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The Issues of Life

Chaper V: Religion

IN discussing religion there are always two initial questions which must be answered either implicitly or explicitly. They are: What is religion in general? and, second, What is that particular kind of religion, if any, which you advocate? We shall try to give an answer to both these questions.


Religion in general is reacting to something as though it were that to which all human life should be devoted. Religion of the sort we wish to advocate is dedicating life in supreme devotion to that order of existence and possibility which provides the highest values which ever can be actualized. This order with its highest possibilities of value is largely unexplored and unknown. Nevertheless, we believe we know something about it and in the sequel will state something of what we believe it to’ be. But inasmuch as our knowledge is not infallible, hence may be in error, and inasmuch as we do not in any case know nearly as much as we would like about this order with its possibilities, our religious devotion must be given to something
which is in great part unknown. This is what we call high religion. It is difficult religion, but we believe it is the best kind and it is the sort we wish to advocate. But before we consider this kind of religion which we desire to defend, we must first discuss the general definition of religion, that is to say, the essence which is common to all religion, both good and bad, true and false.

Religion is reacting to something as though it were that to which all human life should be devoted. In tribal or national religions the human life that is thought to owe allegiance to this object of devotion is limited to the tribe or other group, but that is because such groups, at the time their religion arose, did not think people outside the group were human in just the same sense as the members of the group. So we do not think such cases are exceptions to our definition. In any case religion tends to develop to the point where it considers the object of devotion worthy of the allegiance of all men. The object thus revered may be conceived as an order of many objects, as in polytheism; but the tendency has been toward monotheism.

Religion is not merely a matter of believing. Hence we say religion is reacting to, that is, thinking, feeling, acting toward, an object as being worthy of universal devotion. It is not sufficient that the individual merely believe the object to be of such importance for all human
life. He must react to it as having such importance. Also it is not sufficient that the individual accept it as object of supreme devotion for himself alone. He must react to it as though it were properly such an object for all men, even though other men may not so accept it, and even though he may not try to induce them to do so. It is possible for an individual to have this religious attitude toward an object when no other man accepts it as sovereign object of loyalty. That is not common, but it is possible, and in the case of certain individuals has occurred. We believe that in the case of great religious initiators and innovators such has been the case. They conceived this object of religious devotion differently from others and, until they won followers, were alone in their attitude to their chosen object. But the object is not a religious object, and the attitude is not a religious attitude, unless the attitude implies that this object should be accepted by all men, as well as by the individual, as their chief object in life.

This something to which the individual reacts religiously is esteemed to be an order of value. That is the implication of such an attitude toward it. This order of value may be conceived as a personality. Personality is an order of value. Or it may be conceived as an ideal or as a system of ideals, as the humanists do. Ideals are also orders of value. Whether the object is personal or impersonal, one or many, existent or ideal,
makes no difference so far as our definition goes. All are instances of religion if the reaction be of the sort indicated. No more restricted definition can comprehend the diverse historic instances of religion. Religion is reacting to an object, personal or impersonal, one or many, existent or ideal, as though it were the object to which all human life should be devoted.

The object to which the individual or group thus reacts religiously is not necessarily a worthy object. When we say it is an order of value, we mean the individual reacts to it as though it were such. But religions can be infected with error, just as anything else which man does. Also they can be infected with evil. Religions are more or less true and more or less false according as the object which is judged to be supremely important for human living is truly or approximately so. The object of supreme devotion may be of such sort as to glorify or to degrade human living; and nothing so potently determines the glory or the degradation of life as the supreme devotion which dominates it.

The chief test of a definition of religion is the accuracy with which it distinguishes between the religious man and the unreligious man, or between the religious moments of an individual and his unreligious moments. A definition which does not make any such sharp distinction, but which includes all human life in its scope, is worthless because it fails to define anything.
The chief purpose of definition is to draw a clear line of demarcation between what is and what is not the matter under consideration. The definition that fails to do that is not a definition. Let us then see what our definition excludes as being not religion.

