that Catholic theologians had struggled with in earlier centuries. Brian Tierney, speaking about the medieval canonists, writes

The canonists’ understanding of Luke 22:32 was decisive for their interpretation of the phrase “The Roman church has never erred.” Huguccio, we noted, observed that, when Christ prayed for Peter’s faith, the apostle stood as a symbol of the church. This idea was inherently ambiguous. It could mean that all the authority Christ conferred on the church was epitomized in Peter and his successors. Some canonists were inclined to develop their thought in this direction when considering the extent of papal jurisdiction. But, in discussing the maintenance of the true faith in the church, the canonists invariably interpreted the idea that Peter “signified” the church in a disjunctive sense, that is as implying a distinction between the whole Christian community, whose faith could never fail, and the person of an individual pope, who was a mere erring mortal after all and so only an imperfect symbol of the church. Typically they explained that phrases describing an unerring “apostolic see” or “Roman church” could make sense only if they were taken to refer, not to the pope alone, but to the whole congregation of the faithful. (Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350, 36-37)

There would be infinitely more to say on all of this.⁴

Suffice it to say, though, that it has been a long-standing tradition in the Roman Catholic Church that it is unable to err. Again, delineating what exactly this means has been a topic of intense debate. In more recent times, it’s been unambiguously qualified that the Church can only infallibly teach on matters of “faith and morals” (though, again, there’s a huge ambiguity with what this means). This includes both “explicitly infallible” statements of the Pope, as well as teachings of the “ordinary and universal magisterium.” (See the link for more info.)

I want to hone in on this last line from the long quote above, though: ‘Typically they explained that phrases describing an unerring “apostolic see” or “Roman church” could make sense only if they were taken to refer, not to the pope alone, but to the whole congregation of the faithful.’⁶

The necessity of this qualification comes not least of which because there have been several blatantly immoral Popes, and/or Popes who have fallen into obvious heresy, etc.⁵ Yet, conversely, there are very few teachings which are agreed upon by the “whole congregation of the faithful.” One need only think of how many Catholics (inadvertently) hold a heretical modalist view of the Trinity, or the wide support for contraceptives among Catholics. (The data from the U.S. on this is well-known, though there are some misunderstandings. A more recent survey of 12,000 people from 12 countries shows comparable views—notwithstanding, say, comparatively weaker support in East and Central Africa.)

In searching for a collective body of Catholics in which this freedom from error resides, then, we might instead look toward the ordinary and universal magisterium. As linked above, Adam Lee explains this concept that “If all bishops throughout the world at any given time agree on a particular belief, then that belief is considered to automatically be infallibly true and dogmatically binding on all Catholics present and future.”

Of course, here, we could think of a multitude of issues that complicate this idea. Do we really mean all the bishops throughout the world? How do we know when they agree? Further, what if a certain belief is universally agreed upon in one era, and yet denied in another? Is it meaningful to say that unerring truth could be historically contingent? What if there is some mass exodus of bishops, or some massive heresy?⁷

In considering similar questions, the medieval theologians were forced into all sorts of ad hoc explanations. Italian canonist Huguccio delivered the near inanity that “Wherever there are good faithful Christians, there is the Roman church.” A common idea here also focused on the idea that although the Church may be temporarily weakened or fail, it can never ultimately fail. In the anonymous Summa Cantabrigiensis, we read “the Church can be small; it cannot be nothing.” Hucoccio also suggests “Vices and mortal sin . . . shall never prevail so that there are no good persons in the Church”; and at the most extreme, Tierney notes the view of some Decretists that “the true faith had lived on in Mary alone at the time of the Crucifixion.” (Apparently not even Peter, until his rehabilitation!)

In Catholic theology, there have been centuries of squabbling over who it is that cannot be wrong (and in what situations), or what it is that cannot be wrong. At the end of the day, though, I can’t help but think that the forest is being missed for the trees. Why can’t the Church be wrong?

Of course, it’s not as if this question has been ignored. The answer, however, is usually simply “because Jesus said that the ‘gates of Hell’ would never prevail against the Church.”

But how do we know this is true? For the time-being, Catholics can (anecdotally) appeal to the fact that the Church still exists, and apparently thrives, at least in terms of numbers of adherents—though, again, there’s also the problem of just how far the laity is willing to actually faithfully follow the tenets of Catholicism beyond the name itself. Yet beyond this, apologists fall into a fatal circularity: that (they know that) the Church is protected from error because Jesus affirms this; and (they know that) Jesus was not in error because the Church attests to the truth of his teachings.

And finally, after this long tangent, I can return to what I started with.

At the real end of the day, there are numerous facts of reality that make the claimed truth(s) of Christianity—and Catholicism in particular—prima facie implausible, if not absurd and/or demonstrably untrue.⁸ Because of this, for those who do subscribe to these religious traditions—and who aren’t willing to egregiously discard or ignore the challenges presented by critical knowledge—there has to be something that transforms these impossible or near-impossible things into things that are true. Yet not even the tenets of reformed epistemology, however, can bridge the gap between belief in (a) God and the sort of things that must be believed so that specific tenets of Christianity are true.

