Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Departure from Dogmatism Need Not Mean Irreligion

In "A World of Representations," I noted that the terms of our interaction with both social and non-social realities are dependent upon and consist of the manipulation of various physiological and socio-cultural symbols and representations. While the physiological symbols are results of our peculiar anatomies, and thus lay farther from though not entirely beyond the reach of direct or intentional manipulation, the socio-cultural symbols - language, our social institutions, the expressions of our creeds and so forth - are entirely human products. Their existence is entirely dependent on the ongoing participation of their members and their form and contents are also the result of historical processes. Religions tend to externalize themselves as eternal or cosmic structures, and so tend to deny that their content, rites, and symbols are indeed human products: the typical Catholic experiences the Mass not as a rite developed by humanity but rather as a dark mystery instituted by God and thus fundamentally beyond the invention of humanity, even if he acknowledges that certain particularities of its form are indeed historical products. A dogmatic religion believes that its symbolic representations of reality (its creeds, doctrines, rites, structures, and other symbols) are incontestable and perfect representations of the divine and which thus denies the possibility of genuine revision of those symbols (although elaboration or "development" of these symbols, as long as they do not constitute a repudiation or denial of a previous prototype, are cautiously permitted). This is generally achieved by a denial of the human origin of those symbols: that is, either a complete denial of their history or an interpretation of their origins within history as having been a moment of divine intervention or providence. As a divine, rather than human symbol, the religious dogma attains an unimpeachable status and is experienced and felt to be nothing other than the "hard truth" of reality, the questioning of which is a moral failing.For many, this is what religion is - regardless of whether they admire or reject the idea. The new atheist has as his primary adversary nothing other than dogmatic religion (and indeed he is a participant within a form of non-religious dogmatism which replaces a divine facticity with a natural or scientific facticity - that is, an interpretation of the symbolic representations used by secular science and philosophy as dogmatically the "hard truth or facts" of reality). Interestingly, new atheists share their rejection of the institutions of religion with fundamentalists who also recognize the "produced" status of religious institutions and thus reject them as not divine in origin. These latter individuals, who typically are responsible for the rather superficial assertions that they are spiritual but not religious and who speak much of relationships with Jesus and the dangers of "man's religions," although still fundamentally self-deceived in that even their "bare bones Bible-based" Christianity is still a socio-cultural human product, have come to the conclusion that a religion produced by human effort and upheld only by human participation cannot be divine in origin. Their own dogmatism, usually based on an unrecognized and parasitic dependence upon the very institutions and symbols which they decry, is typically believed to be upheld by more direct divine links, such as the near-divinization of the Bible, a belief in themselves as priest, and so forth.

In any case, dogmatism seems to be such a persistent feature of modern religion, and especially conservative Christianity, that it seems that rejection of such dogmatism must necessarily mean a rejection of religion. The focus of Christianity in combating heresy - that is, in suppressing and rejecting voiced from within its own fold which question the given meanings or otherwise reject or modify the dogma - reveals the centrality of dogma to historical Christianity and lends credence to this identification of Christianity with dogmatism. Christianity, it seems, does not merely propose a particular set of symbols which must be believed, it also demands a very specific sort of belief in order for the member to be considered in a right relationship with the institution and the divine reality which it represents and which is assumed to be its originator. The Christian must not simply believe the Resurrection, but must believe it dogmatically - that is, he must believe it to a degree in which the falsehood of that belief cannot be entertained as possible and in a way in which he would rather suffer pain, torment, and death rather than question or deny. This quality is present in the entirety of what might be called the dogmatic content of the Church's belief, down to, as it has become apparent, such a matter as whether a married couple may morally use a condom.

It is precisely this dogmatism that has made Christianity a target in a secularizing world (that the secularizing world might not have its own dogmas is a very important point that is worth an entire note in itself). Christianity no longer has enough control over the major institutions of society that its claims are perceived as an obvious, objective and external reality - that is, the cosmos in no longer in general perceived in a fundamentally Christian context that legitimates the Church's claims as to its own nature. Insofar as Christianity presents itself as a divine institution, and inasmuch as it is now perceived as a product - that is, an institution human in origin - there is the possibility of rejecting the religion simply on the grounds of its dogmatism. The dogma, no longer upheld by the simple "facts" of social reality, is subjected to the questioning and doubt of human persons no longer comfortable with the dogma as such but who demand a broader, more human justification for the beliefs. This questioning and doubt can lead to apostacy insofar as the individual is unsatisfied with the religion's proposed justification for its dogma.However, I would like to note the possibility that this situation is not the only possible outcome of recognizing the fully human socio-historic origins and development of religious symbols. In other words, rejecting the dogmatic quality of the institutions claims does not necessitate rejecting the religious structure as such - it does not necessitate the choice of irreligion. To say that a symbol is human in origin does not mean that it is without merit, and although this is obvious in nearly every other field of human endeavor it seems to be forgotten by both the defenders and detractors of our great religious structures. Science is, after all, nothing more than a secular, human, socio-culturally contingent system of symbols meant to represent reality - one that by its own methodology cannot be treated dogmatically, and yet is often portrayed as such. Its conclusions are fundamentally open to revision even while maintaining credibility as statements representative of some reality. Even though classical mechanics, for example, has been shown to be incomplete and flawed in various ways, it nevertheless maintains its usefulness and a contextualized degree of "truth" that are not rendered null by the recognition of their incomplete status or their status as human products.

