Pragmatist Philosopher John Dewey’s Theory of Religion

John Dewey (1859-1952) was an influential American philosopher and pragmatist. We observe several of Dewey’s thoughts on religion, such as his understanding of God and faith, rejection of the supernatural to naturalize religion, and his notion of religious experience.

What is Dewey’s background that came to influence his philosophy? (1) Dewey was raised in a religious setting. He was a member of a church but did not maintain a full commitment to its doctrinal beliefs. Dewey later came to adopt a Hegelian perspective that fulfilled his desire for the ‘Absolute’ without the trappings of Christian doctrine and that did not render necessary belief in external revelation.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution published in On the Origin of the Species (1859) influenced Dewey greatly. It informed his naturalistic epistemology favoring a pragmatic test of truth and his understanding of humanity’s relation to its environment. In his The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (1910), Dewy notes how he came to reject idealism as pragmatically useless. Thus, divorced from Hegelianism and idealism, Dewy came to view God as a projection of human values, a view that has led him to be dubbed America’s Feuerbach (in reference to the German Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) who theorized God being a projection of ideal human traits into the cosmos) (2). 

Dewey turned away from his Christian faith around 1894. He had taken up a post in Chicago where he became “an unregenerate philosophical naturalist, one for whom the human journey is constitutive of its own meaning and is not to be rescued by any transcendent explanations, principles of accountability, or posthumous salvation” (3). Although he identified as a philosophical naturalist, Dewey did not consider himself an atheist.

Naturalism and Pragmatism

Given Darwin’s influence, Dewy adopted a theory of knowledge he called “instrumentalism”, a concept he articulates in The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology (1896). Darwin’s theory impacted several areas as Dewey indicated in writing that “Darwin conquered the phenomenon of life for the principle of transition” (4). 

Darwinism, Dewey believed, engendered the disappearance of the transcendental and supernatural because of its emphasis on the concrete natural elements of the world. Supernaturalism is undermined given Darwinism’s view that organisms emerged and developed according to natural processes through adaptation to environments. The environment was also determined by the organisms occupying it, an interrelationship informing Dewey’s naturalistic epistemology. Knowledge to Dewey is a product of development through the interaction between organism and environment, which rejects any notion of the world being passively perceived by human subjects.

As a pragmatist, Dewey’s instrumentalism emphasized the practical and experimental. It utilized experience as the means to scientifically evaluate any belief or statement about the world. It was naturalistic because it did not resort to supernatural explanations, forces, or ideals (5). Dewey’s instrumentalism was characteristic of his pragmatic philosophy. This perspective is not interested in speculative philosophy and abstract theories seeking to ascertain final truths or ultimate realities. Instead, Dewey wanted to make philosophy practical. Philosophy is a means through which to exert control of the world to produce the best possible life for humanity.

Dewey’s pragmatic approach is epitomized in his theorizes of education, notably in his problem-solving experimental model approach. This approach offered a process by which to solve difficulties. It requires teachers and students to, among other things, identify the problem they hope to solve, clarify the situation by acknowledging the relevant and related data, conceptualize hypotheses and possibilities, and recognize the implications of the solutions (6). This approach has broad application and “could be applied consistently in all areas of thought”.

Theory of Religion

Dewey’s short book A Common Faith published in 1934 is most relevant to an understanding of his theory of religion. In this book, Dewey’s interests do not lie exclusively with religion. He was principally concerned with discerning a way to unite the American public and ensure its commitment to democracy. Yet in his effort, Dewey offers an interpretation of religion and religious experience, and an attempt to harmonize religion with naturalism.

A Common Faith takes in religion what Dewey considered valuable while discarding traditional religious frameworks and supernaturalistic beliefs. The book spoke to an audience who had abandoned supernaturalism but still believed themselves to be religious. Dewey indicates this by addressing his book,

“… to those who have abandoned supernaturalism, and who on that account are reproached by traditionalists for having turned their backs on everything religious. The book was an attempt to show such persons that they still have within their experience all the elements which give the religious attitude its value” (7).

A distinction Dewey makes is between “religion” and “religious”. The former is what most of us would think is meant by religion. This includes various religious phenomena such as rituals, practices, and doctrines embodied in religious institutions. According to Dewey, “religion” is “a special body of beliefs and practices having some kind of institutional organisation, loose or tight” (8). “Religion” is a collective term. It is not “singular” for there is “a multitude of religions”. Dewey notices the role supernaturalism plays within religions since they have “traditionally been allied with ideas of the supernatural and often have been based upon explicit ideas about it” (9).

Dewey often remarked against the supernatural (10). Supernaturalism, he charged, is obsolete and no longer worth believing in. It emerged in ancient cultures at a time when people experienced the world with awe and reverence. But this view of the world has been replaced by science and modern modes of human inquiry. Dewey noted a cultural shift in how many people were turning away from the Church to embrace a scientific understanding of the world. 

Science is perceived to clash with belief in the supernatural. It is also increasingly trusted as the means for answering and solving humanity’s many challenges. Science, writes Dewey, engendered “the greatest change that has occurred in religion in all history” (11). Dewey perceives this change as a revolution in intellectual activity indicating dogmatic religion can no longer claim to have the intellectual authority it once had (12).

Dewey intended to remove supernaturalism from focus by emphasizing practicality in humanity’s efforts to attain ideal ends. To focus on the supernatural only serves to weaken these efforts; Dewey writes that “a supernatural and otherworldly locus has obscured their real nature and has weakened their force” (13).

Institutional religion, moreover, has become irrelevant. Christianity, in Dewey’s eyes, offered ideals that were important to those who were oppressed and ignorant in their social world. But fast-forward two-thousand years, what “was an ideal, almost a dream, has now become a practical fact of life” (14). Again, this is to the credit of science. 

