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Dewey and Religion

As a young man Dewey was a devout Christian.  This fact sheds light on his later socialist ideas.  His intellectual development illustrates the idea that Socialism is Christianity brought down to earth.

When Dewey first came to University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to teach philosophy, he joined the Student Christian Association.  From then until he left the university four years later he was responsible for the Sunday Bible classes.  In November of 1884 he gave an address entitled “The Obligation to Knowledge of God” in which he said (quoted in “John Dewey at Michigan” by Linda Robinson Walker, Michigan Today, Summer 1997):

“Belief is not a privilege, but a duty  ‘whatsoever is not of faith is sin.’ ”

Religion is in Dewey’s published work as well.  The following is from his essay “The New Psychology” in The Andover Review, September 1884. (Dewey was 25 years old.)  It’s reprinted in the book Philosophy, Psychology and Social Practice:

“Thus modern psychology is intensely ethical in its tendencies.  As it refuses to hypostatize [this word means ‘to attribute real identity to’] abstractions into self-subsistent individuals, and as it insists upon the automatic spontaneous elements in man’s life, it is making possible for the first time an adequate psychology of man’s religious nature and experience.  As it goes into the depths of man’s nature it finds, as stone of its foundation, blood of its life, the instinctive tendencies of devotion, faith, and idealism which are the eternal substructure of all the struggles of the nations upon the alter stairs which slope up to God.”

Dewey left Michigan for Minnesota, but returned a year later.  He became a trustee of the Student Christian Association and occasionally gave talks.  At the Sunday Morning Services March 27, 1892 he delivered the talk “Christianity and Democracy” and it was published in Religious Thought at the University of Michigan (1893) page 60.  Here we see him reading Socialism into Christianity, beginning to secularize the ethics of religion into the politics of this world.  He begins by saying that religion is not a cult but rather “an expression of the social relations of the community ...” and a symbolic form of the “people’s” worldview.  He says Revelation is not only the word of God but also of science.  He goes on to discuss truth and Democracy.  Two brief quotes will give some idea of his style:

“The spiritual unification of humanity, the realization of the brotherhood of man, all that Christ called the Kingdom of God is but the further expression of this freedom of truth.  The truth is not fully free when it gets into some individual’s consciousness, for him to delectate [i.e. enjoy] himself with.  It is freed only when it moves in and through this favored individual to his fellows;  when the truth which comes to consciousness in one, extends and distributes itself to all so that it becomes the Common-wealth [hyphen in original], the Republic, the public affair.  The walls broken down by the freedom which is democracy, are all the walls preventing the complete movement of truth.  It is in the community of truth thus established that the brotherhood, which is democracy, has its being.  The supposition that the ties which bind men together, that the forces which unify society, can be other than the very laws of God, can be other than the outworking of God in life, is a part of that same practical unbelief in the presence of God in the world which I have already mentioned.”

Dewey ends his essay:

“Surely to fuse into one the social and the religious motive, to break down the barriers of Pharisaism ... which isolate religious thought and conduct from the common life of man, to realize the sate as one Commonwealth of truth  surely this is a cause worth battling for.

“Remember Lot’s wife, who looked back, and who, looking back, was fixed into a motionless pillar.”

Of sodium chloride.  Dewey was 33.

Note that democracy properly means mob rule, and the word is absent from both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Dewey here uses it to mean some hazy sort of socialism.

The following is the end of Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed, 1897 (Dewey was 38):

“I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling;  that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

“I believe that in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.”

My purpose in pointing out Dewey’s early devotion to religion  well into his mature years  is to suggest the essential identity of certain aspects of Christianity and Socialism.  Dewey morphed easily from one to the other.  Both preach altruism.  God collects your sacrifices in one, Society in the other.