A recent debate between Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton prompted the following essay from Penn Press author Edward J. Blum.
Is God Great? Is God a Delusion?: How W. E. B. Du Bois Would Respond to Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins
The thesis of Christopher Hitchens's new book isn't complicated: "religion poisons everything." Nor is the overarching point of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion: god is a delusion. The present political and global climate has invigorated these claims. If the actions of believers are any indication, then God seems angry, violent, and purely self-interested. Fundamentalist Muslims and Christians -- battling in just about every way possible-- have left many wondering about the place of religion in society. The name of a higher power has been invoked to bomb buildings (not only the World Trade Centers, lest we forget abortion clinics, black churches, and synagogues) and to justify infringing civil rights (in the form of discrimination in immigration and sexual orientation). Perhaps, Dawkins and Hitchens contend, humanity would be better off by ditching the entire notion of God.
This has happened before. Religion has often been used to justify brutality, hate, and violence. As a result, people have often wondered about faith and the gods. West Africans in the Middle Passage must have asked where their gods were and then in the New World how benevolent this god of the whites could be.
World War I precipitated a moral crisis throughout Europe: how could God be good and allow eight million young men to die for no apparent reason? Of course, the horrors of World War II left the globe spiritually aghast, confused, and reeling. Yet every time religion has been used to aid the powers of evil and has led to concerns of faith, something happened that seemed to show that the idea of god could be a powerful force for good. The Middle Passage led to the creation of new types of faiths, one of which--black Christianity--had the power to challenge enslavement, racism, and then segregation. The abolition crusade was built on biblical notions of the unity of humanity. The spiritual evil of Nazism was followed chronologically by the spiritual brilliance of the civil rights movement. Every time it seems that God is dead (and for good reason), it seems that God comes back in full force to advance what is right.
(Let us not forget that "science" and "reason" have not always been kind to justice and brotherhood. Slavery and colonization of the New World were part of the Enlightenment project; the eugenics movement probably had the support of more academics and the scientifically minded than it did ministers and preachers; and Nazism was built on scientific calculation as much as on faith.)
W. E. B. Du Bois, the intrepid African American intellectual and activist, knew all of this better than most, for he lived through segregation, the terror of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the beginning of the civil rights movement. Du Bois knew that neither science nor religion was inherently good; they were both what people made them, and for that reason one could not bring peace and justice without the other. He saw religion used for good and for ill and came to a central conclusion: religion and science need each other desperately.
In 1945, Du Bois made his ideas clear in Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace. In many ways, his work on the connections between science and religion, between globalism and particularism, between violence and peace, need to be remembered. His ideas need to be heard again, now and fast.
Researched and written while he was the director of special research for the NAACP, Color and Democracy was a brief in favor of decolonization. Du Bois insisted that if the world wanted to avoid another world war and another Holocaust, then people shackled by colonial chains must be released, uplifted, and allowed democracy. Specifically, Du Bois railed against missionaries and religious traditions as furthering conquest and colonization. He claimed that organized religion, at least in the western world, had failed miserably because it had been co-opted by big business and land-grabbing nations. The world of finance corrupted the world of faith, and as a consequence demons disguised themselves as angels, bullies paraded as benefactors, and the blind claimed that those with eyes could not see. After applauding missions to Africa and Asia for bringing modern education, Du Bois announced, "The great criticism of this work is that from the beginning it co-operated, perhaps unconsciously, with industrial exploitation."
