Many people who don’t feel they belong to any religion say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” For them, being “religious” means being a faithful member of a church or a loyal partisan to one religion or another. When polls ask these people about God, a large majority say that they still believe in a god or a universal spirit. A person who believes in something more than the material world with its materialistic priorities can find the label “spiritual” helpful. Some actually believe in spirits visiting this world, some cosmic mind or love force, or a divine power that made the universe. Others use the word spiritual to capture their personal sense of purpose and meaning that they feel materialism alone cannot provide.
On this continuum, there was never any doubt about where John Dewey stood: he was a godforsaken and unrepentant atheist. Yet if he were around today, he would probably find the notion of “spiritual but not religious” attractive. The idea of being “spiritual” would confuse him at first—he personally knew some spiritualists in his day, back when he was a professor of philosophy (from the 1880s to the 1930s). His good friend and fellow pragmatist William James had half-believed the strange things that would happen at spiritualist meetings and séances, where mediums tried to communicate with the dead. Dewey didn’t think there was an afterlife or angels, demons, or anything else from beyond this world—and surely not a god governing it all.
Dewey had a philosophy called “naturalism” that was in opposition to supernaturalism and other dualistic and idealistic philosophies separating mind and body. But he didn’t consider himself a materialist. He believed there must be more to life than just cold practicalities and narrow self-interests. In some sense, Dewey thought that inspiring ideals were real. For him, ethical ideals of equal dignity, equal protection, equal freedoms and opportunities for all, and social and political justice had to be more real than mere dreams of the imagination or contracts among bargainers. That is why he rejected individualism as harshly as supernaturalism: individualism leaves people reliant on just their personal resources, while supernaturalism leaves everyone dependent on a god or gods. On his view, individualism yielded a base equality—the shared fate of abandonment when you’re no longer useful or productive—and enough liberty to do just what you can manage on your own. Meanwhile, supernaturalism treated all as base sinners, equally guilty and humbled before God, with just enough individual liberty for each person to freely submit to this tyrant. No, Dewey did not see true justice in either of these schemes because guarantees of unconditional moral dignity and worth were missing. But where in the material world were those unconditional guarantees to be found?
Religion thinks it knows the answer: if you want ideals to be real, only a divine realm can guarantee them. Dewey had a different answer. His pragmatism held that something is real where it makes a difference. Accordingly, ideals are real where and when they make a difference in the world of human affairs. Dewey also knew that religion, too, has real effects in the world and that belief in belief has a way of doing far more work than anything godly. Dewey was well aware of clever ways that theology could defend faith in the name of what is good for humanity. Without faith, what would happen to ethics? Perhaps religion and ethics were essentially linked, or maybe they were the same thing viewed from different angles.
By the time of the European Enlightenment, Christian intellectuals were noticing how the erosion of the medieval worldview and religious hatred was allowing an idealistic moral hope to rise. Christianity wasn’t the first religion to prioritize an ethic of compassion and justice for all humanity (Buddhists and the Roman Stoics had been there first), but that ethic took over the religion remarkably quickly. Christians increasingly understood Jesus as a supremely ethical person to imitate in this life. They expected religious experiences to make a person more ethical, and they explained away anything unethical in the Bible. Liberal theology was inaugurated with the insistence that religion must serve ethics, ethics must serve humanity, and God must answer to human reasonableness. Liberal theology henceforth focused on the intellectual and social liberation of peoples everywhere. Only fundamentalists clinging to their traditions and scriptures lagged behind, a portrait of close-minded stubbornness.
Liberal theology was alive and well during Dewey’s day, as it is today. Belong to a religion, its advertising says, so that your faith can keep you ethical and the church can fight for progress and social justice. This theology is so liberal that you never have to worry about worshipping an unethical god—its theologians update what God thinks is righteous to match the next fight for equality or justice. (Don’t worry if the content of the updates conflict—there’s no single correct way to know God anyway.) Why would people walk away from this flexible and generous theology?
Yet people were walking away from liberal theology in Dewey’s day, just as millions are abandoning both conservative and liberal churches today. Church membership and attendance is at an all-time low in America and Europe, and that trend is accelerating among people under the age of thirty. A century ago, a smaller but no less potent number of people found the receptive label of “humanist” to capture their freethinking ways and ethical convictions, especially because no membership in a religion was required. Religion, no matter how “liberal,” still implied tradition, authority, and loyalty to one’s fellow congregants. Churches didn’t seem as committed to the progressive welfare of humanity as they could or should be. Some humanists congregated together and imbued traditional heart-warming rituals with ethical and secular meaning. Other humanists put their energies directly into the secular world of progressive politics and fighting for civil rights and liberties. The Ethical Society and Ethical Culture movements, a humanistic segment of Unitarianism, and many smaller organizations surged in popularity during the early twentieth century. Other organizations solely devoted to secular progress sprang into action, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Dewey participated in all of these and many more. He tried to diagnose philosophically what he saw happening as all of this progressive momentum unfolded outside of the denominations, effectively circumventing religions. He wrote his short but powerful book, A Common Faith, in 1934, calling people away from religion and toward genuine ethics. What ultimately matters, he held, is the philosophical spirit behind this direction of moral energy and whether that spirit is unobstructed and sincere. Religion can’t pass that test, no matter how liberal any theology may become. Religion always demands conformity to the one “right” faith for living ethically, tempting people to putting more energy into fighting with those of other faiths instead of advancing ethical ideals. Why not drop the notion of one correct faith for living ethically? Dewey suggested that we pragmatically simplify everything: just faithfully follow the best way for living ethically. He proudly championed what he called “humanist ethics,” and he was the most prominent philosopher to sign the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933, although Corliss Lamont couldn’t persuade Dewey to label his philosophy as “humanism.” (In philosophy back then, “humanism” implied an exaggerated idealism about the creative ego; see Hugh P. McDonald’s article in this section.)
