Religion Contra Dogma
Faith and skepticism are compatible.
Garrett Kincaid – April 09, 2023
If I am religious about anything, that thing is uncertainty. I believe that all accessible “truth” is either conditional or unverifiable. What we consider true is conditioned on our senses and our tools of measurement; it’s filtered through our consciousness. And any of the answers we have for questions like “What happens after death?” are unverifiable.
I don’t believe that we can know anything with complete certainty. That means that whatever we deem to be true requires some degree of faith. Every truth is, in part, a belief.
I’m not religious, but I am faithful. I believe in certain unverifiable truths for which I have conditional evidence. Here are some of the beliefs that constitute my personal faith:
- I believe that life is a gift, despite the fact that I will die.
- I believe that all humans are autonomous moral agents with an equal capacity for reason.
- I believe that all humans are inherently good, regardless of our deeds.
- I believe that human life is valuable and ought to be preserved, protected, and propagated.
- I believe that I’m obligated to pursue and uphold what I deem to be true, good, and just.
The difference between my faith and religion is that my beliefs are mutable — fluid — and a religion’s fixed. Every statement above is conditioned by the phrase “I believe.” Tomorrow, or on my deathbed, I may believe something different. Within my personal faith, I allow my beliefs to change with new knowledge and new experiences. I do not think that what I believe is immutable, unconditional, objective, or absolute. I do not think that other people should adopt my beliefs. I have these beliefs because they are what I have decided is most true to me, and in the pursuit of truth, I will continue to revise them.
Most religions don’t permit skepticism. Religions squash uncertainty with unconditional beliefs. Dogma is unwavering and prescriptive. Skepticism is open and provocative.
Here, we’ll explore where and why dogma exists, then discuss how to remain skeptical without losing faith.
The Business of Religion
I’m not religious, but that doesn’t mean I’m against religion. And I’m not against faith — quite the opposite. I believe faith is a necessary part of living a fulfilling life. So, let’s set these terms straight with a couple definitions.
Religion: A stagnant, shared, unconditional belief system founded on an unquestioning faith in unverifiable truths
Personal Faith: A mutable, individual, conditional belief system grounded in skepticism and uncertainty
The problem is not religion or faith but dogma. Dogma is dishonest and inhibits truth-seeking; it slowly atrophies your cognition and drains your capacity for inquiry. If you take your beliefs to be objective truths, you stop questioning what you know and prevent yourself from learning. You’ve already found the truth — the whole truth and nothing but the truth (so help me, God)!
It’s important to note that dogma is not exclusive to organized religions, like Christianity. Dogma characterizes a religious attitude, which you’ll find just as often in voting booths as confession chambers. (You’ll find dogma in lecture halls, soccer stadiums, and coffee shops too.) It divides people by their political parties in the same way it motivated the Crusades. Dogma is a stubborn certainty that turns contradiction and disagreement into blasphemy and heresy.
All truths require faith. Anytime we deny that, we fall to dogma.
One of the great benefits of religion is that it is a source of community. Religion provides moral frameworks that bind a group together and motivate them toward a common, virtuous end. That’s powerful. That’s important. I don’t mean to deny or diminish the value of religion. I only mean to expose the effects of dogma.
In the business of religion, dogma is the marketing engine. Uncertainty and skepticism are bad strategies. Dogma sells because you can’t evangelize a question, only an answer.
Conditional statements — “I believe” and “it may be” — just don’t fly in marketing copy. Be definitive. Relieve their pain. Offer salvation. Religions say “we know” and “it is,” and they amass a following for providing answers to unanswerable questions. Religious dogma — or any form of certainty — is comforting. Dogma dissolves existential dread with the promise of eternity or cures moral ambiguity with inviable commandments.
It’s clear why dogma is such an effective marketing strategy. Dogma makes for a consistent and clear message and provides the comforts of certainty. It’s unrealistic to expect religions to embrace uncertainty or let go of dogma. Without a clear message and certain answers, the faith would fracture into differentiated sects (like Christianity since the Protestant Reformation).
Religions will remain fixed and dogmatic. Any other strategy would be bad for business. Without dogma, they’d slowly disintegrate. But your faith doesn’t have to be that way.
