Code: TP-38

Peirce’s Common Sense Marriage of Religion and Science

Charles Peirce=s work regarding religion marks out a middle position among the work of the other American pragmatists.  It stands between John Dewey=s minimal notion of religiosity in which AGod@ stood for the power of actualizing human ideals and William James=s religious individualism that also downplayed the importance of the church on the one side and, on the other, Josiah Royce=s  Aabsolute pragmatism@ that  in The Problem of Christianity developed the importance of the church as a Abeloved community.@   In this essay, I would like to outline some of the defining features of this mediating position and to show that it is a fitting piece of Peirce=s philosophical architectonic.

Over the course of his career Peirce generated a basic outlook on religion by exploring the relationship between what he called the spirit of science and the spirit of religion.  The spirit of religion, which for Peirce is driven by instinct, feeling, and common sense, aims directly at guiding the conduct of life.  Because of its focus on practice, Peirce believed, the spirit of religion tends to beBand needs to beBsomewhat conservative.  The spirit of science, on the other hand, is such that science open to change.  AThus it happens quite naturally,@ Peirce said, Athat those who are animated with the spirit of science are for hurrying forward, while those who have the interests of religion at heart are apt to press back@ (CP 6.430).

However natural this difference between the two kinds of inquiry, Peirce believed it was often pushed to an extreme by both scientists and religionists.  In 1911 he reasserted that Ano two spirits (tendencies) not downright conflicting can well be more opposed than the spirit of science and the spirit of religion@ (MS 851:1).  He went on to point out that this often leads to an animosity between the two.  Difficulties arise when the novelties of science encounter the natural conservatism of religion.  AIn this way,@ he argued, Ascience and religion become forced into hostile attitudes@ (CP 6.431).  But we need to note the phrase Anot downright conflicting@ in the 1911 passage.  Although science and religion place their emphases and develop their tendencies in different directions, they are not, as Peirce saw it, Adownright conflicting.@  In principle, the opposing spirits should be able to live together.  How such a Amarriage@ of science and religion might be effected was a theme of Peirce=s thinking both early and late in his career.   For the most part, his efforts in this task were directed toward reconstructing our understanding of a religious lifeBwe might call it his pragmatizing, or pragmaticizing, of religion, so that the spirit of religion could be understood to live in concert with the spirit of science.

      Origins and Aims of Religion

For Peirce, as for James, religious belief was most often the result not of reasoned argument but of instinct, common sense, or feeling.  In his essay AA Neglected Argument for the Reality of God@ he made this explicit in his discussion of belief in the reality of God.  There he argued, in trying to make sense of Galileo=s conception of Asimplicity,@ that Athe simpler Hypothesis in the sense of the more facile and natural@ is Athe one that instinct suggests@ (CP 6.477).  Thus the Ahumble@ belief in God=s reality was an initially strong hypothesis because it excited the Apeculiar confidence@ that instinctive beliefs create Ain the highest degree@ (CP 6.477).  Religious belief is directly experiential and therefore bears the strength of immediacy; it is what Peirce occasionally called Apractically indubitable.@  Peirce often equated instinctive and common sense beliefs with feeling and perception, further amplifying the originary power that religious experience displayed. [1]    In his eighth Lowell lecture of 1903, Peirce indicated that instinct suggested a kind of direct experience or perception:

Ordinary ideas of perception, which Descartes thought were most horribly confused, have nevertheless something in them that very nearly warrants their truth, if it does not quite so.  >Seeing is believing, says the man of instinct.= [CP 5.593]

In 1896, Peirce had already drawn the connection between religious belief and perception, hinting at its instinctive or common-sensical nature.  In one of his many attacks on nominalism as unscientific, he brought perception into the religious arena:

Where would one find such an idea, say as that of God, come from, if not from direct experience?  Would you make it a result of some kind of reasoning, good or bad? . . . .  No: as to God, open your eyesBand your heart, which is also a perceptive organBand you see him. [CP 6.493]

In short, philosophy is not the origin of most religious beliefBsuch belief is felt, perceived, or experienced.  This has several implications.  First, the power of instinctive belief seemed to Peirce exemplified by religious experience, thus providing a solid basis for the commitments necessary to the conduct of life.  Second, it meant that the contents of such beliefs were invariably vague, general, and unfinished.  And finally, this indefiniteness meant that religious beliefs required philosophy, science, or theoretical inquiry for their developmentBtheir unfinished state needed explication and interpretation.  Thus, the instinctive-perceptual origin of religious belief made it useful for its primary aimBconducting life.  But at the same time, it made it susceptible to misuse and abuse, for which the only antidote could be an openness to ongoing theoretical inquiry concerning its meaning.