According to Du Bois, churches were on the side of oppression abroad and at home, now and in the past. "Both Catholic and Protestant churches became in the United States ardent defenders of Negro slavery," he asserted, and not much had changed since the early nineteenth century. "The Christian Church in America today is almost completely separated along the color line," Du Bois lamented, "just as are the army, the navy, the nursing service, and even the blood banks." Churches had failed to live up to their mission for social good: "In many cases where moral opposition is needed, the Church became strangely silent and complacent, and gave the world a right to say with Lenin, 'Religion is the opium of the people.'" The state of modern Christianity, Du Bois concluded, was one that Christ would find reprehensible: "the Church as organized in modern civilized countries has become the special representative of the employing and exploiting classes. It has become mainly a center of wealth and social exclusiveness, and by this very fact, wherever you find a city of large and prosperous churches. . . you find cities where the so-called best people, the educated, intelligent, and well-to-do, are critical of democracy, . . .because their economic interests have put them in opposition to forward movements and the teachers and preachers whom they hire have fed them on that kind of prejudice, or maintained significant silence."
Du Bois then offered a candid appraisal of his own stance on religion. Of "organized religion," he announced himself "distinctly critical." He declared, "I cannot believe that any chosen body of people or special organization of mankind has received a direct revelation of ultimate truth which is denied to earnest scientific effort." He continued, "It may well be that God has revealed ultimate knowledge to babes and sucklings, but that is no reason why I, one who does not believe this miracle, should surrender to infants the guidance of my mind and effort. No light of faith, no matter how kindly and beneficent, can in a world of reason guide human beliefs to truth unless it is continually tested by pragmatic fact."
Yet Du Bois made it clear that neither his personal criticism of organized religion, nor his contempt for its complicity in social exploitation, meant that faith in God should be abandoned. He was convinced that religious belief was necessary to transform the world. The problem, as Du Bois saw it, was not that there was too much religion, but that it was not guided by science and scholarship. "There is a dichotomy between religion and social uplift, the Church and sociology," Du Bois complained. This "leads to deplorable loss of effort and division of thinking." Spiritual traditions needed to speak to social dilemmas. "Religion has been an emotional release and escape method for pessimism and despair, coupled with utter doubt, so far as this world is concerned," Du Bois acknowledged. Science could not abandon faith, though. "While science, as social reform, has been the optimistic belief in human uplift, without any compelling reason for accomplishing this for any particular persons, or at any particular time. It is as so often happens, religion without science, science without guiding ideals." In short, science needed religion to give it direction and heart; and religion needed scholarship to give it practicality and applicability.
Science and religion must locate common ground if the world was to survive. "Is there not, then, a chance to find common ground for a program of human betterment which seeks by means of known and tested knowledge the ideal ends of faith?" Du Bois asked. For this to occur, both science and religion would have to give. "This would involve on the part of the Church a surrender of dogma to the extent of being willing to work for human salvation this side of eternity, and to admit the possibility of vast betterment here and now--a path the Church has often followed." Science would have to allow faith some privileges as well. "This would involve on the part of science the admission that what we know is greatly exceeded by what we do not know, and that there may be realms in time and space of infinitely more importance than the problems of this small world." At the end of the day, science and religion must join forces for "a realistic program of making this world better now."
Du Bois dreamed of a redeemed world, one that could rise above the ashes of white supremacy, economic exploitation, colonialism, genocide, and world war. He had not lost hope. The world, he declared, "with all its contradictions, can be saved, can yet be born again; but not out of capital, interest, property, and gold, rather out of dreams and loiterings, out of simple goodness and friendship and love, out of science and missions." This new world must be born, Du Bois implored. "The day has dawned when above a wounded, tired earth unselfish sacrifice, without sin and hell, may join thorough technique, shorn of ruthless greed, and make a new religion, one with new knowledge, to shout from old hills of heaven: Go Down Moses." A new religion--one that resonated with the sacred songs of the past and was informed by scientific scholarship of the present--was Du Bois's prescription for an ailing world.
Du Bois's approach to religion and science is a good one, one that will probably get us further than Dawkins's or Hitchens's. People in the United States and throughout the world are not going to give up their beliefs in god and the gods. We need to bridge the religion-science divide and the god-gaps between communities. If we could thus make progress toward "making this world better now," it would be worth the effort.
Edward J. Blum is Associate Professor of History at San Diego State University. His latest book W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet, will be released in June.