As an individual, you don’t have to evangelize your faith or recruit followers. You don’t have to worry about your messaging or marketing. Instead, you can focus exclusively on identifying what is most true to you. Your beliefs can be conditional, rather than dogmatic. You can remain skeptical, without losing faith.
I grew up in a society and a household influenced by Christianity, and I’m grateful for that. I agree with Christian morality and attribute much of my good life-conduct to being taught Christian values. In my family, we were CEO Christians (Christmas-and-Easter-only). Despite not practicing the religion and rarely going to church, I considered myself Christian because I aligned myself with the values. But in recent years, I’ve learned what beliefs are required to be Christian, and I’ve stopped calling myself one.
The stories of the Bible, sermons at Sunday services, and conversations with my friends and family have helped me explore and define my personal faith. A long period of reflection has led me to some important realizations:
- I don’t believe that our nature is inherently flawed or tainted by Original Sin.
- I don’t believe that I owe a debt to God or any man for the fact of my birth.
- I don’t believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God.
- I don’t believe that He died for my sins (because I don’t believe I have a sinful nature).
- I don’t believe that He resurrected.
I have been influenced by Christianity and am grateful for the moral guidance it’s provided me throughout my life. This is the irony: my lifetime-sober, Kantian-ethics-loving, one-sexual-partner-having self may be as close to a “good Christian boy” as you can get, but I am not a Christian.
If you remain skeptical and uncertain, you can question the truths you’re told and stop believing them for the sake of it. You can start believing them for your own reasons, or you can start believing something else. This is the process of developing a personal faith.
Use the narratives, morality, and metaphysics from religions and philosophies (maybe even political parties) to inform your own faith. Take what resonates and leave the rest.
For example, I have repurposed the story of Adam and Eve for my personal faith. In the Christian tradition, the beginning of the Old Testament tells the story of man’s fall from God’s grace to temptation, indicating our lack of faith and trust in Him.
In Genesis, God tells Adam and Eve that they may eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden, except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of its fruit, God says, “You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die” (Genesis 3:2, NKJV). But that’s misleading. The fruit is not what kills Adam and Eve. Rather, it gives them the divine knowledge of good and evil — morality and self-awareness. It is God who kills Adam and Eve by making them mortal as a punishment for their distrust and their lapse of faith:
‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ — therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken (Genesis 3:22–23, NKJV).
The quote above, Genesis 3:22, is the most important line in The Fall. It acknowledges that we humans have divine knowledge. If we were immortal, we would be the same as gods.
In Christianity, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, the story of Adam and Eve describes Original Sin and signifies our fallen nature. Much of the Christian faith rests on that very idea. We have fallen from God’s grace and must ask for His mercy and salvation to be reunited with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But that doesn’t resonate with me.
In my personal faith, I take a different moral from the story. I don’t believe that the story of Adam and Eve actually occurred, as an account of history. But as a compelling and important piece of literature, I use it as evidence for the fact that human consciousness is unique, as evidence that our self-awareness and capacity for reason are divine. To me, The Fall signifies the inherent duality of humanity: we have divine knowledge, yet we are mortal.
In the Christian faith, The Fall cements our sinful nature. In my personal faith, the story of The Fall is one literary account of man’s ascension from stagnation and ignorance to liberated human consciousness. It is a story of how we transitioned from what we were to what we are now: mortals with a divine level of self-awareness and moral reason.
If you are drawn to a religion but don’t want to fall to dogma, remain skeptical and uncertain. From Christianity — and from every religion and philosophy I encounter — I take what resonates and leave the rest. That practice is liberating and empowering.
To dodge dogma, decide what you believe. Draw from the wealth of human history and achievement to prompt your inner journey. Every new answer you encounter can become questions you pose to yourself:
- Is this true to me?
- Does this contradict my beliefs?
- Do I need to revise my beliefs, or can I dismiss this as untrue?
The antidote to dogma is a personal faith. Believe in something you can’t verify. Decide what is true to you. Have faith! But be open to revising your beliefs. Remain skeptical and uncertain, yet faithful.
I don’t know what’s true, and I never will. I only know what I believe right now and that my beliefs will change. This is my religion contra dogma.