Faith is what’s ultimately supposed to make everything hang together; yet this suffers from the same fatal circularity described above, re: conviction in Jesus and conviction in the Church. Without faith, notions like the Trinity are just a meaningless metaphysical jumble. Yet almost every other Christian doctrine also suffers similarly under critical scrutiny, too; and if everything else here is indeterminate (if not simply false) until faith comes along, what exactly is it that leads one around to faith—or confirms it—in the first place?

If “faith” within a specific religion is worth anything, it should be conviction in a certain body of doctrine; but in fact, taken in itself, it’s often merely a conviction that things can be adequately worked out so that there can be something worth having conviction in. (That is, it assumes the solution to the problem—or at least that the problem is coherent and/or that a solution can be arrived at—in order to justify the method of working out the problem to begin with.)

Unless, of course, there’s another foundation that faith rests on.

It’s here, though, that we’re finally back at the very issue that this post began at. Above all, faith begins with what we might best call phenomenology. This certainly is connected with what we call “subjective experience”; but, of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone is ushered into the faith via a Damascus Road experience, with the blinding light and voice from heaven. Rather, it’s deeper, and indeed more substantive than this.

In the light of faith, the world is imbued with meaning and hope and joy; and the world and one’s beliefs seem to hang together as a cohesive whole that just feels right. It’s this that C. S. Lewis spoke of in his oft-quoted line, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

But the thing here, though, is that while some of this might be understood as “cognition” simpliciter, it also treads dangerously close to what we’d simply call emotion—a sort of elation or otherwise a perspective unusually beholden to the (unstable) whims of biochemical and neurology. And this is a dangerous foundation to be building (purported) Truth on.

Can there be any doubt that this is where sentiments of “I cannot be wrong” emerge from?

It’s funny, then, how depersonalized this sentiment has become in Orthodox thought. Infallibility is not even so much this quality that any person possesses, but rather something that one engages in, or rather something that simply manifests itself if the right conditions are met.

The psychologist might venture to say that this is simultaneously deflection and projection. Among reasonable people, it is simply bad form to personally suggest that you yourself cannot be wrong (especially in those situations when you precisely can be); and so you let others carry that burden. But this is not something that just the layman does; but rather, as seen, this is something that has been done by ecclesiastical authorities for centuries. It is the Church, in the abstract, to whom believers have handed over infallibility—as if beliefs or doctrines could exist independent of someone to hold them.⁹

It’s here that we really need humility, to disavow such claims to infallibility. And it’s in the fact that we the ex-religious, too, have lived in a world imbued with meaning and hope and joy—yet one with strings attached, going far beyond the immediacy of experience to make all sorts of claims about metaphysics and historical events—that we believe we’ve earned the right to encourage other people to disavow such, too.

I had originally ended by saying that if the real sentiment behind personal infallibility is “I cannot be wrong because it would be too much to bear (emotionally),” then this is no good reason at all, but really conceals a hubris to match that of the Gnostic Demiurge. (Yeah, that was over-dramatic… and not the greatest analogy, either.) But in fact, thinking about it more, I think this may be exactly one of the steps that one has to take in letting go of infallibility—the recognition of one of its main foundations: the emotional core that’s protecting us from what we think we cannot bear.

Rather, what seems to lie before this is “my Church cannot be wrong,” or “I (or we)cannot be wrong because my/our Church cannot be wrong.” Challenging this may seem like an act of hubris, or recklessness, as it threatens that an edifice of two millennia be torn down, to be rebuilt anew, or even abandoned completely.¹⁰ Yet, in fact, it’s simultaneously bold and humble. As the journey of a thousands miles begins with one step, so the responsibility for error—the humility to acknowledge it—begins with each and every individual.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂



[1] There were three traditions I gravitated toward that were similar in this regard, and interrelated in some ways: Terence McKenna and his eschatological speculations; the hybrid Indian-New Age traditions made popular by Paramhansa Yogananda and some of his followers (cf. especially Norman Paulsen); and, most importantly, I was attached to at least a couple of New Age “channeling” traditions which were eminently eschatological, the most significant among these being Lee Carroll and the “Kryon.”

[2] The English text can be found here. (Epistula concilii ad Agathonem papam; cf. Gr. θεολογηθέντα.)

[3] Latin: spirituales oves ecclesiae ab ipso redemptore omnium terna commendatione pascendas suscepit: cuias annitente praesidio haec apostolica eius ecclesia nunquam a via veritatis in qualibet erroris parte deflexa est. The Greek reads quite differently: ὃς καὶ τοῦ ποιμαίνειν τὰ πνευματικὰ πρόβατα τῆς Ἐκκλησίας ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ τοῦ Λυτρωτοῦ τῶν πάντων τῇ τρίτῃ παραθέσει ἐδέξατο· οὗτινος ἐπινεύσαντος τῇ βοηθείᾳ… Both Greek and Latin text can be found here.