The Amost distinctive character of the Critical-Common-sensist,@ Peirce remarked, Alies in his insistence that the acritically indubitable is invariably vague@ (CP 5.446).  The instinctiveness of the ideas of religious belief thus entails their indeterminateness in vagueness and generality. [2]    It is important to note that this is a strength of instinctive beliefs, as Peirce saw it, not a weakness.  The vagueness of the common-sense or instinctive beliefs allows them to provide a direction or heading for our conduct without foreclosing on the variety of ways in which that direction might be developed.  In religious belief specifically, it allows for a variety of religious experiences that are tethered only by vague, working conceptions of God, love, and the summum bonum.  In short, vague and general conceptions are good enough for the conduct of life, that is, for most of our practical concerns.  Such a view lies at the heart of Peirce=s ANeglected Argument.@  There the AGod@ hypothesis is understood Aas vague yet as true so far as it is definite@ (CP 6.466, see also CP 6.494).  In a 1905 letter to William James, Peirce made the point in similar fashion: AThe idea [of a Aliving@ God] is a vague one but is only the more irresistible for that.  Subtile distinctions are out of place; the truth of common sense is that little as we can comprehend the author of all beauty and power and thought, it is really impossible, except by sophisticating the plain truth, to think otherwise than that there is a living being@ (Fisch files, 7/26/05).  Peirce saw the directness of religious experience as a kind of knowledge by acquaintance, the way we might know, say, physical suffering through participation in a contest of endurance.   He seemed to indicate that though the definiteness of such ideas is limited, we have a closeness to them through this direct acquaintance such that they are easily employed in guiding everyday practices: ANo words are so well understood in one way, yet they are invariably vague; and of many of them it is true that, let the logician do his best to substitute precise equivalents in their places, still, the vernacular words alone, for all their vagueness, answer the principal purposes@ (CP 6.494).

The spirit of religion is to conduct our lives under the guidance of instinctive, common sense beliefs in such a way as to ameliorate human existence.  To establish this is the aim of the first of the three nested arguments in the ANeglected Argument,@ the Ahumble argument@: Aany normal man who considers the three Universes in the light of the hypothesis of God=s Reality, and pursues that line of reflection in scientific singleness of heart, will come to be stirred to the depths of his nature by the beauty of the idea and by its August practicality, even to the point of earnestly loving and adoring his hypothetical God, and to that of desiring above all things to shape the whole conduct of life and all the springs of action into conformity with that hypothesis@ (CP 6.467).  This seems a tall order at first glance, but Peirce believed he was simply reflecting an experience that had been common among human cultures and histories.  Across time and cultural space, there seems to be a general consensus of the Agoodness@ of those who act from love and caring toward the interests of others.  As Kelly Parker suggests, for Peirce, those Awho are affected by the religious sentiment will be attuned to the benevolent, just, and wise aspects of the world, and will mold their lives so as to contribute to these tendencies in society and in the order of things@ (Parker 1990:198).  In such attunement there is a natural conservatism, a humble affinity for the acritical instinctive and common sense beliefs.  However, the spirit of this conservatism is directed toward moral action and is not antagonistic to the spirit of science.  It is innocent rather than ignorant.  It is, as it were, not yet awake to the spirit of science.  No theorizing, interpreting, or precising of the instinctive beliefs is yet at stake.

