Dogma vs. Critical Thinking

Dogma is one of the greatest threats to our development, both as individuals and as a species. It is variously defined, but most definitions boil down to: " a specific tenet or doctrine authoritatively laid down, as by a church". The key there, is the authoritatively. It comes with the implication that the authority can't be questioned. You just have to believe it or else.Dogma

Dogma denies the individual the right to think things through for his/herself. Because of this, it's the perfect tool for manipulation. Get a bunch of people to buy into your dogma, and you get to tell them what to do without all that bothersome dissent and discussion. The pope says "condoms make AIDS worse", and millions of people ignore the obvious logic and evidence to the contrary. A president says "God told me to do this" and millions back his actions against the opinions of virtually every major expert in the arena. This is why dogma can't be tolerated in a mature civilization, it's too dangerous.

It's a question of intellectual laziness. Dogma answers your questions without requiring you to think your way through a decision. Purveyors of dogma think it's like memorizing your multiplication tables. If you just know that eight times eight equals sixty-four, you don't have to do all that adding to get to the answer. They've laid out moral or intellectual tables that give you the "One True Answer" to any situation that arises. Unfortunately, real life isn't like arithmetic, it's more like higher mathematics. It's messy and complex, and gives multiple "correct" answers to some questions, and there are multiple ways to define "correct". If you fall into dogmatic thinking, you will be blind to most of the alternatives, but you can live out your life fat, dumb, and happy (until reality crashes the party, that is!).

We tend to think of dogma as a problem related to religion, but the fact is that religion, for all its faults, can't be blamed for it, only for taking advantage of it. Dogma lives in many unexpected places. Dogma lives in the halls of academia, where some researchers will dismiss evidence that contradicts a prevailing theory as "experimental error", because obviously, the theory is sound (my advisor said so). Dogma lives in politics, where voters will declare a party affiliation and support that party even when there is clear evidence that the party is really working against their interests (we believe in "values!"). Dogma even lives in the hearts of some *gasp* atheists.

In college, I began dating a woman who was an avowed atheist. She was raised in an atheist family, and she and her brothers and sisters had been taught from infancy that there could not be a god of any kind, and that any and all supernatural beliefs were not just wrong, but too stupid to even examine, as there could not be any valid data in them. At the time, I thought of myself as an agnostic, having gone through a childhood in Catholic schools, and realizing that something just wasn't right with that picture.

In rare moments of intellectual discussion, she would berate me as mad for even allowing for the possibility of a god. In true agnostic fashion, my answer would always be some variant of "How do you know?", or "How could you prove it?" This would drive her crazy, since it was obvious to her that religion was wrong, and therefore gods couldn't exist. But at the core of every argument, in the back of my head I would hear a little voice shouting "because daddy said so!"

Years later, as our relationship was sputtering its way to a long overdue end, a friend took her to a party to cheer her up. The "party" turned out to be a bible study group with the notorious "International Churches of Christ", a near cult that recruits by further isolating depressed or lonely people from their friends and family with artificial social groups where new "friends" are assigned to to be nice to them. Now you might think, "Wow that must have been a sight to see, a bunch of fundies trying to convert a committed atheist!", but you'd be wrong. The fact is, within a month, she had become a full member of the church, and couldn't go ten minutes in conversation without blathering some vaguely related quote from the bible, or talking about her last "conversation with god".

And therein lies the danger of dogmatic thought. Atheist or not, her upbringing trained her to think dogmatically, conforming the facts to her beliefs, and ignoring that which didn't fit. When exposed to a different dogma in a time of weakness, the new framework just slid right into the place of the old one, neat as you please. For the individual, the real danger of dogmatism isn't the dogma itself, but the rabbit hole you can slide down if you reject critical thinking for any reason, no matter how benign-seeming the dogma.

About the Author

Despite a decade of Catholic school, I have never been a believer. I guess I was just born without the gene! Nevertheless, I've always tried to explore others' ideas and practices, on the theory that just because you can't use one part of a product, it doesn't mean you have to throw the whole thing away.
I spent over a decade traveling the world, and I've lived in both Europe and the US. I've read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Koran. I've studied engineering, yoga, martial arts, shooting sports, and ballroom dancing. What I've discovered is that a) spirituality is just a spooky sounding word for any of a number of methods for learning about yourself and your mind, and b) whatever word you use, doing so is the single most important thing in learning to be happy.
My blog, The Passionate Rationalist ( is dedicated to my thoughts both on gaining self-knowledge and using your mind to eliminate misunderstanding and delusion.