This week I will be presenting a chapter from my dissertation on John Dewey at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. I will be summarizing the problem Dewey sees with Christianity, why it should be abandoned, and what can potentially happen in terms of democratic progress once it is abandoned. I conclude by criticizing a potentially fatal flaw in Dewey’s view.
1. The Problem
Dewey looks at the problem in the following way: Christians believe in Heaven — a perfect place that infinitely improves on the world we currently reside in. And, Christians attain access to this perfect place as individuals. Our salvation is not a group project. Christians therefore are motivated to focus on the afterlife rather than reforming the world in which we live. They think about going to Heaven as individuals rather than as in a group.
Why is this a problem? Because this is exactly the opposite of what democratic progress depends on — a strong motivation and haste to fix the world we live in now, and to do so working together as a collective democratic unit.
2. Why Christianity Should be Abandoned
So let’s start with Christianity’s claims about Heaven. Dewey thinks that they are entirely false. He rejects any belief that presupposes a spiritual entity or realm separate from the world in which we live and breathe. There is no God, no Soul, and no Heaven. He sees no scientific evidence justifying these beliefs. His skepticism regarding such beliefs in spiritual things is deeply rooted in his philosophical writings.
Christianity’s lie about Heaven messes up our natural motivations and desires. He does note that people have throughout history been effective at tapping into “Christian” desires and motivating positive change in society. This was true for the fight against human slavery in the 19th century — there were strong Christians involved in that effort. He thus acknowledges that there is a real motive force at the heart of Christian life. However, he also believes that what is good about this motive force is not essentially Christian, and actually the parts that are specifically Christian are bad.
The bad parts are the personal quest for salvation that people are expected to pursue and the idea that our problems will be solved by gaining this salvation. Dewey’s concern is that this makes people very, very selfish. The good parts we see in Christian faith are actually the desires we naturally have for ideals — the motivations we have to discover, live in and experience a world full of perfection and beauty. This motivation, Dewey believes, exists for the Christian and atheist alike.
3. The Democratic Benefits of Atheism
Once we realize that there is no perfect place called Heaven, nor a perfect being called God, our hearts are opened to democratic progress as the means by which we can have our desires for a perfect place satisfied. This will open our minds to updating two principles our society inherited from classical liberalism: the socially accepted skepticism towards science and the competitive model of capitalism. Opposed to these, we will be able to embrace the principle that we should trust the scientific consensus over non-scientific alternatives (think evolution and global warming). And, we will value the raising up of others by democratizing our economy. It is only be embracing the truths revealed by science and the necessity of raising up our fellow citizens that we can collectively attain our goal of bringing about a better world in which to live. We cannot live in a perfect world while neglecting the needs untapped capacities of most of the people within it.
To recap, Dewey blames Christianity for propagating spiritual beliefs, which are false, and this messes up people’s natural motivations to improve their world. This starts with Dewey’s open attack on the idea of Heaven, which has to do most urgently with the motivational effects that this idea has on democratic citizens.
4. My Critique
I think Dewey’s argument can be criticized without trying in any way to argue with him over the truth of Heaven, God, or the Soul. Instead, we need only ask ourselves if Dewey has understood the psychological aspects of religion correctly. If he hasn’t, then we should not expect that abandoning religion will have the effect Dewey promises of making people more motivated to advance the progress of democracy.
Where Dewey goes most wrong is in assuming that the desire for Heaven is, in its natural root, a desire for ideals or to live in a perfect place. I argue that previous philosophers such as Plato, John Locke, and Alexis De Tocqueville view religious desire is as instead being most importantly a desire for immortality. This is a major distinction. Do people naturally want to live in a perfect place, or do they first and foremost want to avoid death and live forever? Is Heaven any less attractive if the Pearly Gates aren’t so pearly? Who wouldn’t accept another shot at life on earth, even as imperfect as it is?
To be clear, I do not fault Dewey for searching for good motivations in our hearts. I do, however, believe that failing to acknowledge the desire for immortality at the heart of many religious faiths led him to fundamentally misunderstand the energies generated by that faith.
It would have been more productive to make the move other philosophers have made like Thucydides, which is to attempt to take the desire for immortality as a given, but attempt to connect this desire with the fate of society. Society will long outlive any individual life, and through our contributions to it, a part of us echoes throughout eternity.
This move, I think, has a greater chance of stimulating motivations to help our democracy progress, without requiring the radical step of abandoning religion altogether. And preserving religion, by stimulating the sometimes unnoticeable desire for immortality, perhaps makes it easier to get people to care about their eternal echo in the world they leave behind.