2.7 Dogma vs. Moral Reasoning

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2.7.1 Of course, no one likes to think of their beliefs as dogma. When a person holds a position that is considered to be eternal, perfect, and immune to critique, this is what I mean when I refer to dogmatism. Incidentally, while this defines most of the beliefs one would regard as religious in nature, not all dogma is religious. Some examples of dogma might also include political dogma, racial dogma, cultural dogma, or even professional dogma within various industries. Ideologies could be considered a collection of dogmatic positions, making up systems of beliefs. On the flip side not all beliefs, including many fervently held ones, are dogmatic.

2.7.2 First of all, a belief should have been formed after examining the evidence on all sides with an opened mind. After doing this, a conclusion can be reached. Some people form their beliefs first, usually based on a previous bias, and then search for "evidence" which supports their position while ignoring that which does not. Of course, human nature prevents us from being totally unbiased during the evidence-gathering stage. But the ideal person should strive, as much as they are able, to ignore these impulses and truly consider alternatives. By contrast, others don’t really make such an effort and their arguments take on a sort of "my side - your side" nature, like routing for one’s team at a ball game, instead of a self-honest pursuit of the truth.

2.7.3 Another attribute of dogma is its eternal and universal nature. It is true that some things really may be universal and eternal. The dogma comes in where one refuses to seriously consider points others may bring up which might be an unforeseen exception, thus potentially disproving their universal nature. Another red flag for dogmatism is that, when someone begins to question, s/he is shunned, looked down on, or otherwise socially discouraged in their efforts. There is a sense that there is something improper about questioning the belief, as though it were some sort of public rudeness or character flaw.

2.7.4 Some beliefs are backed by a substantial history of evidence and are therefore widely accepted and/or fervently held, and rightly so. How then do we distinguish between dogma and fervently held justifiable belief? Probably the most important factor is self honesty. a person must seriously ask themselves, "Why do I believe this?", "When did I first start believing it, and what were motivations for believing it?", "What evidence do I really have for this?", "Is there any other explanation or contrary information I might be disregarding or unintentionally ignoring because I really don’t like thinking about it?", "Is every link in my argument really sound?" If a person can attain even a modest degree of self honesty by defeating that impulse to believe simply what’s convenient or pleasing, then s/he can begin assessing whether or not their beliefs have been derived through the epistemology described in section 1.0. Of course, no human being is perfect in this, but the effort is a noble one and our ability to think in this manner improves with practice.

2.7.5 A final point on this: some people take justifiable beliefs and hold them dogmatically. They will look down on people who questions the beliefs because they themselves cannot provide the very good reasons why these beliefs exist. This gets very confusing for the investigator, for it appears that the belief itself is dogmatic, when in fact, it is merely this particular proponent of the belief who is dogmatic. A dogmatic person will sometimes come to hold a proper belief simply by chance.

2.7.6 To move on to comparing dogma with moral reasoning; dogma often has the effect of putting the letter of the law ahead of the spirit of the law, so to speak. What generally happens is that a moral precept may have originally been developed because of good rational reason. Unfortunately, some are "dogmatized" and later, when the rational reasons for the rule no longer apply, people are still expected to follow them for a totally arbitrary reason. Furthermore, they are made outcasts or made to feel guilty for violating or speaking out against them. Moral reasoning, on the other hand, can adapt to new situations. If the goal is overall human happiness and well-being, the simple flow of time can result in an outdated ethical norm actually being harmful.

2.7.7 Other dogmatic ethical commandments are the result of superstition, based on mistaken beliefs, or completely arbitrary for other reasons from the very beginning. The rigidity of dogma, as well as the pressure not to question, means that such baseless codes linger until the difficulties they cause have done as much damage as possible, ranging from simple individual unhappiness, to family strife, to religious wars.

2.7.8 One of the worst traits of dogma is that it is often a tool of the powerful for controlling the weak, ignorant, and the underclass. Religious, political, and corporate groups which have more money, more political influence, etc. can also create new dogmas to fit their needs and keep them in power. Indeed, many past religious and cultural ideologies have been greatly influenced by what will serve the needs of the powerful. Obviously, writers such as Marx have covered this area extensively (although I disagree considerably with his economic philosophy).

2.7.9 About the only thing stronger than dogma in a religion, is its desire for the religion to grow and survive and even here, it’s a close call. This is why Galileo’s excommunication for the heresy of stating that the earth orbited the sun wasn’t revoked until the late twentieth century. This is why Protestant religions persist in worrying about satanic cults, when in reality, Christian cults have done far more damage to a far greater number of people. This is why the Pope admitted that evolution was not contradictory to religious belief, only a century and a half late. This is also why the Catholic church continues to be against birth control, despite the great need for it in developing nations (with large numbers of Catholics) where population and poverty are soaring uncontrollably. Traditionally, the church has stuck by its baseless claims until, only out of fear of extinction, it has been forced to change.

2.7.10 Under a more open system, where people are invited to question, review, and discuss, such harmful policies would not be able to cause so much damage before being changed. Moral reasoning is not only the most effective angle from which to approach moral dilemmas, it is also the most mature and responsible angle. The only real concern with moral reasoning is the possibility of rationalizing evil behavior. The best way to address the possibility of rationalization is through the "language analogy" used from 2.1.4 to 2.1.7.

2.7.11 You might wonder, "But this still means I can rationalize anything I want doesn't it?" Indeed, if you are not honest with yourself or others, you can make attempts to convince people of all sorts of things. Most people will recognize a rationalization quickly, especially if they understand your motives and/or basic human behavior. This is an example of immoral (or at least irresponsible) behavior that we must be on the lookout for. However, this sort of deed is not absent in religious history to any degree either. The Bible has been used to rationalize slavery, torture, murder, rape, abuse, war, injustice, and a whole host of miserable endeavors. Many smaller sorts of "rationalizations" usually get worked out in the larger picture of general consensus. It is when we abandon freedom of thought and speech and objective questioning of authority in exchange for dogmatic authoritarianism and "bandwagon logic" that we risk being deceived on a larger scale. We learn through history (both personal and social) the difference between rationalization and the rational. As said in the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."

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