Monday notes from Kate: John Dewey's "A Common Faith"

Yesterday I led a 9:45 Forum discussion on how Ethical Humanism has moved away from Idealism and toward Pragmatism over the years, using the description of humanist religion from John Dewey’s book A Common Faith. I gave a platform on this small but important book in 2008, which means my talk is too old to be on our podcasts page anymore, but you can find it (and most platform addresses from 2005) on iTunes [Thanks Lance!]–it’s called “A Human Faith.” Below is the handout from Sunday’s Forum, which was adapted in part from that talk:

The biggest change in Ethical Society philosophy/metaphysics came early in our history. Felix Adler and a few others of the founding generation were ethical Idealists. They believed ethics were not “mere” social conventions or evolved adaptations that enabled humans to flourish, but rather Natural Laws: reflections of a cosmic reality beyond the empirically studyable natural world (in addition to Adler, see David Muzzey, Ethics as a Religion, which describes a supreme ethical nature of reality).

Within a generation, however, most Ethical Societies looked at ethics from the naturalist, Pragmatic stance exemplified by William James and John Dewey. Dewey’s children attended the Ethical Culture Schools in New York, and he wrote for Ethical Culture journals. Most famous for revolutionizing education by emphasizing experience and reflection over memorization, Dewey also helped found American philosophical Pragmatism, which proposes that what is important about ideas is how they affect human action. Pragmatism avoids unprovable questions about what is “really real” or True and instead explores how useful ideas are or what kind of power they have to change people’s behavior.
Ethical Humanism today is Pragmatic in that Ethical Societies don’t make Truth claims but rather emphasize learning from personal experience, and other people’s experiences, to create guidelines to “improve the quality of all our relationships” (ESSL Statement of Purpose). We do have value statements, but they are about how to continue the process of learning—“I am free to question; I can learn from everyone; I can learn from the past”—rather than answers themselves.

Ethical Humanism is also Pragmatic because we work to “affirm” the worth and dignity of all people; we don’t spend a whole lot of time justifying the ideal of worth or trying to prove it or explain where it comes from. Adler spent a lot of energy on trying to logically prove Universal Worth. Today most EHs simply believe that a world in which universal worth and dignity are respected would be a lot better world to live in than one in which they weren’t respected, and we take it from there.
In A Common Faith, published in the 1930s, Dewey proposed a new common ground that could leave behind the divisive aspects of religions, embrace the unifying and ethical aspects of religions, and point a way toward a more peaceful future.

Dewey believed all people had “religious experiences” in the sense of emotions and ideals of harmony, wholeness, inspiration, peace, comfort, and full engagement with the world. Religious experiences are very diverse and might be inspired by reading poetry, making a scientific discovery, walking a picket line, or climbing a mountain. Such religious experiences create attitudes that help us commit more fully to our highest values.

The highest religious attitudes, to Dewey, are (1) reverence for nature as the whole of which humanity is a part, and an understanding that we must cooperate with the natural world rather than attempt to dominate it; and (2) faith in the ongoing growth of humanity: growth in knowledge, wisdom, compassion.

Religions try to create, harness, and explain religious experiences, usually by making supernatural claims about the source or object of those experiences. Most religions are attempts to understand and align ourselves with the supposed True nature of things—with something eternal and unchanging. Pragmatism is uninterested in eternal, unchanging Truth. Pragmatism doesn’t say there is no such thing, as that would be an absolute belief itself; rather pragmatism says Truth is not a useful concept. Dewey’s idea of a friendly universe is not a static one with ultimate truths that are beyond nature, truths known only to god that have to be ‘revealed’ to us, but a universe that allows us unlimited potential for growth as humans seek new knowledge and use that knowledge to imagine and pursue new ideals.

To Dewey, on the big questions of life there are no right answers—there are better and worse answers (that help or hinder development of conscience and character), and hopefully people will develop better and better answers, as we learn to understand the questions and each other and nature better and better.

To imagine a better world and to work toward making it exist is creative, revolutionary, and much more exciting to Dewey than a better world that supposedly already exists and that you just have to believe in—and die, usually—in order to experience. Dewey also thought that all the energy invested in the supernatural—in describing it, worshiping it, theorizing and arguing about it, making art about it—would be more helpfully spent in improving life here on earth for everyone.

Dewey does acknowledge that religions motive and console people, in large part because of their supernatural claims of all-powerful deities, reincarnation or immortality, and unchanging truths, but he says that in the long run letting go of the supernatural will provide more motivation and consolation.

Religious impulses must be liberated from historical and cultural religions and especially from supernaturalism, Dewey says, because our growing knowledge will continue to undermine these religions and will eventually force people to choose either an anti-intellectual or an anti-religious attitude. Either choice would slow human ethical progress, as we need both a religious attitude, in the natural, humanistic way Dewey describes it, and an active, creative pursuit of new knowledge.

Today most Ethical Humanists are much closer to Dewey than Adler in understanding ethics not so much as a set of eternal laws as in physics, but rather as ways of relating that stem from humans’ evolved biological and neurological nature; in this view, ethics continues to develop as humanity consciously takes the reins of evolution into our hands.

Questions for reflection
Have you had what Dewey would call religious experiences? If so, what were the circumstances? Where do you think the feelings came from and what do they mean to you?

We talk a lot about creating a “better” world. Do you think of this better world as a blueprint that already exists in some way, or as an ideal that develops and changes as humanity develops and changes? If you don’t believe in an existing blueprint, do you wish there were one? Or like Dewey are you inspired by the creative challenge? Or a little of both? If you do believe in a blueprint, does that belief inspire you to work toward it? And how do you think we will know when we’ve achieved it?