natural piety

We ended cryptically in A&S on Tuesday, with William James’s intriguing statement (in bold):

The problem I have set myself is a hard one: first, to defend (against all the prejudices of my “class”) “experience”against “philosophy” as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life—I mean prayer, guidance, and all that sort of thing immediately and privately felt, as against high and noble general views of our destiny and the world’s meaning; and second, to make the hearer or reader believe, what I myself invincibly do believe, that, although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function. A task well-nigh impossible, I fear, and in which I shall fail; but to attempt it is my religious act.

Today we bring two more voices into our conversation, to take a crack at interpreting James’s meaning. Robert Solomon and Andre Comte-Sponville join James, Sagan, Sweeney, Dawkins, and a host of naturalists, humanists, and Brights in our expanding circle.  I wonder how they’d respond to the 1904 questionnaire that James answered this way:

Do you believe in personal immortality? “Never keenly; but more strongly as I grow older.” Do you pray? “I cannot possibly pray—I feel foolish and artificial.” What do you mean by ‘spirituality’? “Susceptibility to ideals, but with a certain freedom to indulge in imagination about them. A certain amount of ‘other worldly’ fancy. Otherwise you have mere morality, or ‘taste.'” What do you mean by a ‘religious experience’? “Any moment of life that brings the reality of spiritual things more ‘home’ to one.”

French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville, in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, seems very Deweyan to me. We don’t need to invent new values, we need to transmit the good old ones (with value-added) so that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it. Such “fidelity” runs deeper and wider than mere faith. It expands our sense of self, giving us something larger than ourselves (but not larger than nature, society, and history) to work for.

In Spirituality for the Skeptic Robert Solomon urges a return to philosophy’s close earlier kinship to spirituality. He actually mentions Dewey: Although one might identify spirituality in terms of what John Dewey once called a “religious attitude,” spirituality is a much broader concept than the rather specialized notion of religion… Spirituality is a human phenomenon… spirituality and intelligence go hand in hand… spirituality is not primarily a matter of beliefs… spirituality and science at their best are kindred spirits…

And: The point, which I share with Hegel and Nietzsche, is to cast the net of spirituality as wide as possible. That’s Deweyan too: it’s all about charting our relations to the totality of nature and other people. “Natural piety,” Dewey called it. “The thoughtful love of life” is Solomon’s Hallmark-card slogan.

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