So what could we call this philosophical spirit of fidelity and devotion to humanist ethical ideals? Religion would say that this devotion equates with faith in God—a god who makes those ideals real, so that their reality is conditional upon God’s subjective will and what God finds expedient. But suppose you are a scientific-minded thinker dubious of anything supernatural. According to materialism, ethical ideals aren’t real: they can’t be because science cannot detect them; they lack physical force; and they aren’t built into nature’s laws or organic brains. Materialism regards ethical ideals as merely the result of social conventions among self-interested people setting rules for their societies, so that, for example, “All people are created equal” translates downward to “We can agree how it is in our self-interest to provisionally treat each other as if we have the same political status.” Unfortunately, materialism also makes ethical ideals conditional upon the subjective wills of whomever is around at the time and whatever they find expedient. In contrast, Dewey held that genuine ethics is about unconditional guarantees of moral dignity and the equal justice that is due to every human being. No amount of free will or liberty guarantees anything if any person can fall into misfortune and lose everything; under that system, each person has only the free will to beg churches for charity or gods for a miracle and the liberty and the right to crawl into a ditch and die.
Neither tyrannical supernaturalism nor individualistic materialism really knows what to do with unconditional ethical ideals. Putting one’s faithful convictions in some fickle god or placing one’s trust in calculations of personal welfare is a resignation to fatalism and powerlessness. Dewey again offered his pragmatic suggestion: ideals can be real in the world if they can have real effects there. Ethical ideals have to be at least ideas, but they must be something more as well—the real power lies in how they are used. There is a world of difference between someone who hopefully contemplates an ethical ideal and someone else who puts years of his or her life into reorganizing the world according to that ideal. Where is the difference? The second person is prioritizing that ethical ideal among contending duties, committing so strongly that it controls how he or she spends time and energy. He or she is willing to keep sacrificing for that ideal despite personal loss and frustrating failure. People devoted to an ethical ideal commit themselves unconditionally to restructuring society and creating a future according to that ideal. Personal devotion on that scale is far more than just entertaining an idea in your imagination. For Dewey, personal devotion is the very real and all-natural energy that can truly change the world—and as the saying goes, it’s the only thing that ever has.
When one doesn’t feel that same devotion as another person and one can’t see that person’s reasons for such extreme fidelity, that idealistic commitment looks like irrational faith. Idealists are “unrealistic” and “foolish,” and they won’t be sensible by giving into the popular status quo. Idealists are “radicals” and “disrupters” discontented with the rights and laws enumerated in the law books. People who devoutly sustain fidelity to ethical ideals, who dictate unconditional moral treatment for everyone no matter who they are, are unusual people who alarm the oblivious, aggravate individualists, appall conservatives, and afflict the comfortable.
If humanism is to be more than simply a private lifestyle choice made by people already living comfortably—or an endorsement of rights already secured by past struggles—then humanism must be about devout commitment to ethical ideals with unconditional force. Unable to use the term spiritual, Dewey separated religiously dynamic people apart from people resting in a religion. People are religious, in Dewey’s terminology, by being a worldly force for progressive change through their faithful loyalty to ethical ideals. Humanists can therefore be just as religious, in this sense, as any theistic believer—and by so being they can be just as powerful a force for change.
Dewey would happily observe today’s mass movement out of churches and away from religion. He would hope that this movement wouldn’t walk straight into proud self-satisfaction and placid individualism. He would suspect—and he’d be right—that unaffiliated people are walking toward more meaning and purpose in life, toward making a valuable difference in the world. These people aren’t automatically nonreligious, because many of them think a god exists or at least feel “spiritually” connected to real ideals that they consider irreducible to material matters. That’s hardly as big an issue as rigid atheists want to think. After two hundred years of liberal theology casting doubt on rational proofs of God, the newly unaffiliated aren’t shocked to discover that god-belief is a matter of personal inclination. But ethics has never been about private choice. So long as their priorities are consistent with humanist ideals, Dewey would welcome the unaffiliated into faithful humanism as worthy equals. Why create new creedal tests of non-faith among humanists when all that really matters is how well someone proves their fidelity to humanist ethics? There is no sense whatsoever in greeting people tired of churchly divisiveness with fresh tests intended to root out atheist heresy.
Dewey was convinced that any humanism worthy of the name would be a fighting faith, a devout commitment to securing unconditional equality for all and the fundamental right of every person to exist. Idealistically, humanists work to establish a universal spirit across humanity united in supporting that common faith. Philosophically, humanism is about worthy ethical ideals that are far more than “objective”—they are not only valid; they are very potent and most real. Practically, humanism is about real people empowered to progressively change the world no matter what obstacles rise against them. Spiritually, humanism is about irreducible and irreplaceable moral energy driving people to take personal responsibility for an ethical future. Only if humanism can continue to arouse and direct that faithful moral energy, wherever it may be found, toward a genuinely better world for all, does humanism enjoy any right to exist.
Dewey, John. A Common Faith. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1934, 1960.
Schulz, William F. Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002.