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.