One objection to the Catholic Faith I’ve been encountering frequently is what’s commonly called the “pagan influence fallacy.” When engaging in doctrinal discussions with Fundamentalists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or even atheists, one will most likely be forced to do verbal sword battle with the pagan influence fallacy at one point or another. In short, it claims that the Catholic Church was swallowed up by pagan influences as early as 313 AD (the year Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire) and lost any shimmer of authentic Christianity under the corruption of paganism. These claims are often asserted with no trace of historical evidence to back them up, no specific dates as to when the corruption occurred, and don’t tend to say anything about the abundant evidence we have of peculiarly Catholic doctrines already existing centuries before Constantine ever assumed the throne (see the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and the Didache for descriptions of the Catholic belief in the Eucharist before the year 100 AD). The first thing a Catholic should always do when the pagan influence fallacy rears its all too familiar head is demand evidence. Ask why it is that the person advancing the claim believes paganism overcame the Church established by Christ. Slight similarity among beliefs in no way means the two beliefs are identical, and there is nothing wrong with a custom if it is used in the proper way.
Jim Havens and I encountered just this type of belief a couple of weeks ago while evangelizing on Pensacola Beach. We had a robust hour-long conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness, which was interesting to say the least. While Jim and I were adamant about discussing the issue of authority (is it found in the Catholic Church or in the Watch Tower Society?) the gentleman continuously sidetracked our discussion back to two (what I thought to be irrelevant) topics: Christmas and the Cross.
The man claimed that because both of these items resemble some beliefs and customs of ancient pagans and are supported by the Catholic Church, the Church celebrates pagan feasts and endorses pagan customs.
For two blokes keen on discussing Church history, Apostolic Succession, and the canonicity of the New Testament (all authority-based matters), we were confounded as to why our friend continuously pressed these two “pagan” issues.
After reflecting on our time with our Jehovah’s Witness friend, I believe the pagan influence fallacy is so popular because:
1) It takes little effort to regurgitate an accusation one has heard time and time again from those he trusts (possibly in the Kingdom Hall, the Mormon Temple, or the hallowed halls of the Infallible Interwebs), especially if he has never heard it challenged.
2) The reciter wishes it to be true and believes it at face value, satisfying his minimalistic desire for evidence (an unfortunate byproduct of our intellectually-dying age). This is the case especially if he is comfortable and complacent in his chosen faith and wishes to remain there undisturbed (which Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly do – more on that towards the end).
No matter how deeply the person you’re speaking with is steeped in the misconception that Catholicism is no more than modern paganism with a little holy water sprinkled on top, you can begin showing them the truth of the Church by charitably deconstructing the logic of the fallacy and moving on to more central issues, such as authority.
Breaking Down the Logic
Just because there is a similarity between A and B doesn’t necessarily mean that A is B or that A caused B. In order to prove pagan-influenced Christianity, one needs a positive correlation and conclusive proof that the custom in question was derived only from pagan sources and that it is still used in the same way today with no transformation.
At the root of it, this claim (and others like it) is a combination of several types of fallacies:
· The genetic fallacy, also known as the fallacy of origins. This fallacy is committed when, “An idea is either accepted or rejected because of its source, rather than its merit.”
Examples of the genetic fallacy:
o The current Chancellor of Germany was in the Hitler Youth at age 3. With that sort of background, his so-called ‘reform’ plan must be a fascist program.
o A little girl believes that the moon and stars dance in the sky as she sleeps because her parents told her so and she knows they’re good, trustworthy people.
· The fallacy post hoc ergo proper hoc (“After this, therefore because of this”), which claims, “Since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.”
Example of this post hoc fallacy:
o The rooster crows immediately before sunrise, therefore the rooster causes the sun to rise.
· And the association fallacy, which states that, “qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another, merely by an irrelevant association.” Examples of the association fallacy:
o Jake is a con artist. Jake has blond hair. Therefore, all people with blond hair are con artists.
o Ana is good at mathematics. Ana is dyslexic. Therefore, all dyslexic people are good at mathematics.
It is easy to see how these different fallacies play into the pagan influence fallacy. In the case of the Christian Cross, the Jehovah’s Witness will assert that: because some pagan cultures used symbols of crosses, all Christians who use crosses today use them the same way the pagans did (the association fallacy); because the first uses of the symbol were in pagan cultures, and paganism is bad, the symbol is intrinsically bad (the genetic fallacy); and because the pagan cultures that used the cross existed before Christianity, the Christians took the sign from the pagans (post hoc ergo proper hoc).