A man may be passionately devoted to some enterprise, such as trying to become President of the United States, or striving to be a great artist, or playing the stock market, but his devotion is not religious according to our proposed statement. He might give the last full measure of devotion in service of some cause yet it would not be religious unless he served the cause as though it had the kind and degree of value which make it the proper cause for all men to serve in like manner, even though other men may refuse to accept it as having such value. Mere purposiveness, no matter how passionate, is not religious unless the purpose is directed to what is believed to be of greatest importance not only for the individual, but also for all others. Hence the man who experiences religion must have an evangel. He has a way of life to share with all men, and all men must share it., so he believes, if they are to find the great values and escape the great ills. In some religions the devotees do not try to share their devotion with others. They think others are incapable or unworthy of such a high vocation. But their religious object, whether personal or impersonal, existent or
ideal, they revere as worthy of the devotion of all and offering the highest fulfillment of all human life, even when they think many men are not worth the trouble of winning to this way of life. However, religion in its most complete development, when the implications of the religious attitude are fully expressed, tends to seek the fellowship of all in a common devotion, and the reason for this is made apparent in our definition.

Religion is essentially reconstructive and revolutionary. In this respect it differs from morality although morality may be religious. Morality which is not religious seeks to organize all interests so that they can work together, so far as possible excluding those which are recalcitrant to the organization. Religion, on the other hand, does not seek merely to make interests work together. It seeks, rather, to transform interests so that they will serve, or find fulfillment in, that order which is the object of religious devotion. Religion seeks not merely to organize interests so that they will be harmonious, but it seeks to achieve that special kind of organization which will embody most completely the order of value which is revered as the will of God, or the kingdom of God, or Nirvana, or however the religion may conceive it. Some religions are much more revolutionary than others. So also are some moralities. When a morality becomes sufficiently passionate and reconstruc-
tive of life, with a gospel to spread and a zeal to make life over into the order of God (or whatever takes the place of God), it begins to be a religion. On the other hand, when a religion loses its passion and seeks not to change life except in so far as is needed to make things work together smoothly, it begins to be a morality and not a religion. Religion seeks to convert the individual and to transform the world. Morality tries to do neither. Nevertheless, morality and religion can merge and often do.

One of the most zealous religions in the world to-day is Russian communism. It claims a saving evangel for all mankind. It has an object of supreme devotion, namely, an idealized social order. It is so passionate in its missionary zeal that it strives to extirpate every other religion and refuses to call itself a religion in order that its condemnation of all its rivals may be the more sweeping. But any movement which seeks to supplant all religions and provide a way of life to take their place which is held to be the way to greatest values, requiring a radical reconstruction of the world and a passionate devotion, is certainly a religion. Russian communism is precisely that.

A few American pragmatists have made their moral philosophy a religion. They also fight rival religions with religious zeal and refuse to admit the religious nature of their own devotion. They have a gospel to preach and preach it with
all the fervor of any religion. They strive to win adherents, to convert the individual to a common devotion with them, to make the world anew into the order of fraternity, equality, and liberty or some other order which is accepted as supreme, and they do this not as a means to some ulterior end, not for the sake of promoting the prestige of a party or for any selfish reason, but solely because they react to their order of value as that to which all men should be devoted amid to which they must be won in order to bring the life of mankind to its highest fulfillment.

John Dewey himself does not fall into this error of lifting his moral philosophy into a religion and denouncing everything which goes by the name of religion. He has sketched in a very meager way the kind of religion which be would support, and he properly calls it religion. He distinguishes between two kinds of religion. First is that kind which identifies itself with some theory of the present state of existence, representing the object of supreme devotion as already existing in some metaphysical realm. On the other hand is that kind of religion which leaves the question of what the nature of existence may be to all the techniques of investigation with full recognition that we as yet do not know much about it and that our present ideas will probably undergo great changes. But he recognizes that there is an order of existence, which gives rise to the highest possibilities of
value that can be actualized. Religious devotion is given to these possibilities.

Some of his own statements bearing upon this matter are as follows, taken from the last chapter of his most recent book, The Quest of Certainty.

“A sense of the possibilities of existence and devotion to the cause of these possibilities” is the kind of religion he thinks is important. [From The Quest of Certainty, by John Dewey. Reprinted by courtesy of the publishers, Minton, Balch & Company, New York.] He proceeds: “Whatever is discovered about actual existence would modify the content of human beliefs about ends, purposes, and goods. But it would and could not touch the fact that we are capable of directing our affection and loyalty to the possibilities resident in the actualities discovered. An idealism of action that is devoted to creation of a future, instead of staking itself upon propositions about the past, is invincible.”[Op.cit., pp. 304-305.] “The energy which is diverted into defense of positions that have in time to be surrendered would be released for positive activity in behalf of the security of the underlying possibilities of actual life. More important still would be liberation from attachment to dogmas framed in conditions very unlike those in which we live, and the substitution of a disposition to turn to constructive account the results of knowledge. It is not possible to estimate the amelioration
that would result if the stimulus and support given to practical action by science were no longer limited to industry and commerce and merely ‘secular’ affairs. . . . Religious faith which attaches itself to •the possibilities of nature and associated living would, with its devotion to the ideal, manifest piety toward the actual. Respect and esteem would be given to that which is the means of realization of possibilities, and to that in which the ideal is embodied if it ever finds embodiment. - . . Nature and society include within themselves projection of ideal possibilities and contain the operations by which they are actualized. Nature may not be worshiped as divine even In the sense of the intellectual love of Spinoza. But nature, including humanity, with all its defects and imperfections, may evoke heartfelt piety as the source of ideals, of possibilities, of aspiration in their behalf, and as the eventual abode of all attained goods and excellencies.”[Op. cit., p. 306.]

