In Defense of Dogmatism

Amazon’s “look inside” feature has preserved intact a perfect little essay from the book, “Things That Are,” by Amy Leach. I have met Amy Leach–I even hiked in Provo’s beautiful Rock Canyon with her, her husband, and my personal essay class, courtesy of Patrick McMadden, my essay teacher, who I think was involved in getting her to come out to BYU and read from her book during BYU’s Friday Reading Series. If you will follow the above link, use the “look inside” feature, and search the word “hoopoe,” you will find a complete, lovely, and very short essay titled “God.”

In this essay, Amy Leach points out that men take the name of God in their mouths, but they do not speak God’s words. “They say it pleases him, to say his name incessantly. They sing it in songs and chant it together and broadcast it loudly on the radio, on signs. Perhaps it pleases him. I do not know. It does not please me.”

These iterations of his name are totally different from his words. God’s words, according to this essay, are his creatures, who “mount up with wings or leap through brambles or swim blackly in ponds.”

I find this essay utterly charming, like the rest of the book, but I also find something lacking in the treatment of how men speak God’s name. Amy Leach points out that there is a lot of vain repetition and stridency when people talk about God, and that she, like most people, do not find this pleasing. In Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, his bald statement that “we are protected by God,” coming right after he preached a simplistic gospel of Americanism, strikes me as epitomizing the kind of thing that “does not please” Amy Leach–and it does not please me either. But surely it is also possible to take God’s name in one’s mouth with due reverence and due care–as did Lincoln in his second inaugural address, which stands in striking contrast to Trump’s speech in many ways.

Now, Amy Leach does not deny this possibility. She only fails to mention it while emphasizing the opposite possibility. This gives rise to the impression that the use of God’s name is inherently dogmatic in the bad sense of that word.

For there is a sense of that word that is legitimately bad. Insofar as “dogmatic” means “rigid, closed-minded, and narrow,” it is a very bad thing indeed. This kind of dogmatism unfortunately characterizes our politics today. It is also, even more unfortunately, imputed by many to religion generally and to traditional religion particularly.

But there is also a good kind of dogmatism. It is the ongoing quest of searching out and expressing what seem to one the best-evidenced beliefs regarding ultimate things. That quest inevitably yields dogmas–that is, doctrines. (For a doctrine/dogma is merely the articulation of a belief.) And it is my chief claim in this essay that this dogmatizing quest is good and useful.

There is no choice to be made between this kind of dogmatism and open-mindedness. All persons, the open-minded and closed-minded alike, have beliefs about ultimate things. The only choice is between dogmatism of this kind and intellectual sloppiness–that is, between examining and articulating our beliefs and allowing them to go unexamined and unarticulated.

Milton’s great line in favor of freedom of the press expresses one of the ways in which searching out and expressing beliefs regarding ultimate things yields good results:

Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

Amen, Brother Milton. But a prerequisite to the encounter of Truth and Falsehood is the discursive field in which both can be expressed. Thus, argues Milton, we should encourage the free expression of doctrines, trusting in the power of Truth to conquer Falsehood.

Today, we as a modern, democratic people cherish the hard-won liberty of individuals to express themselves in obscene and irreverent ways. Pornography, flag burning, and swastikas are constitutionally protected, and we rejoice in the glorious freedom we are vouched safe by the First Amendment. Even those who believe the press to be irredeemably ridden with biases (and I am one of them) rush to the defense of the free press when Donald Trump attacks CNN on Twitter.

Speech about ultimate things also obtains constitutional protection under the First Amendment–but is socially stigmatized with a greater effect than any licensing law could succeed in producing. It is considered bad taste to mention religion or philosophy in any serious and sustained way, except as between very close friends and family–and even then, only with the most delicate moderation, switching subjects at the first sign of roused emotion.

Thus, whereas in Milton’s day, the conflict of ultimate truth and falsehood raged in the streets despite the licensing laws, in our day the conflict of ultimate truth and falsehood is kept from the public view despite the First Amendment.

As often happens, G. K. Chesterton has beat me to the punch. I’ve been listening to his Heretics, and when I heard the following words, I felt that electric sense of affirmation you get when somebody speaks your own thoughts with searing clarity. The quote is long, but well worth the read. It takes up most of the last page of this essay.

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. . . . A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters—except everything.

. . . .

Never has there been so little discussion about the nature of men as now, when, for the first time, any one can discuss it. The old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it. Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed. Sixty years ago it was bad taste to be an avowed atheist. . . . [But] now it is equally bad taste to be an avowed Christian. Emancipation has only locked the saint in the same tower of silence as the heresiarch. Then we talk about Lord Anglesey and the weather, and call it the complete liberty of all the creeds.

. . . .

We have a general view of existence, whether we like it or not; it alters or, to speak more accurately, it creates and involves everything we say or do, whether we like it or not. . . . Every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly. The possibility is that he may have held it so firmly and so long as to have forgotten all about its existence.

This latter situation is certainly possible; in fact, it is the situation of the whole modern world.

. . . .

Let us, then, go upon a long journey and enter on a dreadful search. Let us, at least, dig and seek till we have discovered our own opinions.

And I would add (if anything can prudently be added to Chesterton’s jolly prose) that after we have dug and sought and discovered them, let us take full advantage of our First Amendment freedoms and express our opinions–about ethics, esthetics, politics, and every other branch of philosophy–and, yes, about God–with due reverence and due care.

If we do express our opinions on these matters, the thing to be expressed will be a dogma, and we will therefore run the danger of being called “dogmatic.” And the charge will be true insofar as “dogmatic” means “having and defending a dogma.” But if this is what the title means, the only difference between those who are dogmatic and those who are not is that dogmatic people are sufficiently aware of their opinions to articulate them. The alternative to dogmatism in the sense in which I defend it is thus merely muddle-headedness. And it is demonstrably better to hold a dogma in one’s head than a muddle.

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of Dogmatism

  1. “The alternative to dogmatism in the sense in which I defend it is thus merely muddle-headedness. And it is demonstrably better to hold a dogma in one’s head than a muddle.”

    Funny and insightful, Brian.

    I also appreciated the Chesterton quote, especially, “Everything matters—except everything.”

    As usual, well done.

  2. Good old G.K. Chesterton! I also recommend his book Orthodoxy.

    The point I take from this post is that we need to be aware of the beliefs we dogmatically follow and think through them. So many incoherent philosophies are upheld just because they’re popular! But you’re right that they’re often a muddle if you look at them carefully.

    I would also recommend Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, specifically the chapter called “The God Within.” He points out some of these socially acceptable incoherencies and their consequences.

  3. I sincerely appreciate this essay. I have been silenced by my own fear of offending a few who are “out front’ with their defense of the “under-dog.” such as women who have suffered and are repentant regarding their abortions, or a young boy who has met social ostracising b/c of sex identity–I’m forced to agree that we “believers” are prejudiced and uninformed.

    I learned as my children married and started their own families that I must make suggestions ONLY when asked for. But when sincerely asked, I felt free to express my convictions without fear of revenge. I am grateful to the very few with whom I have sincere disagreements who have freed me to express my heart-felt ideas without fear of being slapped in the face for daring to be “provincial and uninformed. “

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