The Faitheism Project Podcast, Episode 30: “Does Your Dogma Bite?”

Bread and butter.  Oil and vinegar.  Religion and dogma.  Got the one, the other just seems to go right along with it.  Bread is improved by butter, oil is given life by vinegar, but religion is given what-exactly by religion?  Rules, for one thing.  Why do religions need rules to begin with and is it the rules that make religion dogmatic?  For that matter, what do we even mean by “dogma” and “dogmatic”?  

The literal definition of dogma is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true”.  Per the Online Etymology Dictionary,  dogma derives from the Greek dogma (genitive dogmatos) “opinion, tenet,” literally “that which one thinks is true,” from dokein “to seem good, think” (from PIE root *dek- “to take, accept”).

That which one thinks is true.  Let’s start there.  But, let’s also ask WHY one thinks it’s true.  What is it based on?

Religion is naturally dogmatic.  But, then, so are politics.  Any set of rules laid down by any authority (that the authority says no one can question) is dogma on the hoof (or paws).  The only question — does that authoritarian have any followers?  An authoritarian of one — steeped in his own dogma — is a person deeply in need of therapy.  

Is dogma necessarily a bad thing?  Can dogma deliver happiness?  Is that a bad thing?  And, while we’re at it, is spirituality — free from religion — also free from dogma?  

Hard to say whether this dogma bites or not.  How about we start off by throwing it a bone… 

The Faitheism Project Podcast, Episode 30: “Does Your Dogma Bite?”

Or, if you prefer to watch…


Religion: academic definition

 a. Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp. a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement. (Oxford Dictionary)

Religion:  for an increasing number of people it is a bad thing.

This negative meaning has been around for a while: Soren Kierkegaard

For Kierkegaard, the established Lutheran church in 19th century Denmark had become a kind of certification program for bourgeois respectability. You dutifully showed up for Sunday services to see and be seen, and thereby confirmed that you and your co-worshippers were saved by faith alone, and that you were all a solid member of Christendom. Thus you could proceed, during the week, to do all the self-interested, secular bourgeois things that the bourgeois automatically do so well.

There is, for Kierkegaard, something pathetically self-satisfied and self-congratulatory about such a stance. The point of Christian discipleship for Kierkegaard is that a Christian is something you need to perpetually become, rather than something you just are given your baptism and regular attendance at Sunday services.

While in prison under the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man—not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”

Thus in Barth’s masterwork Church Dogmatics “religion,” as an ineluctably human enterprise, was not automatically a “good thing.” In fact it is idolatry: the attempt to elevate human theologies and practices to the level that can only be occupied by God, and revealed in the unique revelation that is Jesus Christ. Barth, like Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer (and Ian Anderson!) was keenly aware of the tendencies of institutional religion to fall into a kind of spiritual torpor that feeds moral complacency and political conformity. It was this sort of unthinking acceptance of the status quo that allowed German Christians to identify Church and Reich, and to conflate the Führerprinzip with the Gospel. Barth, like Kierkegaard or Bonhoeffer, did not disparage institutionalized practices of preaching and worship, but only their decay into mere displays, empty self-righteous gestures of presumed sanctity. Beware of mere “religion.”


a belief or set of beliefs held by a group or organization, that others are expected to accept without argument

political/religious/party dogma

Oxford Dictionary

Church Dogmatics (German: Kirchliche Dogmatik) is the four-volume theological summa and magnum opus of Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth, and was published in twelve part-volumes (spanning thirteen books) from 1932 to 1967. 

Considered one of the most important theological works of the 20th century

Negative definition: If you’re dogmatic, you’re 100% sure of your system despite evidence to the contrary. Dogmatic can also mean close-minded.


The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. Oxford Dictionary

How to be “scientific” and not dogmatic: Karl Popper was a philosopher of science, who also made contributions in epistemology, philosophy of mind and social and political philosophy. He argued that scientific theories are distinguished from non-scientific theories and pseudo-science by being falsifiable claims about the world.

All scientific theories fit within a wider theoretical framework that is itself subjective. (Thomas Kuhn who introduced the idea of the paradigm shift). 

Andrew Walls:  “Politics is the art of the possible; translation is the art of the impossible.  Exact transmission of meaning from one linguistic medium to another is continually hampered not only by structural and cultural difference; the words of the receptor language are pre-loaded, the old cargo drags the new into areas uncharted in the source language.  In the end the translator has simply to do his best and take risks in a high-risk business.”  p. 26  “The Missionary Movement in Christian History.”

Translation is the means by which religion, dogmatics and spirituality stay humble and vital. Recognizing that our translation of the gospel is one of many, with strengths and weaknesses, keeps our dogma from biting.


“Who sez?” is the extreme shorthand for what any atheist is asking.  If there’s a “who” anywhere in the answer to that question?  Hello, dogma!  Deities and dogma go hand-in-hand.  

Deities demand rituals.  I’d like to know why?  Isn’t it enough just being a deity?  You have to be “worshipped” too — but not just in any old way — a “special” way.  Here — here’s the step-by-step of how ya do it.

Spirituality is a question.  Dogma is an answer.  Not THE answer, AN answer.  If some spirituality can be dogma free then spirituality itself is dogma free.  Everyone’s on their own spiritual journey.  That’s the extent of the dogma where spirituality is concerned.  If a particular traveler likes to sprinkle dogma on their spirituality, that’s their prerogative.

Me?  I’m skeptical.  I’m not good with “matters of faith” since I always ask that question “who sez?”  Most atheists won’t say “absolutely, there is no ‘God’,” because they can’t honestly claim to know it.  Hey — show me demonstrable, repeatable, undeniable proof that a deity of ANY KIND exists and I’ll lay down my atheism happily.  Shall I hold my breath?  

As religion is, really, just a way of thinking, other ways of thinking can also be dogmatic — because they involve particular rituals or a specific, prescribed process loaded with symbols.  Epicureanism, stoicism and Pyrrhonism were all “schools of thought”.  Being schools with prescribed ways of doing things, they were automatically dogmatic ways of thinking.

Those schools all pre-dated “the scientific method” however.  That way of thinking was a veritable game changer.  

Let’s ask: is the scientific method “dogmatic”?  I’d say, by its very  nature, no.  In fact, it’s the opposite of dogmatic because it welcomes challenge.  In fact, it demands it.  The scientific method of thinking rests on a foundation of questioning everything.  Back it up or it’s bullshit.  

The key demand of anything dogmatic is “you buy this, no questions asked”.  If you’re asking questions, the dogma isn’t biting.

Definition of dogma (from Merriam-Websters) —

1a: something held as an established opinion

especially : a definite authoritative tenet

b: a code of such tenets

pedagogical dogma

c: a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds

2: a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church

Let’s stick a big ol’ pin in the “put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds”…

In politics, of course, dogma rules — but, like everything else, some people are just plain better at being dogmatic because they have more “practice”.  People who enter the political realm already steeped in religious dogma will naturally align with political dogma because that relationship between “the rules” and them personally makes sense.  Atheists, by their nature, aren’t in to “rules” that aren’t backed up by logic.  “Who sez” is part of the logic.  

That said, most atheists that I know of base their “who sez” on the fact that human beings are social creatures.  Being social creatures, we understand how to succeed in our social groups.  We don’t want to be cut off; we want the group’s approval.  That’s why “Do unto others” is genius.  Do that simple thing & you’re golden (like a rule!)  If “doing unto others” is dogmatic — I don’t think it is — then consider me “Mr. Dogma”. 

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