Confronting the Destructive Nature of Religious Dogmatism: Overcoming the Disease of Dogmatism, Part Two

Evangelical Reformed Church - Confronting the Destructive Nature of Religious Dogmatism: Overcoming the Disease of Dogmatism, Part Two

Whereas my previous post regarding our human obsession with certainty and its resulting dogmatism dealt with particular concerns relating to dogmatism in general, I will now focus on the dangers inherent to one of its specific and most insidious manifestations.

While I am deeply concerned with any concrete form of dogmatism, the one against which I am most strongly opposed, and which I would like to specifically address here, is religious dogmatism. In the interest of transparency and authentic disclosure, this is entirely due to my own religious upbringing, which was based on the tradition and framework of Protestant Evangelical Christianity. Let me first clearly state that my intention is not to make offensive judgments or inaccurate generalizations regarding Evangelical Christianity or its individual adherents. I am speaking only on the basis of my own personal experience from earliest childhood through my present adult life. However, from this basis, I do believe that there is a strong and pervasive general tendency toward dogmatism within American Evangelical Christianity and the practices of individual Evangelical Christians.

Of course, to be fair, I should begin by acknowledging the universality of religious dogmatism across the broad range of world religions throughout human history. Dogmatic beliefs and attitudes perhaps reach their quintessential and most bizarre expressions in the area of religion, and representations of dogmatism are apparent in most if not all religious traditions. From one perspective, Christianity is certainly not unique in this regard. However, from another perspective, it is likely the most obvious and appropriate target for a critique such as this, and there are undeniable reasons to support the assertion of a unique status to the religious dogmatism of Christianity.

As the dominant religion in the Western world during the past 1500 years or so, Christianity (in its combined Catholic and Protestant forms) has been responsible for countless injustices, persecutions, violent conflicts, forced conversions, suppression of intellectual diversity and creativity, etc. Whether in reference to historical events such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the Salem witch trials; sociocultural movements such as colonial expansion, exploitation of native peoples, and the support of slavery; or everyday interpersonal encounters involving disrespect, intolerance, and violence toward alternate religious beliefs, it is clear that Christianity has an immense amount of literal, psychological, and spiritual blood on its hands. Currently, American Evangelical Christianity appears to be increasing this amount, albeit in less extreme and wide-scale forms, through right-wing political agendas, reactionary and often militant orientations toward moral and cultural issues, and hyper-aggressive Evangelistic practices.

As these are all consequences of Christianity’s religious dogmatism, it is vital to critically examine its underlying nature. The foundation of any religious dogmatism is the core belief that the views of that religion regarding such issues as morality, ethics, the nature of reality and the cosmos, spiritual salvation, and an afterlife are absolutely and unquestioningly true, from which follows the logical conclusion that any opposing religious perspectives are completely false or untrue. American Evangelical Christianity’s dogmatism is therefore characterized by the belief that the God of the Bible, the Bible’s teachings, and the Christian church’s value perspectives and practices alone are correct and valid. The only true God is the Christian God, the only true, authoritative divine scriptures are the Christian Bible, and the only way to moral perfection and spiritual salvation is through its prescription for acceptance of Jesus as personal lord and savior.

But how can this or any other dogmatic religious belief possibly be legitimately asserted? There is simply no way to “prove” or establish the veracity of any dogmatic claims regarding a deity, sacred writings, or religious practices. These are not objectively-based “facts” that can be substantiated through the use of the scientific method and resulting evidence (which in itself is quite problematic for that matter). They are subjectively experienced phenomena upon which we create a system of beliefs and values. At the end of the day, after all of the supposed “proofs,” after the endless debates and arguments, the shouting back and forth of unverifiable presuppositions, the anxiety-induced defensive reactions and counter-attacks, all we really have are our particular beliefs and value-perspectives. We believe that our conception of God and reality, our sacred scriptures, and our religious/spiritual practices are true, but we cannot know with absolute certainty, and we can never legitimately make such a claim.

The great tragedy of religious dogmatism, however, is that religious adherents often make and compulsively defend this claim. Evangelical Christians cannot know with absolute certainty whether their beliefs regarding the God of the Bible, as well as its teachings and prescribed religious practices, are the only true and accurate beliefs among all others. The great tragedy of Evangelical Christian dogmatism is that Evangelical Christians often have made, are making, and likely will continue to make and compulsively defend the claim of absolute truth and certainty regarding their beliefs. I would like to humbly (without presumption toward absolute certainty or infallibility) but passionately assert that this is an absurd and ill-conceived endeavor that can only end in disastrous consequences for our shared humanity.

I believe that the key to uncovering and overcoming the disease of religious, and particularly Evangelical Christian, dogmatism is precisely in revealing its tendencies toward compulsive defensiveness. Stated directly and succinctly, a view that must be compulsively and fanatically defended is suspect, in my estimation, and virtually guaranteed to be lacking in compelling and authentic life-affirming power. The Truth, or Reality, can defend itself, and a God that needs to be defended is a weak god. The infinite and omnipotent Creator of the universe, in which Evangelical Christians claim to believe and follow, should be able to defend Him/Herself and should not need finite human creatures to come to His/Her defense. This is what I have believed and asserted as an adult, although it is unfortunately in stark contrast to much of my religious conditioning as a child and adolescent. In the Evangelical educational and church circles of my childhood and youth, I was conditioned to believe that my beliefs and value perspectives were the “right” and “true” ones, that all others were wrong/false and that the purpose of my existence was to prove this to non-Christians. My job, so to speak, was to tell them how to live their lives, convincing them that they needed to adopt my beliefs, values, and lifestyle practices. This conditioning has been one of the greatest misfortunes and hidden blessings of my life. The misfortune was that in my youth, I completely bought into and identified with it, resulting in complex and deeply problematic spiritual identity issues with which I struggle greatly to this day. The hidden blessing came in my late adolescence/early adulthood where it functioned as a crucible for a constructive spiritual transformation that saved me and continues to save me every day of my life.

Whereas my conditioning held that the strength of one’s faith was in direct proportion to the extreme intensity with which one defended it, as an emerging adult I learned that the opposite is in fact the case; a compulsive need to defend one’s faith betrays its weakness, while the confident and secure absence of such a need is evidence of a strong faith. I have learned and passionately believe that the weak, insecure, and anemic faith of dogmatic certainty, which because of its weakness must be fanatically defended and protected, is the ultimate potential destroyer of humanity, and that the strong, secure, and vital faith of humility and constructive uncertainty is the ultimate potential redeemer and re-creator of humanity. Christians in general, and Evangelical Christians in particular, have been and tragically still are acting on the basis of a weak dogmatic faith that destroys human beings and their innate religious/spiritual rights in the name of a pathetically distorted and impoverished view of God. The world doesn’t need more Christians (in terms of more converted adherents to the religion of Christianity), Evangelical or otherwise. What it does desperately need is more fully awake, aware, and alive human beings who live on the basis of a strong faith, hungering for continual discovery and release from the shackles of dogmatic certainty.

— Scott Kiser

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