Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dogma: The Real Enemy

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought. --Nanzan Daishi
Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear. --Thomas Jefferson
Under attack, sentiments harden into dogma. --Mason Cooley


I have no quarrel with religion held sincerely but loosely. The problem is that religion tends almost invariable towards the dogmatic. For every ten sophisticated religious thinkers, there are a hundred who mindlessly follow an ossified, thoughtless shell of religion. True religious thinkers adapt to new ideas and new discoveries; dogmatists shut their eyes and plug their ears. Worse, they often try to shut our eyes and plug our ears. The true religious thinker always seeks the truth; the dogmatist is sure he already has it.

In this manner, I believe the atheist* is more a true religious thinker than the dogmatist. If God exists, we are wrong, but at least we aren't worshipping the idol that is religious dogma. For isn't that exactly what dogma is? Being dogmatic, at its best, is worshipping a man-made approximation of God. You might as well believe that a statue of Jesus created the Earth as be a young-Earth Creationist living in 21st century America.



* By "atheist" I refer to one who, like myself, believes that there is no God, but holds that belief tentatively, prepared to change his or her mind should new evidence arise in the same way that he or she would change his/her mind about the non-existence of unicorns if one were discovered. Certainly some atheists suffer from dogmatism as much as any Roman Catholic.

38 comments:

jewish philosopher said...

I think most humans are interested in comfort not thinking. "This belief makes me feel good so that's it."

Intolerance I think is characterist of many religions, including atheism. Check out http://samharris.org/. After all, if my opinion is true, then all else is false and therefore actually harmful.

Chana said...

Fully agreed.

" For every ten sophisticated religious thinkers, there are a hundred who mindlessly follow an ossified, thoughtless shell of religion."

Very true.

How would you, if you had the power or ability, change the system so that it yielded more open-minded thinkers as opposed to dogmatic followers?

Jewish Atheist said...

jewish philosopher:

I agreed up front that there are dogmatic atheists.


Chana:

It would never be perfect, but I would start by teaching children to question everything. Skepticism and the scientific method are the best tools we have discovered so far for weeding out dogmatic untruths. As far as religious institutions go, they need to get more honest about what they know and what they're just guessing about. Superstition must be vocally criticised by sensible members of that religion. In my world, the modern Orthodox Rabbis would be out there fighting the Intelligent Design movement since it makes religion look ridiculous. No more coddling religious leaders with beliefs that have been already proven false. The rational theists must speak up.

As Aquinas wrote, "The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false."

I guess the short answer is just "education," including "secular" education. Unfortunately, as you well know, too many of our schools teach obedience and unquestioning belief rather than independent thinking and independent research.

As a commenter on my blog once wrote in response to the following quote, any honest religious institution should have it emblazened above the door:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. --Buddha

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

I tend to think that every Atheist on this planet would believe in, or at least not discount the idea of God if evidence came out supporting God's existence.
But there are actually Atheists who would hate God because of all the injustices in the world.
I wonder if hating God or the idea of God made some believers change into Atheists.

Mis-nagid said...

"I refer to one who, like myself, believes that there is no God"

Just to clarify, are you saying you're a Strong Atheist? (I'm a Weak Atheist).

Jewish Atheist said...

mis-nagid,

I think so, but no two people seem to agree on the definitions. Essentially, I not only lack a belief in God, but am relatively convinced that no God exists, where "God" is defined as an extremely intelligent and basically benevolent Being which created the Universe and interferes with nature and humans. I'm even more confident that no God exists where "God" is defined by any of the religions that I know of.

Mis-nagid said...

"Essentially, I not only lack a belief in God, but am relatively convinced that no God exists, where "God" is defined as an extremely intelligent and basically benevolent Being which created the Universe and interferes with nature and humans. I'm even more confident that no God exists where "God" is defined by any of the religions that I know of."

That's not a strict Strong Atheist. That's a Weak Atheist who's strongly atheistic about some gods.

Mis-nagid said...

I guess I'm saying, "I know Strong Atheists, and you're no Strong Atheist." ;-)

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

Even though you call yourself an atheist, your definition of atheist is what many people call agnostic.

But it doesn't really matter.

What I would like to ask or propose is the following. There is one area of inquiry into theism that I wonder if you have explored...

If theism is correct - i.e., if there is an omnicient and omnipotent infinite God running the world, then it should be possible - theoretically - to have a relationship with it. After all, according to theism, God is omnicient and omnipotent.

