Thursday, February 18, 2016

W.E.B. Du Bois Articulates His Religious Views

The academic career of W.E.B. Du Bois covered much intellectual territory: from an early attraction to the free market, which he then saw as a chance for African-Americans to compete and prove their talent, to a later leaning toward socialism in his declining years.

Despite his successive embrace of different, and even mutually exclusive, politico-economic views, his engagement in spiritual matters remained constant, even if the details likewise varied.

In his engagement with what would come to be known as the ‘civil rights movement,’ Du Bois saw the motivational and psychological power of the Black church. As historian Gary Dorrien writes:

For Du Bois, nothing compared to the black church as a source of inspiration, hope, solidarity, identity, belonging, moral language, and transcendent meaning. Black Americans owned nothing else outright. Du Bois stressed that any movement worth building had to share in the life of the black church, speaking its language of hope and redemption. The Niagara Movement, and later the NAACP, had to include religious leaders, reaching beyond the usual circle of urban professionals. Though he has often been argued out of the lineage, the black social gospel happened among church leaders who appropriated Du Bois for their own contexts.

But Du Bois saw religion as more than mere emoting. While he rejected much about the Black church, and much about orthodox Christianity, he also refused to embrace atheism. The reader may attribute a nuanced position to Du Bois, in part because of his formative experiences in Berlin.

Working with significant scholars in Berlin, Du Bois was attracted to Marx’s atheism, but ultimately rejected it. He was exposed to the careful philological and philosophical methods of a generation of significant scholars. Francis Broderick writes:

In 1892, after two years of graduate study at Harvard, DuBois went abroad on a grant - half gift, half loan - from the Slater Fund, a philanthropic foundation headed by ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes. At the University of Berlin, he continued his course work in the social sciences. His program for the fall term of his first year, for example, included a course in politics under Heinrich von Treitschke; a study of the beginnings of the modern state; Rudolph von Gneist’s Prussian state reform; theoretical political economy and “industrialism and society” under Adolph Wagner; and Gustav von Schmoller’s Prussian constitutional history. In addition, he was admitted to Schmoller’s seminar and, as at Harvard, spent the bulk of his time preparing a research paper, this time on “The Plantation and Peasant Proprietorship System of Agriculture in the Southern United States.”

Because Du Bois received training in the careful formulation of ideas, his statements about religion and faith may, and should, be carefully parsed. Brian Johnson writes:

When Du Bois began his two years of graduate study at the University of Berlin in 1890, nineteenth-century German universities offered the world's best education in socially scientific research.

Du Bois synthesized his childhood experiences in a Congregationalist church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, with the legendary scholarship of Germany’s nineteenth century.

Rudolf von Gneist, e.g., was consulted by the rulers of Japan when they wrote those sections of their constitution which dealt with religion and society. Brian Johnson continues:

Du Bois’ exposure in Berlin to the most rigorous form of socially scientific methodology available in the late nineteenth century would apparently spur him towards an avowed commitment to commingle his earlier desire to see manifest within African-American communities a more appropriate moral, ethical, intellectual, and social framework - namely a true Christian pragmatism that resembled what he experienced within the Congregationalist Great Barrington community - and the method by which he would be able to observe and document it - namely, social science. And this rather naive oil-and-water philosophy held by the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895 would remain irreconcilable for the still developing agnostic who would embark upon his career as a social scientist and reformer as a professor at Wilberforce and Atlanta universities. Much further, it probably led to the most pronounced silence in Du Bois’ utterly detailed chronology, autobiographical writings, and personal correspondence - his tenure within the American Negro Academy (1897-1903) and his relationship with Reverend Alexander Crummell.

Although Du Bois was eager to harness the ethical implications of Christianity in the service of the civil rights movements, and although he was eager to harness the motivational power of the church for the same purposes, we may not assume that Du Bois saw nothing more than ethics and emotional motivation in religion.

Du Bois countenanced a concept of God which was ontologically independent and objectively real.

Because his education in Berlin instilled in him a thorough precision in his use of words, his steady refusal to embrace atheism may be taken, not as a casual use of words, but rather as a thought-out philosophical stance.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Curious Religion of W.E.B. Du Bois

Over the decades of his career, the economic and political views of W.E.B. Du Bois changed considerably. The constant factor in his thought, however, was a persistent spiritual awareness.

Before beginning his college education, Du Bois was already on a path to formulate his own spirituality. Like Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, Du Bois wanted his own investigation of God, and was not willing merely to receive a prefabricated belief system.

His early experiences in school prepared him well for this. His classes included Latin, Greek, geometry, and geography: good preparation for natural theology. Historian Francis Broderick gives an overview of the secondary curriculum which Du Bois studied:

DuBois’s preparation was well started at his high school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he took the standard “classical” college preparatory course: four years of Latin and three of Greek; arithmetic, algebra, and geometry in three of the four years; one year of English, a year of ancient and American history; and scattered terms of geography, physiology, and hygiene. In addition, like every other student, he presented compositions, declamations, and recitations, and performed occasional exercises in reading, spelling, and music. His high school principal, Frank A. Hosmer, encouraged him to plan for college and even helped to provide the necessary text books. Will rewarded Hosmer’s confidence by completing the high school course with high honors, along with various extracurricular distinctions such as the presidency of the high school lyceum. Such a record encouraged young Will’s townsmen to arrange for a scholarship to Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee.

As a student at Fisk University in the 1880s, Du Bois drifted away from both the mainstream Black church, and from the broader Christian orthodoxy of which that church was a part.

