So who’s dogmatic and intolerant?

May 1st, 2017 in Life. Tags: , , , , , , ,

Religious people, especially conservative and fundamentalist believers, are often stereotyped as dogmatic and intolerant. Do the facts support this stereotyping? How do other people compare? And what is the cause?

The science of dogmatism and intolerance

Most of us like to feel secure in our choices and beliefs, and prefer to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty. If our important values are threatened by an idea or a group, we may deal with this threat in various ways.

Many studies on the causes of intolerance and prejudice have shown that dogmatic beliefs that are resistant to change and uncertainty can provide people with a sense of certainty, clarity and order. Prejudice and intolerance of groups that threaten beliefs has been shown to be an effective way to protect certainty. “Prejudice may serve as a preventive mechanism against those who challenge one’s certainty” (Ref 1).

Dogmatic religion can provide certainty …

Dogmatic and literal religious belief can work in this way. Beliefs that are held in a rigid and close-minded way will give the believer a greater sense of certainty, and may lead to intolerance of those who threaten the security of this belief.

… but not all religion is dogmatic

People hold religious beliefs in a wide variety of ways. Some believers are more close-minded and dogmatic, and their beliefs are simple and literal. Other believers are more open-minded and liberal, and their beliefs tend to be more complex and symbolic. And of course many are somewhere between the two extremes.

Studies have shown that the more tolerant believers are less likely to be prejudiced against outsiders and more likely to be favourably disposed towards them.

The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religion seems to be important here. The more personal a belief in God is, the more likely that believer is to be tolerant and altruistic, compared to someone whose belief is more external and social. As one commentator put it: “Religion makes you prejudiced. God doesn’t.

As an example, a New Zealand study found that religious belief in that country was associated with less prejudice to “outsiders” such as immigrants and Muslims, and that the stronger the religious belief, the less the prejudice. Interestingly, it was those who were most exposed to the news media who tended to be the most prejudiced.

Atheists can be dogmatic too

A 2016 study on dogmatism showed that atheism can be held dogmatically or open-mindedly, just as religious beliefs can be. And just as dogmatic religion tends to lead to intolerance and prejudice, so does dogmatic atheism, and for the same reasons. If certainty is important to us, we will likely feel threatened when our beliefs are challenged.

The study tested believers’ and unbelievers’ attitudes to groups which were seen as threatening to their beliefs. They generally found similar results with both believers and unbelievers:

  • Dogmatic believers and atheists alike tended to be intolerant of uncertainty, whereas open-minded believers and atheists were not. Overall, atheists were slightly more tolerant of uncertainty.
  • Orthodox believers and dogmatic atheists both tended to be prejudiced against groups that “violated” their value systems – specifically atheists and homosexuals (for the religious) and Catholics and pro-lifers (for the atheists).
  • Uncertainty seems to make people more prejudiced against those who violate their value system (homosexuals and pro-lifers) but makes little difference to those who threaten their belief system (atheists and Catholics).

The study concludes that dogmatism and prejudice are not specific to particular religious or anti-religious worldviews, but to the way in which those worldviews are held.

Both dogmatic believers and dogmatic atheists exhibited a strong need for certainty, clear-cut answers, coherence, and meaning in life, even though they are looking for it by following different paths…. Prejudice is not limited only to religious believers …. but rather, as a response to uncertainty it may also occur among dogmatic atheists

Learning from this research

If this research is not contradicted by future studies, it has implications for believers and unbelievers alike.


This study may encourage some believers to continue in their open-minded approach to religion, or even to become more open minded. Prejudice is an ugly thing, and one which a follower of Jesus should try to avoid.

But some believers believe dogmatism and certainty are important to keeping the faith. For them, the challenge is to not allow dogmatism to lead on to prejudice, and to take deliberate steps to be friendly to outsiders – otherwise their dogmatic beliefs may be leading them to not be following the teachings of the leader they believe in!


Many non-believers (most, in my experience) have little interest in religion, and therefore tend to lack dogmatism and prejudice. They should be encouraged that they are contributing to a harmonious society.

However the more anti-theistic atheists face both a practical and a theoretical problem.