The personal attitude involved in all religious experience is the sense of dependence and this sense of dependence, Dewey declares, will not be diminished, but will be quickened by the “Copernican revolution” which is now occurring in human thought, “which looks to security amid change instead of to certainty in attachment to the fixed.” [Op. cit., p. 307.]
Here we have in meager outline the sketch of a form of religion which we believe is exceedingly important. This type of religion is one which is destined, we believe, to become increasingly potent. As Dewey says, it would be “invincible” and its power to ameliorate the lot of man “it is not possible to estimate,” for it would be able to appropriate and apply to the interests of religion that “stimulus and support to practical action” which science now lends almost exclusively to secular affairs. Such a religion has great work in the world to do if it can be developed.

We have noted a number of specific instances of living which represent religion and a number which are instances of nonreligion. Perhaps these will suffice to show that our definition is truly definitive and distinguishes between wide regions of life which are not religious and those which are. We believe this definition fits the historical cases of religion.

For example, let us apply our definition to the case of socially accepted ideals as objects of religious devotion. When would the attitude toward such ideals be religious and when not? When these ideals are revered as constituting the supreme good for all men everywhere, when these ideals are spread to all men as an evangel, and when the devotees strive to refashion the world into the likeness of these ideals, then the reaction to them is a religious reaction. But if, on the
other hand, these ideals are treated merely as paths and roads which the group must travel in their quest of unexplored goods lying on beyond, then this something unattained on beyond the ideals is the object of religious response. Religious devotion is then given to that unexplored order transcending the socially accepted ideals. In such case loyalty to socially accepted ideals would not be religion. Or, again, if one gave his supreme devotion to socially accepted ideals as the highest, but did not react - to theni as the proper objects of devotion for all men everywhere, we would not have a case of religion. A religion which did make socially accepted ideals the highest object of allegiance for all men would be a true and good religion only if such ideals really did constitute the object of highest value for all men everywhere, being of greater value than any existence or possibility which might ever be found throughout the whole range of reality.

Many cases can be found which are doubtful cases according to this statement of the nature of religion, but that is true of any definition. Especially would that be true of those early forms of religion which have not yet fully developed the distinctive religious character. But so also man or plant or horse or any other growing and developing form of life reveals cases, especially in the early stages of its development, which are impossible to classify because they are
border-line cases. They have hardly yet become that which is being defined. Also no definition can be final and perfect because definitions must vary according to the purpose for which they are used.

The object of religious reaction may not be a worthy object. It may be something quite foolish. It may be of such sort that devotion to it is disastrously obstructive to any striving after the genuine values of life. Intelligence is just as much needed in religion as anywhere else. Unintelligent religion may be the worst thing in human life. The intellectual examination of that which is religiously held to be supremely important, and criticism of religious reaction to it, is called philosophy. A religion may criticize itself, in which case it has its own philosophy;  it may be criticized by a philosophy outside itself. Such criticism does not guarantee that the religious object and reaction to it will be free of error and evil, but this criticism and examination of religious belief and practice by philosophy ought to purge it of some error and redirect some of its energies. In any case such criticism is all the human mind can do.


There is a growing interest at the present time in developing a religion without God. We believe this is chiefly due to confusion and misunderstanding in respect to the idea of God, and
if this concept can be adequately clarified the issue may settle itself.

When religion is maintained without professing belief in God, the object of supreme devotion is generally called an ideal. When belief in God is professed, the object of devotion is called God. But in both cases the object of devotion is an order of value to which the individual reacts as though it were worthy of being the supreme object of devotion for all human life. Hence the whole issue involved in the contrast between religion with God and religion without God is the issue between God and the ideal. Both parties are at one in striving to bring into existence the greatest possible value. The only question is whether God and the ideal are both involved in the attainment of this highest value or only the ideal without God.

