July 25, 2010

SLICE OF PIE: Dogma, Dogmatic and Dogmatism

Rereading my favorite science fiction writer, David Brin, got me thinking. In his essay, “The Dogma of Otherness”, he says, “The Dogma of Otherness insists that all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something to offer.” (OTHERNESS © 1994 by David Brin)

Let’s define some terms: a dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. Its roots are Greek, from the word that meant 'opinion', or literally, 'seem good, think' (Oxford Free Online Dictionary).

Dogmatic means “inclined to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true” (Oxford Free Online Dictionary).

But dogmatism veers off in a different direction: “Dogmatism is defined [in Dr. Judy J. Johnson’s 2009 book WHAT’S SO WRONG WITH BEING ABSOLUTELY RIGHT: THE DANGEROUS NATURE OF DOGMATIC BELIEF] as a ‘personality trait that combines cognitive, emotional, and behavioral characteristics to personify prejudicial, closed-minded belief systems that are pronounced with rigid certainty’. …[and] has a ‘genetic, structural component that interacts with other predisposing factors’…the burden of responsibility for adult dogmatists lies with no one else but themselves…Johnson concludes with invaluable practical advice for parents, as well as important recommendations for changes in social values and institutions. Johnson even draws upon Buddhism to portray a way of life that guards against dogmatism.”


Of course, there are other definitions as well and Dr. Francis Crick, who co-discovered the molecular nature of DNA and is considered one of the top 100 greatest scientific discoveries redefined it to suit his specific purpose: “The central dogma of molecular biology was first articulated by Francis Crick in 1958 and re-stated in a Nature paper published in 1970. [It] is a framework for understanding the transfer of sequence information between sequential information-carrying biopolymers, in the most common or general case, in living organisms… [Francis Crick wrote:] “Jacques Monod pointed out to me that I did not appear to understand the correct use of the word dogma…but since I thought that all religious beliefs were without foundation, I used the word the way I myself thought about it, not as most of the world does…” (If this isn’t a dogmatic statement, I don’t know what is…incidentally, it seems a bit arrogant, too).


Let me try to simplify: a dogma is something you believe in, whether there is solid proof for it or not. OK.

If you do believe in that sometime even when questioned or challenged, you are dogmatic. That seems like it can be OK, too.

Dogmatism however, is related to the other “isms” in that it becomes a complex system of belief, and as a system, it becomes hard to move, hard to change and paradoxically, easier to believe in. Most often these articles on dogma, dogmatic and dogmatism use religion, in particular Christianity and Islam as prime examples, though they occasionally include other things as well.

Having a dogma and being dogmatic does NOT appear to be the same as dogmatism.

David Brin named observations about western science fiction fans the Dogma of Otherness (or similarly the Doctrine of Otherness). He saw, at least at one convention/speaking engagement, that our Western, American culture insists that OTHER dogmas are just as valid as ours and that paradoxically, it created a sort of “super dogma”. The essay quoted above shows that he is absolutely dogmatic about his dogma, and that’s fine as far as I can tell. But he slips perilously close to dogmatism when he states, “But for others of us who have passed through the Doctrine of Otherness, it might be time to move on…to the attitude of Elder Brothers and Sisters only a little more knowledgeable than our fellow creatures but with the power and duty to be their guardian.” I’ve been…taught…by David Brin’s words, so I know he takes this very seriously.

An anthropologist Brin quotes several times though, might have meant his comment to counter Brin’s dogmatism. Dr. Matt Cartmill, anthropologist at Duke University wrote: “If biologists don't want to see the theory of evolution evicted from public schools because of its religious content, they need to accept the limitations of science and stop trying to draw vast, cosmic conclusions from the plain facts of evolution. Humility isn't just a cardinal virtue in Christian doctrine; it's also a virtue in the practice of science." http://imagine-hawaii.com/science.html

I take this as a strong warning to me as a Christian. I will dogmatically embrace Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. In order to avoid dogmatism though, I also need to be close friends with the Dogma of Otherness, at least as Brin formulated it originally: “…all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something to offer.”

The Bible does confirm the Dogma of Otherness by God’s example: “You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God's. The case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.” (Deuteronomy 1:17) and “We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him.” (John 9:31).

Lots here for me to think about.


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