The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 26 Religion and Social Value[1]

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As A physiological organism we can abstract man from society and speak of him as a creature who lives in a certain environment and reaches his distant goals and avoids dangerous objects. But the self, as such, is a social entity that is more than a purely sentient organism, more than a living machine. Now, the self is what evidently is not---at-home" in the universe in the same sense that organisms are "at home." It is there that we find what is represented as the need for salvation. We always carry ideals of a social order which is not found in the conditions under which we live. Those social orders have always been in mind, as orders which are essential for the at-homeness of the self in the universe.

Religion is unquestionably a social affair. Its ideals have always transcended the situation in which men find themselves, unless perhaps one goes back to a very primitive community. The physiological organism is quite at home in its environment, and the physical machine is at home in its environment, but the society made up out of selves is not. It is trying to extend its control. Before science men tried to control the world by magic. The ends of magic and the ends of science are not essentially different; it is the means that are different. The magician and the medicine man were undertaking to control the environment in the interest of certain social ends, just as definitely as science does, but they did not succeed in any such degree.

There always is before us, then, the conception of some sort of an order of society which would be better than that order of society in which we exist and in which we would be, as selves, more at home than we are at the present time. I think that that is a naturalistic statement of the demand for at-homeness in the

(476) world and a fairly reasonable one. As social beings we are not at home in the world because we demand a different social situation and a different environment. We may project that into a world to come, or back to a Golden Age, but the social order in which we are actually existing is not one in which the self, as such, is at home.

2. Suppose that society falls to exercise the sort of control over its environment which is somewhat implicit in its life. Suppose the sufferings that come from natural causes cannot be controlled, that our science is inadequate to the task, and we cannot perfect it. We feel that here is a fundamental organism of society that has ideals, made up out of selves which cannot get their adequate expression, so that they are not at home in the world in any such sense as the physiological and physical organisms are. It is natural then to demand a different world where this discrepancy is not found. Of course, that is the assumption that has lain behind all religion. We look, then, for some power outside the world if we are going to reach the type of goal which social selves require.

3. Human society is not at home in the world because it is trying to change that world and change itself; and, so long as it has failed to so change itself and change its world, it is not at home in it as the physiological and physical mechanism is, There is a need for salvation-not the salvation of the individual but the salvation of the self as a social being. I think that side of it rather than the mystic attitude is of greatest importance. There are also present religious experiences. Our religious experiences come back to that possibility of the development of society so as to realize those values which belong to social beings.

4. Consider the demand of the individual for a continued existence, an attitude which varies with individuals. It is a question whether this need cannot be resolved into the one just discussed: the demand for the sort of society which we feel we ought to have in order that human beings could be the sort of human beings they should be -- an ideal social order, if you like.

(477) Now, does the demand which the individual makes for a continued existence also receive its explanation here ? Is the individual separable from a social order? Is not the great genius in the field of religion one who in a certain sense carries in him-self a higher social order and so transcends his immediate one? When Jesus, for example, gave his conception of humanity as a single family, he was embodying in his own experience that sort of a society, in so far as it could be embodied. Apart from the instinctive love of life, is this demand for immortality any more than an assertion of the continuous character of the social value which the individual as a social being can embody in himself?

5. In the conception of salvation it is implied that we do not feel that we are in harmony with what is the real end of the universe, if there is one. We assume there are certain values which belong to the world, as such, and what we want is to line ourselves up with them. In general, the assumption that has lain behind religion is that of a moral purpose in the universe; and, where we speak of salvation, we assume that the individual brings his own life in line with this purpose. Such is the way religion has expressed itself in the life of man. It is assumed that there is some essential moral process, a certain movement toward some end in the universe with which our own purpose ought to be aligned; and, in so far as the individual feels that he accomplishes this, he has the sense of salvation.

6. The desire to get a feeling of at-homeness in the world, and the assumption that the universe as a whole has the same sort of value that the individual has, can be further interpreted. What do the combined desire and assumption mean to us? If they have a value, it lies in our immediate experience and has a definite function of some sort in that experience. It has been a value which has been most prominent when social changes were taking place. The demand for salvation, where it swept over mankind as a whole, has gone along with the necessity of great social change. It is part of that experience. My suggestion is that the value of these experiences, so far as they are values that enter into life, has to do with our relationship to our social en-

(478) -vironment, with our effort to realize there those values of importance and to conserve them. The mystical experiences which may be, of course, very widely felt in terms of excitement are really the sense of the relation of man to his society. He brings himself into relationship with that society and brings society itself into such a form that the proper relationship may be itself set up again.

It is a question, then, of the interpretation of exactly what this value is. I think a third possibility should be brought in. We can take the agnostic attitude that we have no way of finding out what our relation to the universe as a whole is. Or we can take religious experiences as having an import and accept them as a means of bringing out the meaning of life. The third suggestion is that these experiences themselves, the value experiences, can be conceivably analyzed and brought back to the relation which we have to society as a whole, especially when we recognize that that society is itself changing, and when we recognize that its values are in the process of development and that what we are seeking for is a connection between our own value experiences and that social whole to which we belong.

7. Is it necessary that that feeling of unity or solidarity should go beyond the society itself to the physical universe which seems to support it? There is no way at the present time that we can with any security connect the history of man and the values which have appeared in society with the history of the physical universe.


  1. Taken from student notes.

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