restricted access Wittgenstein, Dewey, and the Possibility of Religion
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Wittgenstein, Dewey, and the Possibility of Religion


John Dewey points out in A Common Faith (1934) that what stands in the way of religious belief for many is the apparent commitment of Western religious traditions to supernatural phenomena and questionable historical claims. We are to accept claims that in any other context we would find laughable. Are we to believe that water can be turned into wine without the benefit of the fermentation process? Are we to swallow the claim that there is such a phenomenon as the spontaneous conception of a child without the intervention of the traditional technique? Were we to confront these claims in any but a religious context, we would dismiss them as the workings of an overactive imagination or simple cover for an overactive sex life. But for the devout believer, there is no doubt even with a paucity of evidence.

At the same time, the rise of science has forcibly suggested the idea that the natural world is self-contained and, if explainable, that explanation will come from within. There seems to be no room for the traditional God and, much as one might wish otherwise, nothing for him to do. Perhaps most troubling, there are the manifest limitations of human life. The new sciences of the human body and brain make it very clear that there is no part of human cognitive life that cannot be explained without souls, and so it is a mystery as to what (if anything) would survive the death of our bodies. All of this flies in the face of what Dewey identifies as the fundamental agreement of all sects on the necessity of an "immortality that is beyond the power of nature" (1934, 1).

Dewey's solution to these problems was to disentangle religious experience from the dogma of particular religions and thus to emancipate it—so, a common faith. But Dewey anticipated two attacks:

The view announced will seem . . . to cut the vital nerve of the religious element itself in taking away the basis upon which traditional religions and institutions [End Page 1] have been founded. From the other side, the position I am taking seems like a timid halfway position, a concession and compromise unworthy of thought that is thoroughgoing. It is regarded as a view entertained from mere tendermindedness, as an emotional hangover from childhood indoctrination.


Dewey sees that such a move will be taken as completely devastating to religion or as merely half-hearted.

We are sympathetic with Dewey's concerns and we share the view that if religious dogma requires us to believe things that, in any other context, we would find unacceptable, we should reject it. However, the approach that Dewey takes leaves religious experience without determinate content since the language in which it has been expressed seems to have implications that are unacceptable. In short, Dewey's own positive project dissolves the connection between religious creed and religious value (28). But the consequence of that is that it becomes impossible to appropriate the ritual life of the tradition. This is too thin a reed on which to hang religious lives. Is it possible to retain religious creed and ritual but to avoid the unacceptable consequences that Dewey lays before us? We think that it is and will therefore offer a reading of dogma that does not have such a consequence. Whether it escapes the dilemma Dewey outlines is another question that will be investigated shortly.


Our task here is not to evaluate particular religious claims. For example, we will not adjudicate the dispute between Anglicans and Baptists over total immersion or between Christians and Jews concerning the divinity of Jesus. As we understand them, these are differences of belief that happen within religious life. They inform the lives of the variously religious and they must be discussed and settled, if they can, at that level. They are analogous to the disputes between scientists over the particulars of subatomic theory. 1 Philosophers have no special competence to adjudicate either scientific or religious disputes at this level.

However, the utterances of religious believers contain not only specifically religious claims, e.g., "My...