The pursuit of truth (Pt. 6)

June 15, 2016 | Viewpoints | Volume 20 Issue 13
Troy Watson | Columnist

In an article entitled “Has militant atheism become a religion?” published on Salon.com (March 24, 2013), primatologist Frans de Waal writes, “In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion . . . .”

Dogmatism is a presumptuous confidence that one’s opinions, principles, ideas or beliefs are irrefutably true, often accompanied by insufficient consideration of evidence and other perspectives. It is also one of the greatest obstacles to the pursuit of truth for believers and sceptics alike.

A quote, usually attributed to French author André Gide, that has become a dogmatic axiom for many sceptics and “free thinkers” today is: “Trust the one who seeks the truth, but doubt those who say they have found it.”

This principle is appealing on the surface, but it’s self-defeating. When anyone presents this statement as truth, I should doubt it, if I actually apply what it teaches. The one proclaiming it is claiming to have found truth, namely, that I should doubt anyone who says they’ve found truth. By its own logic I should doubt the truth of this principle and the one presenting it as truth.

This highlights one of the basic problems with scepticism: It is self-refuting and hypocritical at its core. Scepticism claims it’s impossible to have adequate justification to believe something is true—with the exception of its own premise. Very few sceptics direct their scepticism towards their own scepticism. This is the problem with dogmatism in general: We see the speck in everyone else’s eye while remaining blind to the log in our own.

I have a wise friend who has taught me a great deal about life and spirituality. However, I’m puzzled by his routine criticism of church dogma and our claim to absolute truth. Many of his critiques are justified and reasonable, but what I find curious is how boldly he speaks about the universal truth of his own beliefs.

One day he was talking about the Law of Attraction, so I asked him if it was true. He looked at me as if I was new in town and told me, of course it was.

“Is it Absolute Truth?” I asked.

He smiled, knowing what I was getting at, and admitted he believed it was.

“Isn’t that dogma? You are claiming the Law of Attraction is absolute and universal truth, yet you can’t prove it any more than I can prove the resurrection of Jesus. Aren’t you doing what you accuse the church of doing?”

He received my rebuke with grace and, in return, has frequently pointed out my own dogmatism, for which I’m grateful. We all need honest friends to gently help us see our own dogmatic tendencies, because we all have them. Even our scientist friends.

On Aug. 4 of last year, Existential Comics released a humorous tweet effectively undressing the dogmatism of scientism. In it, a scientist asks a philosopher, “Why does philosophy matter?”

“I don’t know. Why does science matter?”

“Well because scie . . .”

“And you are doing philosophy.”

This comic was a response to scientists, most notably Stephen Hawking, claiming philosophy was dead and that scientific reasoning is the only way to know things. The irony is, the only way scientists can prove this claim is to use philosophy, and in doing so they refute their premise, because philosophy is an entirely different way of knowing.

Dogmatism thrives in our world, in secular as well as religious environments. It divides us, causing us to react to others, instead of receiving them. It is consumed with proving our positions and disproving the positions of others, rather than listening and learning, making honest and humble dialogue next to impossible.

I believe the church is called to be a cure for dogmatism, not an incubator of it. However, for most of our history this hasn’t been the case.

I’m convinced the dogmatic battles of competing ideologies in our churches make us inhospitable dwelling places for the Prince of Peace. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, or what side of the issue we’re on, when we become dogmatic we pervert the priorities of Christ’s teachings. Dogmatism exalts truth above love, and when this happens the pursuit of truth is usually used as a weapon to control, rather than as an instrument of peace that sets people free.

To be continued . . . .

This is Pt. 6 of “The pursuit of truth” series. 

Read part 1
Read part 2
Read part 3
Read part 4
Read part 5

Troy Watson (troydw@gmail.com) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.

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