John Dewey is considered to be one of America’s greatest philosophers and educationist. He is perhaps a founder of pragmatism trend of philosophy and the new school of social research. In his books, he deals with a wide range of subjects that vary from education, journalism, humanism, social and political activism, democracy, aesthetics, philosophy and many other critical issues in the society. A Common Faith is one of Dewey’s greatest collections of books and in this book, he tackles the issue of religion from a perspective that other philosophers before him had not. In this essay, we discuss the relevance of religious beliefs for democracy in A Common Faith.
In arguing this issue, though religion and faith are not his main themes of the subject, in this book, Dewey looks at religion from a human point of view, perhaps due to his belief in science and human experience. According to Dewey, he argues while giving his definition of religion as being “Recognition on the part of man of some unseen higher power as having control of his destiny and as being entitled to obedience, reverence and worship” (Dewey, p3). This is a critical definition of religion and he goes ahead to state that religion does not exist in singular but as a multitude of religion. Therefore according to him, religion is not a uniting factor but a social cultural tool to contain people by those who are in authority. Dewey argues that religion should be detained in a world that is always shifting and where science has become a major stricture of thought. He thus presents a totally new kind of thinking’s of religions that do not recognize the existence of an omnipotent God. He also harshly criticizes religion to be archaic in its manners and believes.
Perhaps in arguing out the relevance of Dewey’s relevance thoughts of religion on democracy, we can infer democracy to be one of the new changes that the social and political cultures of the people in America were experiencing at the time. In his view, people should be emancipating themselves from the supernatural religion and embrace the new religion of democracy as this is much more realistic. He thinks that the old religion is based on obedience and reverence of to unseen powers through worship. His idea of religion is any activity that is ideal and against any obstacles or threat (Dewey, p14). He thinks and asserts that religion should be more of a way of living and behaving and with the assistance of our thoughts and familiarity; we can alter our ideals into actions. These are the way the modern religion should be and not the special system of beliefs and practices that have been institutionalized. This definitions and assertions on religion can be closely related to democracy as the ideals and actions of democracies advocate some of the thoughts that Dewey consistently advocated for. Democracy, according to Dewey is a religion as far as his definition of religion is. We can infer from his definition that democracy is a much better religion than the old religion as it does not incline itself on a set of archaic sets of beliefs that have been institutionalized but democracy is more practical and real.
Dewey in a common faith is a great of advocate of social democracy. He looks at religion as a way of life that is not free as it is constructed from beliefs that are archaic and do not allow people to have some freedom due to the institutionalized believes that are attached to it. He also defines to types of democracies (Shane 630). These are political democracy and social idea of democracy. In political democracy, Dewey, says that this is a form of democracy that is a set of measures that advocates for a one person one vote which leads to a majority rule and protecting the minority. However, democracy as a social idea, to Dewey should involve people as a way of life. Simply stated, Dewey advocates for people to live a democratic way of life. This involved people being informed and open through free exchange everywhere, and this can lead to us choosing the best actions to take. He goes ahead in A Common Faith to commit himself to the life of shared experience as a way of faith or religion (Ryan p13).
In a common faith, Dewey argues that religious familiarity is a value of our dealings with one another, the environment, and other objects. Much as he criticized religion, Dewey suggests that modern religions should adjust themselves to the environment as throughout history, this is the way religion has been transformed and even taken shape. He suggests that religious phases or experiences based on religion should be used to integrate meanings and values to the social relations that currently exist instead of wholesomely condemning and criticizing religion. This is relevant to democracy as democracy comes with the high price of unquestionable moral decadence. If democracy was to integrate into people some moral values that have been adapted from the different phases of religion, it will be a more effective tool of governance and as a way of life (Chambrouty p14).
However, in his views on political deliberation, Dewey forgets that the people in powered are not only the rich and those with power or even if democracy offers a chance to elect a few people who are ideal, they end up getting corrupted by power. He very much concentrates on the way to emancipate religion without remembering that the social life of common people is not only dictated by the religious but also the rich and powerful. His views on democracy in relation to democracy or governance do not offer a solution to the modern political impasse created by the same old power corrupted systems and institutions.
Dewey also tries to link science and democracy as the new instrument of modern faith while religion is an old and archaic set of faith in a non existing supernatural. He wants to advance democracy more than religion and even suggests that democracy or these new faiths should be embraced as the new forms or modes of religion. This is shown by the quote, “science, education and the democratic cause meet.” This shows his resolve in trying to influence social life of modern people towards the appreciation of a new order of faith. This new order is defined by science and democracy while at the same time shaped by religious excepts as a way of strengthening some parts of the modern way of life (Webster, 622). Through his various essays in as common Faith, john Dewey as a philosopher does not really trash out religion but he actually redefines it and tries to give it a new fitting in the modern religious context.
Though Dewey was born a staunch Christian, his attitude towards teaching of religion in public schools is quite evident. This perhaps had a bearing on his ideals that there was no singular religion and in doing so, this would lead to chaos. Democracy would also be threatened if the archaic religion structures were not reconstructed and perhaps this was one of his main opposition to the teaching of religion in schools. Democracy super cedes religion according to Dewey and it has to be protected at all costs so as to avoid confusion in the institution of governance and the way of life. Much as religion has an important role in schools, there is a feeling from reading a Common faith that religion and faith have a competitive relationship between them.
A Common Faith is among Professor John Dewey greatest and controversial works. With his theoretical and philosophical analysis of religion, we can infer and interpret his democratic ideas from the book. This is important as a source of guidance to the students of philosophy and religious studies. However, the main aim of the book is to ensure that the modern society appreciates a new form of faith that is common across all societies. According to Dewey, the common faith is the democratic way of life. He does not forget the importance of religion in trying to make democracy into an important and more acceptable way of life.
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Ryan, Alan. “John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism.” W.W. Norton & Co.