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[Chalice] Creating a Dogma Free Zone [Chalice]

Presented September 23, 2012, by Jeff Seabarkrob

Opening Words

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
-- e.e. cummings

Creating a Dogma Free Zone

I have been thinking about Dogma as it relates to our church and to me specifically for some time now. So, when Ellen asked me to speak during this month as part of my duty as the Board of Trustees President I agreed to speak and told her that the subject of my talk would be "Creating a Dogma Free Zone".

In the movie DOGMA the following disclaimer was made:

Disclaimer: 1) a renunciation of any claim to or connection with; 2) disavowal; 3) a statement made to save one's own ass.

Though it'll go without saying ten minutes or so into these proceedings, I would like to state that this presentation is -- from start to finish -- a work of hopeful idealism. To insist that any of what follows is incendiary or inflammatory is to miss my intention and pass undue judgment; and passing judgment is reserved for God and God alone (this goes for critics who take themselves too seriously . . . just kidding).

So please -- before you think about hurting someone over this open minded discussion, remember: even God has a sense of humor. Just look at the platypus.

Thank you and I hope you enjoy the discussion.

P.S. I apologize to all platypus enthusiasts out there who are offended by that thoughtless comment about the platypi. I respect the noble platypus, and it is not my intention to slight these stupid creatures in any way. Thank you again for your indulgence.

The basic message in the movie DOGMA is this: Man got it all wrong by taking a good idea and building a belief structure. Ideas can be changed however, changing beliefs is trickier. People kill for beliefs.

So, you might ask yourselves, "How does beliefs relate to Dogma? What is Dogma and what is a Dogma Free Zone?"

Please allow me to frame the subject with the definition published in the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, International Edition copyright, 1968. (personal note: 1968 was the year I began my journey from Catholicism to Unitarian Universalism).

Dogma 1 Theol. A doctrine or system of teachings of religious truth as maintained by the Christian church or any portion of it; hence, a statement of religious faith or duty formulated by a body possessing or claiming to decree and decide. 2 Doctrine asserted and adopted by authority, as distinguished from that which is the result of one's own reasoning or experience; a dictum. 3 Any settled, opinion or conviction; an accepted principle, maxim or tenet.

So when we say a person is dogmatic in their assertion we mean they're positive in their authoritative assertion, stating opinions without evidence. Hence, arrogant.

When we consider the synonyms it becomes even clearer what Dogma means: arrogant, authoritative, dictatorial, doctrinal, domineering, impervious, magisterial, opinionated, overbearing, positive, self-opinionated. Dogmatic is technically applied to that which is formally enunciated by adequate authority; doctrinal to that which is stated in the form of doctrine to be taught or defended. Outside of theology, dogmatic has generally an offensive sense; a dogmatic statement is one for which the author does not trouble himself to give a reason, either because of the strength of his convictions, or because of his contempt for those whom he addresses; thus dogmatic is, in common use, allied with arrogant and kindred words.

Religious Dogma
A dogma (from Greek: Doxa, "Opinion"; Dokein "to seem to believe") refers to religious teaching or doctrine that is held by an organization (usually religious) to be authoritative and indisputable.

While all dogmas are doctrines (religious teachings), not all doctrines are dogmas. Even though a doctrine may be widely accepted and firmly held by a religion, it's not classified as a dogma if it is acknowledged that the doctrine may be recognized as potentially imperfect, therefore debatable. Dogmas, on the other hand, are unquestioned religious truths, with and administrative scope, and must not be doubted.

Due to the fundamental importance of dogmas, their rejection is tantamount to rejection of a religious tradition entirely. Rejection of dogma is most always considered heresy and may result in excommunication or exile from the tradition, though this varies amongst the world's religious traditions. In more extreme situations throughout history, those who doubted dogma were coerced back to the fold through the use of violence. However, division over dogmas need not always be confrontational, and it certainly has not always been so. In many cases, rejection of old dogmas or the synthesis of new ones leads to the formation of new religious branches or traditions.

Dogma and World Religions

As I refined my understanding of Dogma, I began to understand the roots of my religious transition from Catholicism to Unitarian Universalism. Last year while visiting my uncle in Connecticut I discussed my work within our church. My uncle, a devout Catholic has always been my hero in religion and life. He lives his beliefs in a way that makes me proud of my Catholic roots. He has known for years that I no longer practice and participate in the Catholic Church other than to respectfully attend and at times participate in services such as weddings and funerals. He's a deacon in the Catholic Church and if the church eliminated its age maximum age limit to the priesthood I have no doubt that he would make a wonderful priest.

One evening while enjoying a fine cigar and sipping exquisite Kentucky bourbon, I asked my uncle about his work with the church and about his latest homily. He me gave a few copies and they comforted me as I read them. They confirmed to me his goodness. He asked me why I left the church. I didn't want to get into a theological discussion about all my reasons except to tell him that I felt my religious education did not prepare me for a world of other religions. When I entered college I was faced with people my own age who knew more about the bible and about other world religions than I knew. While I had a lot more justifications for leaving the Catholic Church than my criticism of my parochial education, there was no need to say much more and I felt comfortable with the silence that followed.