Therefore, a good test of theism would be to attempt - sincerely - to have a relationship with God. By "sincerely" I mean talking to God from the heart, not uttering some ritualist prayers or blessings, but getting yourself in a quiet moment and just saying, for example, "listen God, I don't even believe in you, and as far as I know I may be just talking to the wall, but I am sincerely trying to see if my belief or lack of belief is correct. I mean, if you do exist, I really do want to know about it. So if you are for real, would you please just give me a sign, something immistakable?"

I'm not going to predict what will happen if you make such an attempt, because the interpretation of the outcome will be highly subjective and you are the only one who can thereby determine if the experiment was successful. But if you do not try such an experiment - with all due seriousness and sincerety of heart - I posit that you have not fully investigated the veracity of theism.

According to Jewish theology, as I understand it, in a nutshell, we were created for the single purpose of having a relationship with God. Therefore it may be that the only way to evaluate this theology is on its own terms - to attempt what it claims we are able to do.

Laura said...

jewish philosopher said... "I think most humans are interested in comfort not thinking."

Remember also, though, that we are not really ever taught or encouraged to really think. Schools and churches promote passive following, rote memorization, and no context. They leave out the most important question : Why? If we were actually taught to really think critically about the way the world is, the world would be a very different place.

CyberKitten said...

laura said: Remember also, though, that we are not really ever taught or encouraged to really think.

Teaching people to think would actually be very impractical. Just think of all the time 'wasted' in school by children asking questions.. and what kind of world would we be living in if people kept asking questions....? CHAOS!

..that's why people aren't taught to think... actually its why people are taught *not* to think! [grin]

Jewish Atheist said...

mis-nagid:

That's not a strict Strong Atheist. That's a Weak Atheist who's strongly atheistic about some gods.

Nobody is atheistic about ALL gods, since some people define "God" as "the Universe" or "everything" or "Nature" or "love" or "community." One can only disbelieve in certain definitions of God.


Rabbi Seinfeld:

Therefore, a good test of theism would be to attempt - sincerely - to have a relationship with God. By "sincerely" I mean talking to God from the heart, not uttering some ritualist prayers or blessings, but getting yourself in a quiet moment and just saying, for example, "listen God, I don't even believe in you, and as far as I know I may be just talking to the wall, but I am sincerely trying to see if my belief or lack of belief is correct. I mean, if you do exist, I really do want to know about it. So if you are for real, would you please just give me a sign, something immistakable?"

Believe it or not, I tried just that on several occasions on my way out of frumkeit. I received no response.

Laura: Remember also, though, that we are not really ever taught or encouraged to really think. Schools and churches promote passive following, rote memorization, and no context.

Some schools (and religious institutions) are better than others, but you are right that that is the case far too often.

dbs said...

I agree very much with the sentiments.

Sometimes I wonder if any of the negative things about dogmatism really are directly related to religion. I know people (they are rare but special) who are both very strong believers and very empathic and tolerant. Perhaps it's just about people.

CyberKitten said...

JA said: Nobody is atheistic about ALL gods, since some people define "God" as "the Universe" or "everything" or "Nature" or "love" or "community." One can only disbelieve in certain definitions of God.

Really....? [looks bemused] I think that *I* fit that criteria. I do not believe in God however you might wish to define Him.

Jewish Atheist said...

Cyberkitten:

You don't believe in the universe? In nature?

CyberKitten said...

JA said: Cyberkitten: You don't believe in the universe? In nature?

I don't need to 'believe' in them. They clearly exist. However, I certainly wouldn't call either of them 'God'. Wasn't that what you where saying? Just because other people believe that the Universe IS God - rather than something He created... doesn't mean that because I recognise that the Universe does indeed exist that I admit that some form of God also exists. I am an atheist - not a deist.

freethoughtmom said...

JA, have you found any research to find out how many sophisticated thinkers there are vs "ossified" :) ? I hope the ossified ones are the very very vocal but tiny minority :)

Jewish Atheist said...

cyberkitten: I see what you're saying. Perhaps we can say "we don't believe in God for all definitions of "God" which are not simply redefinitions of things everybody already believes in.


freethoughtmom:

I'm not sure how you'd measure it, but given the number of people who insist the Earth must be 6000 years old, etc. I suspect the ossified ones are at least 50%.

CyberKitten said...

JA said: cyberkitten: I see what you're saying. Perhaps we can say "we don't believe in God for all definitions of "God" which are not simply redefinitions of things everybody already believes in.

Erm.. No.

I don't need to believe in the Universe. I can just look out of my window & there it is. Belief in not required. I don't believe in God. Period. I don't particularly care if some refer to the Universe as God or to nature as God. As far as I am concerned they are naturally occuring phenomena. There *are* only naturally occuring phenomena. No God or Gods... however you wish to define Him/Them. My statement that I don't believe in God covers all possible bases.

