The consistently acerbic, eloquent and interesting Rex Murphy recently had a piece in the National Post on something that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past month or two, namely the idea that secular moral commitments can harden to the point of taking on the quality of religious dogma:
But in fact, as people have turned away from the religious framework, they have not jettisoned that inner certitude, that feeling of absolute confidence that used to be associated only with religious doctrine and belief. When people stop believing in God, they quickly find surrogate beliefs, construct surrogate values, and embrace a conviction that, in its force and depth, is no different, from that which had previously been supplied by religion.
I do think there are a couple of unfortunate things about the way Murphy develops this idea (apart from the unnecessary comma after “different” – tsk, tsk), and I’ll get them out of the way first. He doesn’t mention the fact that religions include metaphysical propositions about gods, souls and the like in addition to moral ones about proper conduct. Secular “surrogate beliefs” (and I’m not convinced, by the way, that “surrogate” is entirely fair) are often, though admittedly not always, confined to the moral realm except in the negative sense that they may be accompanied by an active rejection of the gods-and-souls stuff. To me the distinction between metaphysically laden convictions and purely moral ones seems far from trivial.
Murphy also kicks off his ruminations with recollections of his 1950s childhood in Carbonear, Newfoundland, which (to my shame) I had to look up on Wikipedia. It sounds like an interesting place with a deep colonial history and a 19th century reputation for political riots, but Murphy is mainly interested in its deep religiosity back when he was growing up and “young girls would not enter a church without some bandanna or scarf to (at least partly) cover their hair”. I don’t doubt his recollections, but he moves from them to an implicit suggestion that religion was the only possible source of moral certainty until quite recently. Tell that to the Bolsheviks, or to the French revolutionaries who eagerly espoused the Culte de la Raison! A significant contingent of irreligious Westerners has existed since at least the late 18th century, and some members of that contingent have always yielded to the temptation to embrace various secular convictions with levels of “force and depth” that are reminiscent of religious fervour.
Finally, Murphy’s actual examples of secular dogmatism all pertain to what might be described as the progressive province of the political map, which seems a touch unfair. For example, he says:
When I hear Justin Trudeau defending unfettered access to abortion – he uses, of course, the canonical phrase “a woman’s right to choose” – he speaks in those perfect accents of assurance and certitude that used to belong only to religion. He speaks of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with something that sounds very much like Godly reverence.
I rather admire Murphy’s sly use of “canonical” there, but in fairness he could mention things that people with very different political commitments sometimes speak of with equal “assurance and certitude”. An obvious example would be the supposedly unparalleled virtues of capitalism, as asserted by Peter Foster and his fellow market fundamentalists. The fact of the matter is that dogmatic thinking of the secular variety is hardly limited to any one political persuasion.
With all that said, I agree with Murphy’s basic point that one doesn’t have to believe in the gods to be blinkered, inflexible and overzealous. One evening the word “dogmigion” popped into my head as a general term for both religious and secular systems of thought that exhibit those qualities. It’s etymologically nonsensical except as a portmanteau of “dogma” and “religion”, but it seems apt enough as a label for worldviews that elevate either dubious factual claims or subjective moral tenets to the level of unchallengeable doctrine.
Of course, it’s possible to be a passionate pro-choice activist or defender of capitalism without being dogmigious, given a touch of flexibility, humility and respect for the fact-value distinction. It’s also not dogmigious to insist vociferously that the Earth is approximately spherical or that evolution by natural selection is a real phenomenon because, well, overwhelming evidence supports those views. But if you’re strongly attached to a moral and political claim X, or indeed an empirical one for which the evidence is less than overwhelming, you might be a touch dogmigious if you think that no one could possibly reject X without being malevolent or perverse. You might be dogmigious if you find yourself wanting to shout down arguments against X instead of finding good counter-arguments, if you think expressing opposition to X should be punished, or if you think people who don’t pay sufficient attention to X are necessarily motivated by hatred of X instead of their own passion for Y or Z. You might be dogmigious if you’re incapable of agreeing to disagree with people who fail to be persuaded by your advocacy of X, for instance because they find your arguments unconvincing or simply don’t share your goals and priorities.
Some dogmigions are obviously more dangerous and problematic than others, and some could even be rather benign at a practical level – I don’t mind too much if people want to be dogmigious about the claim that one shouldn’t commit random murder while riding the subway, for example, though in theory I think anyone decrying the evils of subway murder should be prepared to respond to disagreement with reasoned arguments rather than just condemnation and derision. Perhaps we all actually need a smidgen of dogmigion in our lives in order to maintain a modicum of sanity and function as productive members of society. Nevertheless, we atheists tend to be well aware of the harm that can be done by religious certainty, and it’s surely appropriate to regard undue certainty about other claims that lack a strict logical and empirical foundation with the same wariness and suspicion. I’m not saying, of course, that we shouldn’t have moral and political commitments, or opinions about empirical questions that cannot yet be settled by available evidence – just that we should acknowledge the subjectivity of those commitments and opinions, even if they happen to be widely shared, and the legitimacy of dissent.