Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Dogma-Free Society

a : something held as an established opinion; especially : a definite authoritative tenet
b : a code of such tenets 

a: companionship or association with one's fellows
b: a voluntary association of individuals for common ends; especially : an organized group working together or periodically meeting because of common interests, beliefs, or profession 

I saw this sign posted on a college bulletin board last week. It sounds great, doesn't it? If I take language seriously, the poster is inviting me to be a part of an organized group that will be free of established opinions on the issues.

Who, I wondered, would take the time to start a group that stands for nothing? And who would attend the meetings?  An article on the Dogma-Free Society answered at least one question:
"The group was formerly known as the Non-religious Atheists, Free thinkers and Agnostics Alliance, but was changed to promote inclusion within the group… to be more welcoming to those interested in hearing the views of the group.”
I was kind of enjoying the idea of a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris hosting a meeting that lacked established opinions, but soon realized I had not read the article carefully enough. The Dogma-Free Society is not actually free of dogma. It has gone on record as having views! As a group! That must be frustrating. They exist for one reason (having no established opinion); this unfortunate turn of events must have been hard to overcome.

I can't say I am really surprised, since a society does, after all, have “common ends.” In this case, I'm pretty sure I see where this group is going - as a group. The only thing missing from the “formerly known as” list is Prince – and anybody remotely religious.  Apparently, dogmatic reaction to religious affiliation played a role in the founding of the group. At least they are inclusive instead of exclusive, unlike those religious, dogmatic, enslaved thinkers.

1. not admitting of something else; incompatible
2. omitting from consideration or account 

I think it's possible to have opinions about issues while including and considering the views of those who disagree. That is the primary definition of inclusive. I don't think that's what's happening here. The newspaper article noted that they are welcoming those interested "in hearing the views of the group" - which very different indeed from asking other perspectives to help inform and shape the group. 

For the record, I don't care if they want a group which only informs others rather than being itself informed. I just wish they would be honest. 
  • They bring in speakers like Dan Barker, whose reputation rests on dogmatic judgments such as these: “Faith is a cop-out. It is intellectual bankruptcy. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can't be taken on its own merits.” Or, “Freethinkers reject faith as a valid tool of knowledge. Faith is the opposite of reason because reason imposes very strict limits on what can be true, and faith has no limits at all. A Great Escape into faith is no retreat to safety. It is nothing less than surrender.”
I personally don't care if they want to mock an important Christian symbol, and I have no problem with Dan Barker speaking for them. I'm glad they want to talk about morality even if it is apart from religion. More power to ‘em.

But let's be honest: the Dogma-Free Society is dogmatic. There is established opinion in this group (all religions and faiths are ludicrous); there are voices that atheists and Free Thinkers cite as if they are definitive authorities (Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, and the late Christopher Hitchens come to mind); there is a code of tenants (endorse science, rationality, skepticism and a non-religious view of life).

There is no dogma free society. I doubt there can be - or should be. There is no reason to pretend otherwise. Any group that shares “common interests, beliefs, and profession” has to share, well, beliefs. Groups with strong opinions about the nature of reality disagree.

Can we stop this absurd (and false) polarization of religious and non-religious communities?  Hostile and  dogmatic people hail from all walks of life: Kool-Aid drinkers and skeptics, theists and atheists, thinkers both free and bound.  Plenty of others are friendly and open to the vigorous exchange of ideas while simultaneously holding strong beliefs.

Let worldviews and ideas unfold in the public square, and may the best argument win. Can that, at least, be an "authoritative tenant" for all of us?


  1. I suspect that "Dogma-Free Society" has a very specific conception of the "dogma" they want to be free of, and that your dictionary definition does not capture that conception. In my experience, skeptics typically do not use "dogma" to mean "an established opinion", but rather they mean a specific kind of established opinion: one that is not to the result of nor subject to reasoned argument. For example, it is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that: "God, our Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty, by the natural light of reason from created things.". This is not the kind of opinion one can reason one's way to (note the "with certainty"); rather, it is a statement constraining the kinds of conclusions one may come to using reason.

    Skeptics may have things which look a lot like dogmas ("Belief should be proportionate to evidence and argument", for example) but the difference between a skeptic's "dogma" and a religious "dogma" is that a skeptic will argue that eir "dogma" is the result of rational and empirical investigation, and can be defended in those terms, while a religious "dogma" is outside of the realm of such investigation. Skeptics are quite likely to state that if someone were to prove that one of their "dogmas" is false, that "dogma" would be abandoned; it just so happens that no one has provided such a proof. A religious "dogma", on the other hand, is typically held to be a standard by which proofs can be judged: a proof which contradicts a religious "dogma" must by definition contain a flaw, even if you can't figure out what the flaw is.

    Does that distinction make sense?

  2. Hey, Steve :) Yes, your distinction makes sense. Our disagreement is found in definitions. Dogma is dogma, I think, no matter if it has quotes around it or not. It is an established opinion. Every worldview has them.
    Do some religious people ignore any evidence that contradict their view? Sure. So do atheists and skeptics. That's the main point of my post. To suggest that religious people hold exclusive claim to blind acceptance of dogma is simply not accurate.
    In addition,I would also argue that religious claims (at least those of Christianity) are not outside the realm of evidence. The claim of many Christians who converted as adults is that they followed the evidence where it led, and they believed the evidence led them to God, specifically Jesus.
    Just to clarify again, I don't care that people are dogmatic. I'm glad they are. It makes conversations sooo much more enjoyable.

  3. I feel like you're broadening the definition of the word "dogma" to the point where the word is no longer very useful. If "dogma" is to mean "established opinion", what word shall we then use to describe the dogmas of the RCC, which Catholics would consider to be much more than just "established opinion", and which come with their own rules and conceptual framework? I'd rather retain the use of "dogma" to refer to a specific kind of written, definitive statement issued by an unquestionable authority. We have other words - like "conviction", "premise", "axiom", "assumption", "conclusion", or "presupposition" - for describing other kinds of "established opinion", and I think it's generally a good practice to err on the side of precision over ambiguity.

  4. Steve, here's Wikipedia's opening paragraph on dogma: "Dogma is the official system of belief or doctrine held by a religion, or a particular group or organization. It serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system, and it cannot be changed or discarded without affecting the very system's paradigm, or the ideology itself. They can refer to acceptable opinions of philosophers or philosophical schools, public decrees, or issued decisions of political authorities."
    The article goes on to distinguish various forms. Yeah, it is a broad term. Your definition is certainly less ambiguous, but is also far more precise than the common usage warrants.
    Just to clarify again: I have no problem with people of any persuasion having some form of dogma, or being dogmatic in how they represent their views. My frustration is that it is often used to in such a way as to suggest that the word should be attached exclusively to religious people, a correlation which is I think is not honest about the way in which all people hold to at least some of their beliefs.