On Religion and Dogma

Epistemic status: Not really saying anything new or revolutionary, but I run into people who forget this distinction enough that I’d like to have my thoughts on it written down somewhere in an organized way.

There’s a thing rationalists tend to forget about religion: It’s unashamedly dogmatic.

Well, maybe it’s not rationalists. Maybe it’s just me who forgets it. But it’s very easy to forget. I’m used to the world of math, or at least science, where you get credit for making arguments about things. Sometimes they’re rigorous mathematical proofs, or at least replicable studies with rigorous statistical standards, and any fair-minded person will become convinced of the truth of your claim. Other times they’re insane troll logic based on weird puns. But either way, you always need to have the pretense of justifying your claim.

People who live around a religious community… don’t really have that. They’ll assume the structure of the world is a certain way (based on the bible, or what their pastor or rabbi says, or whatever), and just go with it. The filter part – where you look at a theory or rule and try to decide if it’s really neccessary – just isn’t there. When my aunt says the reason Arab countries haven’t invaded and destroyed Israel is religious people’s prayers, it’s not really based on geopolitical analysis. When talk radio talks about how being gay is a sin, and the right thing to do is lead your families away from the sin, they don’t really stop to think if it’s the right thing. It’s a rule you can make, it sounds good and comes from a radio pastor, so we can just go with it. The point isn’t to be right, it’s to have an applicable rule.

This isn’t restricted to religious people. There’s plenty of people on the far left who’ll just assume any issue has to do with racism, without having to wait for evidence. But religion is a bit special in that it’s unapolegetic about it. The people blaming seemingly-unrelated things on racism will usually have an argument, or at least feel like they should have one.

There is a dogmatic fringe whose argument will just be “this is about racism because everything in a racist society is about racism.” This is probably just over the line from religion’s “This is about religion because God is everywhere, therefor <arbitrary rule>.” This is unsurprising, because you’d expect unapologetic dogmatism to be a feature of all sufficiently dogmatic people, not just those who believe in a specific religion.


There’s research showing religious people are healthier, happier, and less suicide-prone than non-religious people. This is usually blamed on religion’s community and purpose, but it doesn’t seem like you can get the benefits by having a purposeful community that’s not about a dogmatic religion. So I wonder if the real benefit of religion isn’t the community, but the enforced dogma. Maybe not having to think about the rules you live by, and just accepting them dogmatically, is the real mental health benefit.

I have a roommate who complains that I don’t clean the dishes well enough. By itself, this is a pretty standard roommate squabble that would resolve pretty easily – I make a bit more effort to clean to accommodate his needs, he bends his standards a bit to accommodate mine, and we reach a middle ground we can both kinda live with.

I’ve tried this with him, and it has failed catastrophically. It’s not really about the cleaning – I make the effort to clean more rigorously and faster than I would without him there, but in the end of the day I don’t have his standards and I’m going to slip up sometimes, either by not cleaning a dish until the next morning, or not doing it to his exacting standards. And whenever I do, he goes ballistic. And the interesting part (well, the part that would be interesting if it weren’t also annoying) is that it’s never about his preferences. He believes that there are objective standards of cleanliness that must be held to, and I’m violating them. I’ve tried explaining that we have different standards, and he just point-blank does not (and I think, can’t) understand things in those terms.

This is a guy who’s lived most of his life in fundamentalist religious communities. He grew up a hardcore Christian, the converted to being a Muslim, then went back and forth between religions for a bit. Every time, he left because the dogmas had some pieces he couldn’t agree with. And nowadays he’s not religious, but he misses it.

I wonder how much of it is him missing the dogma. When he talks about missing it, he usually talks about the community, but that may just be because he knows I’ll understand that part. I wouldn’t really understand the other part. I’m unusually bad at being dogmatic. But I’m pretty sure he needs it. And I wonder if the kind of person who needs dogma in his life can ever really let go of that worldview, even if he’s let go of religion.


One thought on “On Religion and Dogma”

  1. > Maybe not having to think about the rules you live by, and just accepting them dogmatically, is the real mental health benefit.

    I think you’re onto something with this. One of the best parts of being religious was always feeling like I had a way to help, and that I had a direction where I would _always_ be doing the right thing by going further in that direction. And your comment about communities only _really_ working when they’re bound by dogma is probably true, though I think “dogma as a mechanism for binding communities” is a matter of how _much_ benefit you get from it, rather than whether you can benefit at all. (Having a sewing circle is worth something, even if it’s worth less than a gang you got jumped into).

    > I have a roommate who complains that I don’t clean the dishes well enough.

    the dishes were never that deep omg >_< they stress me out because they're gross. Somewhere between "sanitizing every surface in the house every day" and "pooping on the floor and leaving it," there's a point past which you no longer need meta-studies about mental health or sanitation and you can cash in on millennia of well-evolved instinct and just say it's gross. This point varies between humans — mine was lower than yours, so I raised your annoyance cost of not cleaning. In response, you raised my annoyance cost of raising your annoyance cost until an equilibrium of social-and-cleanliness stress was reached.


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