What is dogma?
In her 1993 book "Shame," Bangladeshi writer Tasrima Naslin draws upon the bloody conflicts generated by clashing religious beliefs: In 1992, hard-line Hindus in India, claiming that the Moslem Basri mosque at Ayodhya was built upon a holy Hindu site, tore the mosque to the ground. Naslin uses this actual event as a stepping-off point for her fictional story, in which Muslims in Bangladesh retaliate for the Ayodhya incident by hunting down and killing local Hindus.
Shame sharp-focused on the dangers of an outlook circumscribed by limiting sectarian boundaries. Characters in the book behave as if a rubber band is bound tight around their minds, engaging in tit for tat violence, unable to see beyond their immediate “tribal encampment.” As an ironic coda of life imitating art, a fatwah was levied against Naslin by a Bangladeshi fundamentalist Muslim organization.
The book was striking, but perhaps did not reach much of a Western audience. The spectre of dogma sprang into far greater relief for many, especially in the US, following the incidents of September 11th. Nineteen men who had a particular belief in God and his sanction of their actions crashed a plane into twin towers, killing thousands. It is said they were acting on their belief that female virgins waited in heaven for martyrs as reward for their actions.
Dogma is no new thing; it may be as old as thought itself. The very antiquity of beliefs often grants them,
in believers’ minds, a special legitimacy, and at the same time, renders them more intractable. The term
“dogma” started out as a religious one, originally used in the Catholic Church to describe an assertion of
metaphysical truth, accepted as doctrine. The dictionary definition broadens this: dogma is something held
as an established opinion, a definite authoritative tenet. These days the word has acquired an even more
negative connotation, as an idea which is held to against all reason.
It is not always easy to say what is or is not dogma, nor perhaps should one lightly do so. One man’s dogma
is another’s cherished ideal. Intellectuals need to take care in espousing their values and ideas, and
especially in criticizing others’. There are important social, cultural, and historical factors at play in
determining what people believe and why. Such ideas have to do with creating civic cohesion, with ensuring
survival. But, and here lies the rub, they may also deal with one group of people exploiting another. The
20th century served as mute witness to countless instances when belief gelled into totalizing ideology, with
Still, as a jumping off place for understanding, perhaps we can generalize a little, in trying to circle in
on what dogma consists of. We might say that dogma often has a backward looking nature, not keeping pace
with social changes. It is often passed on from generation to eneration. It may be highly emotionally loaded.
It is often at the root of fundamentalism. It may lead to behaviors which are selfish or exploitative. And it
is often embraced collectively.
“Crowds of silent voices whisper in our ears, transforming the nature of what we see and hear. Some are those
of childhood authorities and heroes, others come from family and peers. The strangest emerge from beyond the
grave. A vast chorus of long-gone ancients constitutes a notso-silent majority whose legacy has what may be
the most dramatic effect of all on our vision of reality.” - Howard Bloom.
Prout founder P. R. Sarkar has written a good deal about dogma and its effect on society. He offers this
concise definition: “Dogma is an idea with a rigid boundary line, which won't allow you to go beyond the
periphery of that boundary line. Thus dogma goes against the fundamental spirit of the human mind. The human
mind won't tolerate anything rigid. It wants movement -- not only movement, but accelerated movement.”
This definition moves us beyond the dictionary one, and also asserts certain psychological ruths. It posits
a directed, fluid concept of human existence. In another book, Sarkar compares human existence to a flowing
stream, as opposed to a stagnant pool. If the human mind craves expansion, then dogma not only creates
division and conflict, but is also fundamentally opposed to this movement. Movement towards what? Towards a
knowledge of the self. Sarkar lambasts philosophies which are based on materialism, because they are
“anti-human.” Rather, he encourages broadness of vision - physical, intellectual and, particularly,
spiritual development. Humanity’s evolutionary future lies in the expansion of consciousness.
Examples of dogma, both past and present, abound: In the Middle Ages, clerics joined knights fighting in the
Crusades. Forbidden to spill blood, they eschewed swords, and instead walloped their enemies on the head with
Hard-line Israeli settlers, believing God has commanded them to settle Palestine, daily encroach further into
Palestinian lands, upping the ante of tension in that contentious region.
One area in which dogma has particularly pernicious effects is the status of women. In India, for example,
the practice of sati allowed for the burning of Hindu widows on their husband’s funeral pyre. Yet this
was brought about by a distortion of scriptures, according to Sarkar. Priests misquoted a scripture which said
women shall lead the funeral procession, twisting it to say the widow shall walk into the fire. Although
nowadays sati has been banned, its legacy lingers, with the practice of in-laws pouring gasoline over unwanted
widows and setting them afire.
Or consider this quote: “A man should certainly not cover his head, since he is the image of God and reflects
God’s glory; but woman is the reflection of man’s glory. For man did not come from women, but woman was
created for the sake of man.” Although it is common to view Islam as the religion most constricting to women,
the above is not something out of Shariya law, but instead comes from 1 Corinthians. A strong anti-intellectual,
anti-scientific bias often accompanies dogmatic belief. “I ain’t got no learnin’ and never had none… Glory be to
Some folks work their hands off’n up to the elbows to give their younguns education, and all they do is send
their young-uns to hell…” This was uttered by a Pentecostal preacher at the time of the Scopes trial, the
famous debate on evolution being taught in the schools in the U.S. at the turn of the last century.
