About “Dogmas” and Closed-Mindedness
What is a “dogma?” Dictionary definitions don’t always help. Words mean how people, especially scholars and experts, use them. A “dogma” is any idea or belief that is considered basic and is somehow required within a community. (Remember, these days “community” is a pretty broad concept.) If anyone within a community faces sanctions, formal or informal, for denying a widely held belief of the community, that makes it a dogma of that community.
In the above I am speaking as a religion scholar and someone who has studied the phenomena of dogmas and heresies much. As a religion scholar I know, for example, that not all dogmas are written down or enforced by a specific authority (person or group of leaders). Many religious communities have dogmas that are simply taken for granted such that anyone who denies one of them is ostracized.
I am not talking about THEOLOGICAL dogmas in the traditional sense of the ancient creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian)—yet.
Regardless of how a dictionary may define “dogma,” the reality is that everyone knows that a dogma is a belief not to be questioned, especially within some community. Now, grounding of dogmas differs a great deal. Some are just traditional beliefs so generally assumed that anyone within the community who dares to question it will automatically be treated as a heretic and ostracized in some way. Some dogmas in some communities are established by some human authority (e.g., the magisterium in the Catholic Church) and everyone knows that seriously questioning them will probably lead to sanctions such as “silencing” (if you’re a Catholic theologian, for example).
My point is simply that a “dogma” is any belief considered formally (in writing) or informally (as a matter of informal consensus) to be beyond debate within that community. “Community” is another difficult word to define. At least these days, in the last few decades, we hear it used of almost any group of people who share some affinity.
Now I want to move on to a serious suggestion. IF we are interested in truth, as I believe we should be (and here, in this blog “community” that is a dogma :), then we, in any community, should have structures in place for challenging dogmas with impunity, without fear of sanctions. However, such challenging should normally be with intersubjective reasons that are based on the community’s shared sources and norms. The community should listen to and consider the challenge insofar as it is made by a credentialed member of the community. (A community may but is not required to consider challenges by non-members.)
Let me give an example. The “right to privacy” has become a dogma within American social life. It is, of course, not a totally settled dogma which is also normal. Most dogmas have some “loose ends around the edges.” Nevertheless, the “right to privacy” is pretty much a settled American dogma. It is not so in many societies. However, there are Americans who believe the “right to privacy” should not be a dogma BECAUSE, according to them, it is nowhere explicitly stated in the US Constitution. Legal scholars who defend the dogma appeal to a “penumbra” around the constitution, what it implies even if it does not state it explicitly. Occasionally some credentialed legal scholars (and others) challenge the right to privacy, right to its core. They should be heard and their challenges considered insofar as they appeal to the Constitution itself. The US Constitution is America’s “super-dogma.” It is our basic law; it can be amended but only with tremendous effort and much controversy. But any American who dares to say it should be discarded is considered a heretic by most Americans.
So what about in Christian communities? What are our basic sources and norms? Well, traditionally, scripture and tradition. But both are open to differing interpretations. And most Christian communities have dogmas whether they admit it or not. Ask a Unitarian if their church would admit to full membership and even leadership a white supremacist. No matter what he or she may say, I don’t believe they would.
However, because truth matters more than anything, a reasonable challenge to a dogma ought to be given some serious consideration by some one or group in leadership and possibly by the community as a whole. Otherwise, truth takes a backseat to dogma.
Now to science. The American scientific community generally speaking treats naturalism as a dogma. I believe this is a mistake unless the community has some way of seriously considering challenges to that dogma by its credentialed members (e.g., scientists with earned doctoral degrees who have conducted serious research). But here I speak of methodological naturalism. It does seem to me that methodological naturalism is essential to modern science.
My concern, however, is that many outspoken scientists (think Carl Sagan) have publicly treated methodological naturalism as requiring metaphysical naturalism as its dogmatic foundation. I see absolutely no good reason for that. The leap from methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism is simply a leap without good reason. I do not object if a scientist ADMITS that his or her belief in metaphysical naturalism and/or materialism is his or her philosophy not required by his or her science. However, anyone who has functioned within a major research university knows that in a general way, metaphysical naturalism is smuggled into methodological naturalism in the ways in which science is taught.
Back to religion. Contrary to much modern science (not including its founders!), most, if not all, religion is fundamentally non-naturalistic in terms of metaphysical dogmas. Of course, there are exceptions. Some liberal theologians talk of “naturalistic theism.” I’m not sure, however, that their particular naturalism would be accepted as naturalism by many scientists. (Naturalistic theism has flourished at places like the University of Chicago School of Divinity.)
It seems to me that metaphysical non-naturalism (I am trying to avoid the term “supernaturalist” with all of its baggage) is essential to religion in a way metaphysical naturalism is NOT essential to science. Methodological naturalism is necessary to modern science, but metaphysical naturalism is not.
I could go on and on and on. I know I have left many questions open and unanswered, especially procedural ones. Those may have to wait for later musings.
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