Freedom from Dogma
The world had been ruled by dogma for thousands of years until The Enlightenment burst onto the scene — and it holds sway still, in many parts and pockets of the world. Freedom from dogma was one of the greatest gifts of the intense period of scientific and empirical discovery of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Dogma commonly has a religious connotation, and indeed a wide swath of dogmatic belief systems does come from the church and other organized religious groups and sects. But all sorts of other worldviews and systems of thought can be dogmatic, from political beliefs to corporate culture to family customs and beyond.
The Vague Authority of Dogma
The signature hallmark of dogma is that it is offered as sweepingly authoritative without necessarily specifying what authority it rests on. Its tenets may seem capricious and contradictory — even downright nonsensical. Dogmatic customs may feel archaic in actual practice. Dogma often makes a lot of claims that are not adequately backed up by anything other than ritual, custom, or superstition — “we’ve always done it this way,” they say: but nobody remembers quite why.
The Founders of America had an opinion on dogma: a negative one. They had a great aversion to dogma, having seen its use in creating and preserving tyranny in numerous forms, from persecution and state violence to war and genocide. They distrusted the use of received wisdom as the basis for government, noting rightly that it allowed corrupt individuals to make up whatever justifications they want for their sometimes heinous actions and/or chronic neglect of their populations.
America’s Founders put their faith not in faith — but in empiricism, for the formation of their new government. The main architects of the Constitution especially were steeped in the works of Enlightenment thinkers and political philosophers who were rapidly advancing the fields of political science, economics, statistics, social psychology, and human behavior. They wanted to make a conscious break from both the theocratic structure of Britain with its state Church of England, and from the monarchical and allegedly divine origins of the nation-states of Europe and beyond. The Founders wanted to create a new kind of nation, founded not on religious principles but on civic ones — with authority flowing from the consent of the people governed, instead of from a claimed but unprovable source of divinity.
Dogma is Totalist Thinking
Among the many reasons to seek freedom from dogma, one of the greatest is that dogmatic thinking is far, far too narrow for understanding today’s complex world. The modern world of today is multi-modal, ever moreso than ever before — and dogma leaves you with just a one-track mind. It’s a method of impoverishing your brain and training it to avoid seeking information beyond the blinders applied by dogmatic authorities. It’s useful to unscrupulous people in power to clip your wings and stunt your mental and emotional growth for their own benefit.
Would-be totalitarians and authoritarians think nothing of cultivating people in this way to be mindless followers of their belief systems. A surprising number of people actually gravitate towards this process of what Erich Fromm referred to as “symbiosis” with a powerful group to stave off existential fears of aloneness and powerlessness. Do not underestimate the power of brainwashing and conspiracy theory to radicalize individuals and groups — and become more aware of how political messaging and other types of marketing can influence you, sometimes without your direct awareness.
Multi-Modal Thinking is Better for Decision-Making
One major problem with dogma is that it is not going to be flexible enough to accommodate all the kinds of situations you are likely to find yourself in in today’s world. A document written 2000 years ago or even 200 years ago cannot say much directly about thousands of novel issues, problems, and ethical questions inherent in our technological society. That’s why documents that have been written like flexible frameworks — like our Constitution — are better at standing the test of time, because they can be modified and extended to suit our needs as they grow and evolve over time.
Our models of the world, its people, and all sorts of entities within them have been upgraded and made higher-resolution over the past decades and centuries. We simply know a lot more about how things generally work — even though many mysteries remain, and new ones are being generated all the time. It’s extremely helpful to know a little bit about the major mental models of highest consequence and greatest applicability to today’s decision-making needs. When we are equipped with more than one picture or concept of how a problem may be solved, the better chance we have of landing on the right one(s) to describe this current example of a previously seen type of problem or issue.
Ditch the dogma!
Master mental models!