The Trouble with Dogma

Two Steps Forward

Open-mindedness is the single most valuable virtue someone can possess. Its absence is the single largest factor in all of humanity’s problems. In the history of mankind, its single greatest enemy has been religion.

That paragraph may have caused many to stop reading or emit steam from their ears. But this column is not bashing religion — that would be both unsubtle and incorrect. Religion is often beautiful: an outlet for creativity, an inlet for inspiration and a unifying force. Without it, we wouldn’t have the Sistine Chapel, Harry Potter or (some say) art itself. I am Jewish by heritage if not belief, and I’ve spent many peaceful hours in synagogue singing ancient melodies, hundreds of voices raised as one in harmonic meditation. Religion brings hope, comfort, joy and love. I wouldn’t deprive anyone of those things.

Faith becomes a problem only when it forbids any worldview but its own. This substitution of dogma for reality has caused unconscionable death and destruction throughout history and continues to prevent progress all over the world.

In the Middle Ages, there was a colony of Norse settlers on Greenland. Every one of them starved to death — in large part because they refused to adopt the practices of their neighbors, the Inuits. While the Inuits hunted whales and fish with ingenious canoes and spears, the Norse stuck to European practices of livestock farming. Rather than whittle weapons out of bone, they relied on iron, which was scarce on their island nation. Thousands of Greenland Norse died, slowly and painfully, because they saw the Inuits as filthy savages, undeveloped pagans in contrast to their highly refined Christian culture.

This view of Christians as morally superior to others is all too common. Native Americans were slaughtered and raped by generations of European settlers. Never mind that they had lived sustainably on the land for millennia; never mind that their retaliatory violence was an attempt to protect their homes; never mind that they could have contributed so much more than maize to the settlers’ lives. They believed in animalistic nature gods and, therefore, were little better than animals themselves. The Crusades were a centuries-long bloodbath borne of the belief that everyone should be Christian. Judeo-Christian values have wrought the fruitless, zero-sum blood feud between Israel and Palestine: complete unwillingness to compromise, bolstered by years of gruesome violence on both sides, backed by each group’s unyielding belief that they are the chosen people.

There are dozens more examples of this kind of wanton cruelty. But dogma does not only result in violence against others. For instance, Scientology is effectively killing off its own members by forbidding them the use of Western medicine. The People’s Temple was a literal cult that ended in the infamous Jonestown Massacre, all because its terrifyingly charismatic leader decided death was better than reversion to capitalism. (Warning: that story is severely disturbing.) On the global stage, the religious right is doing its damndest to cover evidence of climate change. Its logic? This infuriating non sequitur: Climate science is science, science supports evolution, and evolution is not in the Bible. We have in front of us a case in which closed-mindedness is literally leading us toward extinction as a species.

This closed-mindedness is not a necessary part of religion. The Buddhist tradition holds acceptance and understanding as virtues, and the Dalai Lama has proclaimed in an inspiring New York Times op-ed that if science proves a Buddhist teaching false, Buddhism will adapt. As far as I’m aware, there are no Creationist Jews (though, as the situation in Israel shows, acceptance of scientific fact does not morality make). I’ve met many devout individuals whose faith gives them a lens with which to look at the world rather than tunnel vision through which to peer at it.

The best piece of advice I can give is always to be skeptical. Whenever anyone presents anything as unquestionable fact, your first action should be to question it. If it’s true, it will hold up to scrutiny; otherwise, you can expose both the information and whoever asserted it as frauds. Dogma is extremely dangerous. It closes minds and eyes, and as we have seen, ignorance often spells death. But in order to be truly open-minded, you also have to question yourself. The next time someone says something you instinctively disagree with, take a moment to examine it before you reject it. Ask why they think that way; try to see how they arrived at that conclusion. Maybe they’re wrong.

And maybe I’m wrong. But in the act of trying, you may learn something. I assert that open-mindedness is the most important human virtue. The best thing you can possibly do after reading this column is doubt my words. Find where I went wrong, fix the mistakes and make a better answer. The world depends on it.

Contact Jacob Straus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jacob_straus.