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.