What is needed, then, is a coherent account of religious development - that is, an account of the fully human history of religious structures - that validates the religious institution as a representation of reality without succumbing to dogmatism. That is, it is possible to admit fully that religious institutions are human products and that their beliefs and statements are potentially open to revision, chance, and development without concluding that religious institutions cannot also simultaneously really be representing - albeit, incompletely - a feature of reality, even a divine feature. Of course, such a justification would look quite different from current religious formulas, and the development and acceptance of such a justification from within the institution itself seems rather unlikely, as it would require an admission of error, if not necessarily in content then at least in form. Yet such a project opens itself as a possibility for the individual who cannot accept the dogmatism of religion and yet is still fascinated by the representative content of religion.

As I have done before, I would point to a work like Rodney Stark's Discovering God as a starting point for such an account of religious development. Discovering God produces an account of all of human religious development as a single history. The awareness of the universality of religion suggests that religion does indeed represent a reality, and not necessarily simply its own reality - which is to say that religion might not represent merely its own existence as a part of reality but may genuinely represent man's understanding of his own relationship with the foundations of reality. As such, its validity can be re-established not in the denial of its status as a human product but rather because it is a human product - although this would mean the repudiation of dogmatism and the embracing of a fallibility that recognizes one's religious symbols as part of an ongoing process whose perfection is uncertain.


  1. Excellent essay, Ellis. I agree with much of it. Though I have a few concerns, I fear that this "critical appropiation" of the tradition might lead to a certain type of relativism and to interpreters twisting the faith to whatever they want it to mean. I still think that critical dialogue is the best way to go, but we should always be cautious. But in the end, I think that a thoughtful faith is a better and more rich one. Afterall our entire tradition could be considered a conversation of some sort. And your approach to it reminds me of my approach to Scripture in all its lovely imperfections. I look forward to seeing where this will go. Keep up the good work.

  2. It depends on what you mean by relativism, I think. I don't believe in the relativism of reality - that is, I believe there is some external reality which is independent from our mind. This reality is what we seek to know and understand, and we mean by truth nothing other than our beliefs and actions being in harmony with this reality.

    However, there is another sort of relativism that I do ascribe to, which is simply the relativism of representations of that reality. The most primary is that we are bound by a physiological relativism - that is, our basic experiences are not unmediated interactions with reality but are rather mediated by the representations of reality provided by our senses, representations that are dependent not only on reality but on our physiology. The world we experience with our five senses would be quite different than the world an alien with the ability to "see" X-rays, smell the presence of protons, or so forth would experience, even though both worlds are representations of the same reality. There is also a symbolic relativism - that is, the symbols that we use mentally to represent reality in our own minds and the symbols we use to communicate about and represent reality to others are products both of our physiology and our social, cultural, and historical circumstance, and these symbols have various characteristics and limitations when it comes to representing that reality (if you've ever had to translate from one language to another, you are probably well aware of the difficulties of the task; translations are not neutral "equivalencies" but are genuine interpretations, because moving from one set of symbols to another means dealing with the relativistic nature of symbols). Of course, I do not think that we are somehow completely "cut off" from reality, because the representations we use really are representations of that reality - they really do convey information about reality. It's just that they are not perfect representations, and there is indeed some give and take that must be accepted when evaluating the truth of any given representation - that is, our symbols are not simply and absolutely "true" or "false," but their truth or falsity is dependent on an analysis of their contexts as symbols. Think of geocentrism, for example: it's not absolutely "false." It is true when thinking about certain contexts and frames of reference and false in others - though it just so happens that it the contexts in which it is true are quite narrow, limiting, and unenlightening compared to the frames of reference in which it is false.