Had my early life religious education been better, I would have learned that most of the major religions in our world have dogmatic beliefs. From Confucianism to Hinduism to Buddhism to Judaism to Christianity and Islam, Dogma is a necessary and integral part of their belief systems. It keeps order and justifies rituals and traditions.


Confucianism has existed as a tradition upon philosophical and moral principles rather than overt theological doctrines. Tenets put forth by Confucian thinkers have been accepted due to their practical and social merit rather than their status as revelation. Therefore few can consider them truly dogmatic. However, Confucius did affirm certain key doctrines that became normative in Confucianism such as the teachings of li (ritual propriety) and jen (humanity). Jen was considered the central virtue in the human quest for social and cosmic order. The main way to cultivate jen, according to Confucius, was through careful maintenance of five relationships. These relationships exist between parents and children (expressed as filial piety), ruler and subject, husband and wife, elder sibling and younger sibling, and between friends. In the Confucian tradition, these are instructions that must be preserved without question. For example, in the Analects of Confucius, the author declares it more honest for a son to lie to defend his father than for the son to testify against his father for wrong doing. Thus, the dogma of filial piety outweighs the obligation to denounce the parent.


Hinduism covers a wide variety of religious traditions, inclusively declaring them all as Hindu. Therefore, the concept of dogma does not apply as readily to Hinduism as it does to traditions that are more defined along doctrinal lines. However, Dogmas can be found in the Hindu tradition. For example, schools falling within the scope of Hinduism all accept the authority of the Vedas, the holy books that follow the Vedic tradition. Acceptance of these texts has been used historically to determine the orthodoxy of Indian philosophical systems. The six schools of Indian thought (Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva Mimamsa and Vedanta) are differentiated from the heterodox schools such as Buddhism and Jainism on the basis of their acceptance of the Vedas. The acceptance of the spiritual importance of these texts was a gauge of orthodoxy in Hinduism.


Some Buddhist dogmas are shared with Hinduism and Jainism. Religious concepts innate in the worldview of the people of India, such as karma and reincarnation, are fundamental to the majority of Indian religions. Buddhism is not an exception; Buddhists understand and explain these ideas differently than Hindus or Jains. Most importantly, Buddhists reject the Hindu dogma of atman (eternal self), and assert the teaching of anatman (no eternal self). The Buddhist position that the human being does not possess a soul is itself a type of dogma.

Some later Mahayana Buddhist schools, especially Nagarjuna's Madhyamika as well as Ch'an or Zen, were suspicious of all religious and philosophical dogmas, dismissing them as obstacles to realization and enlightenment.


Islam dogma is succinctly prescribed in the Five Pillars of Islam. The first and most important of these is the, shahada, or confession of faith, is the declaration that Allah is the only God and that Muhammad is his prophet. This is the core statement of Islam, and one is expected to believe it if entering into a Muslim community. This pillar illustrates the importance of monotheism in the Islamic tradition that declares god to be unequivocally singular. Allah's oneness is described through Tawhid, and can be found written in the Qur'an in Surah 112, which states "He is Allah, the one and only God the Eternal, the Absolute He begot none, nor was He begotten and there is none comparable to Him." Further, the dogmatic importance of monotheism is made evident in the Muslim rejection of idolatry if they venerate a physical reality separate from the one true God. This sin of idolatry is known as shirk, which refers to the acknowledgment or worship of anything that is not Allah.


Christianity inherited the formative dogmas of Judaism but reinterpreted them in light of the view that Jesus was and is the messiah. When early Christianity became influenced by Hellenism (Greek culture and philosophy) the concept of dogma became more important to the early church. The key examples of actual dogmas come from patristic theological consensuses such as the Nicene Creed, which developed the doctrine of Trinity: the idea that one supreme God consisting of three personae – Father, Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. Also delineated in this creed was the dual nature of Christ, a dogma which states that Jesus is both human (based on his incarnation in flesh) and divine (as son of God).

A Dogma Free Zone

Dogmas help people who need the comfort of the confines of their beliefs. Casting those confines aside creates fear of the unknown. When you can keep people within the confines of dogma you can control them, you can lead them as a shepherd leads a flock of sheep. It takes courage and stamina to step into the light and ask the questions that need to be asked in order to find freedom from dogma and gain enlightenment.

My preparation for today's talk affirmed my deeper feelings about dogma and why I embrace my faith in the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. There is no dogma in our principles. There is no dogma in our church. We are a Dogma Free Zone here in this sanctuary. What does that mean to the community around us? What does that mean to people outside of our congregation? It means that we are an island of free thought in an ocean where people who have released the weight of dogmas and have floated to the surface and feel the warm sunlight of hope. We need to invite them to join us in the free quest of high values in religion and life; where we all dwell together in peace, seek the truth in love, and help one another.

We are the fortunate travelers who have floated to the surface in the sea of dogmata. We floated and we swam and eventually ended up in this place we call our congregation. Welcome to all who wish to join us.

While we can understand why others find solace and comfort in Dogmatic answers to the question of their existence, we also know that our church offers other searchers a place where an individual can throw off the bondage of dogma and seek the truth in love and understanding. We are in a place where the transforming power of love will help us offer others the opportunity to open their minds and free their spirits to grow and live freely amongst friends and neighbors.

©2012 Jeff Seabarkrob

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Seabarkrob, Jeff 2012. Creating a Dogma Free Zone, /talks/20120923.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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