Wednesday, February 22, 2012

X is dogmatic

Some weeks ago, a couple Christians came to a meeting of my secular student group.  One offered his humble opinion that we were too young to choose atheism (though apparently not too young to choose Christianity).  We confronted him on the obvious asymmetry of the statement, it came out that he thought atheism was an inherently dogmatic position, while Christianity is open.  He thought atheism was "commonly" defined to be an absolute belief that there is no god, despite the fact that no one in a room full of atheists used that definition.

Someone mocked him for these statements, and he immediately said, "Now there's a dogmatic atheist."

Accusations of dogmatism are ubiquitous in all sorts of arguments.  Religious people are dogmatic.  Atheists are dogmatic.  Leftwingers and rightwingers are dogmatic.  Alties and doctors are dogmatic.

But what does it mean to accuse the other side of being dogmatic?  Does it mean that one time you were in an argument, and they mocked you?  Does it mean one time you were in an argument and you failed to convince despite your killer arguments?

If that's all that "dogmatic" means, it's hardly seems to carry any weight.  We don't know what experiences led a person to believe the other side is dogmatic.  We don't know the contexts of those experiences.  It's like telling a little anecdote.  No, it's worse.  It's like saying, "I have an anecdote," but not actually saying what the anecdote was.

We don't know why an atheist mocked them.  We don't know if they really had a killer argument that an atheist ignored (especially since people tend to overestimate the persuasiveness of their own position).  For all we know, they just had an encounter where an atheist referred to the opinion of some authority.  Or they were just surprised that there is any public advocacy of atheism.  Or perhaps they don't have any relevant experiences at all, and are just repeating what they hear from other critics.  It's just like hearsay: "My friend's brother read in the paper that someone had an experience with dogmatic atheists!"

Since accusations of dogmatism seem to be empty of meaning, I would hesitate to apply it even to religious people.  If I have the impression that religions are dogmatic, where does this impression come from?  I need to come up with a better reason than, "I had an argument, where the other person just couldn't see it my way."

For instance, there is the fact that "dogma" is a word that comes from religion.  For instance, Catholicism really does have a list of doctrines that people are supposed to believe.  In modern practice, of course, people don't always follow these beliefs.*  But they at least seem to aspire towards dogmatism.

*For example, "98 percent of sexually experienced women of child-bearing age and who identify themselves as Catholic have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point in their lives."  From WP.

I could also relate my experience of when I first questioned religion.  I felt slightly ashamed of it, because I got the sense that it was somehow wrong to question religion, even though it was the skeptically correct thing to do.  So I could say that I was struggling with Catholic dogma.  But this was just my experience, and I don't know if it applies to people who feel comfortable enough to argue about religion with atheists.  So I wouldn't offer the blanket statement that religion is dogmatic.