If God is not essentially involved in the attainment of the greatest good that is possible, then the quicker we all find that out and acknowledge it, the better. If God is not involved, then the discarding of all belief in God is not a loss. It is a great gain. If God is not involved, then the religious cause cannot be served intelligently, and the urgently needed work of religion can never be done effectively until we get rid of this crippling, stultifying superstition about God. If, on the other hand, God is essentially involved in the cause, then we can never serve it with power and intelligence until we discern that fact
and conform to it. Hence we have nothing to lose and all to gain by discovering the truth. It is a question to be settled like any other question of fact—calmly, dispassionately, by the utmost exercise of intelligence and by examining all the evidence and all the logic involved. Surely, the most ardent theist must admit that if God is not essentially involved in the cause of values, then the quicker we discover that fact and devote ourselves to genuine reality without self-deceit, the better. Surely, likewise, the most ardent religious atheist must admit that if God is essentially involved in our values, the quicker we discover the fact and devote ourselves to genuine reality without self-deceit, the better.

But this question must not be confused with the use of the word “God.” Whether we continue to use the word of three letters commencing with "G" is a matter of minor importance. It may be that this word has accumulated such psychological associations for some people that they ought not to use it and no one ought to try to persuade them to do so. It may be that the word has become more of a liability than an asset for all mankind and therefore everybody ought to discard it from all religious usage. But the word is not the reality under consideration. Words are mere squeaks, altogether trivial, and when this squeak is considered precious to fight and die for, or at least to grieve for when lost, we have a perversion of values which is a very
great evil. The squeak is not what we are considering. The only point under consideration is whether that something which we indicate by the word “God,” but which might be indicated by another word, is essentially involved in that order of value in which human life must find its fulfillment.

It is not a question of what we ought to believe for the sake of morality or piety. It is not a matter of reverence or loyalty or devotion to values. It is simply a matter of fact. Is God involved in the progressive organization of the world which makes for highest value or is he not? If God is essentially involved, then the atheist is serving God when he serves this cause, no matter how much he may deny it and no matter how ignorant he may be of the fact. If God is essentially involved, the atheist is simply ignorant and unenlightened and mentally confused in his religion, just as the theist must be if God is not essentially involved. Therefore when a man, who is dedicated to the cause of promoting highest values for all men, denies there is a God when there is, or affirms there is a God when there is not, it is useless to ridicule him or denounce him or fight him or be enraged at him. What he needs is enlightenment. What he needs is to have his thinking clarified.

However, the difference between the religious theist and the religious atheist may be, and we believe often is, merely a misunderstanding in 151
the use of words. When that is the case, then neither is necessarily ignorant nor unintelligent nor confused. They are simply understanding words in different sense. In that case what is needed is further clarification in use of terms. Let us, then, before we undertake to ascertain whether God is essentially involved in the cause which all genuine religion must serve, define our terms. The terms are “God” and “ideal.”

Walter Lippmann has written concerning modernized ideas of God : “But certainly this is not the God of the ancient faith. This is a highly sophisticated idea of God, employed by a modern man who would like to say, but cannot say with certainty, that there exists a personal God to whom men can accommodate themselves. . . - My answer is that a conception of God which is incomprehensible to all who are not highly trained logicians, is a possible God for logicians alone.” [From Preface to Morals, by Walter Lippmann. Reprinted by permission of The Macmillan Company.]

Suppose we apply this same reasoning to other well-known objects such as the United States or the earth. Any idea of United States which approximates accuracy and completeness is so complex and profound as to be incomprehensible to all who are not highly trained in political science. Are we, then, to conclude that there can be no United States save for such experts? The modern scientific conception of the earth is incomprehensible to all who are not highly
trained in astrophysics, including the theory of relativity. Are we, then, to conclude that there is a possible earth only for physicists and astronomers? If we reject such reasoning when applied to earth and United States, we must also reject it when applied to God.

Until recent date the word “earth” was used to refer to that flat surface which supports us and our houses. But advancing knowledge revealed the error in this idea of the earth. However, many people have found the idea of a round earth on which we walk “upside down” incomprehensible. Indeed, such an idea was so offensive and so disturbing to the religious faith of the great mass of people in the sixteenth century that the experts who taught it were ridiculed and persecuted. But suppose the teachers and thinkers who recognized the roundness of the earth had continued to refer to the earth as flat in order to be “comprehensible” to those who were not expert in this branch of knowledge, and also in order to minister to their souls and to support the social order by not disturbing those convictions about which the habits and purposes of life were so closely entwined. If this policy had been adopted, we would have to-day very much the same state of mind concerning the earth that we now have concerning God. A considerable number would still be devout believers in a flat earth. But a large and increasing number would be denying the existence of any such
thing as an earth, meaning by “earth” a flat surface supporting us in the midst of the stars.

