A Common Faith, by John Dewey, A Great American Liberal Progressive

john_deweyJohn Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer born in 1859 and who died in 1952. He is considered, alongside C.S.Peirce and William James, as one of the founding fathers of the philosophical trend called "Pragmatism", and he was also the founder of the New School for Social Research (with the historian Charles Beard and the economists Veblen and Robinson). His main books and his approach, dealing with a wide range of subjects extending from education (which made his reputation) and psychology, to others like aesthetics or democracy, were influenced simultaneously by empiricism, utilitarianism and functionalism. His subjects of study were so numerous (but all important) that the Stanford University Encyclopedia article devoted to him states: "He is probably the only philosopher in this Encyclopedia to have published both on the Treaty of Versailles and on the value of displaying art in post offices!".

Although the question of religion and faith is not his theme of predilection, in A common faith he presents a kind of humanistic study of religion where his thoughts concerning logics, his belief in science or the importance he grants to human experience are in evidence as much as in his other, more famous books. A common faith consists in a series of lectures delivered at Yale University (another title of the book is: Dwight H. Terry Lectureship at Yale) collected and first published in 1934. It addresses, over and beyond the issue of religion, the subjects of faith and belief and how they should be apprehended in a changing world where science was still the predominant parameter of thought (the 30s, even if WWI had tempered this trend, were still marked by the influence of positivism and scientism). In such a context, Dewey presents a faith which simultaneously rejects the total and immediate adherence to an omnipotent God, but also the opposite point of view which considers religion to be archaic and criticizes it in an extreme way.


Therefore the issue at stake is to see how far his views, formulated more than seventy years ago, are still relevant for a contemporary approach to religious studies and thus recognize the great modernity and capacity for anticipation of Dewey's ideas.


First of all, in the first part of his book, Dewey provides us with a very new and original approach to faith, especially regarding the context (the United States of the 1930s) where such criticism of organized and traditional religions where not that usual. Giving the definition he found for religion in an Oxford dictionary ("recognition on the part of man of some unseen higher power as having control of his destiny and as being entitled to obedience, reverence and worship"), he tries to show us that this way of thinking, though very common, divides humanity into two great camps: those who think that religion can't do without the supernatural, necessary to belief and truth, and those who assert that with the advent of science, it is not only the "historic religions" which have been discredited, but also the whole field of the "religious" which has to be eliminated from human thought. Contrary to those two very distinct, dichotomic visions, Dewey proposes we become emancipated from such positions and promotes a non-sectarian faith, free of the supernatural aspects which are, he agrees, totally irrelevant to the modern world. It is at this point that the philosopher distinguishes clearly between "religion" and the "religious". The elements defining a religion are, according to Dewey, reduced "to such a low common denominator that little meaning is left": the concepts dealing with the nature of the "unseen powers" are very diverse, there is no great similarity in the "obedience and reverence" in the world's religions and the moral motivations for "worship" are not the same for everyone. Dewey thus observes that there is only a multitude of religions and not one religion which can be confined to a special class, race or culture. His preference goes to enhancing the universality of the "religious", a "religious" which has gotten rid of the "encumbrances" of "religion" (meaning the supernatural aspects established religions are made up of, by their very nature). Quoting John Locke's definition of faith as "assent to a proposition on the credit of its proposer", Dewey then makes a distinction between "speculative belief" and "justifying faith", showing that religions were born with the fear original human beings felt, and have remained so since that time and, for that reason, are obstacles to human actions, because people prefer to rely entirely on an "unseen power" instead of acting for themselves, thanks to the power of their own imagination and experience. For Dewey, any activity pursued on behalf of an ideal and against obstacles or any threat is deeply "religious in quality" and doesn't require any institutionalized entity, because any daily human attitude can be "religious" in the way he's defining. The Religious is more a way of living and behaving, with the help of imagination and experience, in order to convert ideals into action, rather than a special system of beliefs and practices institutionally established and never questioned.


In the second part of the book, the author insists on the role of science in the knowledge of these religious experiences, but not as a new "religion" that requires worship (as was believed in a certain sense by the positivist movement) but rather as a good method for apprehending "real" faith. According to Dewey, there has been "a revolution in the seat of intellectual authority" migrating from religion to the scientific and social sciences, and this is also for him the origin of the growing gap between fundamentalists and liberals inside churches. But the discredit science has thrown on religion, contrary to what some may think, does not concern the item "belief" itself: since religious experience is so commonly associated exclusively with particular religions, Dewey points out that there are many people who, because they find it impossible to accept the intellectual and moral implications of established religions, "...are not even aware of attitudes in themselves that, if they came to fruition, would be genuinely religious". It is rather the method of accessing faith that is challenged than belief itself, as science, as a method, is at the same time cooperative, critical, empirical, experimental and reflective, contrary to the settled contents of religious truth. Given the emancipation of religious experience from religions, says Dewey, a new basis for faith emerges. Instead of a faith founded upon ideals guaranteed to exist by supernatural authority, there would be faith in ideals apprehended by the imagination as being intrinsically valuable possibilities inherent in the natural relationship existing between man and his environment. Religious experience is thus a universal possibility and not restricted to a particular type of believer who excludes other people who don't believe in the same way. This is the point where Dewey expresses his original idea of "God" (or "Supreme Being") as the unification of all ideal ends with the imagination, which bestows a power in mind but also in action: "It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name God". Such a conception of God or the divine should not, he points out, forget the element of natural piety, as the concepts of the "supernaturalists" and the militant atheists (he rejects them back-to-back) tend to do, nor exclude man's relation to nature as the concept of the purely humanistic religionists does. It would instead embody a clear recognition of man's essential relationship, in terms of both dependence and support, with the rest of nature. He finally discusses the crisis affecting religion in his period and throughout the 20th century, stating that though this is due to the rise of science and knowledge, it doesn't call into question "the religious values of our common experience". This crisis is however somewhat of a bargain, in the sense that it helps us in freeing our ideals from illusions and fantasies, and by telling us we can achieve our goals through acts and not by waiting for some external intervention.