  1. On a practical level, they are clearly in danger of being as dogmatic, intolerant and prejudiced as the more conservative believers they criticise. And if this recent study is to be believed, their cognitive and emotional processes are the same as fundamentalist christians, that is, based on dogmatism and fear of uncertainty. When the rest of us see ugly dogmatic atheism, we can reasonably infer a closed mind and a fear of uncertainty.
  2. This study throws further doubts on the intellectual credibility of dogmatic atheists who claim that religion is evil, bad for society, and that religious believers are motivated by all sorts of factors other than reason. We already know that only some religious belief is harmful, and more often it is helpful, including beneficial for our brains. Now we can say that dogmatic people, whether atheist or theist, tend to be motivated similarly. Atheists who deny these facts without any scientific studies to support them are denying the rationalism they espouse.

Watch this space!

No doubt more studies will be undertaken on related topics. We’ll see if these conclusions stand up. But this study was buoilt on many others which are referenced in it, so the conclusions appear to be quite robust.

Ref 1: Many faces of dogmatism: Prejudice as a way of protecting certainty against value violators among dogmatic believers and atheists. Kossowska, Czernatowicz-Kukuczka & Sekerdej. British Journal of Psychology, 2016.

Graphic: Flickr, modified by unkleE.


  1. I see exactly this sort of behaviour in the UK political scene. The ‘Right’ are offering no policies but relying on the ‘we’re right whatever we do’ and finding other groups to blame. Our snap election is called because the government want to use fear of Brexit as a reason to garner votes. Please pray for us.

  2. Yes, this paper I referenced addressed religious views and differences, but said they wished they’d asked questions about politics as well. It seems true that politics is becoming more polarised in UK, USA and Australia, and maybe elsewhere (e.g. France, Turkey), and that this is evidence of uncertainty and insecurity.

    I saw your recent post on housing affordability. It is totally crazy that poorer people cannot get home loans, yet pay more in rent than the home loan repayments would be.We will certainly pray.

  3. Religion IS dogma. It must be. That is not a bad thing, it is the nature of it. Any belief system is dogmatic, including atheism. Being ‘flexible’ and ‘open’ is not a good thing.

    Have you considered the definition?
    a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.

    It is literally the definition of religion.
    In fact, if your faith is not dogmatic, I’d argue that you must be nuts to believe something that you also believe may or may not be true.

  4. Hi Dennis, thanks for your thoughts. I can see what you mean, but do you think dogmatic means the same as dogma? I know they come from the same root, but the dictionary gives dogmatic as:

    “inclined to lay down principles as undeniably true.
    synonyms: opinionated, peremptory, assertive, imperative, insistent, emphatic, adamant, doctrinaire, authoritarian, authoritative, domineering, imperious, high-handed, pontifical, arrogant, overbearing, dictatorial, uncompromising, unyielding, unbending, inflexible, rigid, entrenched, unquestionable, unchallengeable”

    Do you think religion should be dogmatic in those ways?

  5. It’s just a case of polysemy. “Dogmatic” originally simply meant “relating to dogma(s)”, but over time, probably in the Enlightenment, it acquired also the meaning “closed-minded”. I don’t think it’s difficult to figure out what meaning is intended here. “Dogmatic and intolerant” is a rather clear cue.

  6. As comment above.
    Except I land on the side that I take the word as it is and not how it is commonly used.
    I think believers are afraid of being called dogmatic because there is a negative association with ‘intoletance’.

    My point merely is that intolerance is not inherently a negative thing. We don’t tolerate speeding. We don’t tolerate racism. But that does not mean we should tolerate everything or that tolerance is inherently virtuous.

    Christians should be and are intolerant AND judgmental of many things.

  7. Hi Dennis, I can see we are on very opposite sides on some of this. But let’s explore a little more.

    “I take the word as it is and not how it is commonly used”

    I have two problems with this. (1) The dictionary defines “as it is”, but you haven’t really taken the dictionary definition in full. (2) If you use words that communicate to others what you don’t mean, then you haven’t really communicated at all.

    “Christians should be and are intolerant AND judgmental of many things”

    Jesus said to be very careful about being judgmental. And if being intolerant means either condemning or cutting ourselves off from other people, that seems to me to be bad. If it leads us into an attitude of rejection of people because of our rejection of ideas, or if it cuts us off from being open to new ideas, then that too is bad. Would you agree?

    What things do you think christians should be intolerant and judgmental about?

  8. Like Jesus tolerating the money changers. Like that.
    I defined dogma as per dictionary. People may tend to use dogma as domineering/ assertive/ opinionated but a synonym is just that.

