From New World Encyclopedia

A dogma (from Greek: Doxa, "Opinion"; Dokein, "to seem to believe") refers to a religious teaching or doctrine that is held by an organization (usually a religion) to be authoritative and indisputable. Dogmas are considered to be explications of divinely-given truths and therefore their denial is usually seen as tantamount to a rejection of the religion. Dogmas are found in many religions where they are considered to be core principles that must be upheld by followers in order to belong to the religious community. Rejection of a religion's dogmas usually is considered to be heresy and may lead to an individual's expulsion from the group or other forms of punishment.

Though many religious traditions may not use the word "dogma" explicitly in their vocabulary (or may even reject the idea of dogma), the majority of religions can be described as possessing dogmas in some form. The use of dogmas is most commonly associated with the Roman Catholic tradition, where the term is widely used. Some religious traditions, like Hinduism and Judaism, lack a great deal of rigid dogma. The plural of dogma is either "dogmata" or dogmas. When secular organizations or schools of thought like Marxism promote dogma, they are frequently called "quasi-religious."

Dogma and Doctrine

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 is not classified as a dogma if it is acknowledged that the doctrine may be recognized as potentially imperfect, and therefore debatable. Dogmata, on the other hand, are unquestioned religious truths, with an administrative and authoritative scope, and must not be doubted. While many dogmas are examples of the most well-defined theological analysis, others may be taken as a priori truths and subjected to little theological analysis.

Dogmas and dogmatism form a fundamental element of many religions and ideologies. The term "dogma" is assigned to those theological tenets that are considered to be irrevocably demonstrated, such that their proposed disputation or revision effectively means that a person no longer accepts the given religion as his or her own, or has entered into a period of personal doubt. Dogmata may be clarified and elaborated but not contradicted in novel teachings.

Due to the foundational importance of dogmas, their rejection is tantamount to rejection of a religious tradition entirely, as the dogmata of a religion are not capable of excision from the core of the religion's teachings. 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 dogmata were coerced back to the fold through the use of violence. However, division over dogmata 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 in World Religions

Ancient Greek

The concept of dogma first developed in Ancient Greece, although not in a particularly religious sense. The Platonists, as well as the Stoics used the term to identify those opinions, teachings or arguments which seem right to all people. Dogma was also used to refer to a decree that legitimated authority of a person or group, or else a decision based on rational, moral principles. Dogmas formed the central tenets that were accepted by all members of a given school, and therefore distinguished that school from others. For example, the Stoics held to the belief that God existed as a "germ of reason" which existed within all things.

The tenets of a given school were by no means required to be founded on the grounds of reason or logic, and often were based on no more than opinion. Some philosophical schools stood by their dogmas with a fervor that could be described as religious, which no doubt laid the foundation for the current meaning of the word.


Though there is much diversity in belief and practice within Judaism, there are distinct ideas that are characteristic of Jewish faith and central to Jewish identity. For example, the acceptance of one God and the rejection of all others has been of the utmost importance for the Jewish people and is an idea also prevalent in all of the Abrahamic religions. Further, it is forbidden in the Jewish tradition to make any depiction of this god, due to the prohibition of idolatry.

Today, Jews are careful not to render any images of God, and some Jews even go so far as to spell His title "G-d" to avoid an idolatrous depiction through language. Each of these ideas are first presented in the Ten Commandments found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. They are also found in the Thirteen Principles of Faith put forward by Moses Maimonides, though Maimonides ideas are not necessarily traditional dogma for all Jews. However, Orthodox Judaism today maintains that Jews are obligated to accept Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith, including an unwavering belief in the coming of the messiah. Essentially, all the principles delineated by Maimonides are true for most adherents of Judaism in most ages, though some of these have been disputed by Jewish rabbis. As well, these thirteen principles are open to a variety of interpretations.


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 the flesh) and divine (as the son of God).

While the implications of these dogmas have been debated theologically, each of these doctrines has remained at the center of mainstream Christianity, and should be considered dogmas. It is worth noting that these doctrines were developed as defenses against opinions that were seen as threatening, which illustrates the larger fact that heresy often played an important role in the delineation of dogma.

Individual branches of Christianity determine dogma in varied ways and usually rely on decisions made in the great ecumenical councils of church history. However, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians disagree on the number of dogmas and ecumenical councils that they accept. All of these groups accept the Nicene Creed as dogma, and some accept the first two, three, or seven ecumenical councils depending on whether one is a Nestorian, a Monophysite, or an Eastern Orthodox Christian, respectively.