In the third chapter, Dewey discusses the intellectual contents of religion. He notes that wars between human groups have usually been conflicts concerning their respective deities. But the greatest change which occurred in religion, in the whole of history, remains the conflict between the State and the Church, especially when the Church became a real institution, but within a secular world and with secularized individuals. The Renaissance was primarily a new birth of secularism. The transcendentalism of the nineteenth century is a new step in the same direction, a movement in which "rationality" took a more romantic direction, and a more collective form, in which secular life intersected with the supernatural. But there are two facts which constitute a revolution. Initially, the conditions were such that this action was a question of choice and personnel resolution on behalf of individuals, not of nature, or even of the social organization. Secondly, what is important is the fact that even as an individual one carries one's personal attitude into secular activities, which is beyond the range of religion, which constitutes an enormous change, in spite of the belief that secular subjects should be impregnated by the spirit of religion. This is where a religion can be distinguished from the religious function. For Dewey, the future of the religious function is related to its emancipation from all religions and any particular religion. According to Dewey, history illustrates three stages of growth. In the first phase, human relations were infected with the evils of a corrupted human nature which had to seek redemption by recourse to the supernatural. The following stage, connected with distinctive religious values, is where liberal theologists take up position. The third stage assesses what creates the values in these religions, many of which are idealizations of things characteristic of normal association, which were then projected into a supernatural kingdom for salvation and punishment, and the idea of a double and parallel manifestation of the divine, in which the latter is granted a superior status and authority and constitutes a relative state of balance. From this point social relations are thus devalued and the only recourse becomes the supernatural. This is what led to a rebirth of the theology of corruption since the company is condemned to be "immoral". One of the greatest obstacles in this combat is the tendency to see social evils in terms of general moral causes.


The solution Dewey proposes is to reconcile the religious and political worlds as they share some common concerns, such as how to fill the gap of "vacuity" created by the rise of individualism. However, real devotion could, according to Dewey, be a good solution to shower people with their conscience of this vacuity, as it is "the best marriage of emotion with intelligence". Because the human ideal is to be interconnected, its responsibility is to rectify and increase the heritage of the values which it has received.


To sum up, we can say that in A Common Faith Dewey strives to do three basic things: to point out the differences in meaning between religion, in its historic and formalized sense, and religious experience, to present a new basis of faith productive of religious experience which is divorced from historic religions with their supernatural connotations, and to demonstrate the superiority of the proposed new basis of faith over the old.


First we may underline that the logic behind his work is real and understandable: his pragmatic approach can be seen in this typical work as a pragmatic means to assess ideas for their efficacy in life. Applied to the religious field, it means that what is "religious" should have the power to stir us, should lead to an action and shouldn't be limited to an ideal of the mind. In that sense, Dewey's vision of God as the unification of all ideals culminating in action is typical of that way of thinking. This volume is therefore an excellent example of Dewey's social and political thought.


Moreover, he demonstrates that the religious binds all humanity and presents both a universal and humanistic vision of faith. Thanks to this newly-built faith, Dewey emphasizes that many individuals unable to accept or participate in historic religions would be able to subscribe to the new faith and derive religious experience from it, and that the proposed faith would increase the range of religious experience, since it would enable the extraction of religious experience from many activities and endeavors not commonly recognized as being sources of such experience, and that the proposed faith, because it is rooted in nature, is essentially more religious in quality than faith in the supernatural. In that way, Dewey's faith is very modern and "visionary" because he anticipated the challenges religions were to face during the whole of the 20th century and also the gap that would grow up between religion and science (for Edward A. White, professor at Stanford, "Dewey's work has led to the 20th century rift between religion and science") and between different trends inside religions themselves (fundamentalism/liberalism), and because in consequence he proposes a non-doctrinal and universally acceptable new faith.


However, a few criticisms can be made concerning Dewey's book: the fact that he qualifies historical religions as superstitions and God as a "supernatural Being with powers" is somehow quite simplistic and many believers certainly will not recognize themselves in such a description of their God or religion. Moreover, the "religious" which he highlighted because of its "power in action" can also be found in the religions he depreciates, as they sometimes also lead to social change and action. And finally, the ideal ends and experience he requires, in his book, nearly add up to a new religion in which he himself seems to believe, and his concept of the "religious" can't really be empirically verified (as it is given a priori), which is exactly what he reproaches to traditional belief and faith.


Anyway, even more than seventy years later, Dewey's approach still has a lot to tell us.