Jussi Ahola

Curious humanist

The dogmas we live by

When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons.
Anaïs Nin

All major world religions have their dogmas, sets of principles and truths that uphold the entire structures of these religions. Dogmas are the indisputable truth, the unchallengeable core tenets. In many religions these are related to the nature of personal relationships that are regarded as acceptable, to the manners one is expected to show, or to the foods and beverages that one is allowed to consume. To be a believer of a religion means accepting these dogmas; to challenge a dogma is to challenge the religion itself. Atheism isn’t any different: its dogma is to believe in nothing at all.

Dogmas live outside of religion, too. They form the basis of ideologies, movements, and secular belief systems.

The adherents of a particular type of diet can be incredibly dogmatic about what is good for you and what is not. Be it Atkins, Mediterranean, Raw Foods, Vegetarian, Zone, Intermittent Fasting, Paleo, Blood Type Diet, Superfoods, No Dairy, No Solids, No This, No That, and you will find people who are more than willing to lay down the dogmas of that particular way of eating as the indisputable truths. Eat this, not that. This food will make you feel great, that food will clog up your system. Eat this every morning, but never in the evening. Take 175 µg of vitamin XYZ daily and you’ll be great. What’s more, the people who believe in these dogmas wholeheartedly can attack you vehemently if you’re foolish enough to question their dogmas, even if you do it with genuine curiosity and perhaps with newly discovered knowledge. What, you only take 150 µg of vitamin XYZ, are you a fool?

The same applies to different ways of exercising. Bodybuilders have their own dogmas and see anyone else in the gym as working out in the wrong way. Marathon runners see their way of exercising as superior to anything else. Weightlifters, martial arts practitioners, CrossFitters, powerlifters, and triathlonists all have dogmas specific to their own sport and can condemn other ways of keeping fit as sub-optimal. You should run, not lift weights. You should wrestle, not run. You should lift weights, not do body weight movements. All this is a bit sad, as there are a lot of good things to be gained from many of these diets or exercise regimens, though some, of course, are complete nonsense in the light of current scientific knowledge (Blood Type Diet, I’m looking at you).

The list goes on and on. Different ways of bringing up children, different music genres, different ways of investing money, different political ideologies, different product development methodologies, different ways of having a vacation, different ways of teaching your dog that it’s not ok to poop inside. In all of these ways of looking at the world (or some small part of it) you will find dogmatists telling you that their way of doing things is superior and anything else is, well, poop.

Belief in the traditional sense, or certitude, or dogma, amounts to the grandiose delusion, My current model — or grid, or map, or reality-tunnel — contains the whole universe and will never need to be revised. In terms of the history of science and knowledge in general, this appears absurd and arrogant to me....
Robert Anton Wilson

In a way all this is very understandable. Getting unbiased information is costly in terms of time, whereas dogmas allow us to become automatons, even if just for a brief moment. In a world where everything is contradictory, where everything can be interpreted in one way by some and in the opposite way by others, dogmas provide some structure into the world, a way of having certainty in something. And the thing is that we crave for certainty. Decisions under uncertainty caused by the lack of information (ambiguity) feel threatening: when faced with such a decision, certain regions of your brain connected to the feelings of risk and fear, the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, are firing away intensely, causing a threat response in your limbic system.

Every waking hour, the brain is trying to make sense of the world around you and predicting what is going to happen next; when it lacks the information needed to make these predictions or when the prediction doesn’t match the reality, you feel uncertainty creeping up your spine. When you’re walking down the street and your foot doesn’t land the way your brain had expected it to land, you experience a threat response, but when it lands the way the brain predicted it to land, you experience a mild reward. In the same way, a politician who acknowledges uncertainty causes you to experience a threat reaction, but a politician who shows confidence (often unfounded) causes you to experience a reward.

Of course, there is a whole industry taking advantage of this need for certainty: fortune tellers, horoscopes, restaurant reviews, unneeded MRI scans, stock market predictions, executive accounting. All these exist to quench our thirst for certainty based on some information that they supposedly provide. In many cases this information doesn’t even need to equip us to make a better decision, but it’s rather just rewarding to have information for its own sake. Knowing your exam result right now doesn’t change the final result one bit, but you still crave to know the grade as soon as possible and waiting for it feels uncomfortable.

However, a life without any personal dogmas would mean a life without any certainty, a life of incessant questioning of just about everything. This is probably why being a sceptic, in the true sense of the word, is so damn hard (and practically impossible): if you deny any certainty in anything, your brain never experiences the rewards associated with certainty and is bound to live with the constant threat of uncertainty. This is probably a safe and quick way to the asylum, so it might be a solid strategy to acknowledge that we all live by some dogmas, some truths that we take for granted, and try to the best of our capabilities to be mindful of what they are.

In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don't know it.
G.K. Chesterton

Living with our dogmas is a constant battle of being able see what these dogmas are, not becoming overtly attached to any of them, and being able to challenge them as we gain new knowledge on how the world around us works.