- Looking Forward from A Common Faith
A Common Faith is arguably one of John Dewey’s least effective books. In it, he tries to persuade readers that the best of two epistemologically different worlds can be reconciled in a common faith—one that employs the methods of science with a generously religious attitude. Possibly most of us today believe this cannot be done; that is, the two worlds will remain unreconciled. But perhaps, without reconciling the two worlds, we can find causes and tasks that will induce common commitment for the benefit of human survival and well-being.
John Dewey begins A Common Faith with these words: “Never before in history has mankind been so much of two minds, so divided into two camps, as it is today.”1 In the first camp, Dewey places all those who believe in a supernatural being; in the second, he locates those who believe that science has “discredited the supernatural and with it all religions that were allied with belief in it.”2 But he resists “extremists” in the latter group who seemed to believe that everything religious must be abandoned. Dewey wanted to get rid of religion, but not the “religious.”
Today, it might be said that the population is of three minds. There are still those who believe in a supernatural being and retain affiliation with an institution that supports their belief, and there are those—increasingly outspoken—who reject the supernatural entirely. But, in addition, there are people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”3 Some of these people are agnostic but avowedly on a spiritual quest, seeking spiritual truth. Some believe in God but reject institutional religion. As we’ll see in a bit, they seem to “believe in belief” but have no commitment to a specific set of beliefs.
It seems to me, looking back on A Common Faith from the current state of affairs, that Dewey makes several moves that actually undermine the position he wanted to defend. First, his contention that “there is no such thing as religion in the singular”4 is a claim rejected by most sociologists and historians. Dewey says that we can speak of a religion, that there are many religions, but “the differences among them are so great and so shocking that any common element that can be [End Page 12] extracted is meaningless.”5 But other students of religion locate a common feature, namely inclusion of the supernatural—the very idea Dewey is interested in criticizing. In The Golden Bough, James Frazer used that and other similarities he documented to support the notion that religions are human inventions—transmitting, revising, retelling the same stories again and again.6 Agreeing with Frazer on the similarities, the sociologist Rodney Stark draws a different conclusion; he sees the remarkable similarities as a possible sign that God has actually revealed himself to a significant number of listeners in a wide variety of cultures.7
In an earlier work, Stark and Bainbridge discussed the problem at some length and decided that, in the interests of coherent programs of study, religion should refer only to systems that incorporate belief in the supernatural: “Throughout this book, we demonstrate that the differences between supernatural and nonsupernatural (or naturalistic) systems are so profound that it makes no more sense to equate them than to equate totem poles and telephone poles.”8
Belief in the supernatural is the main characteristic shared by religions, but other candidates are sometimes suggested. Some years ago, a student in one of my classes argued strongly that Marxism should be regarded as a religion because it embraces an eschatology, a predicted end state. Others have made the same suggestion, but it seems odd to include an ideology that explicitly rejects God in the collection of religions. Most lay believers would be shocked and disgusted at the idea. Dewey himself recognized the longstanding identification of the religious with the supernatural but wanted to rescue it from that association. There is something in the religious, Dewey believed, that should be part of all good lives.
This something that characterizes the religious is not easy to understand from Dewey’s writing. The common faith...