Dogma, Dogmatically

My post yesterday on America’s Unfaithful Faithful elicited some very interesting comments. Consider these snippets:

Religion and Politics have one thing in common. They both make things more confusing.

Religion is a passing phase in the story of mankind on earth. There is no Truth in it at all, so you may as well not bother looking. The only truth ever is within you, and you know it when you hear it.


When I wrote my first book (which came in 1997), one of the bad habits that my editor had to break me of, was making sweeping generalizations.

  1. If I wrote “Contemplation makes you happy,” he would patiently reply, “If there is one person somewhere in the world who has not found happiness through contemplation, then this statement is false.”
  2. So I would go back and say something like “Many, perhaps even most, people who contemplate find that it helps them to become happier.” Then he’d write, “Can you prove this? Where’s the research, where’s the evidence?”
  3. Finally, I’d write, “In my experience, contemplation has helped me to become a happier person.” And then the editor would let it stand.

This is a made-up example, because it’s both too early in the morning and the editing of that book happened too long ago for me to recall an actual example from the book. But you get the drift.

What is at issue here is similar to something that Wikipedia calls Peacock Terms. A peacock term is a statement or assertion that is offered as being self-evident, when in reality it isn’t. As Wikipedia bluntly puts it, “Instead of telling the reader that a subject is important, use facts to show the subject’s importance.” Put another way, instead of telling the reader that your assertion is true, use facts to show the veracity of your assertion. When it comes to religion and spirituality, often the only “facts” at our disposal is our own experience. That’s okay, but then our writing should reflect that.

I’d be less annoyed by the above statements if they had been cast like this:

In my experience religion, like politics, just seems to make things more confusing.

I think that religion is unreliable as a means of finding truth. Frankly, I believe it’s better to seek truth within.

These statements, unlike the examples quoted at the beginning of this post, actually invite the reader in. I for one would be curious to hear why the first commentator finds religion so confusing, or why the second one prefers personal experience to external tradition as a means for apprehending truth. But in all honesty, when someone projects their opinion into an all-encompassing statement like “Religion is confusing” or “Religion contains no truth,” I stop listening to them — because my experience of religion is different. I find religion no more, or less, confusing than life in general (granted, I have a pretty high tolerance for ambiguity and paradox). And while I recognize that religion can be a haven for all sorts of untruth, in my humble experience I’ve found insight into truth through the received wisdom of religion that has literally expanded my consciousness, over and over again.

The problem with peacock terms is that they are tossed off as dogmatically self-evident. “Everyone knows religion is full of it!” Well, no, everyone doesn’t know that. And everyone doesn’t agree with it, either. Religion already has enough problems with dogma — statements accepted as true within a given faith community that may or not appear as evidently true to outsiders. To use unverified dogmatic language when writing about religion, it seems to me, just compounds the problem.

Unknowing in 2011
Seamus Heaney reads "St. Kevin and the Blackbird"
Dana Greene speaks on Evelyn Underhill
  • lordvore

    In my opinion. Religions are all false.

    I am always right.

    Well I tried.