    The only point I really wish to make is that a true believer ( holding to a doctrine) does not need to yield to the fear of being tarnished with negative connotations of ‘dogmatic’. In the true sense of the word a believer must necessarily be dogmatic. Belief and dogma are like heads and tails.
    SJWs like to wield that brush of fear, whilst ironically being extremely dogmatic about someone else not being allowed to be dogmatic.

    I call that bullshit. It is ILLOGICAL to ‘undogmatic belief’. That would be hope, but not belief.

  9. Hi Dennis, it seems you are using a partial dictionary definition and ignoring the synonyms and common usage, which isn’t helpful in communication, as our discussion is showing.

    So let’s avoid the use of the dogmatic word and try something different.

    We both agree, I think, that holding a belief necessarily means denying its negation. So in that sense christian belief entails disagreement with those who hold a different belief. If that is all you are saying, then I agree. But it isn’t what I was talking about in this post.

    I was getting at three things:

    1. Christians should try to remain open-minded, because the Holy Spirit may want to teach us new things.

    2. While we may disagree with people, we should avoid emnity, intolerance (meaning not wanting them to have legal or social freedom to hold their own counter views) and prejudice (meaning assuming things and forming attitudes about them that are unjust or discriminatory).

    3. While we may disagree with people, we shouldn’t be disagreeable. We should speak our truths with love, with language that tries to avoid offence, we should try to be on good terms with everybody.

    So I wonder if you would agree with me about those points?

  10. 1.Christians should try to remain open-minded, because the Holy Spirit may want to teach us new things.

    A: About some things.

    2. While we may disagree with people, we should avoid emnity, intolerance (meaning not wanting them to have legal or social freedom to hold their own counter views) and prejudice (meaning assuming things and forming attitudes about them that are unjust or discriminatory).

    A: Assume ‘enmity’; and if that is what you want intolerance to mean – I would agree. (Except that isn’t what I means, but let’s move on.)

    3. While we may disagree with people, we shouldn’t be disagreeable. We should speak our truths with love, with language that tries to avoid offence, we should try to be on good terms with everybody.

    A: Yes for all but last sentence. Would you say Jesus was on good terms with EVERY body?

  11. Hi Dennis,

    ” About some things.”
    If we choose to be only open about somethings, we may miss something. Being open doesn’t mean accepting anything, just being open.

    “Assume ‘enmity’; and if that is what you want intolerance to mean”
    They were two separate words, and I defined “intolerance as “not wanting them to have legal or social freedom to hold their own counter views”. I wonder whether you agree?

    “Would you say Jesus was on good terms with EVERY body?”
    Would you say Jesus doesn’t WANT to be on good terms with everyone?

    That last sentence was a reference to Romans 12:16 & 18: “Live in harmony with one another. …. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Does that make any difference to your answer?


  12. Aren’t​ you open to, say, pedophelia?

    I referred to typo of enmity.
    Then said ” and I agree” assuming acceptance of your definition of intolerance.

    No, not really. One another refers to community of Christians. And then IF possible, be peaceful… i.e. you dont seek out the fight, but that is not equal not willing to go to war.
    Do you claim there is never a just war that God would condone? Because war is the ultimate intolerance of you think about it.

  13. Hi Dennis, you seem to misunderstand being open to something. It doesn’t necessarily mean supporting it, but being open to learn. So, no, I am not open to pedophilia being a good thing, but I am open to understanding the issue, its effects and causes.

    I think “get on well with” is not far from being harmonious and peaceful, wouldn’t you say? (Whether v16 refer to the christian community is a moot point, but since harmony and peace are very close, it matters little.) So do you think that we should try to live in peace or harmony with those around us, believers or not?

    Re just war, I don’t see that in the New Testament. Jesus said to love enemies, not to resist, to pray for them, to turn the other cheek. Would you place the concept of “just war” above the teachings of Jesus?

    It honestly seems to me that you are trying to justify a standard of behaviour that is somewhat less than what Jesus calls us to (and Paul too). Why is that? Wouldn’t the kingdom of God be more attractive to outsiders if we lived the way Jesus said as much as possible, rather than lowering his standards?

  14. Unrelated to the comment thread but related to the headline: Peter Boghassian seems to have got himself in a serious pickle with a real lemon. To no surprise, things have gone sour fast. (Sorry for the horrible play on words. 😉 )

  15. I looked up the matter you have referred to, and it doesn’t entirely surprise me. I have written about him before, and he seems to be quite extreme among atheists and among philosophers in his views.

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