One can see how, logically, this argument cannot hold water. In order to prove causation, there needs to be historical evidence demonstrating that Christians intentionally took the cross from only pagan sources and still use it in the same way today that the pagans did. They would have to show that Christians did not begin using the cross because they believed Jesus was crucified on one. Judging from the fact that the pagan cultures that used the cross as a symbol were located primarily in East Asia and the Americas and did not have any influence on the early Christians, this would be extremely hard to prove.
In order to find out if a symbol is pagan, you must ask what it means. If it is the “ansated cross” and wearers say it represents Egyptian signs of life, then it is pagan. If it represents the atoning, salvific death of Jesus Christ, then it is not pagan, but entirely Christian.
Symbols are subjective, not objective.
The great irony of Jehovah’s Witnesses using this argument against the Catholic Church is that many atheists will use it against Jehovah’s Witnesses. The atheist could claim that a venerated mother and child like Mary and Jesus are only copies of the pagan gods Isis and Osiris, Isa and Iswara, and others. He could say that some pagan gods were pictured with wings like God was in Psalms 91:4 or that Roman poetry and heathen myths held flame-topped heads to be omens before the Apostles ever experienced Pentecost. Some skeptics try to make a connection between Jesus and the ancient Egyptian god Horus, claiming that the Egyptians believed Horus to have been born of a virgin and crucified (both of which are, however, historically inaccurate; I’m merely using them to demonstrate how atheists will use the Witness’s logic against him). Examples could be multiplied showing that even the Jehovah’s Witnesses have beliefs that contain similarities to some pagan religions. The Jehovah’s Witness we spoke with admitted that he wore a wedding ring when he was married (some pagan cultures used wedding rings). He probably drives a car, which is a practice of many modern pagans, does that make driving bad? Pagans who had any scientific knowledge in the 16th century believed that the earth revolves around the sun, does that make heliocentrism false or evil? If pagan antecedents don’t invalidate Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, why do they invalidate Catholic beliefs? When Jehovah’s Witnesses use this claim against Catholics or other Christians, they are ipso facto shooting themselves in the foot.
In regards to holidays, the Church introduced feast days and holidays to celebrate only Christian beliefs. If there were any pagan holidays that coincided with Christian holidays, the substances were entirely distinct, and the Christians would have totally rejected the pagan celebrations (see the writings of early Church Fathers St. Athanasius, St. Justin Martyr, and St. Augustine to see how the early Christians vocally disdained pagan beliefs). There is no dogma that states Jesus was definitively born on December 25th, the Church does not claim to know the exact day Jesus was born. Christmas is just the day that we, as the Body of Christ, celebrate the fact that Jesus was born. It’s as pure and simple as that.
Subconscious Forces at Play
In the case of many Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is an additional psychological factor resting beneath the surface. The last thing they want to do is ask “suspicious” questions or leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because, if they do, they will be ignored at their place of worship and isolated from many of their family and friends (in this article, a convert out of the Witnesses talks about the abrupt consequences to asking “dangerous” questions about the organization: http://chnetwork.org/2012/03/from-jehovahs-witnesses-to-catholicism-conversion-story-of-lou-everett-jr/). The practice of separating a Jehovah’s Witness from the rest of the organization is known as “disfellowshipping.” In short, if one is disfellowshipped, he loses the spiritual home he has been building his whole life. If the consequence of your religion being false is the loss of your family, friends, community, and possibly your livelihood, would you be out looking into the Catholic side of things to see if there is any merit to the Watch Tower Society’s claims? Probably not. Subsequently, because of how culturally ingrained and personal the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith is, they are all the more willing to accept the Catholic Church as pagan without really examining the evidence for themselves.
We must keep these psychological factors in mind as we seek to share the truth, goodness, and love of Jesus Christ and His Church with Jehovah’s Witnesses and all those who are separated from the Truth. Make an effort to try and steer the conversation back from small, trivial topics (such as crosses and Christmas) to the topic that matters most: authority. We must also remember that it is easy to make assertions and invent theories, but it is hard to prove them with facts. Until there is such evidence for the “paganism” of Catholicism, I will be in the only Church that can prove from history that it was founded by Christ Himself, and not in an organization founded 1,830 years after Him by a man. Grace and peace to you.
Written by Zac Johnson