Faith & Thought

Challenged by the Secular Humanistic Philosophy

At the beginning of this semester at St. John’s University, I began the courses I teach the way I have begun them for several years. I gave two or three lectures on the philosophy of secular humanism (often called atheistic or agnostic humanism). The reason I begin every course by explaining secular humanism is because I believe it to be the philosophy held by many intellectuals in our society. 

I believe it is very influential among many who write books and who create television shows, films, and plays. Perhaps the students to whom I am lecturing have never heard of secular humanism, but I assure them that they have been exposed to it. Eventually the ideas of creative people trickle down. 

I suspect that some of the students may have been unknowingly exposed to secular humanism in some of the science classes they have taken in high school. There may be some teachers who instead of teaching sciences such as chemistry, physics, or biology are really teaching philosophy. This is as wrong as a teacher in a Catholic school teaching theology in place of sciences such as physics, biology, and chemistry. In science classes, science should be taught; religion should be taught in courses about religion. 

In my lecture about secular humanism I always devote part of the lecture to comments about John Dewey’s book, “A Common Faith” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1934, 87 pp.). I think Dewey was a secular humanist. Written in 1934, “A Common Faith” is the only book that Dewey wrote about religion. I find it absolutely fascinating how Dewey read the future and predicted some of the changes that happened many years after he wrote the book. I found “A Common Faith” a difficult book to read and I hope I am not misinterpreting Dewey ‘s thought. 

In his book, Dewey comments on what he means by religion and what he means by what he calls the religious. By religion he means what all of us mean. Examples of religion are Catholicism, various examples of Protestantism, Islam, and Judaism. So a religion would be a community, probably embracing some moral teaching, perhaps some dogmas, perhaps a liturgy and perhaps a clerical hierarchy. 

By the religious, Dewey meant the most attractive aspects of human nature, the highest ideals, the deepest unselfishness, the strongest commitment, the most effective creativity. Dewey claims that up until the 19th century, the greatest examples of the religious were found in members of religion. Members of religion wrote the great literature and poetry, built the beautiful cathedrals, established wonderful charitable institutions, produced the great paintings and statues. 

Dewey believed that since the 19th century, because of the rise of science, religion had fallen on hard times. Little by little, religions were abandoning their teaching and Dewey, because he was a secular humanist, thought this was fine. However he did not want the religious to disappear with religion. 

What could be done to continue the gradual disappearance of religion but not allow the religious to disappear with religion? Should we destroy the Catholic colleges and universities and do away with devout members of religion? Dewey did not think that. What had to be done, thought Dewey, was to interest members of religion in the real human problems. 

What are the real human problems: whether I celebrated Mass this morning or whether I am going to say the rosary this evening? Of course not. The real human problems are poverty, racism, war, violence, mental illness, unstable families, slums, hunger, and second rate educational institutions. Dewey thought that if members of religion became involved with the real human problems, gradually religion would disappear. For Dewey, religion was divisive. For him the ideal would be one common faith and that would be faith in humanity. 

An imagined example might make Dewey’s view more clear. Imagine that I go to Bishop Robert Brennan and suggest that instead of teaching at St. John’s University, I would like to live among the poor in the poorest section of the diocese, take a secular job, and identify with the poor as I try to bring Jesus to them. Imagine the bishop approves my proposal. 

As I try to live out my proposal, I am working very hard, perhaps working 16 hours a day, trying to bring Jesus to people. I notice that in the area in which I work and live, I am not the only one working very hard for long hours. In the same neighborhood others are working long hours: doctors, nurses, social workers, psychological counselors, teachers, but none of them are doing their work in order to bring Jesus to people. 

They are there to help people, and the thought of Jesus does not enter their mind. Perhaps many of them seem to be secular humanists. Gradually the thought of bringing Jesus to people means less and less to me, until one day I discover that I have become a secular humanist. This seems to have happened to some Catholics in the 1960s and perhaps even today. How did John Dewey foresee something like that? I don’t know, but I disagree completely with the view that becoming involved with real human problems will lead to a loss of faith. In fact becoming involved with such problems seems to me to be a sign of an active faith that will deepen through involvement.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.