The difference between dogma and doctrine is the difference between faith and thought.
The extent to which an ideological system is taken on faith is the extent to which it is dogmatic.
The extent to which an ideological system is by its leaders expected to be taken on faith is the extent to which it is dogma proper.
Accepting an ideological system without actually grasping or understanding the system’s ideological roots and elaborations — its claims, tenets, and principles — is ultimately the thing that distinguishes the dogmatic from the non. Ideas and claims and principles accepted upon faith, even if they’re accurate, though without one’s having independently thought about and considered the principles in toto (and thus not having fully grasped them), are dogmatically held principles.
Cults are among the most obvious examples of dogma-in-action, but it is important to note that neither religion nor God nor supernaturalism are the distinguishing characteristics of dogma. Any ideology, religious or non-religious, can become dogmatic, and some of the most notorious dogmas in history have been secular, Marxism perhaps foremost among them all — certainly in terms of the sheer numbers of people killed and imprisoned in the name of it.
What delineates and separates the dogmatic from the non isn’t primarily falsehood versus truth, but rather the level of independent examination which any one individual adherent gives to the ideological system, and the individual’s subsequent grasp, or lack.
A system of beliefs, whether true or false, becomes an actual dogma when the preponderance of adherents accept it upon faith and when such is expected of them by those in positions of leadership or authority.
Dogma exists along a spectrum. It is for this reason possible to be “somewhat dogmatic,” as it is also possible to be “extremely dogmatic,” as it is also possible to be at points in between.
“When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons,” wrote Anaïs Nin, sagely, and her words, in my opinion, capture the essence of dogma.
“You are rather dogmatic in your espousal of atheism, Mr. Shermer,” said a caller on the radio to Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine.
I agree with this caller, as well: atheism has undoubtedly, within many circles, become a dogma, fully fledged, and under the label of “new atheism,” this dogma (i.e. the “new-atheist movement”) went to a whole new level of atheistic dogmatism – that is, before imploding, in no small measure because of the dogmatic political-economic views which new atheism came to adopt as part of their package, which political-economic views consist largely of the standard progressive-liberal ideology of today: instant dismissal and hatred of anyone on “the right,” for instance, as well as a deep advocacy of state-forced altruism and compulsory egalitarianism. This became new-atheism’s politico-ethical code, and it is a significant part of the platform now, a la Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, two of its biggest spokesmen, both of whom, incidentally, have written books I enjoyed. (Sam Harris’s first book The End of Faith, penned just before he veered into dogmatism, was exceptionally well-written and powerful, I thought, and I’d say this also about Richard Dawkins’s earlier books The Extended Phenotype and The Selfish Gene and even The Blind Watchmaker.)
For those who may be skeptical of what I’m saying here, I gently direct your attention to Christopher Hitchens as an example. Christopher Hitchens was in many ways the most articulate of all the new atheists, yet he was excommunicated the moment he deviated from and called into question certain political tenets of the new-atheist ideology, on matters of military intervention, in particular, concerning the incessant (and dogmatic) claims of “colonialism and western imperialism,” even when none existed, as well as his advocacy of swift harsh military action against dictatorial Muslim regimes imposing Sharia Law, which, as you know, often includes such barbarous acts as the rape and forced genital-mutilation of women — by men in positions of power. Christopher Hitchens — who was to the left by any standard – apparently sounded a little “too conservative” for the new-atheist true-believers and their dogmatic loathing of George Bush junior, even though George Bush junior was much more “mindful” of the environment than, for instance, Mr. Albert Gore.
I note here as well (not quite parenthetically) that none of the new atheists I’ve ever heard or read — and I admit my exposure is intentionally limited, in large measure because of this very subject: their insufferable militancy and dogmatism (my sweet mother and many of my loved ones are religious, though I am not) — none, I say, whom I’ve ever heard or read have made the full and fundamental case for atheism, though Christopher Hitchens and a couple of others danced closely around it a few times, and that case isn’t metaphysical or ethical but epistemological: because God, like Grendel and little green men, is an arbitrary claim, and arbitrary claims are inadmissible.
Many atheists will argue that atheism provides its own protection against dogma. Atheism is on principle opposed to faith, they will say, and therefore any attempt to take atheistic principles on faith cannot be done. I agree that atheism doesn’t require faith — and I often hear believers incorrectly charge that atheism is just another sort of faith — yet I still think the atheist argument isn’t accurate: atheism does not, in my opinion, provide its own protection against dogma, inasmuch as any system of beliefs, even scientific, must undergo deep scrutiny, which means that proponents must individually put forth the effort required in order to critically examine and understand the system. If and as far as this isn’t done while yet proclaiming the truth of the doctrine, it is dogmatic.
A system of beliefs, whether accurate or inaccurate, becomes a dogma when the preponderance of proponents do what I’ve just described — and, even more, when the official leaders and spokespeople for it replace reasoning with militancy and decrees: things intolerantly expected of a person to either accept or obey — or the person is a heretic.
I regard this subject as complex. The determining factor, I’ll reiterate, is the extent to which the belief-system is blindly propounded, and blindly accepted.
It almost goes without saying here that not all atheists are dogmatists – just as not all Marxists are dogmatists, just as not all religious people are dogmatists.
Some of the most learned and genuinely intelligent and well-educated people to whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking are religious — one, a Catholic priest named Father Schmidt, was a doctor of philosophy, theology, and psychology. He was also a calm and exceptionally erudite man, with a scintillating sense of humor, witty, laid-back, an occasional drinker at a bar I once tended, and I learned a lot from him, and definitely no dogmatist was he. He was the opposite, in fact, and he and our conversations meant a great deal to me.