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

The problem with the test, of rourse, is that regardless of the results, one could interpret them according to one's bias. The only objective relationship test that I'm aware of is the one outlined by Maimonides for testing someone who claims to be a prophet - ie, someone with direct and clear communications with God. Barring that level of communication, anything you experience will be subject to the half-full/half-empty subjectivism. You tried that "on several occasions" but your report is not meaningful for anyone else; a fellow skeptic will laugh and say, "Of course nothing happened!" while a believer will laugh and say, "Of course nothing heppened!" for opposite reasons.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

JA, I'm with Cyberkitten, I don't believe in any Gods. I still don't understand what you meant by: "Nobody is atheistic about ALL gods, since some people define "God" as "the Universe" or "everything" or "Nature" or "love" or "community." One can only disbelieve in certain definitions of God."

Orthoprax said...

Rabbi Seinfeld,

That's why subjective tests are rather inconclusive. People "feel" God, "feel" the Holy Ghost, "feel" the presence of their recently passed loved one, "feel" the spirits of the land talking to them, etc.

Do you have any objective tests for God's existence?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Religion tends almost invariable towards the dogmatic. For every ten sophisticated religious thinkers, there are a hundred who mindlessly follow an ossified, thoughtless shell of religion.

There's truth to what you say, but it's actually a real distortion of the facts.

Very few people step back and question what they've been socialized to believe. Period. It's true of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and atheists.

Don't try to tell me that the proportions are reversed among atheists because it just isn't so. Atheists are very practiced at poking holes in religious beliefs. But how skilled are they at poking holes in their own atheist convictions?

Most are so blind as to say that there is "no evidence" of God's existence. They show no capacity for thinking critically about their own worldview.

The result is that you paint a very unflattering picture of religious people. Tell me about the believing Jews you know. Aren't they basically good people — no more or less evil than anyone else? That's certainly my experience of people in church.

Yes, there's a vocal minority of believers who want to impose their narrow views on the rest of the population. But most of the atheists I encounter in the blogosphere are cut out of the same cloth — fervently propogating their worldview.

The militant atheists of the blogosphere probably aren't representative of atheists as a whole. And it's the same way with religious folk: it's only a vocal minority who want to exercise control.

In sum, people are people. It's false and slanderous to single religious people out as being significantly worse than non-religious people. You should get over this prejudice.

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

Reply to Orthoprax:

My understanding of "hester panim" is that such a test is generally impossible in this era and frowned upon by tradition (see commentaries on Eliezer's "test" at the well).

However, there is one type of objective test one could devise, I think. There is a principle that it is impossible for a Jew to earn money on Shabbat. That is to say, if he earns money on Shabbat the amount is subtracted from how much he would have made the following week. The way to test this is to find a Jew who works for an hourly or daily wage and ask him to stop working on Shabbat for one month and report any change in his weekly or monthly earnings (you might add as an incentive that you will make up for any shortfall). Similarly, there is a tradition that money spent reasonably for the honor of Shabbat will not be deducted from the amount one has "due" - this can be tested by carefully measuring one's own income/expenses over a period of several months; attempt to keep income and expenses steady, then begin to increase spending for food, flowers, etc for Shabbat and measure the change in net, if any.

Jewish Atheist said...

cyberkitten: I don't need to believe in the Universe. I can just look out of my window & there it is. Belief in not required. I don't believe in God. Period. I don't particularly care if some refer to the Universe as God or to nature as God. As far as I am concerned they are naturally occuring phenomena. There *are* only naturally occuring phenomena. No God or Gods... however you wish to define Him/Them. My statement that I don't believe in God covers all possible bases.

I don't think that we're really disagreeing.

Rabbi Seinfeld:

You tried that "on several occasions" but your report is not meaningful for anyone else; a fellow skeptic will laugh and say, "Of course nothing happened!" while a believer will laugh and say, "Of course nothing heppened!" for opposite reasons.

Agreed. I encourage all skeptics to perform your experiment.

BEAJ:

Sometimes people define God in such a way that it's hard to disagree that it exists. If "God" is the same thing as nature, nobody's going to say it doesn't exist. But as cyberkitten points out, that isn't a valid definition of God.


Q: Very few people step back and question what they've been socialized to believe. Period. It's true of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and atheists.

Don't try to tell me that the proportions are reversed among atheists because it just isn't so. Atheists are very practiced at poking holes in religious beliefs. But how skilled are they at poking holes in their own atheist convictions?


You have a fair point. In our culture, though, where the overwhelming majority are theists, I would argue that atheists as a rule are more freethinkers than theists. And certainly religions tend to encourage dogma among their members.

