Dogma

"Life itself is something of a tragedy." That judgment seems quite harsh, indeed even shockingly pessimistic. But perhaps the taboo surrounding such declarations is due to many years of concerted effort at glossing it over. No one wants to wake up everyday bemoaning existence or feeling life is meaningless. Unfortunately, however, that elusive answer to the "meaning of life" is not at all self-evident and may be impossible to pin down once and for all in any universalist way. 

What to make of this, then? I contend that the ideal solution to this great question of meaning is very difficult: a simultaneous acknowledgment of life's absurdity and a resolve to do something meaningful about it. But no one really knows what this meaningful something is, and I cannot really state objectively the meaningful something even exists. This is hard to digest, perhaps even apt to cause more angst than becoming an abject nihilist in an act of complete resignation.

However, dogmatism has easy answers. For every difficult life question, especially those which cannot be objectively answered by a rational or empirical process, dogma supplies the solution in an easy-to-swallow package wrapped in promises of certainty. But swallowing the dogma pill only gives a false sense of meaning.

Dogmatism may simply be defined as "belief" or "opinion" in colloquial usage, but it also denotes a particular ideological phenomenon, described by Milton Rokeach in Psychological Review as "a relatively closed cognitive organization of beliefs and disbeliefs about reality, organized around a central set of beliefs about absolute authority." 

In an ideological vacuum, one's hypothetical cognitive organization could be said to "open." But of course we are never completely open, in the sense we inevitably commit to holding some things as true and other things as false. The progression to a "closed" ideology, then, comes as more and more truths are added such as categorical "truths" which, out of hand, reject any and all alternatives, thus gaining an absolute quality. Dogma of this sort is innately supremacist; opposition is handily condemned as a deviation from the absolute standard. This stands in stark contrast to the absurdity of life and the myriad questions surrounding it. Dogma can supply the answers in abundance and in the garb of untouchable, unquestionable truth.

Perhaps the meaning of life is the pursuit of happiness, which could be measured in terms of human well-being. I do not know, of course, but it is conceivable this might approximate a satisfactory answer in some cases. 

Dogma, of course, can supply its dictates in much clearer form, admitting no doubt, as in this instance: "Fascism denies the materialist conception of happiness as a possibility" and also "denies the validity of the equation, well-being equals happiness, which would reduce men to the level of animals, caring for one thing only — to be fat and well fed — and would thus degrade humanity to a purely physical existence." 

Those words were penned by that great progenitor of fascism Benito Mussolini, in his work The Doctrine of Fascism. A textbook example of dogmatism, Mussolini's assertions accomplish two things. First, they provide an unequivocal meaning and purpose to adherents, and second, they establish an immutable canon of ideological certainties. 

Mussolini knows the essence of human existence, or so he claims, and decrees opponents defy this essence by settling for being "fat and well fed." Having a monopoly on this knowledge of human essence, he is of course the one to then supply a set of steps by which adherents can attain it. 

The principle of skepticism is unknown to statements of this kind; dogma is not at all skeptical, rather it is the purest incarnation of skepticism's opposite: it rests solely on the assertions of the claim-maker. This is attractive, I will admit! How we long for certainty, a firm ideological foundation which both gives us meaning and continuously assures us as long as we follow it, we are always right!

Perhaps my choice of Mussolini as my first example of dogmatism is a bit extreme. "Of course," you might think, "Mussolini of all people was an insufferable dogmatist. What of it?"

There is a great deal of dogmatist thinking in daily life. Religion is rife with it, and political pronouncements of the dogmatic sort are issued on the regular. It is not the exclusive creation of a handful of extremists but can be found lurking even among those claiming strict adherence to reason and empiricism. 

Richard Durand and Zarrel Lambert note in their article from Psychological Reports that dogmatic people selectively admit information, exaggerating the discrepancy between themselves and perceived opponents while minimizing and ignoring discrepancies between themselves and in-group members. 

Might this perhaps-unconscious information screen prevent even the best-intentioned of people from seeing their own dogmatism? In any case, this is the definition of close-mindedness and must be recognized for what it is: a serious cognitive handicap.  

Life is hard. Falling for dogma is easy, and when it promises to make life less hard with an authoritative and animating life purpose, it becomes even easier. But this sense of meaning is as superficial as the dogma itself.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.