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Dogma is a cage.

One of the things I like about science, at least the philosophy of science, is that nothing is sacred. In science, everything is theory until it has been subject to rigorous testing, and even then what we believe to be rigid and fast is often proven quite malleable when we are able to see more, know more or simply apply the test under different circumstances. To be a true scientist is to be comfortable with never knowing anything for sure.

This is something a lot of people have a really, really hard time with.

And I get it. As a species, we are lovers of dogma—sets of rules set down by an authoritative source, infallible and immutable. These sorts of systems are the basis of our religions and our ethical systems; they provide a foundation for law and order within our societies. Given that the universe often feels extremely chaotic and incomprehensible, it’s only natural to want to bring a little bit of order to it all, to want to find a reason for what might otherwise feel like random maligneance. And certainly our laws and ethical systems allow us to live together in relative peace, most of the time, and to mete out order and justice when that peace is broken.

Rules and principles are important. Ideology is important. We are better people when we strive for something, even if you and I may not agree on exactly what that something is.

A problem arises, however, when we hold on to rules and principles for the sake of the principle, for the sake of the dogma, even when we’re faced with overwhelming evidence that the rules don’t work. Then dogma becomes stagnation. It can become cruelty. And it most definitely becomes a cage.

The thing about dogma is that it’s always issued by an authority, someone (or many someones) with power. Someone who, it turns out, always benefits from the rest of us staying in that cage, whether they mean to or not.

For those of us who grew up in especially dogmatic cultures, breaking out of that cage can be tantamount to committing suicide. It requires a willingness to question everything you’ve ever been taught, which usually means questioning the people who taught it to you: parents, friends, comrades. It means choosing to live with an extreme amount of cognitive dissonance and to push oneself through an evolutionary process that is dangerous, damaging and even deadly. It often means the loss of every relationship you hold dear, because even if you can “agree to disagree,” you will always be the person who left, the person who took everything that has meaning in your culture and threw it on the ground, stomped and shat on it.

Breaking out is violent and messy. Always.

I read an article over the weekend about Derek Black, once a leading voice of the white supremacy movement in the United States. It’s the story of how he broke out of his dogmatic cage, and the price he paid for it. Most of you who read this will say that his cage, the white supremacy movement, is extreme. That it should have been easy to break away, should have been a relief. Obviously, that sort of dogma is damaging.

Perhaps, for you, it is.

But I couldn’t help but remember other dogmas, ones that seem benign, even magnanimous at first (and honestly, maybe they were once), but aren’t anymore. I recalled my own internal battles as I came out as an atheist, a feminist, a bisexual and polyamorous person. Beliefs I have held that were just plain wrong. Beliefs I hold now that may be too simple for the real world. Things I desperately want to be true, but probably aren’t.

None of this is ever easy.

It would be easy to live in the cage, stand by the dogma, suggest that it’s ok because my rules aren’t hurting anyone. That they are, somehow, more correct than everyone else’s. That those people, the ones who profess to have the same beliefs as me, are doing it wrong, that their cage is somehow different and broken.

It’s hard to hold these ideas lightly, to be willing to search for new evidence, to be willing to change one’s mind. To choose an ideology that’s compassionate and thoughtful and pliable over a rigid set of rules. It’s easy to feel persecuted when one’s dogma is questioned.

But again, dogma is never without context. Someone always benefits from your cage. And it’s pretty much never you.

You’re going to be tempted to view this as idealistic, or naive maybe. The phrase “so open-minded that your brain fell out” is often echoed in these discussions. Or you might think that you’re not dogmatic, that you don’t have those issues. After all you’re a good person, you aren’t a white supremacist, you vote Democrat (or third party). You’re an independent thinker. I guarantee you I’m not naive, and I also guarantee you that none of us is truly independent. (Another thing about science? Good science assumes a certain level of bias. That’s why it relies on consensus by a wide variety of people in a wide variety of contexts before anything is considered a rule.)

Dogma is a cage, but it doesn’t have to hold you down. All you have to do is look for the bars.



(photo credit: Peter Griffin.)

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