I've always been a contrarian. Christopher Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian is one of my very favorite books. I will take a position against any recognized orthodoxy, often arguing the opposite side of a case to the one I truly support if I feel strong opposition is lacking. I like to probe and prod and push at ideas until they give way, or demonstrate their fortitude by standing up to rigorous scrutiny.
This tendency began early. I remember getting into heated discussions with my parents as a kid, standing my ground firmly but, I was convinced, reasonably. I'd question and wheedle and query incessantly, finding no good reason to change my position, and finally, after an endless back and forth, the dreaded words would issue from their mouths: "James! You're so dogmatic!"
And I'd get very, very upset.
Few of us like to be considered dogmatic. It's one of those words which has no real redeeming qualities. And to those, like me, committed to rationalism, skepticism and free inquiry, there are few traits we seek so ardently to avoid and to combat. One of our most frequent criticisms of religious faith is that it is, in our view, often dogmatic, a belief held without good reasons and in despite of contrary evidence.
But what is dogmatism, and how can we fight it?
Luckily, I recently had an opportunity to explore the nature and causes of dogmatism. In an excellent presentation at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference (the CfI is an organization dedicated to promoting science, reason and secular humanism), Prof. Judy J. Johnson of Mount Royal University shared her research into this very subject.
She began by expressing her view that dogmatism as a maladaptive response to unmet needs (for example the need to know, and the need to avoid uncertainty). Then, and most important, she detailed the 13 characteristics of dogmatism she has identified, of which (in her judgment) 6 are required to determine trait presence.
There are 5 cognitive characteristics: discomfort with uncertainty; defensive cognitive closure (for example ending a discussion before it has run its course); rigid certainty; compartmentalization (partitioning conflicting beliefs to prevent them interacting and causing cognitive dissonance); and lack of personal insight (a lack of distance from one's own core beliefs and emotions).
In addition, Prof. Johnson outlined 3 emotional characteristics: belief-associated anxiety and fear (this makes fear a useful tool for the demagogue, since fearful people are easier to manipulate); belief-associated anger (seeing those who differ as opponents, “Don’t retreat: reload!”); and existential despair (people can lose their balance if they become disillusioned with the ideas they hold dogmatically).
Finally Dr. Johnson outlined the following 5 behavioral characteristics of dogmatism: a preoccupation with power and status (judging the messenger not the message); glorification of the in-group, vilification of the out-group; dogmatic authoritarian aggression (a form of aggression which tends to happen at the institutional level more than between individuals); dogmatic authoritarian submission (deferring to authorities for no good reason); and an arrogant, dismissive communication style.
Capping off her presentation, Dr. Johnson stressed that her taxonomy has little to do with intelligence and education, but is more about the dogmatic individual seeking to preserve their integrity and dignity in the face of what they perceive as a challenge to their identity. Thus smart, well-educated people are not immune from dogmatism! Of further importance (particularly for Humanists like myself), it is clear from Prof. Johnson's taxonomy that aspects of some religious beliefs can be held in a non-dogmatic way. Someone who has never encountered the full range of arguments against a belief in God, for example, or in favor of evolution, might well be holding their position because it fits the best available evidence and reasons they have, and not because they are closed to investigating further. In addition, very many believers do not display the behavioral characteristics of dogmatism: most, in my experience, do not have a preoccupation with power and status, for example, or a dismissive communication style. I am doubtful that certain religious beliefs (like belief in God) can ultimately be held non-dogmatically with full access to the evidence and all the arguments, but I am open to persuasion on that point.
But lest I get too comfortable, it's critical to note that while it's easy to identify these characteristics in others - I was gleefully attributing them to my ideological opponents as Prof. Johnson concluded her talk - it's much harder to recognize these characteristics in oneself. I found myself wondering, do I display six of these components sufficiently consistently to be considered dogmatic? Were my parents right?
It's hard to tell. I can certainly see a few of these characteristics in myself, at least some times. I can display an arrogant, dismissive communication style (any other State of Formation contributors recognize this?). I sometimes feel belief-associated anger, when my most cherished principles are under attack (though most usually if that attack involves the denigration of human beings). And I think I sometimes suffer from a lack of personal insight, finding it difficult to distance myself and my core identity from my beliefs on particular issues. So that's three out of six right there, and those are the one I can identify. So let's say the jury's out on me and my dogmatism - I'm open to any points of view on the matter.
How about you? Do you see the telltale signs of dogmatic thinking in your actions and interactions with others? It's an important question. Being dogmatic means we aren't evaluating the reasons behind our beliefs with a level-head, and we aren't fairly considering the arguments of others. When it comes to our deepest commitments - religious, ethical or philosophical - dogmatism can be particularly pernicious. These core aspects of our worldview are the ideas which require the most scrutiny and investigation, but are often the ones, due to the mechanisms Prof. Johnson describes, which are most quickly shut-away for our protection.
How can we make sure that we are not simply protecting ourselves when we discuss these beliefs, and are in fact evaluating the evidence and reasons with clear eyes? How can we ensure that our most precious ideals are always available for criticism, and are never unduly protected by our dogmatic defenses? In short, how can we defeat dogmatism?
I'd appreciate your views.