On Dogma

I had originally intended to title this post "On Religion", but upon introspection, the issue is dogma as much as it is religion, and I believe I'll explain this adequately later.

If you've read the prior posts in this series, you will probably have many assumptions about what I intend to say. You're probably right. Let's dive in.

Merriam-Webster defines dogma as follows:
  1. a :something held as an established opinion; especially :a definite authoritative tenet
    b :a code of such tenets pedagogical dogma
    c :a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds
  2. a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church
Dogma, in a non-religious sense, is not damaging in and of itself. It is only as benign or malignant as its content, as well as how it is applied directly and indirectly to a population. For that matter, secular humanists subscribe to a certain level of non-religious dogma.

Religion is a special category of dogma, and occupies a central place in the lives of religious humans. The unfortunate nature of the major world religions is that they were codified in an unscientific, highly superstitious world, bringing it into conflict with newly discovered and proven facts. And rather than incorporate these facts, or - dare I say it - evolve to embrace the new details of reality, they try to defend their power, influence, and "truth".

Apologists will variously cite Hitler, Stalin, and others as famous leaders and/or atheists overlording atheist regimes. First, Hitler was Roman Catholic, and the Vatican made treaties with the Nazis. Secondly, I classify these as dogmatic states - they were not simply atheist or anti-religion, they were similarly seeking power over thought through advancing a state belief system, albeit non-religious. North Korea is another example of a highly dogmatic state, and it is not atheist, in the sense that they view their leaders as gods or descendants of gods.

There are effectively two issues related to dogma. The first is their construction; the dominant religions subscribe to tenets that often ill-conceived, contradictory, and overly expansive, covering scientific areas alongside philosophy. Second, the power structures which support these dogmas are corrupt, concerned with influence and self-support.

The Roman Catholic church managed to carve out a city-state, and is the only religion able to be treated on the world stage as if it were an autonomous country. Vatican City is a member of the United Nations, and the Pope manages to occupy the office of head of state alongside being the religious leader to more than a billion religious adherents. The amount of wealth the Church has managed to accumulate is staggering, and they do not use these funds for purely altruistic means or self-maintenance. This does not even address the tax breaks they receive from many countries around the world for their properties or clergy.

While this corruption is certainly sickening, the true damage they cause is in the societies they inhabit. In Africa, they have not only discouraged the use of condoms, but have stated that it will not only not stop the spread of AIDS, but will encourage it. As a result, AIDS rampages through these communities for gay and straight alike. But then, contraception of any kind is against the religion, because all sex should result in children.

The Church is also famous for its treatment of Galileo for supporting a theory of the solar system that conflicted with dogma.

Protestant believers, not content to simply harass sexual minorities in the US, have made trips to Uganda to influence laws there in the name of their deity to deny rights to LGBTQ people, even their lives. Fortunately, the law as enacted results in life imprisonment for non-heterosexuality rather than execution. LGBTQ Muslims are not as lucky.

Islam faced a similar discouragement of science, according to historians, between the 14th and 16th centuries, when clerics asserted their influence. Because evidentiary fact provided by scientists replaces superstition and storytelling provided by the non-scientific. Similar to the other monotheistic religions, Islam contains a belief that humans are separate from the animals because they were created by a deity, although some progressive Muslims believe that evolution and the first man can be reconciled based on how it is explained in the Qu'ran.

In each of these cases, it is about maintaining power and influence, not truth. Ken Ham, a famous evangelical and biblical literalist in the US who oversees the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, says the Bible must be infallible, and if any part of the Bible is disproven, then all of it must be rejected. This sums up how Islam, Catholicism, and generalized/Protestant Christianity must operate from their positions of authority. To accept correction is to admit fault, and these books and dogmatic edicts would then all be open to criticism and question. Criticism and questioning ultimately threatens the influence of the leaders.

When we look at North Korea, people in the West feel a certain level of horror and shock at their dogma. The outlandish stories surrounding the Kim family are often complete nonsense when reviewed as an outside party, and Westerners are not shy about saying so. The populace of North Korea is taught this dogma as fact, and are discouraged (if not prohibited) from criticizing or questioning what they are told.

Religion is often no different. Indoctrination starts young, when children are open to and accepting of anything they are told, no matter how insane. They hear the stories from their parents and adults they trust, so they don't consider it critically. Even by the time these children are adults, the indoctrination is so effective, it is enormously difficult to consider any other option. And in many Islamic countries, leaving the religion is no more an option than it would be in disagreeing with a Kim in North Korea. And before we say, "Christians don't do that", it is more true to add, anymore. Christianity was still burning witches in the 18th Century,, and we all know it was not because these victims were really witches.

I haven't discussed Judaism to this point, because I do give them credit for trying to explain the gaps in information in the Torah in a logical way, not having a hell, and other openness in their society that is lacking elsewhere, probably due to their centuries of integrating into societies governed by other faiths. However, Jews do harbor their own prejudices, unusual rituals, and unfortunate ideas. As with the other religions, there are varying levels of orthodoxy and progressivism. The truth is, I have not studied their dogma deeply enough to explore this fully, but I do feel that Israel tends to avoid thoughtful criticism in the United States because it is a Jewish state. There are integration issues within the country with differing religions and ethnicities. It concerns me to read about their treatment of non-Jews within Israel after all they have suffered as a people throughout history. One would hope that lessons had been learned.

As I stated earlier, the issue with any dogma is how benign or malignant it is to the populations affected, and more often than not, there is a malignancy that results in the oppression, persecution, or violence against some demographic, both within and without that belief system.

It then comes down to humans as individuals.

I have a number of friends I would consider devout in their chosen belief systems, and who I credit for "thinking outside the book". They do not follow dogma blindly, but evaluate the various tenets when necessary to determine for themselves if it is valuable and/or worthy of adherence. We are Americans, and we can do this without great concern for punishment by society or even a congregation, but the internal struggle is very real. Every woman I know uses contraception, no matter what their beliefs say, because humans have sex for other reasons than making babies. My devout friends largely believe in evolution and science, because it is supported by evidence and logic. They may believe that a deity started the Big Bang or began life on this planet, but as a rule, and at a basic level, they integrate science into their belief system.

I've known Jehovah's Witnesses who didn't try to convert me, LDS members who haven't told me that I'm being sinful or try to slip me The Book of Mormon, and evangelicals who have told me they voted against amendments and propositions that would prohibit same-sex marriage or a woman's right to choose because they understand that their belief system should not be forced on others. I greatly admire these friends for the line they walk and their ability to consider an issue dispassionately or a person for who they are, because I do recognize their difficulty, but they teach us that it is possible to resist dogma and address the reality we all share.

My personal belief system does not include a deity, and I self-identify as an atheist. I do not try to convert anyone to atheism, but the separation between the state and church is paramount to me because I do not subscribe to any religion to be subject to its dogma, and in our secular system of government in the US, I should not have to. I feel great sadness for anyone victimized by dogma, whether it be one they follow or one that they don't. I believe it is important that we consider these matters seriously and critically, not necessarily to abandon them, but to progress them into our current century and current reality.


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