Dewey 5: Dewey on God and Religion

Candid portrait of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey standing in a wooded area, 1935. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

During the last few weeks, I’ve been examining the work of the pragmatist John Dewey. Dewey’s form of pragmatism involved what he called instrumentalism, which briefly sees human thinking as instrumental in nature. He was raised in a Christian home and continued his religious faith into adulthood. Unfortunately, his philosophical studies and other intellectual commitments caused him to leave the Christian faith. By 1894, he had given up his Christian faith and became what he called an “unregenerate philosophical naturalist.” Charles Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theory profoundly influenced this transformation. Darwinism, with its non-explanatory approach to the world and the emergence of human life, played a pivotal role in Dewey’s loss of belief in the supernatural.

As Dewey aged, he worried about the sustainability of portions of the intellectual and social projects to which he was committed. He came to see the need for a kind of philosophical underpinning for his commitments. He felt the need to develop common ground between religious and non-religious people to create a more just society. It was in this vein that he wrote A Common Faith. [1] Although I will be critical of some aspects of his program in this blog, I share both his concerns and his hope that a way can be found to build a common ground between religious and non-religious people and various religious groups.


Dewey’s form of pragmatism emphasized the instrumental character of human reason in solving practical problems. His view was naturalistic and did not involve the need for supernatural explanations. In this, Dewey differs from Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce. (In fact, it was the nominalist and naturalistic views of William James and John Dewey that caused C. S. Pierce to develop his brand of pragmatism, which he called “pragmaticism.”) Dewey was not interested in speculative philosophy or metaphysics, not in final or ultimate truths or realities, but in the practical application of philosophy to produce a better human society. In this, one might call Dewey a humanist in the best sense of the word.

Dewey’s Anti-Supernaturalism

Dewey’s form of pragmatism bordered on what we might call scientism. Dewey believed that science and modern scientific modes of human inquiry involved a fundamental change in the human condition and how humans adapted to life’s problems. He thought that a pragmatic humanist social agenda opened up hope for a better future. In this sense, Dewey is a typical post-Enlightenment thinker. In particular, Dewey was highly suspicious of any supernatural explanation for any phenomena.

The word “Supernatural” can easily be misunderstood. The term is derived from Medieval Latin “supernaturalis,” which is derived from the Latin “super” (above, beyond, or outside of) and “natura” (nature). Thus, by its etymology, reference to the supernatural does not necessarily indicate a diminution of nature or science. Instead, it refers to something above or beyond science. Not surprisingly, Dewey would be inclined to focus on the supernatural as involving something magical or exceeding the laws of nature in common religion. Even today, one finds a great many people who do have a magical view of Christianity and other faiths. However, a magical faith is not the only kind of faith.

Many Christians believe that God created an orderly universe filled with natural laws that must be understood and which control a great deal, in fact, most of the operations of human life. On the other hand, our everyday orderly, mechanical world rests upon both a quantum world and, for people of faith, was created by God, who stands above nature as its creator. In this sense, God is “above” or “beyond” nature (supernatural) as the transcendent ground of the created order, which God has created to have its independent laws.

Dewey’s Later Religious Ideas

In his book, A Common Faith, Dewey discusses three aspects of religion as he attempts to find common ground between those who possess religious faith and those committed to a naturalistic view of reality:

  1. Dewey distinguishes between religions and religious experience,
  2. Dewey advances the idea of God as the creative intersection of the ideal or possible and the real or actual and
  3. Dewey seeks to encourage the infusion of the religious as a pervasive mode of experience into democratic life.

In advancing these ideas, Dewey tried to find a way between those committed to a historical religion, such as Christianity, Catholicism, and Protestantism, and those who believed that advancing culture and science has rendered religions unnecessary. Dewey hoped he could find common ground between these two groups so that they could work together for the common good. We can certainly agree with Dewey’s intentions regarding this.

Religion vs. Religious

He advances his argument by distinguishing between religion and religious experience. Religion involves those ions and activities that are associated with any religion. For example, Christians have worship services, usually on Sunday. These worship services typically involve some kind of a liturgy, contemporary or traditional. Most of these worship services involve using scriptures believed to be of a divine origin. In almost every religion, there is also a kind of theology. That is to say, there is a group of beliefs held in common by the religious group. This might be the basics of the Christian faith, what are sometimes called the Five Sola’s of Protestantism, the Eightfold Path of Hinduism, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Torah of Judaism, or any other statements of essential religious belief.

This is not what Dewey means by religious experience. In A Common Faith, Dewey advances the idea that it is a part of human nature to have religious experiences in the sense of emotions and ideals of harmony, wholeness, inspiration, peace, comfort, and undivided engagement with the world. Religious experiences are diverse and might be inspired by reading poetry, making scientific discoveries, walking a picket line, or climbing a mountain. Such religious experiences create attitudes that help us commit more fully to our highest values. [2] Interestingly, among religious people I know, this kind of experience would not be deemed religious but like a religious experience. Why? Because religious experience is, by its nature, fundamentally an experience of the divine, not that of some portion of creation itself.

One author describes Dewey’s attitude as follows:

The highest religious attitudes, to Dewey, are (1) reverence for nature as the whole of which humanity is a part, and an understanding that we must cooperate with the natural world rather than attempt to dominate it; and (2) faith in the ongoing growth of humanity: growth in knowledge, wisdom, compassion. [3]

At the risk of sarcasm, what Dewey proclaims as “religious experience” seems a good bit like what the sociologist Robert Bellah describes as “Sheilaism.” Sheilaism is the kind of self-created abstract religion that demands nothing and has little content so common in our society. Here is how Bellah described Sheila:

Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.” Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points. [4]

Dewey has examined his own mind and described the religious experience of the human race in general as his personal preference—or what he personally thinks would be best in spiritual experience.