Thus, for Peirce, our vague notions of God and agape, or cherishing love, are sufficient for us to get on with the project of bettering human existence. [3]   Nevertheless, Peirce routinely worried about the dangersBto science, to morality, and to religion itself-- whose germs lay at this juncture of religious belief and practice.  The conservatism, if taken to extreme, could stand in the way of any quest for truth.  Thus, the way of life guided by religious belief was always on trial; we are in fact always carrying out experiments on our beliefs in the ways we live.  This marks the clearly Jamesian side of Peirce=s pragmatic philosophy of religion: AEven for the greatest saints, the active motives were not such hopes and fears [of heaven and hell], but the prospect of leaving behind them fertile seeds of desirable fruits here on earth@ (CP 6.451). [4]   The consequences of our actions are, in part at least, the pragmaticistic test of the truth of our instinctive beliefs.  The beliefs take on a life in human history and remain open, to growth, development, and change.  Thus, for Peirce, the Areasonable@ religious person,

will see that the hypothesis [of a real, loving God], irresistible though it be to first intention, yet needs Probation; and that though an infinite being is not tied down to any consistency, yet man, like any other animal, is gifted with power of understanding sufficient for the conduct of life.  This brings him, for testing the hypothesis, to taking his stand upon Pragmaticism, which implies faith in common sense and instinct, though only as they issue from the cupelfurnace of measured criticism.  In short, he will say that the N. A. [Neglected Argument] is the First Stage of a scientific inquiry, resulting in a hypothesis of the very highest Plausibility, whose ultimate test must lie in its value in the self-controlled growth of man=s conduct of life. [CP 6.480]

Peirce=s conception of the religious life thus shares James=s and Dewey=s meliorism.  The difference is that Peirce makes a much stronger commitment to the regulative ideals of truth and goodness.  This commitment requires an openness to the growth and development of religious beliefs as with all beliefsBreligious belief must be open to reflection and inquiry.  For Peirce, this meant that the spirit of religion must find a way to marry itself to the spirit of science.  However, he believed that another mode of theorizing about religious belief stood in the way of this proper union.

    Theology and the Theorizing of Religious Belief

As a good Aristotelian, Peirce did suggest that it was natural for persons to want to theorize about the world and about their religious beliefs.   The question, given his critical common-sensism, was not whether one can inquire into religious ideas or into other ideas that might have a bearing on religion, the question is how one is to do this.  Theology, as Peirce understood it, employs the wrong kind of theorizing and leads to a vicious conservatism that threatens both science and religion.

The failure of religions, from a pragmatic point of view, has by and large been a function of their engaging in theology.  Peirce believed that theology masqueraded as a science while it was, in essence, antithetical to the spirit of science.  It indeed brought logic to bear on religious beliefs, but it mistakenly treated religion as a closed deductive system of ideas.  Since Atheology pretends to be a science,@ Peirce argued in 1898, theologians Amust also be judged as scientific men@ (CP 6.3).  Judged in this way, theologians invariably fail because instead of seeking truth through open inquiry, they take as their Aprincipal business . . . to make men feel the enormity of the slightest departure from the metaphysics they assume to be connected with the standard faith@ (CP 6.3).  Theology is anti-scientific just insofar as it is tenacious and authoritative.  Instead of actually exploring the possibilities, it begins with a dogmatic platform and seeks to insulate it from criticism.  It is at best an uncritical common-sensism.  Indeed, theology need not even be common-sensical, since the theologian mayBand often doesBarbitrarily adopt any belief as the origin of his or her deductive work.   More often than not, theology becomes a practical  instrument for narrow aimsBan instrument that is neither scientific nor theoretical.

Theology=s method, if it is a method, is to express and defend tenaciously and authoritatively some specific version of religious ideas.  To do this, it tries to specify the ideas so particular rules and interpretations can be nailed down.  For example, the vernacular AGod@ is replaced with a named being or beings who are historically located, embodied, or otherwise definitely described.  Likewise, the Agood@ is reduced to a narrow formula of behavior, a set of rules that curtails human variety and flexibility in dealing with life situations.  In short, theologians produce and defend creeds and doctrines.  Under the method of theology Athe Church requires subscription to a platformBa Creed@ (CP 6.450).  By way of this version of theorizing religion, Peirce argued, we cannot Ahope that any body of priests should consider themselves more teachers of religion in general than of the particular system of theology advocated by their own party@ ( CP 6.427).  Theology thus embodies all that Peirce resisted--tenacity, authority, closure of inquiry, and absence of growthBand has repeatedly proved itself a danger to humanity.  Consequently, those who disciple themselves to a theological doctrine become automata following rules rather than believers inspired to produce a better life through love.  Instead of looking to the efficacy of love in daily life, theologians generate argumentation that unnecessarily politicizes the religious life:

