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On dogmatism

A response to Damian Peterson on the merits of being dogmatic.

Damian over at ‘And Slaters Go Plop’ has recently written on Dogma, arguing against its intellectual legitimacy, and asking how we can avoid it. He says,

By ‘dogmatic’ I am describing an absolutist kind of belief that, if I could summarise in my own words, boils down to the fact that you would really rather hold to what you believe than accept an alternative even if the alternative is true. Dogma is the belief you refuse to interrogate.

Dogma in Christianity

I’d like to note, for the record, that this is not how dogmatism is typically perceived in Christianity. Dogma is a mainstay of biblical Christianity, and where it is rejected the religion crumbles. Dogma is there whenever a doctrine is taken as authoritative, or presupposed as true—such as when we treat the Bible as the word of God. So, for the sake of avoiding confusion, let it be noted that Christians do not define dogma in such a negative way. That is not the primary meaning of the word, as most dictionaries reflect. William Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, for instance, is a seminal and highly positive dissertation on the theoretical truths of faith concerning God and his works.

Why is dogmatism bad anyway?

As regards this colloquial, negative view of dogmatism, however, some questions need to be asked. Damian seems to be taking absolutism in one’s beliefs as inherently undesirable, assuming we do want truth. But this doesn’t seem a very sustainable attitude if he wishes to be consistent and avoid special pleading.

A dogma, he says, is the belief you refuse to interrogate. But what of beliefs which are not readily interrogatable? Presumably, for instance, we all believe that our sense perception correlates accurately to a real, external world. Is that belief undesirable or unlikely merely because it cannot be readily interrogated? In fact, since we resist attempts to interrogate that belief, and don’t take them seriously, are we acting in a poor or intellectually shoddy manner? It certainly doesn’t seem so. Thus, there look to be at least some beliefs we may hold quite rightly and properly as being basically unquestionable, without shirking our philosophical responsibilities. Why is it, then, that Christians should not take the divine inspiration of Scripture as such a belief? Damian needs to make a better case as regards the negative nature of dogmatism, spell out just when it does and does not apply, and why.

Similarly, what of beliefs which are held on good grounds? Damian presumably thinks he has good grounds for believing that I am a real person and not, say, an advanced computer program writing posts in a convincingly human way. Should he be condemned for resisting the compulsion to interrogate his belief in my existence as a real person on every possible occasion? Were someone to say to him: Your belief in that chap Bnonn Tennant is dogmatic because you refuse to interrogate it! should he jump up in dismay and hire a private detective to find me and stake out my home to verify that, indeed, I am a real person who makes real blog posts? In fact, is he not being entirely rational to refuse to interrogate this belief, in the absence of any good evidence that it is false? If so, why should a Christian be criticized for refusing to interrogate his belief in God, when he has no good reasons to think that it’s false?

Good reasons

And what, indeed, would constitute a good reason for thinking that God doesn’t exist? No doubt Damian believes there are many. But on the other hand, a delusional out-patient from the halfway house down the road might think that there are good reasons for believing I don’t exist and am in fact a complicated artificial intelligence. He could probably find all sorts of evidences which, if looked at the right way and with the right mindset, seem quite compelling; and he might produce all sorts of arguments showing that Damian really has the burden of proof. Should Damian be persuaded—should he even look at these evidences or accept this burden of proof—if he already knows that the fellow is a schizophrenic who reverts to believing that Christian bloggers are really internet-capable AIs whenever he’s off his meds? If not, why should a Christian act differently when he knows from Scripture that atheists are self-deceiving fools who deny the existence of God because of their sin?

The skeptic’s false humility

The last point I’d like to make is as regards Damian’s assertion that if we refuse to honestly put our beliefs to the test then we ought to show a little more humility when telling others what we ‘know’ to be true. As I’ve already suggested above, this is a perfectly silly attitude to knowledge—its implication being that a belief which is not tested cannot constitute knowledge in any proper sense.

Even ignoring his obvious imposition of a scientific method of knowledge-acquisition onto religious or philosophical matters, where it doesn’t belong, is this reasonable? Does Damian need to verify my existence, for example, before he can say that he knows I’m not an artificial intelligence? Is this the way he really operates in terms of making knowledge claims? Or take another example: say he sees an acquaintance, Roger, at the supermarket. He doesn’t speak to Roger for whatever reason, and no one else at the supermarket knows him, so Damian is the only one to recognize him. Say Roger is arrested the next day on some charge. Damian thinks Roger can’t be guilty, because he saw him at the supermarket at the time the crime was committed. Is Damian really going to say that he does not know Roger was there, since he did not (and no longer can) test that belief? Is it reasonable for me to get up before the jury when he is testifying in Roger’s defense, and say that he ought to show a little more humility when telling them that he ‘knows’ Roger is innocent? Or imagine the situation is reversed, and Damian ‘knows’ Roger is guilty on a similar basis. Is this sort of stringent view of things really sensible? How would it cash out in the real world?

Maybe Damian means to confine this constraint on knowledge to religious claims. This seems arbitrary, but it doesn’t get him anything in any case, since Christian beliefs enjoy far better attestation than the trivial amount of support in the example above. In fact, Christians have excellent grounds for saying that they know certain things—so why should they shuffle and slink and pretend false humility, as if they really aren’t certain when they are? A Christian grounds his beliefs in God’s word—does he then need to interrogate these beliefs, or find ways to test them, in order for them to constitute knowledge? Of course not. The plain fact that they are God’s own testimony is all the justification required. Thus, rather than being commendable, this “humility” of which Damian speaks is despicable. Imagine a Christian who knows the gospel witnessing to someone as follows:

I don’t presume to say I know this, but, well, I believe you’re under God’s wrath and liable to judgment if you don’t repent and trust in the work of Jesus. And…well, I don’t know that Jesus really existed…but I’m sure you should believe anyway!

This is certainly an ignoble way of witnessing. If we, in fact, have good reasons for believing the gospel—if we indeed know the gospel to be true—and then do not urgently entreat others to heed it, attempting to persuade them of its truth as well, we aren’t being “humble”. We are being cads. It doesn’t matter if we have tested our knowledge, or if we can defend it against attack. Speaking for myself, I can—but some Christians can’t for whatever reason. That doesn’t invalidate what they know. Christians don’t accept Damian’s views on epistemology, and neither should they.

So let’s not throw around the “dogmatism” charge too hastily. I am proud to be a dogmatic Christian, and I consider my dogmatism an intellectual virtue. Saying that I am dogmatic is essentially the same as saying that I am a presuppositionalist in my Christian philosophy—a position which I’ve defended on many occasions. If Damian or other atheists would like to dogmatically oppose that, let them start by showing that it even makes sense to do so.

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