Against what Dewey refers to as “religion, he postulates the notion of the religious. Being “religious” refers to human experience that has no necessary connection to any religious institution, social organization, or system of beliefs. This experience occurs “in different persons in a multitude of ways” and generates a feeling of harmony with oneself and the universe that, at its core, entails a profound change and transformation in the person’s entirety. [5]

As helpful as it is for understanding, this distinction is ultimately useless in practice. Being religious is almost always, in fact, inevitably connected with a religion. There is, in practice, no distinction between being religious and practicing a religion. Let me explain why this is true. I am a Christian, a Protestant, and inclined towards what C. S. Lewis described as” Mere Christianity.” Most people would call me “religious.” How do they know such a thing?

They might have observed that my wife and I attend Church regularly. I read my Bible daily. I have a prayer list occupying about thirty minutes of my day daily. I pray the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed several times weekly. When away, pray the Daily Office online.  I sometimes practice a form of contemplative prayer. We go on Mission Trips periodically. I teach Sunday School when asked. Although I am retired, I occasionally preach at other churches and help around the church we most regularly attend. My character as “religious” is embodied in my religion and its beliefs. While one can distinguish my faith and mystical connection with God from these various practices, they are not separated in actual life.

The same might be said of my friends who are Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and the like. Like me, they have beliefs embodied in certain practices, without which their religious character would not exist.

Dewey’s God

In A Common Faith, Dewey wanted to construct an “idea of God” that could form a basis for the cooperation of religious groups (in his day, primarily Christian Protestantism and secular humanists, like himself, in a common project of improving humanity. Here is the way he describes his vision of God:

The import of the question extends far. It determines the meaning given to the word “God.” On one score, the word can mean only a particular Being. On the other score, it denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions. Does the unification have a claim upon our attitude and conduct because it is already, apart from us, in realized existence, or because of its own inherent meaning and value? Suppose for the 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. The values to which one is supremely devoted, as far as these ends, through imagination, take on unity. If we make this supposition, the issue will stand out clearly in contrast with the doctrine of religions that “God” designates some kind of Being having prior and therefore non-ideal existence. [6]

The problem with Dewey’s analysis begins with his definition of God, which states that “the ideal ends that at a given time and place one acknowledges as having authority over his volition and emotion.” This is precisely what theists do not believe. God is not my deepest belief that I should be a good spouse and father, a good citizen of my city-state and nation, or any of the like. Belief in God is belief in a person who stands outside of me and whose very being relativizes my self-chosen values.

In Dewey’s use, God is not a being. God is a name that I assign to my own ultimate concerns. In other words, Dewey is a religious nominalist. “God” is a convenient general word to describe my moral and other ultimate preferences. I must confess that I detect a bit of Whitehead in Dewey. For Whitehead, God is an Eternal Object, but unlike other Eternal Objects, God is an actual existence as the fountain of all values incorporated into evolving reality. Here is Dewey’s way of putting it:

The idea that “God” represents a unification of ideal values that is essentially imaginative in origin when the imagination supervenes in conduct is attended with verbal difficulties owing to our frequent use of the word “imagination” to denote fantasy and doubtful reality. But the reality of ideal ends as ideals are vouched for by their undeniable power in action. [7]

Two aspects of this definition leap out at the reader:

  1. Dewey’s fundamental pragmatism. God exists because it has a power to direct human action.
  2. “God” is an abstract ideal that exists as a unification of all human values.

Compare Dewey’s definition of God with this language from Whitehead:

This nature conceived as the unification derived from the World of Value is founded on ideals of perfection, moral and aesthetic. It receives into its unity the scattered effectiveness of realized activities, transformed by the supremacy of its own ideals. The result is Tragedy, Sympathy, and the Happiness evoked by actualized Heroism. Of course we are unable to conceive the experience of the Supreme Unity of Existence. But these are the human terms in which we can glimpse the origin of that drive towards limited ideals of perfection which haunts the Universe. [8]

God in Whitehead is also “a unity of values focused on ideals that give meaning to human and natural existence. God is “realized” in the evolving process of the world (realized activities). This is close to Dewey’s position in A Common Faith.


As always, there is much to learn from Dewey. Ultimately, I think his project fails as a unification of secular striving and religious striving. However, as a vision of cooperation, it remains a valuable starting point in the common search of religious and secular people for a better and more just world.

I have almost certainly not done complete justice to the subtlety of Dewey’s argument. He was a great philosopher, and I hope to return to his religious views in a future post. I do recommend A Common Faith to my readers. It’s not an easy book to read and has been much criticized by secular as well as religious people; nevertheless, it is an attempt to find common ground.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1934).

[2] Kate Lovelady “Monday notes from Kate: John Dewey’s A Common Faith (November 28, 2011) (downloaded, May 27, 2024).

[3] Id.

[4] Robert Bellah, “Habits of the Heart: Implications for Religion” (downoaded May 27, 2024).

[5] A Common Faith, at 17.

[6] Id, at 42.

[7] Id, at 43.

[8] Alfred North Whitehead, (“Immortality” in  The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed.  P. A. Schilpp, (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1941), 697–98