Monday, February 25, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 10

10. The active relation between ideal and actual 
—John Dewey, (1859-1952) twentieth century American philosopher in A Common Faith

It's not sexy, but it's by a pragmatic atheist. John Dewey's writings and influence spanned education, psychology, philosophy, and social reform. He has been called the father of modern American education (when that was seen as a good thing), a founder of Pragmatism (a term he eschewed), an atheist, and a humanist. Like the 'New Atheists' of today, he felt "Never before in history has mankind been so much of two minds, so divided into two camps as it is today."—the extreme religious, crusading for the supernatural and the anti-religious crusading for science against religion and the supernatural. Unlike the 'New Atheists', he reasoned that both groups failed to see that the supernatural was not core to the practice of religion.

He criticized militant atheism for failing to recognize expressive nature, and militant religion for failing to recognize empirical nature. In order to find commonality between the two, he retained the term God, but "would not insist that the name must be given." Though he reached out to the religious he did not favor religion. He separated the two: the religious engages us to transform the world; religion instructs us how to act in resignation to the state of the world. God, if one chose to use the term, was not transcendent, not supernatural, and not revealed through scripture, but immanent.

"What I have been criticizing is the identification of the ideal with a particular Being, especially when that identification makes necessary the conclusion that this Being is outside of nature, and what I have tried to show is that the ideal itself has its roots in natural conditions; it emerges when the imagination idealizes existence by laying hold of the possibilities offered to thought and action."

"For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name God."

Science had undermined the credibility of western religion. For Dewey, what is important is not a body of doctrine, but the method of search. We should use the methods of science in finding our collective ideals. He starts out with Hegelian terminology, which later becomes increasingly Darwinian, and then uses the idiom of organic growth in describing the search for ideals. However, "The actual religious quality in the experience described is the effect produced, the better adjustment in life and its conditions, not the manner and cause of its production."

What the definition lacks in poetry it tries to make up in universal appeal. Perhaps it's the nature of the debate, but neither side felt a strong attachment. As we know today, his conciliatory efforts were, at least thus far, a spectacular failure.

I can't resist the temptation to share a couple of passages from my book The Angst of Atheism written about the same time as The Death of Determinism. Near the beginning of chapter 3, we find, "Is Dewey still to be considered an atheist after expressing his thoughts on God and religion in A Common Faith?", and in the next chapter, "Surely we cannot burden the atheist with the task of denying every possible view of God—that seems to invoke a double standard."

[Link to beginning of article]                    [Link to next part]

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