What’s Wrong with Being Absolutely Right?

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Grant Steves

Text cover of What's So Wrong with Being Absolutely Right.

The dogmatic or the enigmatic?   Dogmatism, some would say, is the assertion of an opinion without proof or an attitude of arrogance with proof, but without reference to evidence.  The dogmatic position is not a religious position, but is reflective of an arrogant attitude toward one’s own position.

Milton Rokeach, fifty years ago, published his book The Open and Closed Mind.  This book presented the understanding of the dogmatic and authoritarian personality.  Today, we have a new book, What’s So Wrong With Being Absolutely Right?, by Judy Johnson.  She reviews the research presented by Rokeach, and the research that has been done in the years since.

The importance of this book and the research it reflects helps us understand what happens when rigidity of thought drives the conclusion we might have.  We often identify the dogmatic person as ignorant, poorly educated, having a low IQ, religiously fundamentalist, or superstitious.  All of these may be true, but we frequently fail to include the highly educated, the highest IQ, the non-religious, and the scientifically trained.  It may be appropriate to include both groups when you examine the characteristics of the dogmatic person.  

Johnson’s list includes the following behavioral characteristics:

1)    Preoccupation with power and status,
2)    Glorification of the in-group and vilification of the out-group,
3)    Dogmatic authoritarian aggression,
4)    Dogmatic authoritarian submission,
5)    Arrogant, dismissive communication style.

These behavioral characteristics are frequently found in the controlling person.  They cluster together to form a rigid personality that demands and does not respect.  They create the other – the inferior.  They put down those they disagree with and dismiss the ideas without a hearing.   Johnson also includes the following cognitive characteristics:

1)    An intolerance of ambiguity,
2)    Defensive, cognitive closure,
3)    Rigid certainty,
4)    Compartmentalization,
5)    Lack of personal insight.

The cognitive characteristics describe too many of those who narrowly govern and protect their areas of expertise.  In their need for certainty, they refuse to expose themselves to new ideas and cling to their yellowing ideas.

Even as such persons read these lists, Johnson claims, they will deny it describes them (no personal insight) and direct their anger towards the proposed belief systems.  They need to realize that to help others escape dogmatism, they must admit to their own.  Being dogmatic scars a person, but it need not destroy them.  

These lists do not identify groups or people, but addresses characteristics of individual processes. It is always easy to label others as dogmatic. It is difficult for us to reflect on ourselves as dogmatic. Our opinions are based on fact and reasonable, but the other person is the one whose opinions lack evidence and is unreasonable.  

Judy Johnson’s book should help us reflect on our own thinking process.  We need to ask how dogmatic we are. A conclusion we have about dogmatism is that the person who is dogmatic is the person most apt to be swept up in a conversion process. This is because of the psychological pillars that underlie dogmatism:  

1)    The Need to Know – this drives us to learn, but it may be hijacked by manipulators.
2)    The Need to Defend against Anxiety – anxiety created in our environment disrupts our adventure into learning and causes fear and doubt.
3)    The Need for Social Connection – as humans we need others for psychological growth and health.  Our identity is created in this crucible of development.
4)    The Need for Common Dignity – we have a need for honor or respect.  Others have an influence on our development.  

It appears that in all the characteristics of dogmatism, we see a person out of balance. The dogmatism may come from the culture in which you are raised or the psychological problems you may have. A person raised in a closed religion is most apt to be a dogmatic adult. However, a person raised in an intellectual environment might become dogmatic as they become convinced of their certainty.  

The potential for dogmatism in any person is always a possibility. It might surprise many that a high IQ or being highly educated does not exempt one from being dogmatic.  Too often educated people believe they are exempt from being dogmatic, and this may result in a failure to learn and a failure to have the adventure of discovery. As Thomas Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, paradigms change very slowly.  The scientific and educated community is frequently not the first to embrace a new theory. Evolution as a way to explain our beginning is still challenged by some and believed by the intellectual scientific community. Who is dogmatic? Who is caught in the web of certainty? Who is the one needing to change?

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