Wednesday, 25 July 2007

The Dangers of Dogmatic Thinking

Imagine that you had a question about the structure of atoms. Imagine that you asked me this question and I gave you an answer. Imagine that when you asked me to explain my answer, I told you: "Whatever I say is true; you should therefore accept whatever I tell you!" Would you take my answer at face-value? Or would you want to investigate further so that you could confirm whether what I said is truly based on facts?

It seems that human beings could be divided into two main groups - those who are willing to believe almost everything they are told at face-value and those who are more analytical and enjoy looking for facts. Ever since I was 16 years old, I belonged to this latter category. I simpy could not accept something simply because a popular person said it! As time went by and I furthered my studies, I became increasingly analytical. I fell in love with the sciences; a love affair that has never decreased in its intensity! I learned how to identify facts from superstition; I read about the way scientific theories are formulated; I realised the importance of challenging assumptions in the quest for Truth...

As my scientific knowledge broadened, I found myself looking back at different historical eras; at the ways in which various civilisations tried to understand the world. The prevalence of dogmatic thinking throughout a number of historical periods made me shudder! Even a superficial reading of what happened during certain eras is sufficient to show the highly destructive effects of dogmatic thinking. Entire civilisations based most of their beliefs on nothing more than assumptions; ignorance was the order of the day.

I am glad to see that we no longer live in times similar to the Middle Ages! I am so happy to know that Albert Einstein was able to challenge Newton's ideas without fearing the possibility of being burnt at the stake for doing so!!!

In spite of the greater popularity of scientific thinking nowadays, it is still possible to encounter countless individuals whose minds have been taken hostage by dogmatic thinking. These people tend to be found within politics and religion. Just as dogmatic thinking was unproductive and dangerous in the past, it can still be dangerous in our times.

When the fires of Marxism were being kindled in the hope of building a better world, a philosophy that was designed as a guide to action was transformed into a dogma. Most people know what happened once the Communist philosophy was taught as a dogma; hundreds of thousands of people were massacred!

If we look at religious creeds, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church usually comes to mind as the best example of the shockingly disastrous effects of dogmatic thinking. So many people were tortured and killed simply because they were regarded as "deviants"!!!

Dogmatic thinking can lead to total sterility within the scientific field. Yet, what happens when this type of thinking is applied to the analysis of human behaviour?

I spent four years of my life studying Psychology at the University of Malta. I graduated in this area and I have read many books that are somewhat related to it. Having said this, I still consider myself to be light years away from having a full understanding of human behaviour. I do, nevertheless, know that just as is the case with physics, human behaviour cannot be analysed on the basis of opinions.

When faced by the complexity of human behaviour, I am blown away by those people who waste no time in judging the actions of other people purely on the basis of dogmatic beliefs. Do such people really know what they are talking about? As children, many of us were told that doing certain things was good while performing other actions was bad. When we reach adulthood, several people realise - frequently as a result of direct experience - that not everything can be seen in black-or-white terms. Not everything that we see or do is ALWAYS good or ALWAYS bad.

When it comes to the various religions in the world, every one of them claims to reflect the Truth. Of course, as soon as one joins a particular church, the tendency is to look down on all the other churches as delusional or merely as wrong! Such strait-jacketed thinking has often led to interpersonal as well as regional conflicts.

Of course, every church bases its principles on something. The Roman Catholic Church has the Jerusalem Bible, the Papal Encyclicals, and the Church Catechism; the Mormon Church has the King James version of the Bible, the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Book of Mormon, the Muslims have the Koran and the Sharia law...

It is hard to discuss the specifics of every religious group unless one is extremely familiar with the beliefs. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and my faith was quite strong until I was 16 years old. It was at that age that I started questioning a number of things. For example, I asked myself: how could a God that possesses the greatest amount of love imaginable create a place called Hell where all his enemies would burn for eternity? Hadn't his son, Jesus, talked about forgiving your enemies? Whenever I looked at The Old Testament, I was often disgusted by the violence that I encountered. Even more shocking was the thought that such brutality came from God!

I am not saying that religion is inherently negative. Various religious groups have done extraordinary work in numerous parts of the world; thousands of lives have been helped thanks to the projects of organisations such as Caritas. Furthermore, if we look at the Jesus that is conveyed to us by the Christian Scriptures, millions of people would agree that his life was geared at relieving human beings from their suffering.

Although the Scriptures provide some information about Jesus, we are left with many questions about him. Why didn't he get married, for instance? (Some scholars believe that he got married, but that is another story!) Why didn't Jesus have any female apostles? Why didn't he write any books during his lifetime?

Unfortunately, many human beings have - over the centuries - tried to answer these questions in two ways: by resorting to dogmatic beliefs or by saying that certain things are bound to remain as mysteries. Should people then be expected to base their lives on things which have to be taken for granted just because someone else told us to do so? Should our lives be based on mysteries?

One could write volumes about this topic, but this would take weeks! To conclude, I believe that we should not be afraid to question the assumptions on which we base certain actions. We should embrace science so that we can avoid the dangers of dogmatic thinking.

This article was originally written on the 09/01/2007.

No comments: