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-dogmatic. 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 truthhood, 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 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,” the atheist dogma (i.e. the “new-atheist movement”) went to a whole new level of atheistic dogmatism – that is, before losing most of its momentum, in no small measure because of the dogmatic political-economic views which new atheism came to adopt as part of their package, and 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.
Many atheists argue that atheism provides its own protection against dogma. Atheism is on principle opposed to faith, they 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 (it is not) — 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 critically examining and understanding 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 spokespeople for it replace reasoning with militancy and any kind of decrees from or of authority: things expected a person 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, one of the most genuinely educated people I've ever known. 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 — 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 accurate, the progressive-democrats inaccurate.
Militant atheists aussi: they are invariably among the most intolerant of all dogmatists I routinely come across – two I know personally going so far as to say that Newton and Galileo, both of whom believed in God, were necessarily “lesser” than, for instance, Brad Pitt, who is atheist! (My incredulity, I assure you, is nothing against Brad Pitt.)
The error here — an obvious error, to be sure — is in placing all or even most moral merit upon the notion that disbelief in God is a fundamental virtue. It is not.
There’s much more to human virtue and human excellence and human life, and billions of good people believe in God, and, let us also never forget: caritas maketh up for the multitude of wrongs, because caritas, like benevolence, kindness, and agape is a fundamental virtue, gentle, patient, compassionate, timeless.
Think of dogma this way:
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 but completely solidified.
It is, to further firm-up the point, simple for one to refer to oneself as an “environmentalist” — yet how many notions and ideas and assumptions are subsumed under and bundled within that simple-to-say ideological title: vast sequence-chains and theories, complicated interpretations of data, much of which data is incomplete and incompletely gathered — so much, in fact, that one is very hard-pressed indeed to meet any self-described environmentalist who’s closely investigated the innumerable theories that undergird the environmental ideology. And yet who would want to come out as explicitly anti-environmentalism?
The same could be said about any number of 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, which in turn spawn more dogmas, which in turn spawn more isms.
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 well that the overwhelming majority of people who hear these “over-representations” are going to believe these dogmas entirely, with no qualms or questions asked, no scruples, no independent thought given, without so much as a glance into actual data, which would shed light onto these tenets of pure 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 platform and vision, with the four horseman of the leftwing trumpeting in.
A person can spend his or her life combatting such things.
I write about dogma at length here because in many ways it’s the polar opposite of wisdom, and 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 in the truth, and let all your things be done with caritas,” 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 the subject-matter 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 extraordinarily dangerous. It is an attempt to circumvent the process of thought — to short-cut the effort that thinking requires. It erects barriers to independent thought, puts stumbling-blocks in the way of individual inquiry. It creates division and strife.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a current case in point. I say that because it’s most definitely dogma, and, if nothing else, 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 pure dogma — pure and unadulterated: it is dogma piled on top of dogmatism. That is environmentalism.
Climate change, an environmental offshoot and schism, is also 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 a dead giveaway also — 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 changes by definition, as does sea-level and the temperature of the ocean — that the 1980’s were not earth’s optimum temperature, and who could possibly presume such an outrageous notion — and yet how many from all walks of life use the term “climate change” (formerly “global warming,” you’ll recall, until the mild warming trend flatlined for a decade or so, with, on the part of Mother Nature, an unmitigated gall), clinging to the term with blind passion and so much sanctimony and zeal, 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.
And 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 would 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. On that I’m willing to bet.
Thought — true thought, and not a bundle of solidifying 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.