Tell me about the believing Jews you know. Aren't they basically good people — no more or less evil than anyone else? That's certainly my experience of people in church.

Yes, they're among the best people I know. However, they are also among the more dogmatic, which is what this post was about.

In sum, people are people. It's false and slanderous to single religious people out as being significantly worse than non-religious people. You should get over this prejudice.

Again, I'm not saying they are significantly worse. I'm saying they're significantly more dogmatic.

Rabbi Seinfeld:

The way to test this is to find a Jew who works for an hourly or daily wage and ask him to stop working on Shabbat for one month and report any change in his weekly or monthly earnings (you might add as an incentive that you will make up for any shortfall). Similarly, there is a tradition that money spent reasonably for the honor of Shabbat will not be deducted from the amount one has "due" - this can be tested by carefully measuring one's own income/expenses over a period of several months; attempt to keep income and expenses steady, then begin to increase spending for food, flowers, etc for Shabbat and measure the change in net, if any.

Another interesting experiment. I'm all for empirical data, so I'd love to see someone try it. I'm salaried, personally, so I can't volunteer. It would make a good series of posts for some hourly-employed skeptic, though.

CyberKitten said...

JA said: I don't think that we're really disagreeing.

Neither do I [grin]. But I was somewhat confused by your comment that 'started me off'.

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

On a hunch I googled "atheist's prayer" and found this story: http://www.innernet.org.il/article.php?aid=293

amba said...

This story in response to Rabbi Seinfeld's "God experiment."

Just to set the context, I consider myself a "maybeist," not sure there is a "God" (and bothered by many of the connotations that encrust that word), but open to the possibility.

I was waiting for a little shuttle bus to bring me back to NYC from New Jersey, where I'd rented a garage to park my car. I realized that I did not have quite enough small change for the fare. (It wasn't a moment of real desperation, since I had two $50 bills that my 90+-year-old uncle had given me in generous thanks for shopping and cooking for him. But they weren't going to do me any good on the bus, and there was nowhere nearby to break them.)

What would I do? Offer the driver a subway token in place of the five cents or so I was lacking? I really didn't know. The idle thought crossed my mind, "If I were religious, I'd say 'God will provide,' and I'd get on the bus and find a nickel on the floor."

The bus arrived, I got on, walked several seats back, sat down, glanced across the aisle, and saw a quarter shining on the floor.

I was flooded with warmth and light and felt, rather than heard, a humorous chuckle the sense of which was, "Stop worrying so much. If I can do a little thing like that, what can't I do?"

Now of course, it was just a coincidence. People drop change on bus floors often enough and don't pick it up. I set myself up for this one, and the sense that opened up of a pervasive consciousness that was reciprocally aware of me was just the projection of my meaning-seeking, hyper-"agency-attributing" brain.

Right?

Maybe.

amba said...

Believe it or not, I tried just that on several occasions on my way out of frumkeit. I received no response.

JA,

One could of course argue that a) It's beneath God to have to prove on demand that God exists, and/or b) God wanted you out of frumkeit because you're needed to be doing the thinking you're doing now.

In the story I just told, I really wasn't looking for anything (except a nickel!). The thought that crossed my mind was just an idle thought. My Pentecostal friend says "God has a sense of humor," and if my story demonstrates anything beyond random coincidence, it is that.

amba said...

As for the test about earnings, I'm afraid it would play into stereotypes ! :D

amba said...

BTW, I would really love it if you'd all come read this.

Bryce C said...

"For every ten sophisticated religious thinkers, there are a hundred who mindlessly follow an ossified, thoughtless shell of religion."

Lets compare apples to apples. You should say something like: For every follower of these ten sophisticated religious thinkers, there are ___ followers of teachers who are teaching an ossified, thoughtless shell of religion." That would be more fair.

If you're willing, I'd love to hear your top ten sophisticated religious thinkers; hopefully at least 4 will be Orthodox rabbis.

Also, I'd like to see the criteria for spotting a nondogmatic atheist as opposed to a dogmatic atheist. If it's simply one who is
"prepared to change his or her mind should new evidence arise," please demonstrate that this isn't just lip service.

CyberKitten said...

bryce c said: Also, I'd like to see the criteria for spotting a nondogmatic atheist as opposed to a dogmatic atheist. If it's simply one who is "prepared to change his or her mind should new evidence arise," please demonstrate that this isn't just lip service.

I was a bit confused by the idea of a dogmatic atheist myself. Is there an atheist 'dogma' as such? If so what is it? Does 'dogmatic atheism' just mean that you REALLY have to prove the existence of God?

Jewish Atheist said...

