Wired for Doctrine – why irreligious people get dogmatic about so many things

blog - wired for doctrine

Doing some research, I’m in the process of reading a book right now called Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass. In the book, Bass cites very interesting information about how Americans self-identify their relationship with the divine. For instance, in 1999, Gallup polled Americans asking whether they understood themselves to be spiritual or religious. At that time, people answered as follows:



However, only a decade later (2009), Newsweek, through Princeton Survey Research, asked the same question. But this time, Americans identified like this:


So here’s what’s interesting. When looking at religious changes in the twenty-first century, sociologists and journalists tend to talk about the growth of “spiritual but not religious” and the “new atheist” segments of society. But, the data doesn’t actually support that. The research suggests the needle has not moved in either respect. The interesting shift is from people who once called themselves “religious” to now referring to themselves as “spiritual and religious.”

Okay, what does this mean?

Clearly, people are trying to get away from the associations of religion. Butler Bass suggested that when she does her surveying, she asks people to give descriptions of religion. Words like “cold,” “outdated,” “rigid,” “narrow,” “controlling,” “embarrassment,” and “mean” are commonly used.

This distinction between spirituality and religion didn’t really exist in eras gone by, but it most certainly does in the minds of Americans today. Spirituality is understood as a transcendent, experiential, meditative, inner life search for God. Religion is understood as organized, defined, authoritative boundaries and institutions and dogma.

So what is this offensive dogma stuff that we’re all running away from?


Dogma is essentially absolute claims to certainty in the realms of belief and morality. That’s what we’re ashamed of….at least with organized religion. Consequently, we live in a world where if you say you’re spiritually searching, people will reply, “Oh. That’s nice!” But if you claim that you’ve found any spiritual truth, you’re considered something of an arrogant jerk….at least with organized religion.

Well, let’s step back and take a look at that. Anytime someone says that religions shouldn’t be so dogmatic, they’re doing the very thing they just said you shouldn’t do. To say, “don’t have such rigid beliefs” IS a rigid belief. So there’s the initial issue of a little ironic hypocrisy.

But here’s the most interesting thing. Americans have participated in a mass exodus from the dogma of religion, but have we actually left dogma behind? I’m unconvinced. I think we’ve merely become dogmatic about non-religious issues.

Here’s a little exercise. Try throwing an aluminum Diet Coke can in a regular waste receptacle in a public setting, particularly if there are any ecoriffic supermoms present. Yeah, I don’t have the guts either. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all against recycling. And I’ve read the reports that Diet Coke can shrink your brain. I’m actually okay with that, as I have a hard time finding size 7 3/4 hats anyways. It isn’t that people aren’t allowed to have opinions or preferences or make claims about what they feel is or is not wise. It’s that Americans are approaching these issues nowadays with all the moralistic vigor that previous generations approached…..you guessed it…religion.

Many Americans are passionate and adamant about parenting styles, diet preferences, gun regulations, and educational approaches. The religious fervor of PETA activists is obvious to most. College and professional sports? Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith get religious about them every day on ESPN. Again, I’m not suggesting opinions are bad, or that even some of these issues probably deserve strong stances. What I’m suggesting is that for people who supposedly don’t like religion, many of us are awfully dogmatic and moralistic about some issues, including some non-inherently moral issues. I believe this is also why we currently have some of the most polarizing bipartisan politics that we’ve ever had as a nation. We’re not latching onto divine truth the way we once did, so instead we’re taking many neutral things and getting religious about them.

The attempt to flee religion hasn’t made us less religious. It’s made us more moralistic about nonreligious issues.

Why? It’s because humans are wired for absolute, divine truth…doctrine…dogma.

The Apostle Paul suggests at the beginning of the Book of Romans. He says,

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,(vs. 18)… Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (vss. 22-23)…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (vs. 25) (Romans 1)

Hmmm. Paul says that when people turn away from the truth of God, even as they consider themselves less religious, they don’t really turn away from religion, they just get religious about created things rather than the Creator God. Is that what we’re looking at in post-Christian America?

Nonetheless, there’s probably a valuable point here, a humbling point for us who belong to religious organizations. We can learn from the early twenty-first century American religious exodus. Some people don’t like religion because they don’t want God to be their God. Not much we can do about that. However, others don’t like religion because even self-professing religious people sometimes get religious about nonreligious stuff. Worship style, church politics, national politics, the way people look, the way people talk, the way people dress. The “shoulds” and “oughtas” we espouse on nonreligious issues are rightly perceived by the those leaving religion as cold, controlling, unloving and unnecessary dogma. Interestingly, when Christians get religious about nonreligious issues, it’s not because they’re too closely linked to an authoritative gospel, it’s actually because they don’t understand that gospel well enough.

As Christians, each day we want to grow more dogmatic about the fact that Jesus is “the way and THE TRUTH and the life.” (John 14:6) Additionally, we’ll also want to grow increasingly less dogmatic about things not directly connected to the truth about our Savior. In fact, we want to regularly repent of the religious “truths” we believe that aren’t actually biblical.

I don’t think religion rebounds until Christians start getting dogmatic only about Jesus – about what he’s clearly done for us and what he’s clearly revealed to us.

12 thoughts on “Wired for Doctrine – why irreligious people get dogmatic about so many things

    • Hey Kara, I’m actually doing a little research for the WELS on Millennials, for a report submitted Jan ’15. It’s going to require some surveying of local congregations, surveying of WELS congregations, and thus far, about 15-20 books and lots of articles. I plan to share the results with our congregation too.

  1. James, great post.

    “Paul says that when people turn away from the truth of God, even as they consider themselves less religious, they don’t really turn away from religion, they just get religious about created things rather than the Creator God.”