They swamp religion in fallacious disputations.  Thus, the natural tendency is to the continual drawing tighter and tighter of the narrowing bounds of doctrine, with less and less attention to the living essence of religion, until, after some symbolum quodcumque has declared that the salvation of each individual absolutely and almost exclusively depends upon his entertaining a correct metaphysics of the godhead, the vital spark of inspiration becomes finally quite extinct. [CP 6.438]

Thus, the vicious conservatism of theology moves beyond the working conservatism of religious belief and works to destroy the religious life out of which it grew.  It makes religion antagonistic to science.

For Peirce, however, there is a clear division of labor.  Religion can initially effect its practical work with its vague beliefs.  But, as natural curiosity leads us to inquire about these ideas, we move from religion to science, from practice to theory.  Thus, when theology=s narrow determination of religious beliefs creates doubt and generates inquiry, we must turn to the spirit and the method of science.   Theology, however, is unable to make the transition.  The height of its reasoning is explicative deduction.  It can only return to its dogmatic doctrine and authoritatively repeat its arguments.  It circles its wagons and conservatively holds its ground.

For Peirce, a genuinely religious outlook would understand the limitations of its aim and would know to relinquish the responsibility of inquiry to the scientific spirit. [5]    If religious life is to ameliorate the world, it must, Peirce believed, hold an abiding respect for truth.  Such respect involves an openness to growth, to development.  Thus, as ideas develop through the community of inquirers, they will have a gradual effect on religious belief and subsequently on religious practices: AI do not say that philosophical science should not ultimately influence religion and morality; I only say that it should be allowed to do so only with secular slowness and the most conservative caution@ (CP 1.620).  A Peircean religion must act through its commitments at the same time that it remains open to self-development and self-revision.  Peirce put it this way when he wrote to James in 1897: A>Faith,= in the sense that one will adhere consistently to a given line of conduct, is highly necessary in affairs.  But if it means you are not going to be alert for indications that the moment has come to change your tactics, I think it is ruinous in practice@ (MS L224: 2). 

Peirce thus envisioned religion in a reciprocal dependence with science; the two must engage in an ongoing dialectical relationship.  An idea that is effective as a religious belief, if it is to be theorized about, must turn itself over to scientific inquiry, to criticism.  Richard Trammel sees this point made manifest in Peirce=s discussion of musement in the ANeglected Argument@: AThis argument shows that the same course of meditation which, for practical purposes, produces a living belief in God, from another point of view is the first stage of a theoretical inquiry@ (Trammel 1972:19).  A critically common-sensist religion, while acknowledging the different spirits of science and religion, brings them into union through a mutual dependence.

      Church as a Community of Love

In examining Peirce=s thorough rejection of theology for its irreligiosity and its antagonism toward science, we might expect him to join James and Dewey in rejecting churches, or organized religions, in general.  James and Dewey shared Peirce=s rejection of credalism and vicious conservatism.  James blamed a church=s apparent need to manipulate and control its members for ruining the beneficial effects of individual religious experience.  Dewey simply rejected religions altogether, arguing that they had caused too many problems historically with their supernaturalisms to be redeemed.  Peirce, however, did not follow suit.  Instead, he turned in the direction of Royce, defending the central importance of a church for the religious life=s task of ameliorating human existence in this world.  Through his peculiar marriage of science and religion, he argued for the possibility of a non-theological church.