In Berlin in the 1890s, Du Bois was exposed to a spectrum of belief systems, held by his professors, who were leading scholars in the social sciences. Biographies of Du Bois routinely list his Berlin professors as a catalogue of the brightest minds in the field, and work with them stimulated his intellect.

Although in some ways attracted to Marx’s atheism, Du Bois, again following Einstein and Newton, studiously avoided atheism. It is not that Du Bois consciously patterned himself after Einstein or Newton, but rather that his development naturally paralleled theirs.

The literature on him routinely reports that he called himself an ‘agnostic.’ In 1948, answering a correspondent who’d asked about his beliefs, he wrote:

If by being “a believer in God,” you mean a belief in a person of vast power who consciously rules the universe for the good of mankind, I answer No; I cannot disprove this assumption, but I certainly see no proof to sustain such a belief, neither in History nor in my personal experience.

If on the other hand you mean by “God” a vague Force which, in some uncomprehensible way, dominates all life and change, then I answer, Yes; I recognize such Force, and if you wish to call it God, I do not object.

Du Bois makes two assertions: first, that he cannot disprove the existence of a personal God; second, that he asserts the existence of a God who is at least impersonal.

His position, that there exists some Higher Power, and that at least in principle one cannot disprove that this Higher Power might have agency, is detectable in the works for which Du Bois is more famous, his writings on social science and his efforts in what would later become known as the ‘civil rights movement.’

While Du Bois recognized organized religion as a persuasive force, as a psychological force, and as society’s keeper of ethics, he went beyond religious institutions and recognized an ontologically independent Deity, whose existence is real and objective. Gary Dorrien writes:

His passionate, unorthodox spiritual sensibility came through to many readers. They understood that a religious, arguably Christian passion lay behind Du Bois’s furious attacks on unworthy ministers and church dogmatism. Even at Wilberforce, Du Bois stumped for social gospel religion: “Christianity means sympathy; the realization of what it costs a human being to live and support a family in decency … Christianity means unselfishness; the willingness to forego in part one’s personal advantage and give up some personal desires for the sake of a larger end which will be for the advantage of a greater number of people.”

In Berlin, Du Bois was exposed to the work of his professors, men like Heinrich von Treitschke, Rudolph von Gneist, Gustav von Schmoller, and Adolph Wagner. These scholars were significant. Rudolf von Gneist, e.g., powerfully influence Max Weber.

These professors, and others, influenced Du Bois. They themselves were only a generation removed from great thinkers like Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Schleiermacher.

Because Du Bois absorbed the scholarly methods of these intellects, the reader is justified in carefully parsing his texts, e.g., his 1948 letter on religious belief. These texts can be analyzed as one analyzes philosophical texts.

It becomes clear, then, that there is no justification for the assertion that Du Bois was an atheist. He explicitly strove to avoid atheism.

While clearly aware of the motivational and psychological power of religion, and while he hoped at certain points in his career to harness that power for the cause of civil rights, he did not reduce the concept of God to mere emoting.

Du Bois also does not fit easily into the categories of orthodox Christianity or of mainstream Black church.

As a thinker, Du Bois was a committed theist, but one of his own stripe.

Monday, February 1, 2016

W.E.B. Du Bois and God

Among African-American civil rights leaders, W.E.B. Du Bois is one of the more complex personalities. His thoughts during the early part of his career were quite different than during his later work.

In his early phases, Du Bois saw free markets and free enterprise as a chance for Blacks to move upward in society. He wanted to remove the artificial restrictions of institutionalized racism and to allow African-Americans to compete.

He believed that Blacks had creativity, ingenuity, and motivation, and that given a chance in the business world, many of them would succeed.

But later in life, Du Bois had become cynical, and doubted whether a truly fair business climate could be established. At the end of his career, he reject the ideas of a “free market” and instead wanted a socialist government to control how people used their money.

Thus Du Bois embraced, at different times, two opposing views.

But Du Bois had a spiritual element in his thought which remained continuous over the years. Although attracted to Marx’s atheism, Du Bois did not declare himself an atheist. He retained some spiritual attitude, however ambiguous. Historian Gary Dorrien writes:

Du Bois, however, had a spiritual wellspring of his own. He was a keen appreciator of Jesus, and his argument with the black church was a lover's quarrel. His writings were strewn with religious images and references, even after he supposedly dropped religion for Marxism. The Souls of Black Folk famously invoked “our spiritual strivings” and lauded the spirituals. He began his book Darkwater with the social gospel “Credo,” conjured a black baby Jesus in his essay “The Second Coming,” conjured an adult black Jesus in the scathing “Jesus Christ in Texas,” and ended with a “Hymn to the Peoples.”

Although vague, Du Bois refused to relegate his spirituality to realm of symbolism or emotion. He certainly did not belong in the mainstream of African-American Christianity.

At times he criticized the Black churches; at other times he sought to encourage them. To be sure, he saw the power of religion to energize. But he did not rule out an objective ontological reality within spirituality. Gary Dorrien notes that even at the end of his career, Du Bois was concerned about the social role of religion:

As late as the 1950s, Du Bois was still writing about saving “the tattered shreds of God.”

While studying at Fisk University in the 1880s, Du Bois drifted from orthodox Christianity. In the 1890s, he did graduate work in Berlin, where he was introduced to many unorthodox forms of Christianity. He was interested in exploring these more nuanced form of spirituality, rather than dogmatic and doctrinaire atheism.