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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Spring 2002, Vol. 29 No. 1

John Dewey and His Religious Critics 

Alan G. Phillips, Jr.

At a time when recommendations for educational reform are prevalent, some Christian writers often turn to American philosopher and educator John Dewey to assign blame for the many social ills that have plagued the nation’s landscapes of learning This is not surprising as there are many counts on which Dewey often disappoints both Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians who read his work. Dewey ardently embraced evolutionary naturalism, challenged classical conceptions of absolute truth and constructed a non-theistic image of God that hardly represents the personal Heavenly Father evoked in the Lord’s Prayer. On top of this, Dewey’s ongoing faith in the possibilities of scientific inquiry and democracy often bypassed theological questions about the persistence of human evil. Vigorous Christian debate over many Deweyan legacies seems reasonable given popular concerns about morality and ethics in education.

What surprises me personally, however, are the measures some of Dewey’s religious critics have resorted to in their attempts to dissect and discredit his pragmatism. Frequently, I am left wondering why select Christian authors who profess a belief in unchanging truths and absolutes have been eager to distort and misrepresent the views of John Dewey and other humanistic intellectuals. At times, this critical approach threatens to turn militant in its zeal to destroy the character of opponents without publicly engaging the subtleties of their ideas. When religious critique takes this path, it often bypasses the spirit of compassion for enemies and opponents proclaimed in the New Testament Gospels.

Many Christian authors profess a love for truth, yet they fail to offer their public an honest, in-depth or coherent account of past humanistic ideas. As a result, such ideas are often cast in the worst possible light and associated with everything from the terrors of the Holocaust to the atrocities of Stalin’s purges.1 After reading the works of such authors, one might wonder if their tactics for winning a larger culture war are compromised by their strategies deployed in smaller skirmishes. Some Christian apologists may be vulnerable to the allegation that they are not sympathetically engaged with the humanistic authors they wish to criticize and that such superficiality is reflected in their popular writings. I would like to support this contention through the use of several examples. My intention here is not to malign the character of the authors mentioned. Instead, I would like to make a general point about the need for more compassionate engagement and thoroughness in the service of an apologetics delivered to a general public. Specifically, I shall focus on some recent treatments of John Dewey’s philosophy in some widely distributed Christian books.

[Spring 2002 Issue Contents]