We noted earlier that for Peirce as for James religion begins in personal experience.  However, because religion=s importance is found in guiding the conduct of life, it immediately discloses that it has social consequences.  AMan=s highest developments,@ Peirce argued, Aare social; and religion, though it begins in a seminal individual inspiration, only comes to full flower in a great church coextensive with civilization.  This is true of every religion, but supereminently so of the religion of love@ (CP 6.493).  The church leads us out of ourselves, as agape requires, and generates concern for others.  It is this move toward selflessnessBwhich Peirce also took to be a central feature of the spirit of scienceBthat makes our lives Asocial@ and not just mechanically interactive.  AThe raison d=etre of a church,@ Peirce believed, Ais to confer upon men a life broader than their narrow personalities, a life rooted in the very truth of being@ (CP 6.451).  Not only does the church enable a Abroader life,@ it also serves as a vehicle for the social work that the principle of love requires.

Peirce=s descriptions of the church=s reason for being are rooted in his agapasmBhis belief that love is an effective force in the evolution or development of the universe. [6]   It is agapastic love that overcomes self-interest and self-love and turns to the interests of others and ultimately to the interest of the truth of God=s cosmos.  Despite its romantic quality, Peirce=s outlook is reasonably in line with his realism, his commitment to inquiry toward truth, and his belief in the possibility of a genuine community of inquirersBhis defense of an agapastic church is not merely a hopeful addendum to his other work.  It is a development of his own critical common-sensism.  The principle of love expressed common-sensically in the Golden Rule, he maintained, Adoes not, of course, say, Do everything possible to gratify the egoistic impulses of others, but it says, Sacrifice your own perfection to the perfectionment of your neighbor@ (CP 6.288).  Thus, the church=s function is to disseminate the principle of love to combat the specific Aevils@ generated by self-love and self-seeking.

   Just as the community of inquirers was needed to move science forward, the church, as a beloved community, was required for the ameliorative work of religion.  For this task, it must be more than a social club.  AA religious organization,@ Peirce asserted, Ais a somewhat idle affair unless it be sworn in as a regiment of that great army that takes life in hand, with all its delights, in grimmest fight to put down the principle of self-seeking, and to make sure the principle of love is triumphant@ (CP 6.448).  The triumph sought cannot be a matter of getting persons to sign on, in theological fashion, to a creed.  The principle of love must be disseminated through actions that are themselves governed by love.  This, again, is the pragmatic test of Peirce=s version of religion and of a church.  In Athe Marriage of Science and Religion@ he made this point at length:

But religion cannot reside in its totality in a single individual.  Like every species of reality, it is essentially a social, a public affair.  It is the idea of a whole church, welding all its members together in one organic, systemic perception of the Glory of the HighestBan idea having a growth from generation to generation and claiming a supremacy in the determination of all conduct, private and public. [CP 6.429]

To pursue this Roycean dimension of his philosophy of religion, Peirce needed to alter his church to meet the concerns expressed by James and Dewey.  In being a church of love, his church must be Auniversal,@ it must confidently turn theory over to the spirit of science, and, consequently, it must be strong enough to learn from and grow through its own failures.  In short, Peirce=s church was to be a direct answer to the dangers he located in theological approaches to religion.

Peirce=s agapastic church requires universality in both its origin and its aim.  Because it is generated by instinctive or common sense beliefs, it is open to and accessible by everyone from the Aclodhopper@ to the scientist: Ait has always seemed to me reasonable to suppose that, if He [a God in whom religious people of all creeds believe] really is, there must be some good reason for believing so, otherwise than on authority of some kind, which should appeal to the lowliest mind . . . (MS 842:8-9).  Thus Peirce=s church is universally open to all who would pay attention to common sense and instinct.

The church=s aim must likewise be inclusive.  Actions under the guidance of agape must reach out to the interests of all persons through a concern for their Aperfectionment.@  Love must be transformative: ALove, recognizing germs of loveliness in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely@ (CP 6.289).  At the political level, Peirce=s non-theological church must not act so as to divide believers, but must seek Ato patch up such peace as might be with the great religious world@ (CP 6.447).  Thus, Peirce=s church not only accepts everyone, it attends to everyone.

