John Dewey’s presentation at Yale University’s Terry Lecture series, almost 80 years ago, published as "A Common Faith," in 1934, was an attempt to bridge a divide that is still very much with us today. It is a divide that may seem at times more like a chasm that has only widened with the passage of time.
“Never before in history has mankind been so much of two minds, so divided into two camps, as it is today. Religions have traditionally been allied with ideas of the supernatural, and often have been based upon explicit beliefs about it. Today there are many who hold that nothing worthy of being called religious is possible apart from the supernatural. Those who hold this belief differ in many respects. They range from those who accept the dogmas and sacraments of the Greek and Roman Catholic church as the only sure means of access to the supernatural to the theist or mild deist. Between them are the many Protestant denominations who think the Scriptures, aided by a pure conscience, are adequate avenues to supernatural truth and power. But they agree in one point: the necessity for a Supernatural Being and for an immortality that is beyond the powers of nature.
“The opposed group consists of those who think the advance of culture and science has completely discredited the supernatural and with it all religions that were allied with belief in it. But they go beyond this point. The extremists of this group believe that with the elimination of the supernatural not only must historic religions be dismissed but with them everything of a religious nature. When historical knowledge has discredited the claims made for the supernatural character of the persons said to have founded historic religions; when the supernatural inspiration attributed to literatures held sacred has been riddled, and when anthropological and psychological knowledge has disclosed the all-too-human source from which religious beliefs and practices have sprung, everything religious must, they say, also go.”
In an attempt to mend this rift, Dewey suggests we consider for a “moment that the word ‘God’ means the ideal ends that at a given time and place one acknowledges as having authority over his volition and emotion.” And, further, that we entertain the notion that our use of the word God “represents a unification of ideal values.” And that “this idea of God, or of the divine, is also connected with all the natural forces and conditions — including human associations — that promote the growth of the ideal and that further its realization.” Dewey sees the human attempt to actualize these ideal ends, generally, as, in effect, turning the word God into a verb. The process of identifying ideal ends and values and attempting to realize them, for Dewey, could provide a path to a renewed, and much less divisive, understanding of what our notion of God actually represents. Viewed in this light, God is no longer “a particular Being.” And that “it is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name ‘God.’”
“In a distracted age, the need for such an idea is urgent. It can unify interests and energies now dispersed; it can direct action and generate the heat of emotion and the light of intelligence. Whether one gives the name ‘God’ to this union, operative in thought and action, is a matter for individual decision. But the function of such a working union of the ideal and the actual seems to me to be identical with the force that has in fact been attached to the conception of God in all religions that have a spiritual content; and a clear idea of that function seems to me urgently needed at the present time.
“Were the naturalistic foundations and bearings of religion grasped, the religious element in life would emerge from the throes of the crisis in religion. Religion would then be found to have its natural place in every aspect of human experience that is concerned with estimate of possibilities, with emotional stir by possibilities as yet unrealized, and with all action in behalf of their realization. All that is significant in human experience falls within this frame.
“The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it. Here are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race. Such a faith has always been implicitly the common faith of humanity. It remains to make it explicit and militant.”
Alain de Botton, writing in the just published Religion for Atheists, adds that the “error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.”
For believers in the traditional faiths who do not feel any great compulsion to excise the supernatural core from their belief systems, I guess a left-handed compliment is still a compliment.