[4] A particularly interesting issue that this debate connects with is one over infallibility and the First Vatican Council itself, specifically over what has been termed by some 20th century commentators “moderate infallibilism” vs. “extreme infallibilism.” Francis Sullivan (“The Meaning of Conciliar Dogmas”) quotes Avery Dulles that “An infallibilism of this second type may be found in the pre-Vatican I writings of William G. Ward, H. E. Manning, and Louis Veuillot, and in the post-Vatican I writings of J. M. A. Vacant, J. C. Fenton, and I. Salaverri.” Here, the debate is over exactly when and Pope. Regarding these extreme infallibilists, Sullivan writes that

Their opinion was strongly and effectively refuted by a number of other Catholic theologians, and the resulting consensus was confirmed by Vatican II, which clearly distinguished between the pope’s ordinary magisterium and his exercise of the “charism of infallibility.”

Tierney notes that “[e]vidently the medieval canonists were moving in a climate of thought very different from that of the nineteenth century Ultramontane theologians” (38).

[5] For more on all these issues, cf. also James Moynihan, Papal Immunity and Liability in the Writings of the Medieval Canonists.

[6] In addition to Huguccio, this was also expressed by Laurentius Hispanus and Alanus Anglicus.

[7] The question is considered for bishops outside of ecumenical councils. As for historical contingency, Sullivan (2003:611) writes “the bishops at the Council of Florence taught that all pagans and Jews would go to hell if they did not become Catholics before they died. Since this is no longer Catholic doctrine, the medieval consensus about it can hardly be said to have fulfilled the conditions for infallible teaching” Welch (1998:18) writes that

It . . . follows, according to Sullivan, that if there is a breakdown in consensus on a point of doctrine about which formerly there was a consensus, then ‘it would seem necessary to conclude that this was not the kind of constant consensus that points to infallible teaching’. Sullivan points to the problem of monogenism and polygenism as an example from the history of theology which illustrates this conclusion.

The 1990s and 2000s saw a great number of back-and-forths on the ordinary universal magisterium in the relevant academic journals. As mentioned, cf. the work of Francis Sullivan; also Gaillardetz 2002; Welch 1998, 2005.

[8] I’d be happy to elaborate on this further to anyone who wants, but I really am trying to limit space here.

[9] Of course, the idea is that God ensures that the Church does not ultimately err. Needless to say, though, I think this is supremely ad hoc, and as circular as several of the other things I’ve discussed.

[10] And this goes beyond any distinctions we might make between “Catholicism” and other denominations, penetrating to the heart of Christianity itself.

[Edit:] Some more notes, not organized yet:

Paul Valadier, “Has the Concept of Sensus Fidelium Fallen into Desuetude?”


When we say that the church cannot err, we understand this both of the entire body of the faithful and of the entire body of the bishops, so that the meaning of the proposition that the Church cannot err is this: that what all the faithful hold as of faith is necessarily true and of faith; and and likewise what all the bishops teach as of faith is necessarily true and of faith.

Burtchaell (quoted by Bolin):

inerrancy, whether it has been in any given age stressed or inconsistently pursued, has been a tenet of every age of Catholic belief. It might even be better to call it a working assumption. Like its cousin-tenet, ecclesiastical infallibility, it has not really been probed; it has been taken for granted. A comparison with infallibility is instructive ….

In practice, infallibility is invoked as a safety clause in any matter that might threaten the Church’s existence. We have quite lately been told that if ever the Church put official endorsement on any teaching, it was on her absolute condemnation of ‘artificial’ birth prevention. Church authority, it was argued, could collapse were there any reversal here. This sort of theology has been known to backfire. Anyone with a student’s exposure to ecclesiastical history can recall, for example, that exactly a century ago Catholics were anathematized for holding that loss of the Papal States might turn out best for the Church. Garibaldi took them away. Church authority survived, to the surprise of some. Others felt it was even enhanced. The birth control issue has probably already been resolved in similarly peremptory fashion, and Church authority will survive even in its humiliation. . . . In the end, we should probably be more accurate to say that what God has promised his Church is not certitude, but survival.

I have digressed somewhat over ecclesiastical infallibility, for as a dogma it is as much an unprobed working assumption as is biblical inerrancy. The Church is confessed to be the alter ego of Christ, and it is quickly assumed that no error can exist in her most official utterances. Likewise the Holy Spirit is declared to have authored the Scriptures, and the inference is smoothly made that the Bible can teach no error.

Flanagin, “Extra ecclesiam salus non est–sed quae ecclesia?”, 356f. on Ockham and others.

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