The Merits of Dogma
by David Metcalfe
February 21, 2019
It is commonly thought that stupid people believe whatever they have been told by authority, and that intelligent people seek a better means by which to come to a belief i.e. “free thought”, which typically takes the form of gaining evidence and applying logic to it. In education, it may be summed up by the well meaning, yet unfortunately stupid phrase, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” While it has some validity, there are a great many concepts in which children really do need to be told what to think. What should be taught as “what” and what should be taught as “how”, is a matter I wish to settle to some extent here.
“Free thought” gets historic praise, and is thus currently seen as virtuous. Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Luther, Darwin, etc. all questioned the dogmas of their time, and instead practiced “free thought”. They ended up being “right”, and are thus venerated for it. We then apply this to our current time, and say that the practice of “free thought” is always good, and dogmas always bad. It might be said, in fact, that the excessive adherence to and praise of “free thought” can itself become dogmatic, and in the interests of real “free thought”, itself needs to be questioned.
The first doubt to cast upon “free thought” is its historical veneration. We should be reminded that for every Socrates legitimately questioning the state dogmas in pursuit of knowledge, there were 1000 men illegitimately questioning the state dogmas in pursuit of subversion, division, and self aggrandizement. Jesus was but one of thousands of people who claimed to be the Messiah throughout history. For every Galileo and Darwin with legitimate scientific discovery, there were 1000 quacks with absurd theories based on what they called “real science”. For every Luther legitimately questioning religious dogmas, there were 1000 heretics who spouted nonsensical theories that seemed just as reasonable to them.
“Free thought” is not a practice limited to great thinkers. It is most often practiced by the worst thinkers. Discerning the difference between the two is only easy in hindsight. At the time of each breakthrough of thought, the authorities were regularly in the practice of censoring and disposing of lunatics, and failed to discern the outliers (until way after their death).
The praise of “free thought” causes people to take to the practice of it more often, but for most, results in absurdity, and they would have been much closer to reality had they simply accepted what was told to them. This is because dogmas are rarely, if ever, arbitrary.
There are two types of dogmas: practical and learned.
What may seem absurd now may have had a very practical importance in its time. The doctrine that the earth is the center of the universe, for example, seemed critical to the Catholic worldview in the middle ages. It was thought that, if God had made the universe for humans, He must have placed us in the center of it. Thus the dogma supported the practicality of belief in the Catholic doctrines, ensuring allegiance to church and state, and the accompanying morality and social unity. We may also see how the dogmas of Athenian supremacy were practically necessary for the type of militaristic society in which Socrates lived, or how the dogmatic institution of marriage has always contained some kind of practical necessity in social structure and population growth.
Other dogmas are the beliefs of the most learned people, which are based in the best evidence and reason available. Why they become dogmas rather than matters of free thought is that they are beliefs arrived at only by very complex means. This renders them unavailable to the common person, and therefore, they must be believed based on trusting the expertise of those who are able to arrive at these beliefs. An example in our current time might be climate change; to the average person, it is not possible to collect all of the data necessary to create a belief, and even if data were collected, to properly interpret the results to the ability of a learned scientist. We may say the same of many medical practices, like certain prescriptions or surgeries; the average person does not have the ability to collect and interpret the data for themselves. So while the scientific process is itself not dogmatic amongst its practitioners, it must become at least somewhat dogmatic to the average person.
Most of the learned dogmas may be said to have some degree of practical importance, although it depends on the goals of the society. In ancient Greece, practicality was found in allegiance to the gods and state. In the “Ages of Faith”, where Catholicism reigned, practicality was found in maintaining the doctrines of the church. In Soviet Russia, practicality was found in the infallibility of communism to cure mankind. In these cases, practical dogmas were at much greater use than learned ones, and thus lies were sometimes told and maintained for their practical purposes.
Where learned dogmas coincide perfectly with practical dogmas is when a society is committed to the goal of discovering truth i.e. reality as it is, not as it is wished to be by certain people. Knowledge of climate change and medical procedures are learned dogmas that serve the practical importance of healing the environment and the people that live in it.
So are we to do away with free thought altogether for the common person, and leave it only to academics? Free inquiry is, of course, a vital part of learning, and it might be said that the academics would never have become learned if not for the ability to freely question and apply their own evidence and reason to the things they were taught. It may also be said that many of the greatest ideas have been from common people who were learned outside of the conventions of academia. And too, if academics are plagued by too many dogmas, they cease being learned dogmas.
Learned dogmas have their place, not only in science, but also in things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, church doctrines (for those who practice religion), and social practices (such as marriage or safe work regulations). It is best to have some level of trust in long standing structures when there are intelligent people practicing free thought behind them.
In conclusion, I think it is best to understand that “free thought” and “dogma” can both be legitimate means by which to acquire beliefs, and that both ought to play a role. The deficiencies of dogma are found in purposeful lying for the purposes of manipulation of people, and also in ignorance or hostility towards reason and evidence when found and considered. The merits of dogma are found in those who practice free thought, and employ dogma as a means by which to spread truth to the masses who would not be able to find it for themselves. This type of dogma is necessary to avoid the vast majority of idiocy that results from free thought among common people. Of course, a common person holding an opinion contrary to the prevailing one among experts in the field should not make one a criminal, although, it cannot be taught and practiced in the legitimate public sphere. Educators in grade school and university should teach only the learned dogmas, and allow for moderate questioning so as to promote the process by which those dogmas were obtained, and new ones will be made.