    I” don’t think religion rebounds until Christians start getting dogmatic only about Jesus – about what he’s clearly done for us and what he’s clearly revealed to us.”

    Great points. We will overcome by the blood of the Lamb (what Jesus did) and the word of our testimony (this is how He changed my life). (Rev. 12:11

    God bless.

  2. Adam Goede says:

    It’s interesting that, if people dislike the idea of religion so much, they haven’t moved from “religious only” to “spiritual only” but instead they have moved to “both religious and spiritual.” Why would that be?

    • Yeah, I wondered the same thing, Adam. The author had a few ideas. My personal opinion is similar. First, I think there’s still some stigma about “spiritual only” – the New Agey vibe that was associated with that word in the 80s and early 90s. Second, I think there’s a certain amount of fear in leaving even something you’re not crazy about. You see this a decent amount in Roman Catholics who still have that nagging concern that “what if” I leave the Roman Catholic church and am really outside the Kingdom of God?

      So, I think the “spiritual and religious” category is people acknowledging they don’t want to be disconnected from church, but that they aren’t totally contented with the general concept of church (lower case “c”) in our country at the moment.

  3. Joseph says:

    (Prospective future WELS member here)

    I know WELS generally don’t pray with other denominations but how does it work out in *actual practice*? Would I be discouraged from joining a prayer before dinner at a family gathering? Is it something that’s less of an issue if it’s not in a public setting? Would it be ok to bow my head in silence when others have a prayer if I’m not the one leading it? Is it something left to prudence on a case-by-case basis or is the rule set in stone?

    • Hi Joseph, very sorry for the delay. Moderating comments on here gets tricky when they aren’t posted on the most recent articles because of the way they show up (or don’t) in my response queue. So, I was alerted to your response when Kara and Adam responded to it. They’d both be good resources for guidance though too.

      Anyways, thanks for the question. It’s a good question, but one that I occasionally get a little concerned about answering for this reason – the farther I get away from the doctrine of justification by grace through faith (i.e. God declaring us not guilty for sins by grace through faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior), I want to emphasize that we’re getting farther away from the heart of Christianity.

      Let me give you a different example. I often have youth confirmands ask the question about Baptism, “What if two people were out in the middle of the desert with no access to a body of water and one of them was dying and desired to be baptized. Could the other baptize them with saliva?” Sounds strange, I know. I get the question all the time from kids who have just studied Baptism. I hesitate to even answer the question and here’s why…by spelling out behavioral details to situational hypotheticals (in this case, an extreme one that I’ve never heard of in real life), I’m getting farther and farther away from the core of Christian faith. I’m majoring in minors. I’m venturing dangerously into the territory of elevating my personal thoughts and applications to the level of Scriptural principle.

      So…as it pertains to the subject you bring up…prayer fellowship with believing family…

      The goal here is ultimately to let your confession be clear. The unity of Christian faith is a tricky thing that gets into the territory of what we call the Invisible Church (which we confess in the Creeds) and the Visible Church. My confession of Christian faith should indicate that I believe in both. Tragically, I’ve known a number of WELS people whose life confession and derision of other church bodies has not indicated clearly that they believe in both. They’ve let the doctrine of fellowship knock justification by grace through faith off its pedestal. They haven’t emphasized what Scripture clearly emphasizes.

      The very fact that as you consider the WELS one of your pressing questions is inter-Christian prayer fellowship suggests that our church body is known for a hyper-sensitivity to it. Historically, much of this comes out of our break with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. But God forgive us if the main thing we’re known for not the grace of Jesus and the authority of his Word.

      So, let me try to put this a little differently, if I was learning from a pastor who gave me rigid, dogmatic, systematic rules concerning which Christians I can pray with in every setting, I’d probably try to find a different pastor to learn from. The simple reason is this: there is VERY little directive in Scripture regarding prayer fellowship between believing Christians. There are some extrapolations and applications we can make. But we never elevate those to the level of principle. The principles here are 1) let your testimony about God’s Word be clear, and 2) be united with those that Christ has given you true unity with. Consider those. Let your conscience be your guide. And, as you mentioned, let your “case-by-case prudence,” your God-given Christian judgment be a guide. When Jesus talks about desire mercy ahead of sacrifice, he’s referring to the spirit of one’s heart rather than rigid rule obedience (Matt. 9:13). I think that’s important to keep in mind here.

      If you’d still like some more concrete applications, Joseph, I’m open to that, but I’d simply need to understand more about you and your family. Feel free to contact me at pastorjameshein@gmail.com. I apologize for not catching your comment sooner!!!

  4. Joseph says:

    Is there anyone, maybe a knowledgeable lay person, I could have an e-mail correspondence with concerning my questions about WELS? I’m very reluctant to go sit down with the local pastor because I know he’s *extremely* busy….. I’m serious about wanting to become a member but I just want to clarify some questions I have.

    My ancestors here in Wisconsin were WELS. I’ve finished reading about half of the issues of WELS Historical Journal. I have more studying to do 🙂

    • Joseph,

      No Pastor should be too busy for you. Have you considered calling and signing up for the next new member class? That would be a great setting in which to ask your questions. You’re not obligated to join upon completion, although I pray you do. You can also use the WELS website which has a great q&a section. I use it when I want to check something without asking the pastor. If you’d like a member email friend and aren’t averse to a female, I’ll help you out! Misskarajo@gmail.com Put WELS or domething in the subject line so I don’t think it’s spam. Pastor Hein will vouch for me 😉

  5. Adam Goede says:

    Kara, thanks for helping. Joseph, I’d also be happy to help if needed. You can find me on Facebook-Adam Goede in Milwaukee and message me through there.

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