The bi-directional universality of the agapastic church places extraordinary demands on itBdemands not altogether unfamiliar to those who would join Peirce=s community of inquirers.  A thoroughgoing selflessness must become an ordinary habit.  The church also needs the strength to contend with its own finitude and unfinished state.  It must be willing to act through its commitments to its vague, instinctive beliefs out of which it is generated, but at the same time, it must know that its beliefsBAworking creeds@ we might call themBare open to criticism, to refinement, and to growth.  The universal church=s practices are to be tempered by an abiding respect for truthBan avenue of humility that was not open to theological churches.  Peirce demanded that his church be conservative in its practice and liberal in its theory.  In this way, it allows itself to grow, to revise itself in pragmatic fashionBa process that for different reasons James and Dewey did not think possible.  Insofar as the universal church can live with this tension, it can keep alive the religious attitude that is its life=s blood.  Peirce believed the church could learn from the spirit of science Ato become more and more perfect@ instead of suffocating itself with doctrines until the Avital sentiment that gave it birth loses gradually its pristine purity and strength@ (CP 6.430).

The lynchpin to the success of Peirce=s universal church is this fundamental respect for truth.  A church of love must also be a church of truth.  To act with concern for others is to act, so far as we can, in line with the way things areBfrom a religious perspective, after all, it is God=s world, not ours.  A blind and ignorant love is likely to fail to achieve its purpose.  And since for Peirce truth is always Aon the way,@ the church must confidently respect change and development that result from inquiry.  In its allegiance to the truth, the universal church must recognize its need for the spirit of science.

Peirce=s church, as a community of love, does not produce a Areligion of science@ in which one simply rejects instinctive and common sense beliefs.  These beliefs remain the Abedrock@ of any reasoning.  But his church must be critically common-sensist and must accept his peculiar marriage of science and religion:

The man whom religious experience most devoutly moves can recognize the state of the case.  While adhering to the essence of religion, and so far as possible to the church, which is all but essential, say, penessential, to it, he will cast aside that religious timidity that is forever prompting the church to recoil from the paths into which the Governor of history is leading the minds of men, a cowardice that has stood through the ages as the landmark and limit of her little faith, and will gladly go forward, sure that truth is not split into two warring doctrines, and that any change that knowledge can work in his faith can only affect its expression, not the deep mystery expressed. [CP 6.432].

Religion and science work together toward Peirce=s summum bonum, the growth of concrete reasonablenessBthe realizing and actualizing of purposes and meaning (CP 5.3, 5.433).  What, Peirce asked, Ais man=s proper function if it be not to embody general ideas in art-creations, in utilities, and above all in theoretical cognition?@ (CP 6.476).  Science is to be neither rejected nor romanticized; its spirit is to work in concert with the spirit of religion as a critical measure of religion=s instinct and common sense.  Together they generate the possibility of a living religion and a living science.


[1] .  The details of the relationship Peirce tried to establish between perception and instinct require another inquiry.  In the 1903 pragmatism lectures he raised the issue explicitly and suggested the possibility of perceiving Athirds.@  So far as this is true, Peirce held an earlier and even more radical Aradical empiricism@ than that of James.  This would help underwrite his claims that AGod@ is perceivable in some fashion and is no doubt linked to his strong Scotistic realism.  However, it also seems to create problems for distinctions he might want to make between conceiving and perceiving.

[2] .  For a detailed discussion of these and how they are relevant to Peirce=s conception of AGod,@ see Potter 1972.

[3] .  It is important to note that Peirce often equated AGod@ and Alove.@  Agape is God=s mode of agency.

[4] .  Indeed, Peirce thought of human immortality in light of his realism.  Our habits and personalities leave behind real effects; it is by way of these that we Aimmortalize@ ourselves.

[5] .  I should note that for Peirce this does not mean that religion must simply capitulate to some dogmatically held set of Ascientific@ views.  The spirit of science is in its method, not in any particular historical set of beliefs.

[6] .  In his essay AEvolutionary Love,@ Peirce describes agapasm both as a principle of cosmic development and as principle of the development of human culture.  In its cosmological form it serves primarily to mark out a world in which neither sheer contingency nor sheer determinism reigns.  In its social use, the one in which I am here interested, agapasm is offered as a model for how humanity might work towards its own perfection. See CP 6.287-6.317.