This issue can be no better illustrated than in the fact that if any self-described liberal-democrat (among the most dogmatic of people with whom I regularly come in contact now, which is why I single them out here for illustrative purposes) were to entirely divest himself or herself of partisan political dogma, even for a short time, and replace it with a sincere and deep examination of any number of economic claims made by garden-variety conservatives, with whom I do not align myself, by the way — how price controls create shortages, for instance, or how minimum wage laws create greater unemployment — this same self-described liberal-democrat, if sincere in his or her critical examination, would indeed see that many of these mainstream conservative economic claims are undeniably accurate, the progressive-democrats wrong.
Militant atheists aussi: they are invariably among the most intolerant of all dogmatists I routinely come across – some even going so far as to say that Issac Newton and Galile Galileo, neither of whom these atheists of course knew personally and both of whom believed in God, were “lesser” than, for instance, Brad Pitt, who is atheist! (My incredulity, I assure you, is nothing against Brad Pitt.)
The error here is in placing all or even most moral merit upon the notion that belief in God is a fundamental virtue. It is not.
There’s much more to human virtue and human life, and billions of excellent people believe in God — and, let us also never forget: caritas maketh up for the multitude of wrongs, because caritas, like agape, like kindness, is a fundamental virtue, gentle, patient, compassionate, timeless.
Think of dogma like this:
It is a system of beliefs arranged and organized and placed into a tidy-looking bundle, which is made of wet clay. In accepting the bundle, one accepts as well, by necessity — by virtue of what dogma is — all the items packaged inside, and those items, too, are each made of wet clay. Often it happens that in the course of unpackaging the bundle, one finds a number of things unexpected inside – items not necessarily loved or even liked. And yet these items are a part of the totality. The longer you keep the bundle as your own, the more the wet clay hardens — until, eventually, this clay is no longer wet or damp at all but completely solidified.
It is, to further concretize the point, simple for one to refer to oneself as an “environmentalist” — yet there are so many notions and ideas and assumptions subsumed under and bundled within that simple-to-say ideological title: vast sequence-chains and theories, complicated interpretations of data, much of which is incomplete and incompletely gathered — so much so, in fact, that one is very hard-pressed indeed to meet any self-described environmentalist who’s actually investigated seriously the innumerable ideological claims beneath this ideology. And yet who would want to come out as anti-environmentalism? The same could be said about many other isms — and this doesn’t even touch upon the subject of all the divisions and disagreements and subdivisions within any of these isms; nor the sects and sub-sects and interminable schisms.
Nor does it touch upon the deliberate prevarications and misrepresentations — the propagandistic “over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is,” as Albert Gore so famously expressed it, “as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are.” Unquote. He and all the others know full fucking well that the overwhelming majority of people who hear these “over-representations” — i.e. twenty-foot sea level rises; near-extinct polar bear population by 2020 — are going to believe the dogma entirely, no questions asked, no independent thought given, without so much as a glance into the actual data, which would shed light onto these tenets of dogmatism. He knows also that these same people will then make it their life mission to convert the rest of the world to their apocalyptic vision, their ideological dogma, and I am here to tell you that this is no small thing. A person can spend his life combatting such dogma.
I write about dogma at some length here because it’s a subject I’ve thought and thought about, beginning as early as my early teenage years, and I still think a great deal about it — even more, now, for this chapter and book. The subject is intricate, labyrinthian.
“Rejoice not in injustice, but rejoice in the truth,” I believe it says somewhere in the first Corinthian.
It also, in a very significant way, strikes at the heart of the subject-matter of independent thinking as an art.
It strikes at the heart of this subject-matter, I believe, because dogma as I’ve come to understand it and define it here is the very antithesis of independent thought, which is also critical thought: a critical examination of ideas and ideologies, almost as a way of life.
Dogma is dangerous. It is an attempt to circumvent the process of thought — to short-cut the effort that thinking requires. It erects barriers and stumbling-blocks to independent thought and individual inquiry. It creates division and strife.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a current case in point. It is most definitely dogma — and, if nothing else, I say, the CRT acronym instantly gives it away. (Jargon and dogma go together like white wine and fish.)
#BlackLivesMatter is dogma. You may have my blood in a dish.
Environmentalism, I repeat, is dogma — in fact, it’s pure and unadulterated dogma: dogma piled on top of dogmatism. That is environmentalism.
Climate change is dogma, insofar as the term “climate change” is so imprecise as to be virtually meaningless since climate is non-static by definition (sloppy terminology is always a dead giveaway — always and unfailingly a foolproof sign of dogmatic supposition and presupposition). I know of no serious scientist or human being who doesn’t understand that climate is non-static by definition — and yet how many of them use the term, clinging to it with blind passion, so much sanctimony and zeal, so totally moved, wielding the term with dogmatic fervor and force. (Meanwhile, there have never, in recorded history, been fewer climate-related deaths than in the last decade, of course. This can be proved.)
But no discussion of dogma would be complete right now if I were to neglect mentioning the thing which in many ways was the hook that yanked my brain painfully enough to provoke this book. I’m referring, as you no doubt already suspect, to the ideology that’s sprung up around SARS-CoV2 — complete with its own lingo as well, its own acronym-set, its own jargon and nomenclature, all of which became dogmatic in a shorter span of time than anything we’ve ever seen, I’d bet.
Thought — true thought, and not some bundle of hardening clay beliefs — is the only real antidote to dogma, because true thought is investigative by definition, as it is also inquisitive by its very nature.