The reformers who set in motion the Protestant Reformation believed solemnly in the principle of sola scriptura, placing scripture as the single authority for all Christian doctrine, over and above its interpretation by church officials. In the heat of the Protestant Reformation, all existing church dogmas were measured against the scriptures; those dogmas which remained did so only because they could be demonstrated as being derived from Biblical scriptures. Thus, Protestants typically hold as dogmatic the idea that scripture is the locus of truth. Protestants affirm portions of the various ecumenical councils, and largely rely on sect-specific “Statements of Faith” which summarize their chosen dogmata (e.g., Eucharist).

Dogma is understood by Catholics to be truths that have been revealed by God. This can be via the decisions of some ecumenical councils or the pope himself. Specifically, Roman Catholics hold as dogma the decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils as well as the decisions of fourteen later ecumenical councils and decrees promulgated by popes exercising papal infallibility. Dogma in the Roman Catholic Church is characterized as the teachings presented by God via pope, council or authority of the church. A popularly referenced (and often misunderstood) example of Roman Catholic dogma is the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine, which indicates that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was not tainted by original sin at her conception, was made a dogma in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. Though speculated upon before this time, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not made official (and therefore unquestioned) Catholic doctrine until it was stated by the pope as an infallible dogma.

In the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, a statement is revealed by God if it reformulates statements of the earlier tradition in new terms or concepts that better define the revelation against misinterpretation, or if it claims revealed status for doctrines previously stated.


Muslim dogma is succinctly prescribed in the Five Pillars of Islam. The first and most important of these is the, shahada, or the confession of faith, is the declaration that Allah is the only God and that Muhammad is his prophet. This is the core statement in Islam, and one is expected to believe it if entering into the 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, can be found written in the Qur'an in Surah 112, which states that "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 and polytheism. Depictions of Allah or Prophet Muhammad are considered to be idolatrous if they venerate a physical reality separate from the one true God. This sin of idolatry is known as shirk, which refers to the acknowledgement or worship of anything that is not Allah.

The second pillar of Islam, called salat, involves five obligatory daily prayers. The third pillar of Islam, Sawm, involves fasting from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar. The fourth pillar, Zakat, requires that a portion of a person's income be distributed among the poor (almsgiving). The fifth and final pillar, Hajj, states that a Muslim must make one pilgrimage to the city of Mecca during his or her lifetime. Each of these pillars is central to Islam and can be seen as the Muslim equivalent of dogmata.

In addition, the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, is also considered by Muslims to be of divine origin, transmitted word for word from the Allah to the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad, and therefore representative of an absolute truth. As such, all of its contents are taken to be authoritative revelation. Moreover, Jihad (literally meaning "struggle" or "endeavor"), is also indispensible to Islamic adherents. The term has a variety of meanings ranging from personal spiritual struggle to holy war for Islamic supremacy. The true definition has long been the topic of debate in Islamic theology but the importance of jihad in a Muslim's life is not disputed.


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, some dogmata can found in the Hindu tradition. For example, schools falling within the scope of Hinduism ubiquitously accept the authority of the Vedas, the holy books that follow Vedic tradition. Acceptance of these texts has been used historically to determine wthe orthodoxy of Indian philosophical systems. The six orthodox 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. Thus acceptance of the spiritual importance of these texts was a gauge of orthodoxy in Hinduism.

Another Hindu belief that is essentially dogmatic is the idea of ātman, most often translated as "soul" in English. As in other traditions, such as Islam and Christianity, the teaching that human beings possess a soul, is an unassailable truth in the tradition. Closely related to this concept is Brahman, a formulation of the supreme, transcendent monistic force that pervades the entire universe and sustains all being, as well as non-being.

In congruence with other religious traditions born in India, Hinduism subscribes to ideas of reincarnation and karma. The doctrine of reincarnation states that human souls persist over numerous physical bodies and existence; that is, they are reborn in a cycle. Karma, meanwhile, states that actions in present and past lives determine the fortune of the soul in its present and future incarnations. Both of these doctrines are accepted among most Hindu schools, and form the foundation on which further philosophical and theological constructs are built, such as the concept of liberation from the cycle of rebirth.