A third group, however, would be insisting that the earth does exist, only it is not flat, it Is round. This third group would be attacked by both the others. The devout believers would oppose them as being the source of confusion and perplexity. “What is this strange, incomprehensible idea of earth that you present? I know not what you mean.” Some would be more violent and aggressive and denounce this newfangled idea of a round earth as treason to the faith. The disbelievers, on the other hand, who denied the existence of any earth at all in the sense of a flat surface, would oppose the upholders of a round earth in some such words as these: “This is not the earth of the ancient faith. This is not earth the supporter, earth the flat surface, the center of the universe. This is a highly sophisticated idea of earth, employed by a modern man who would like to say, but cannot say with certainty, that there exists a supporting earth to which men can accommodate themselves. . . - My answer is that a conception of earth which is incomprehensible to all who are not highly trained scientists, is a possible earth for scientists alone.” Then the inevitable conclusion would be drawn, as Lippmann draws it for God, that the “earth” is a myth, an idea which may have been useful in its time, but is now outgrown and impossible for any intelligent
and well-informed person, because there is no flat surface on which we walk and build our houses.

Over against this reasoning the third group would protest. There is a spherical planet, they would insist, which supports us and all our works, and that is what we mean by earth. To which the skeptics would reply: “You have no right to use the word ‘earth’ with such a meaning. You simply perpetuate an old error by doing so and produce confusion. The word ‘earth’ has a definite historical meaning. It means a flat supporting surface—not something to which we cling like flies. To use the word in any other sense is to play fast and loose with language and to lead people astray.” So the controversy would rage.

Now, all this applies precisely to the idea of God, only in respect to the idea of God the situation pictured above is not imaginary. It is the actual present state of human thought. Why does this state of thought actually hold in respect to the idea of God but not in respect to that of the earth? Because in respect to the conception of God the teachers and thinkers actually have done what we have imagined them doing with the idea of the earth. They have tried to make the idea of God fit the needs and wishes of the people whom they sought to serve. Investigators of the earth felt no such constraint, or at least not to the same degree, although Gali-
leo and others did hesitate and vacillate a good deal in public declarations about the new theories. But the truth about the earth was their chief concern, not the needs of the human heart as shaped by ancient tradition. But these needs of the heart played a very large part in determining what was taught concerning God. They who have been responsible for the idea of God have also been deeply concerned with ministry to the welfare and peace of mind of the mass of humanity. Therefore they felt under constraint to shape their conception of God in such a way as to give people comfort and peace. That means that the established ways of thinking be not too suddenly and radically disturbed. If the investigators of the earth had felt this same constraint to the same degree, they would have done with the idea of the earth what theologians have done with the idea of God and we would have to-day that threefold controversy about the earth which we described above, one group saying the earth is flat, another that there is no earth at all, and a third group, misunderstood by both the other two, saying there is an earth, but it is not flat, it is round. In respect to God there actually are these three groups, one saying God is a personality like you and me, another denying there is a God in this sense, and a third insisting that there is a God, but that he is not a personality like you and me.

Shall we go on trying to shape the idea of God
to fit the needs of the human heart? If we do, we shall go from bad to worse, for the present confusion has resulted precisely in trying to do that very thing. Meeting the needs of the human heart always means conforming to established tradition. The greatest teachers of religion have never tried to shape the idea of God to meet the needs of the human heart, but, rather, have declared that the human heart must be changed to meet the requirements of God or be damned.

Of the three controversial groups we have mentioned, which is in the right, they who say God is a personality with a focalized, attentive consciousness, with plans and ideas, like our own; or those who deny there is a God; or those who affirm God, but say he is not a personality? Which would be right if they were discussing the earth in the manner above described, one saying it is flat, the other that there is no earth, and the third that there is an earth, but it is not flat? Both the second and third groups would be right, the second in denying there is any earth which is flat and the third in affirming there is an earth which is not flat. When these two fall into conflict, it is due to a tragic misunderstanding, and yet a very natural misunderstanding. It is with hope of alleviating this misunderstanding that we must try to clarify the conceptions of ideal and God.