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What Would Du Bois Say?: A Response to Hitchens and Dawkins

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

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.