Some Buddhist dogmata 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; albeit Buddhists understand and explain these ideas differently than Hindus or Jains. Most importantly, Buddhsts reject the Hindu dogma of ātman (eternal self), and assert the teaching of anātman (no eternal self). The Buddhist position that the human being does not possess a soul is itself a type of dogma. Though this idea is understood differently in Theravada schools and Mahayana schools, the interpretations can be thought of as dogmata for each. For instance, in the Mahayana scripture known as the Tathagatagarbha sutras, the idea of anātman applies to concepts like the five skandhas (or aggregates of physical experience), but not to one's own Buddha nature. The Theravada view does not make this distinction, making evident that even within a religious tradition there are divergences in dogma. It has often been questioned since the times of the Buddha himself how the concept of reincarnation can be upheld by Buddhists even with the lack of belief in a persisting soul. The Buddha was purposefully vague in his response to such quandaries, perhaps suggesting the paramount importance of faith direct experience beyond theological and philosophical inquiry.

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. In general, Madhyamika and Zen suggest that rational discursive thought obscures true understanding. Consequently, these Buddhist schools prefer to focus on emptiness (Sunyata) as the best analogue to explain Nirvana.


Confucianism has existed as a tradition based 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 be considered 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 to be a central virtue in the human quest for societal and cosmic order. The main way to cultivate jen, according to Confucius, was through careful maintenance of five relationships. These relationships existed 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 institutions 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 that son to testify against his father for wrong-doing (chap. 13, verse 18). Thus, the dogma of filial piety outweighs the obligation to denounce a parent. Furthermore, the idea that the observance of moral principles in general serves the ultimate goal of putting individuals and society in harmony with the "Mandate of Heaven (Tien; the notion of a pervasive, cosmic order beyond the world which maintains justice within it) has been the goal of almost every Confucian philosopher, no matter their particular stance. As such, belief in the Mandate of Heaven could be considered dogmatic.

Dogma Outside of Religion

As is suggested by the Greek origins of the term, many non-religious beliefs are often described as dogmata, for example in the fields of politics or philosophy, as well as within society itself. The term dogmatism carries the implication that people adopt and maintain their beliefs in an uncritical and conformist fashion. Dogmata are the antithesis to science, which is based on the principles of unbiased critical evaluation of the observations, theories, and experiments of others and oneself. However, science and the scientific method, applied incorrectly (that is, without properly gauged and directed criticism) can become a dogma itself, proving a disservice to science. In a similar way, the philosophies of rationalism and skepticism traditional religious dogmas tend to be rejected while unexamined presuppositions are sometimes upheld.

Much of the debate over Marxism, Darwinism and other "isms" is rooted in beliefs which people claim are scientific, but are unproven theories. They are held as dogma because open discussion is not allowed. This makes them a quasi-religious faith. For example, the Soviet Union forbid teaching sociology in 1923 because Marxism-Leninism had said everything there was to say on the topic, and some Darwinists argue that the theory of evolution is a "truth" not open for debate.

Science does not lend itself to the creation and promulgation of dogma because the very core of the endeavor is to question all precepts, even those that seem thoroughly tested. However, as it is human nature to yearn for certainty, some scientists have indeed become dogmatic, failing to uphold the principles of scientific inquiry. Understandings of Newton's theory of gravity and motion were thought adequate to explain the universe before Albert Einstein proposed his theories of Special and General Relativity. Eventually even these ideas, once held as certain truth by some, became questioned. However, the ideas of experimentation and repetition of experimentation, in addition to a community of peers intent on mutual critical analysis serve to keep dogmatic tendencies in science in check.

There are some conceptual similarities between dogma and the axioms used as the starting point for logical analysis. Axioms may be thought of as concepts so fundamental and clearly evident that disputing them would be unimaginable; dogmata are also fundamental (e.g. "God exists") yet incorporate also the larger set of conclusions that comprise the religious field of thought (e.g. "God created the universe"). Axioms are propositions not subject to proof or disproof, or are statements accepted on their own merits. Dogmata might be thought to be more complex, the product of other proofs, though this is not always true. Philosophy and theology evaluate all statements, whether classified as axioms or dogmata. Religious dogmata, properly conceived, reach back to proofs other than themselves, and ultimately to faith.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • "The Doctrine of the Person of Christ in the Early Church." Retrieved August 31, 2007.
  • Eliade, Mircea, Karl Rahner and Adolf Darlap (eds.). "Dogma," The Encyclopedia of Religion. MacMillan, 1987. ISBN 0028971353
  • Matthews, W. R. Dogma in History and Thought. London: Nisbet & Co, 1929.
  • McTaggart, John and Ellis McTaggart. Some Dogmas of Religion. London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1930.


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