General Semantics and Secular Humanism
Timothy J. Madigan
Trying to stay attuned to the superhighway, I have joined several electronic discussion groups, or listservs, and am fascinated by the level of dialogue which takes place on these. One of my favorite listservs was set up to dicuss the continuing relevance of the philosopher and educator John Dewey. Of particular concern to me have been recent arguments as to the nature of Dewey's views on religion. Was he an atheist, or did he hold to some religious belief system? How does one best define his attitude toward religion?
Dewey, in his 1934 book A Common Faith, argued for a distinction between "religions," which are cultural institutions wedded to specific practices, and "the religious," which is an impulse to seek ideals which help to unify one's self and bring one into closer harmony with others. He wrote:
It is widely supposed that a person who does not accept any religion is thereby a non- religious person. Yet it is conceivable that the present depression in religion is closely connected with the fact that religions now prevent, because of their weight of historic encumbrances, the religious quality of experience from coming to consciousness and finding the expression that is appropriate to present conditions, intellectual and moral. . . . I hope that this remark may help make clear what I mean by the distinction between "religion" as a noun substantive and "religious as adjectival. 1
If the present debate over the Internet is indicative, Dewey did not make all that clear what he was trying to express. He presented a dichotomy between religious fundamentalism on the one hand, and aggressive atheism on the other, and fought very hard not to be pulled into the latter category (one to which he felt rationalists like Bertrand Russell, his personal bête noir, belonged). Dewey, who was raised a Congregationalist wanted to hold on to as much of the liturgical language as he could, but give these words a reinterpretation. Indeed, he went so far as to talk about "God" in a naturalistic sense, as