The Disease of Dogmatism

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The Disease of DogmatismRarely have I struggled the way I do when I am confronted by the disease of dogmatism. It is, I believe, the greatest impediment to the growth of human knowledge — and to the betterment of mankind. It is a conundrum that has become less complicated over the centuries, but the continued slow rate of its exodus from our collective ethos troubles me deeply. What troubles me even more deeply, however, is the fact that the disease of dogmatism derives almost exclusively from fear, and I am bothered simply because I don’t believe the ideal human experience should ever find its foundations in intimidation or terror. Further, I have the strongest conviction that any acquiescence to fear as a solution necessarily destroys human creativity and progress by an order of many magnitudes.

It may be naïvete — or perhaps simply my gross ignorance — but I do not believe I am alone in the sentiment that fear should rarely, if ever, be a solution to the human suffering. In fact, I would argue that fear is the primary source of that suffering. Equally, I believe most human beings would willingly eschew fear were they aware of another path. But therein lies the rub: sometimes it takes unimaginable courage to take the first step into the unknown.

In the early nineteen-nineties, I believed the widespread global introduction of the Internet would exponentially increase the growth of human knowledge. I believed the information age would usher in a new intellectual renaissance — an emergent era of scientific discovery and critical thinking in which people would, wholesale, begin to question theories that heretofore have been somehow exempt from falsification. I could not have been more wrong.

In the two decades that have seen the Internet gain wide global adoption, ignorance has blossomed. Indeed, the two most prevalent online activities are social networking and the viewing of pornography; it would seem the Internet’s greatest contribution to our lives is easier access to gossip and sex.

After centuries of decline, religious fervor has rebounded dramatically in recent years. One of the fastest-growing and most pervasive theological sects, Islam, is so dogmatic that its proponents regularly issue bounties on dissenters — also known as infidels. Muslims even blow themselves up (along with countless other people) in order to bolster the cause. It doesn’t get much more dogmatic than that: when you are so “right” — as distinguished from those who are so “wrong” — that you feel comfortable ending your own life, then I think it’s safe to say you are not really open to alternative viewpoints.

Recently I chaired an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and as a topic, I referred to some (admittedly novice) theories regarding the human brain’s management of fear. The reaction from the room was nearly universal, immediate, and clear: this interpretation is unwelcome.

I should mention here that some people were open to the topic and wasted no time sharing their thoughts with me. But others were clearly shaken, and they responded with fear. One man bluntly let me know how immature and ignorant I am. Later, a woman told me there was no room in the AA program for so much complexity.

I consider the program of Alcoholics Anonymous to be one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I find much solace and support from the fellowship. And in all fairness I must admit that, as an agnostic-atheist member of the program, I am in a clear minority.

The program purports to be open to all religions — and this is true to some extent. But just a cursory glance at the literature gives any reader the immediate understanding that this is an organization steeped in  Judeo-Christian theology. Any claims to the contrary are vacuous and even patronizing. Indeed, within the literature, I am repeatedly reminded that without God, I will fail. One passage even extends pity to me for my atheistic tendencies. Luckily, I have been happily and peacefully abstinent for several years now, and as such, I represent incontrovertible evidence that sobriety — along with joy — are eminently possible without God.

Thinking back on the responses I received in the AA meeting I led, it occurs to me that I have had similar fearful reactions to my positions from adherents of many religions. And at some level it makes sense. After all, the mystery of our universe has no ready answers, and even I succumb to fear of the unknown at times. But I refuse to grant it the role of my master, and I am befuddled by people who do.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a bit different, to be sure. This isn’t simply a religious doctrine seeking to offer peace via infantile (and egregiously inaccurate) explanations of the nature of the universe. To the contrary, AA’s purpose is to help people fight an extremely deadly disease.

I am fortunate in that I joined the ranks of the program from a place of comfort and limited damage. My drinking was always moderate — which accounted for my going in and out of the program for so many years. I didn’t see the catastrophic consequences some people do when they finally make it into AA, but my genetic history made it clear any continued use would be a gamble. So I stopped.

My story, however, certainly doesn’t mirror some of the tragedies I’ve learned about in the fellowship. And as I consider the desperation I encounter from some of the souls in those rooms, it begins to make sense that any deviation from the standard message could easily be perceived as a threat… not just a threat to a religious belief, however, but a threat to a recovered life. That isn’t something that should be handled capriciously.

I find myself in conflict; on one hand, I desperately want to interact with a world at a level that transcends fear. On the other hand, I have enough sympathy and patience that I must respect the fact that fear may be the only way for some people. And while I can’t follow them down that path, perhaps my role is simply to respect their journeys, and to let them find peace however it comes to them — even if that means they must tolerate being afraid.

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