John Dewey on Religion

Tom Shipka

The year was 1934. In his new book, A Common Faith, (1) John Dewey assured his readers that traditional religion was drifting into oblivion and that it would soon be a matter of interest only to history buffs. Given Dewey's stature, this assessment deserved attention. After all, Dewey was one of the world's leading philosophers and psychologists, he revolutionized the theory and practice of education, he published forty books and more than seven-hundred journal articles, and he served as president of both the American Philosophical Association and the American Psychological Association. Today, however, some four generations later, we can say with confidence that Dewey's crystal ball was cloudy.

Where did Dewey go wrong? He assumed that just as the automobile had supplanted the horse and buggy, so science would supplant religion. The writing was on the wall, so to speak. Astronomy had discredited "ascent into heaven." Geology had discredited creation in six days. Biology had dispatched the soul and the afterlife. Anthropology, history, and literary criticism had shown that revered religious figures and their deeds, if founded in fact at all, were embellished to the point of fiction. (p. 31) And psychology had shown that mystical and religious experience had a natural explanation. (p. 31) As a result, Dewey expected that more and more educated people would abandon religion and its supernatural cast (God, salvation, grace, prayer, heaven, hell, the sacraments, clergy, revelation, the devil, etc.). (p. 30) (2)

To help believers cope with their loss, Dewey proposed a secular makeover of religion. This involves two changes. The first change is that religious experience will no longer be a mystical encounter with a higher power but a courageous and persisting devotion to desirable social goals. Dewey writes:

Any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality. (p. 27)

Thus, a saint will no longer be a hermit who mortifies the flesh but an activist who collaborates with others near and far to improve life on the planet. (pp. 27-28) The second change is that the term "God" will no longer apply to a deity but, in Dewey's words, to "the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and action." (p. 42)

To some extent, Dewey was on target:

  • In the west religion has subsided.
  • In Europe and the United States, the percentage of believers has dropped while the percentage of seculars has grown, (3) and church membership and attendance has declined sharply, especially among the young, (4) and
  • Most scientists are atheists or agnostics.

At the same time, however:

  • Huge numbers of educated, scientifically literate people have not abandoned religion.
  • The loss in mainline Protestant churches in America has been offset by the gain in Pentecostal ones.
  • The principal beneficiary of charitable giving in America is our churches.The great majority of Americans report on surveys that they believe in God and that they will never vote for an atheist candidate for public office, (5) and
  • Religion continues to grow dramatically in most parts of the world outside Europe and America.

Thus, despite his brilliance, John Dewey, like many before and after him, severely underestimated the staying power of religion.

  1. It was published by Yale University Press in 1934, runs for a mere 87 pages, and is based on his Terry Lectures at Yale University.
  2. a) Dewey acknowledged, however, that some believers – "fundamentalists" - are immune to science. (p. 63)b) Dewey felt that the decline in religiosity in society was reflected in the increase in the role of secular institutions vis-à-vis religious ones. (pp. 61-62) (For example, Super Bowl XLVI, played on Sunday, February 5, 2012, captured a record TV audience of 111.5 million and produced billions of dollars in wagering. Super Bowl Sunday is not the only Sunday when religion takes a back seat to secular interests.)c) Dewey also rejected the view advanced by some believers that science and religion are not really at odds because they are distinct paths to truth, the former illuminating the natural realm, the latter illuminating the spiritual one. (p. 34) He wrote: There is but one sure road of access to truth – the road of patient, cooperative inquiry operating by means of observation, experiment, record and controlled reflection. (p. 32) For Dewey, the method of science is the only reliable path to knowledge and religious claims are no longer tenable. (p. 34) Dewey would have been highly critical of the late Harvard paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), who supported the compatibility of science and religion in his book Rock of Ages, published in 1999. Gould referred to science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria.
  3. The percentage of atheists in American may be as high as 20%, depending on which study one uses. Virtually all studies show that the percentage in Europe is much higher.
  4. The Pew Forum in recent years has published a series of studies which confirm these trends. Also, a Gallup poll in 1937 showed that 73% of Americans reported church membership; a recent one shows a drop to 63% to 65%. Of those claiming church membership, only one-third report regular church attendance.
  5. A March 2007 Newsweek poll reveals that 62% of Americans wouldn't vote for an atheist.

© 2012 Tom Shipka