Even religious revelation has been replaced with two other forms: democracy and intelligence (15). Democracy, to Dewey, exceeds just that of a governmental state but is a revelation or spiritual fact (16). Dewey imbues democracy with the religious imagery of being “the incarnation of God in man” and the realization of the Kingdom of God on Earth. Intelligence, moreover, utilizes scientific methods and offers practical solutions to pressing social challenges. At no point does Dewey think one need rely on supernatural revelation.

Dewey’s conception of the “religious” differs from his notion of “religion”. The “religious” refers to human experience that has no necessary connection to any religious institution, social organization, or system of beliefs. This experience occurs “in different persons in a multitude of ways” and generates a feeling of harmony with oneself and the universe that, at its core, entails a deep change and transformation in the person’s entirety (17). 

The “religious” is an experience of unseen powers, namely, ideal, envisioned ends that are projected from the imagination and emerge from the natural conditions and processes of living (18). The imagination directs one’s practices and activities toward ideal, envisioned ends. To place one’s hope in possibly attaining these ends is to have a religious faith entailing the “unification of the self through allegiance to inclusive ideal ends, which imagination presents to us and to which the human will responds as worthy of controlling our desires and choices” (19).

To place one’s confidence in ideal ends that might require overcoming “obstacles… [and] threats of personal loss” is itself “religious in quality”. The implication of Dewey’s thought is clear. The ends are human constructs and not supernaturally supplied. Further, “religious” faith can be understood as secular. It has nothing to do with God (“[a] Being [who] is outside of nature”), the supernatural and transcendent, or even institutional religion; rather, it is a hope available to all who wish to attain ideal ends and a better future. Dewey saw science and democracy to be parts of “religious” experience with ends representing humanity’s growth and progress, something of which supernaturalism threatened to impede.

Clearly then, “religious” experience is not proof of the supernatural. No quality of a religious experience, whether that be a feeling of peace or wholeness, provides evidence for the supernatural. From here, Dewey makes his charge against institutionalized religion established upon the foundation of supernaturalism. He wants to emancipate the “religious from religion”, hence religious experience from supernaturalism. It is to separate the religious phase of existence from the supernatural and frame religious experience within a natural and social context.

What does Dewey’s conception of God look like given his efforts to do away with supernaturalism and naturalize religious experience? 

God is not considered an existing Being with supernatural powers and who is responsible for creating life and the physical universe. Rather, “God” is the “hypostatization of particular ideal [human] ends and values” made of “the hard stuff” of physical and social experience (20). Dewey deemed it still useful to use the word “God”, not in the sense of referring to a supernatural Being, but in terms of ideal ends. God becomes a term of “natural piety” in which human activity is seen in relation to natural, moral ends. Without “God”, humanity “would feel a loss if they could not speak of God” (21). Is this ideal end envisioned by Dewey perhaps something like democratic ideals? It has been argued that God in Dewey’s view is democracy since his definition of God is coextensive with his concept of democracy (22).

Despite his unconventional view of God, Dewey was not an atheist. He believed that atheism was closely aligned to traditional supernaturalism. As such, atheism is rejected due to its lack of natural piety and because it fails “conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received” (23).

Dewey was critical of atheism, but is his conception of God and religion not perhaps atheistic? Clearly, Dewey was skeptical of the supernatural. He wanted to remove it from religious experience and humanity’s efforts to attain ideal ends. If God is associated with ideals, whatever these might be, is this not a rejection of a supernatural Being traditionally affirmed by many religions? Does he not, moreover, share a great deal with atheists, such as the privileging of science as a means for attaining knowledge and his rejection of supernaturalism and institutional religion?

References

1. Knight, Philip J. 1996. “Philosophical pragmatism and religious belief: interpreting Christian non-realism through John Dewey and Richard Rorty.” Diss., Durham University. p. 124.

2. Rockefeller, Steven. 1994. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 216.

3. McDermott, John J. 2006. “Dewey, John [addendum].” In Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Vol. 3), edited by Donald M. Borchert. Detroit: Thomson Gale. p. 50-51.

4. Perricone, Christopher. 2006. “The Influence of Darwinism on John Dewey’s Philosophy of Art.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 20(1):20-41. p. 20.

5. L. E. Hahn. 1972. “Dewey’s Philosophy and Philosophic Method.” In Guide to the Works of John Dewey, edited by J. A. Boydston, 15-64. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University. p. 18.

6. Myers, William R. 2017. “John Dewey, God, and the religious education of the American public.” Theology Today 74(2):157-171. p. 164.

7. Knight, Philip J. 1996. Ibid. p. 138-139.

8. Dewey, John. 2013. A Common Faith. London: Yale University Press. p. 9.

9. Dewey, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 1.

10. Rosenow, Eliyahu. 1997. “The Teacher as Prophet of the True God: Dewey’s Religious Faith and its Problems.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 31(3):427-437. p. 429.

11. Dewey, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 57. 

12. Knight, Philip J. 1996. Ibid. p. 138.

13. Dewey, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 66.

14. Rosenow, Eliyahu. 1997. Ibid. p. 431.

15. Rosenow, Eliyahu. 1997. Ibid. p. 432.

16. Rosenow, Eliyahu. 1997. Ibid. p. 432.

17. Dewey, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 13. 

18. Dewey, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 6-7.

19. Dewey, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 6-7.

20. Myers, William R. 2017. Ibid. p. 166.

21. Rosenow, Eliyahu. 1997. Ibid. p. 433.

22. Westbrook, Robert B. 1991. John Dewey and American Democracy. New York: Cornell University Press. p. 428.

23. Dewey, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 80.

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