Dogma, in religions and other places

Most people are familiar with the dogmas promoted by powerful religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic church, evangelical protestant churches and some branches of Islam. The institutions claim they have sole possession of the truth, direct from God, and that anybody that does not agree is a heretic, someone to be avoided, and who may be punished.

Dogmatism is annoying, anti-social and causes a great deal of misery, both for people growing up under the power of the institution proclaiming the dogma and for some of those that interact with them.

It’s also pretty well recognised. One need only mention religious dogma and heads start to nod. People know what you’re talking about.

Despite the negative connotations the word has for most people, the leadership of the RC church does not object to the term and still uses it as a core part of its teachings. They invented the term, and use it without shame to describe propositions that the church says RCs are obliged to believe. When I was an RC I never thought to ask what happens if one does not believe a dogma. It seemed too impertinent. But now when I research it, the answer that appears fairly consistently across different RC sources is that it is not a sin to disbelieve the dogma, as long as you don’t say so aloud, because that might encourage somebody else to disbelieve it. That would be heresy, which is a grave sin, punishable by an eternity in hellfire. A few centuries ago, the punishment was lighter – a mere burning at the stake.

Although the RC church invented the word ‘dogma’, it is not the only institution to proclaim dogmas. There are plenty of dogmas in evangelical protestantism, and some variants of Islam are heavily dogmatic. Perhaps non-RCs would reject the application of the word ‘dogma’ to their essential beliefs, given the pejorative sense in which the word is mostly used these days. But it would be hard to argue that concepts such as ‘biblical inerrancy’ or ‘justification by faith alone’ are not dogmas for some protestant sects.
It would be a mistake to equate dogma with religion, because most religions are not dogmatic. It is just our misfortune that the three most dominant religions of our world: Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism and Islam have many adherents that assert an obligation to believe the relevant dogmas.

I am not aware of any pre-Christian religion that had obligatory beliefs. Judaism had many rules, but they were about practices, not beliefs. Even for worship, the injunction was to not worship other gods, or idols in particular. As long as you didn’t bow down or offer sacrifices to golden calves or statues of Ba’al, it didn’t matter whether, in the privacy of your own thoughts, you really believed Yahweh was the greatest god. In fact the Torah says nothing at all about obligatory beliefs, so far as I recall. Other pre-Christian religions, like Buddhism, the many variants of Hinduism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions also appear to set no expectations about their members’ beliefs.

Dogmas appear in places other than religions. Just as some protestants, while abjuring RC dogmas like the Immaculate Conception or Trans-substantiation, insist on their own dogmas, people who are opposed to all religions – the so-called New Atheists – can be as dogmatic as those they criticise. Classic New Atheist dogmas are things like ‘it is wrong to believe anything that cannot be proven to be true’, or ‘for all questions and human challenges, science is the best means to an answer’. For some militant atheists it even seems to be an item of faith that adherence to any religious belief at all must be a sign of stupidity. I know these dogmas because for a while I was a born-again atheist and subscribed to them. I used to listen to podcasts of debates between Christians and atheists about whether God exists, cheering on my side and hoping for the unconditional surrender of the other. Looking back, it seems such an odd thing to do. Neither the debaters nor their supporters in the audience ever changed their views one iota. Each side had their dogmas and stuck steadfastly to them. They may as well have both been shouting into the wind. But really I suppose they were just playing to their supporters. I believe such debates can never get anywhere because it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of a god, and any attempt to do either relies on presuppositions – usually unstated –  that one side will accept and the other will not.

I have not completely forsaken atheism. I am still atheist on Mondays and alternate Wednesdays. But I have forsaken the dogmatism that accompanies the more aggressive variants of atheism.

Dogmas manifest in wider circles than the theological and anti-theological. Other areas where they crop up are philosophy, politics, economics, psychology and sociology. People debate whether there is such a thing as objective morality, whether equality is more important than liberty, whether wealth really does ‘trickle down’ in a capitalist society, and whether most psychological disorders can be traced back to early childhood experience. Debates between evangelical christians and militant atheists seem mild and friendly compared to the vicious passions unleashed in a debate between a Berkeleyan Idealist and a Materialist acolyte of GE Moore about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a noise if there is nobody there to hear it.

I’m not suggesting that none of those things matter. It matters very much what political and economic theories are adopted by governments. They affect many people’s lives. Even some sorts of philosophy have huge effects. One can trace the roots of many important social movements to the ideas raised by philosophers, such as the influence of Enlightenment philosophers on the American and French revolutions. It’s hard to see how the ‘actual existence’ or otherwise of impossibly distant galaxies could affect our lives, but other similarly meaningless topics, such as whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father, have led to wars, the rise and fall of empires and many burnings of people that had the misfortune of siding with the wrong opinion.

The common element of dogmatic claims is not their capacity or otherwise to affect our lives, it is their total immunity to proof, disproof, or experimental testing of any kind.

There is no dogma about the law of gravity, no dogma of quantum mechanics or a doctrine of the periodic table. A good biology teacher will not demand that her class believe that cells of mammals have a nucleus containing bundles of DNA and little packets of RNA. A good mathematics teacher will not demand that the class believe that the method being taught for long division works. The teacher is saying: “Here is a method, or an approach to understanding something. Most people find it useful in getting important things done“. The teacher could add – but generally doesn’t bother – “If you don’t like what I’m teaching and want to go and invent your own method of long division (or theory of the elements), be my guest! I’ll still be here to help you learn this method if you change your mind.

It is both ironic and predictable that the claims about which we humans get most dogmatic are those about which it is least possible to be certain. When there is a high level of certainty – as with Newton’s Laws of Motion – there is no need for dogmatism. You can take it or leave it. More fool you if you leave it. But when there is little to no certainty available, as with doctrines of neo-liberal economics (or, to be fair, Marxist economics), doctrines of the nature of the Holy Ghost, or proofs and disproofs of the existence of god(s), people generally ramp up the dogmatism and turn the volume to eleven. They use dogma and noise to make up for their lack of confidence and inability to provide any concrete evidence for the proposition.

This has led to my strongest philosophical position being anti-dogmatism. No matter what proposition somebody makes, be it about religion, ontology, economics or politics, and regardless of whether I sympathise with the belief being promoted or not, I now instinctively react against it and look to debunk it, if it is made dogmatically. That doesn’t mean I don’t hold any opinions on those topics. I have loads. Some of them – mostly the political ones – I hold very strongly and am prepared to march the streets, donate to a cause and publicly argue to try to persuade people over. But I hope I never get to the stage of believing that I am unquestionably right about something and that those who disagree are unquestionably wrong. That seems a poor way to live. I have sometimes been like that in the past, but I think I am not now and hope I won’t be again. For me, unquestioningly accepting a dogma is the coward’s excuse for not thinking for oneself.

That is my opinion, which I acknowledge may be mistaken.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2019



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