Thursday, September 11, 2008

"Religion Without Dogma": Uh huh


I walked past a booth on the lawn of the Univeristy of Victoria advertising the Unitarian Church today; the banner across the booth said, "Religion Without Dogma".

Hm. Isn't that like saying "dinner without food", or "war without conflict", or "sexual intercourse without penetration"?

If we make the definition of religion so elastic as to accomodate both institutions founded on, and thoroughly saturated by, dogma (like, say, the Catholic church), AND an institution virtually inherently free of dogma (like, say, a fire department, or to hear Unitarians tell it, the Unitarian church), then we have defined the word "religion" right out of existence - and then we couldn't even talk about "religion" anymore. As any kind of meaningful concept, it wouldn't really exist. And if that is the case, then the Unitarian slogan really ought to be simply, "Without Dogma".

But that poses another problem, because as anyone who has ever visited a Unitarian church knows, it is not that it is free of dogma - only that it is free of certain dogmas. But that is only to say as much as we would about any other church in the world, including the Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, or Moonie. It's not dogma versus no dogma, but one dogma versus another dogma.

Unitarians, for example, do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the saviour of mankind, or that he makes people speak spontaneously in unknown languages. But they do believe in certain "progressive" ideals, like the morality of "eliminating poverty", "eliminating sexism", etc., which, insofar as they turn out to be coherent ideas, have as little rational basis in the end as the belief that Jesus is still alive and living up in the sky watching everything we do. And I'm not sure how to characterize a devoutly-held belief lacking any rational or evidentiary basis as anything other than a dogma...(?).

My conclusion:

Any institution entirely free of dogma does not qualify as a religion (your local poker club, for example, as opposed to your local Catholic church). So, taking the Unitarian slogan seriously, we would be forced to say that Unitarianism isn't actually a religion.

But since the Unitarians are actually deluding themselves by thinking that Unitarianism does not rest on factually and logically unsupportable beliefs (dogmas), Unitarianism does in fact qualify as a real religion. It has just substituted humanist dogma for sectarian dogma.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why do people say"Oh my God" or "Jesus Christ" when they don't believe in him.
"Tal Bachman, I wish I knew!"

lewis said...

What I find hypocritical of the UUs is they claim to accept all viewpoints but are not accepting of conservative political viewpoints. And they claim to be non-violent but have no problem using government-sanctioned force to take my money for their discredited social engineering programs.

makhdoom said...

I think that you need to separate the spirit of religion, religiosity, from any particular institution. I don't think that you appreciate that difference. It's like saying that politics are dangerous because so many political institutions are utterly dangerous to human flourishing. The political spirit is intrinsic to being a person. In the same sense, the religious spirit is intrinsic to being a person. What IS the religious spirit? Discovery of the Sublime by understanding the nature of phenomena and acting in a correct, suitable, and appropriate way and with balance and measure.

makhdoomh@gmail.com

Tal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tal said...

Makhdoom - Yes, I believe that religious instinct seems to be sown into the nature of man. And yes, religious intuitions do not necessarily rise to the level of dogma.

My point is that I don't see how communities built on specific shared transcendent beliefs can ultimately argue that those beliefs don't constitute dogmas. For example, this post was about the Unitarian Church in particular. If you show up at a Unitarian Church and say, "Jesus is the Saviour and the son of God, and if you reject him, you will go to hell, and you should vote Republican", they would ask you to leave. How is that different than the Baptist elders asking you to leave if you show up and announce that Jesus didn't even exist or something?

Paul Prescod said...

Tal: I think that your entire point about "dogma" revolves around this claim:

""If you show up at a Unitarian Church and say, "Jesus is the Saviour and the son of God, and if you reject him, you will go to hell, and you should vote Republican", they would ask you to leave""

I do not believe that if you do that in the appropriate context in a respectful tone that you will be asked to leave. Why don't you head down to the Unitarian church in Victoria and find out?

With respect to your definition of "dogma", we would have to say that every social movement has them, all the way down to the Girl Scouts. If you go to a Girl Scout meeting and say: "Girls should not be educated. They are unimportant" then guess what, you'll get some nasty looks and if you're disruptive you will be asked to leave. Does that mean that the Girl Scouts has "dogmas"?

In my opinion, the Unitarian church is a religion simply because it serves that social function. It sponsor refugees. It meets on Sundays. It has a choir. It performs weddings (gay weddings too!).

If you wish to claim that a religion MUST have dogmas, would you also claim that Zen has dogmas? Or that it is not a religion? What about the Quakers? What are their dogmas?

Tal said...

Paul - A few things:

I've *been* to the Unitarian church in Victoria (the one near the observatory). Much of that particular service was devoted to standard, feel-good, fashionably liberal socio-political themes; and while the language was gentler than you would hear at an NDP meeting, it amounted to about the same thing. It was "The Church of Gently-Championed Statism", in effect.

The point? Liberal dogmas are still dogmas. They are dogmas, just like Unitarianism's monotheism is a dogma. For that reason, Unitarian advertising initiatives which claim that Unitarianism is free of dogma are dishonest.

Unitarians do not believe that Jesus Christ was the saviour. They do not believe that rejecting Jesus's divinity would consign someone to hell. For that reason, no one would last long preaching Christ's divinity, or the hellish consequences of rejecting him, in a Unitarian Church. It would be like Maxine Waters speaking at a Klan meeting, or David Duke as a B'nai Brith after-dinner speaker. Just wouldn't last long.

With regards to how we should really define the word "religion"...yes, that is a tough one.

Paul Prescod said...

Your key points seem to be the following:

""My point is that I don't see how communities built on specific shared transcendent beliefs can ultimately argue that those beliefs don't constitute dogmas.""

By "transcendent" I assume you mean "metaphysical." The Unitarian church is not any more built on transcendent beliefs than the Girl Scouts are. Both wish to see a change in the world. Both work to enact that change.

""For example, this post was about the Unitarian Church in particular. If you show up at a Unitarian Church and say, "Jesus is the Saviour and the son of God, and if you reject him, you will go to hell, and you should vote Republican", they would ask you to leave.""

No, I don't think that they will. You should go to the Victoria church and try it. Of course, if you are impolite on disruptive then they may ask you to leave due to your descriptiveness, but not because you believe something different than the rest of them.

""How is that different than the Baptist elders asking you to leave if you show up and announce that Jesus didn't even exist or something?""

Very simply: you will be removed from a Unitarian church for having the wrong opinions or asking the wrong questions. Most likely you will just be ignored unless you are disruptive.

But even if we removed people who had opinions that are at odds with ours (theoretically), how would that be different than the Girl Scouts removing a scout leader who was saying things at odds with the Scouting association. Do you believe that the scouting association has "dogmas" that are akin to Catholic or Baptist "dogmas"?

With respect to the definition of "religion". Can you cite the dogmas of the Zen Buddhists, the Taoists or the Quakers? Do you dispute that all of those are religions?

Like Zen Buddhism, Unitarianism is a non-dogmatic religion. In any case, Unitarian churches function in Canadian cities in most of the same ways as Christian churches, or Jewish Synagogues. So that's another reason to call it a "religion".

Tal said...

Paul - Watch for an upcoming blog entry on this.

whitewaterhelix said...

Dogma references established beliefs or doctrines held by a religion that are authoritative and **not to be disputed**. The ironic thing is that religious "dogmas" are evolving all the time (2nd ironic pun not intended, but humorous nonetheless).