Many fundamentalists’ ideas are rooted in a dogmatic and literal adherence to scripture, even when science has
convincingly challenged the legitimacy of their notions. (Of course, science, too, must be scrutinized for
signs of dogma.)
In an essay entitled “The Roots of the Moral Majority,” David Harrel notes that Christian fundamentalists have
clung tightly to a number of beliefs and practices. These include anti-evolutionism, school prayer, militarism,
the inerrancy of Scripture, and pre-millenialism (the belief in the “rapturing” of believers up into heaven,
and a period of reign of Christ on arth).
American Christian fundamentalists have in recent years entered the political arena, although, as Harrel notes,
they did so only “when it seemed to them that the very structure of society was seriously threatened by
modernism and liberalism.”
Responding to Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell’s claims of impending moral doom in American society, Harrel
quotes William Fore of the National Council of Churches: “It is true that the nation needs spiritual reform…
that our society has fallen into a moral cynicism that feeds corruption….Falwell is partly right, and this makes
him far more dangerous than if he were totally wrong.” Sarkar distinguishes between religion and spirituality.
Spiritual practices strengthen and free the mind, offering direct communion with the highest reality and a sense
of universal connectedness, while religion is based on tradition and belief, and often merely leads to
Dogmatists often believe that they are doing God’s will, that their beliefs are divinely anctioned. And yet,
says Sarkar, “People who follow dogmacentered philosophy exploit others in the name of providence for their
own self-interest. For example, the proponents of dogma often claim that they have been blessed with divine
revelation. They say that they had a dream in which God appeared before them and commanded them to do
particular work, and on this pretext they exploit others to the full.”
And, “there are many philosophies which tend to crudify the human mind, and make people violent and
inconsiderate. They make people believe that they are God's favourite children, whereas the rest of humanity are
cursed. Although these views have philosophical sanction, they do not enjoy the sanction of the A'tman.” Here
Sarkar refers to the deepest layer of human existence, the soul, which, according to his spiritual philosophy, is
in congruence with Cosmic Consciousness.
Religions, Sarkar says, know how to twist their teachings to deny the truth and adapt to different
circumstances, in order to secure the interests of a special, privileged class. They “sentimentalize” the minds
of people, and through the use of stories, myths and parables, create superiority, inferiority and fear complexes.
Yet dogma is not simply a religious phenomenon. Tenets of economic thought can be clung to as fiercely, as
blindly, and often with as bloody consequences, as religious ones. The instances of harmful adherence to
social and economic dogmas and hegemonic doctrines are too numerous to mention. As just one example,
Stalin, attempting to force the round pegs of economic reality in the Soviet steppes into the square holes of
his Marxist doctrine, slaughtered tens of millions.
How can dogma be evaluated? Is it possible to judge another’s beliefs? How is one to avoid the accusation of
cultural bias? In matters of human rights, for example, especially when criticism comes from Western sources,
leaders of non-Western countries retort that their internal affairs are their own business. Human rights, they
argue, are not universally interpreted in the same way, and cultural beliefs in certain notions of human nature
or governance excuse any violations. With the efforts of the United Nations, the World Court, and numerous
non-governmental organizations working for the protection of human rights, the world is now struggling towards
a consensus on the necessity to codify and protect these rights. Belief, of course, cannot be legislated. But
Skepticism, said Santayana, is the chastity of the mind. Is a skeptical stance, then, the way to begin to evaluate
belief systems? It is possible to go too far, as many postmodernists do, discounting all beliefs as constructed,
and proceeding to deconstruct them. There are those who argue for a cultural, and indeed, a philosophical
relativism. Yet this too often becomes paralyzing, as every inch of ground begins to shift beneath one’s feet.
Sarkar is not arguing for skepticism, per se. He sees definite truths in life.
A vigorous intellectual life, promoting the questioning, debate and free exchange of opinions and information
is the first step. In other words, rationality. Beliefs, Sarkar says, may be evaluated based upon their degree
of rationality. And this rationality needs to be further rooted in a universal outlook, which will promote the
physical, mental and spiritual well-being of every human on the planet. Furthermore, as Sarkar argues in his
book Neo-Humanism, plants and animals should be included in these considerations, since they also have
Ethics also play a role in shaping the parameters of belief; a person established in morality will be less likely
to embrace beliefs which are harmful to others. According to Sarkar, “to counteract the malevolent effect of
dogma-centred philosophies, the two most important factors are the development of rationality and the spread of
education. Merely attending school and university classes will not necessarily have the desired effect. Stress
should be placed on education which produces a high degree of rationality in the human mind, and this type of
education should be spread amongst the people. So, to counteract religious dogma we have to adopt a two-fold
approach. First, the path of logic and reason must be adopted… Simultaneously, the spiritual sentiment must be
inculcated in human minds as this is more powerful than the religious sentiment. For this people should be
properly educated in the way of spirituality.”
Each person must weigh the relevant ideas, consider them rationally, experiment with them, and decide for
themselves. At the same time, the practical effort to open one’s heart and expand one’s consciousness lays the
groundwork for an outlook free of exploitative tendencies. It is crucial that the ideas of compassion, universal
brother- and sisterhood, and the linking of one’s spirit with a greater reality, become more than simply ideas.
Their beauty and truth must be realized through practice. This combination of rationality and spirituality will
open the door to an expansive, dogma-free existence.
Andy Douglas is a freelance writer and a graduate student in creative nonfiction writing at the
University of Iowa. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.