If you're willing, I'd love to hear your top ten sophisticated religious thinkers; hopefully at least 4 will be Orthodox rabbis.

I don't know that I'm qualified for this, not having deeply studied religious thinkers from all cultures. An obvious example from Orthodox rabbis would be Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.


Also, I'd like to see the criteria for spotting a nondogmatic atheist as opposed to a dogmatic atheist. If it's simply one who is
"prepared to change his or her mind should new evidence arise," please demonstrate that this isn't just lip service.


Well atheists don't have any dogma at all, except perhaps that there is no God. There's no required belief in (for example) infallible leaders, the exact age of the universe, that every word of Origin of the Species is literally true, etc. I guess a dogmatic atheist would insist that "all religion is evil" or something which is equally unsupported by evidence.

amba said...

You can identify a dogmatic "philosophical materialist," though. They believe that everything can be explained by the actual interaction of material particles or the physical fields between them. There is no other form of nonlocal action, and nothing is conscious except us (and, to a more primitive extent, other animals). And consciousness can be explained as the epiphenomenon of identifiable (in principle) material processes. And all behavior is ultimately the product of natural selection. Now we're getting into the dogmatic Darwinist.

bryce c said...

Amba, it sounds like you've described "JewishAtheist." Of course, he'd say that he is 'prepared to change his or her mind should new evidence arise', but who here actually believes that?

lysis22 said...

Religion of Atheism - Dogma

1) I believe with perfect faith that there are no Creators
2) I believe with perfect faith that this life is meaningless
3) I believe with perfect faith that I am it
4) I believe with perfect faith that I created my own morality and ethics
5) I believe with perfect faith that that at my death all else ceases to exist
6) I believe with perfect faith that nature is not directed
7) I believe with perfect faith that no rules exist which prevent me from taking what is yours
8) I believe with perfect faith that I have no responsibilities except unto myself
9) I believe with perfect faith that my consciousness is a phantom for I cannot see it with my eyes
10) I believe with perfect faith that there are no consequences for my actions

Hallelujah, Praise Be Unto Me, Myself and I

Blake said...

Let's get the definitions straight. Which one are we talking about?

American Heritage Dictionary - dog·ma (dôg'mə, dŏg'-) Pronunciation Key
n. pl. dog·mas or dog·ma·ta (-mə-tə)

1. A doctrine or a corpus of doctrines relating to matters such as morality and faith, set forth in an authoritative manner by a church.
2. An authoritative principle, belief, or statement of ideas or opinion, especially one considered to be absolutely true. See Synonyms at doctrine.
3. A principle or belief or a group of them: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present" (Abraham Lincoln).

Myself, I'm a Christian and I don't like dogma. I'm referring to definition 2. The reason that I don't like dogma is because it substitutes mandate for faith.

And when I say 'faith' I don't mean dogma, I mean real faith. Faith is a belief held by a person based on such a quantity and/or quality of knowledge and/or experience that the it causes a change in the paradigm (filter) through which all things are viewed.

By contrast, belief in dogma requires no knowledge or experience. Dogma requires only obedience and conformity. Dogma allows one to consume and assume rather than to have an open our heart that's capable of hearing God to speak to us personally.

It's so easy to pick up the line that you get taught in school or in church. That's why I originally rejected church and fancied myself an atheist. I used to believe that 'atheist' stuff they cram down your throat at school while it was still fresh in my mind. But once I had some time under my belt away from the indoctrination I got at school, I was able to hear. And what I didn't know is that it really is possible to be a thinker and a Christian at the same time. Suprisingly, its much more challenging to be a true believer and a thinker than to be a so-called 'atheist' and a thinker.

If you think about it a little bit, proclaiming yourself an atheist is one of the most braindead religious faiths there is. Without infinite knowledge AND omniscience, it is logically and morally impossible to claim knowledge that God doesn't exist. In order to make a logically valid claim of atheism, you must be able to 'prove' that God doesn't exist. Most of the atheists I've heard from simply lodge claims against God rather than provide hard proofs. So personally, I have a hard time having intellectual respect for a self-proclaimed atheist.

My journey to faith all started with a very simple experiment. I prayed and asked God to reveal Himself to me in a way I could understand and He did. He spoke to me in my heart in a way that no one else can speak and He told me that He loves me. You don't have to like it or believe it. I know it's so and I believe it. My belief isn't based on dogma. It's based on faith. Faith believes because it has a valid basis for belief. I have that personal experience and thousands more that all give me cause to believe.

So if you really consider yourself a free thinker, I challenge you to throw your dogma onto the rust heap of old, tired thoughts. Give God a chance to speak to you. Ask and really listen in your heart and see if He will answer you in a way that nobody else can.