Today's commentary has come about in an unusual way. Some months ago the editor came across a book by Judy J Johnson while adding new products to the Catholica Spiritual Marketplace. Titled "What's so Wrong with being Absolutely Right: the Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief" the editor simply added it because the title might be of interest in some of the discussions we've been having on Catholica. It was the author herself, Judy Johnson, who saw it listed on Catholica and offered to provide a short commentary providing an introduction to this intriguing area of study. Dr Johnson (pictured at right) is Associate Professor of Psychology at Mount Royal University, Calgary, Alberta in Canada. There's enough material in this commentary to keep you thinking for a month of Fridays!
The power of dogmatism...
Science, religion, politics, and economics are the most influential forces that alter the course of history. Disrupting the best intentions of all four is a lesser known but no less potent force—dogmatism.
The practice of dogmatism, which converts dogma (tenets or beliefs) to rigid, absolute conviction, is seen in people more commonly described as pig-headed, hide-bound, or red-necks (who never met a bigot they didn't like). These individuals replace evidentiary-based reasoning with self-evident truths ("only a fool would think otherwise") and close their minds to contradictory, persuasive evidence that should give reason to pause. Churchill described them well: "They won't change their minds and they won't change the topic."
Yet social scientists and the mass media have not collaborated to enhance our understanding of dogmatism, without which we may be more inclined to mistakenly elect or revere dogmatic leaders whose rigid agendas threaten progress and peaceful coexistence on this planet. Institutions are designed to get the results they achieve. In the domain of politics, defined here as a process by which political, corporate, academic, and religious groups make collective decisions, dogmatic agendas may be as subtle as the 'b' in subtle, but their effects are as blatant as the 'b' in blatant. As such, political dogmatism threatens human progress and peaceful coexistence on this planet; it drives religious zealotry, terrorism, and fanaticism in general. Perhaps a better understanding of its nature would help us identify closed-minded individuals (some of whom we might be related to, or voted for); moreover, it might inspire us to explore our own tendencies to prematurely resist compelling, contradictory evidence that should give reason to pause.
A psychological understanding of dogmatism...
A recent psychological theory views dogmatism as a personality trait that consists of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, which personify rigid, closed-minded belief systems. Psychologists view such traits as pervasive, enduring predispositions — we are not extroverted on Monday and introverted on Wednesday, or open-minded on Tuesday and dogmatic on Thursday. Traits also have defining features (or subtraits), and dogmatism presumably has thirteen, from which a minimum of six are considered necessary to determine trait presence. Thus, the trait of dogmatism differs from being opinionated about an idea.
To illustrate, consider an imaginary Aunt Martha who grinds her axe about parents who allow their children unsupervised, unlimited time on the computer. She is opinionated about her belief, but she's not dogmatic unless she consistently portrays at least six of dogmatism's prominent features. Consider too, Billy-Bob who emphatically believes he has nailed truth to the mat: "The Earth is 6,000 years old. It's in the Bible. End of story". If Billy-Bob's belief — a scientifically verifiable, factual error — is embedded in the dogma of an entire belief system that he proselytizes with enough qualifying features of dogmatism, he has the trait. I think you'll agree that, after we survey some of dogmatism's key features, we're in trouble if he acquires direct power over others.
An intolerance of ambiguity...
A prominent feature of dogmatism is an intolerance of ambiguity that accounts for rigid traditional views, resistance to change, and simplification of the complex. These strategies work because they remove ambiguity that would otherwise stir up anxiety. Dogmatic certainty now becomes a remedy for anxiety and self-doubt, which impairs the ability to investigate alternate ideas and situations. It also compromises self awareness about dogmatism — personal encounters with one's own closed mind are too close for comfort. This may explain why, when challenged about their doctrinaire rigidity, dogmatic individuals may become arrogant and gratuitously defensive: "Oh c'mon! It's patently obvious that...". Or, "Of course I'm right! What's the matter with you?" Thundering conviction is a safe place to hide.
Authoritarianism is also considered a subtrait of dogmatism. An examination of Robert Altemeyer's extensive research reveals that authoritarians feel entitled to violate laws and make their own rules, which they enforce without mercy. In the domains of politics and religion, the dogmatism of clever leaders may be as subtle as the 'b' in subtle, especially those with persuasive authority. They may outline agendas that will "benefit humanity" or "strengthen democracy", but their implicit, psychological need is to fortify and preserve their identity by achieving what Robert J. Lifton calls "revolutionary immortality". Kim Il-sung, who declared himself the Eternal President of North Korea, provides a classic example of such striving, and history is replete with other examples of authoritarian aggressors who stared down the barrel of dogmatism. Equally dangerous are the dogmatic authoritarian submitters who do their bidding.
It's all about identity — fragile, brittle identity that is externally authored...
But regardless of their affiliations — political, religious, and so on — dogmatism is less defined by what people believe than how they adopt, hold, and practice their beliefs. In the final psychological analysis, dogmatism is not about dogma or ideology. It's about identity — fragile, brittle identity that is externally authored.
It seems reasonable to conclude that, given that features of dogmatism become manifest in social institutions, the challenge for scientists, religious leaders, and politicians — indeed, for all of us — is to open our minds about dogmatic thought; first and foremost our own. Humility and humanity are largely at stake, for as Voltaire said, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd". Doubt requires humility, and if more of us were comfortable with less certainty, we would be better equipped to confront the ideological extremism of totalitarian regimes, zealous religious fundamentalism, terrorist movements, and fanaticism in general. Perhaps we would also commit the necessary resources for targeted groups — particularly educators and parents — so that new generations can experience the flexible splendor of an open mind.
Judy L. Johnson, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada (submitted to Catholica on 02Mar2011)
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2011Judy J. Johnson