Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Can There Be a Private Religion?

Back in the midwest, when people asked me my religion I used to sy "listless nonbeliever." This worked in the respect that they thought it must be some kind of sect, and figured the course of prudence was to stay out of my way.  I did suppose, when I supposed anything about it at all, that religion seemed like a pretty weird and implausible business, but I never felt the impulse to make much of a fuss about it.  I did not, needless to say, face up to the  great gorilla in the room, i.e., if religion was such a goofy idea, how come it was everywhere--how come, in other words, was it so evolutionarily successful.

After a 50-odd  year hiatus, I've gone back to reading some stuff about the evolution of religion and find there's a whole nuther perpective on the issue--one which I don't think was around when I was a kid.  Specificlly--religion as social glue.  Religion binds people together, helps them to organize and coordinate and so better to make or maintain a place in the world.

This strikes me as promising and plausible, but it raises another question about which I've entertained some vagrant curiosity.  Specifically: can there be a private religion?  I'm sure my betters have worked out elaborate analyses on the point, but it remains new to me.  I suppose also that it is akin (but I guess not identical) to that philosophical favorite, can there be a private language?

I suppose it is perfectly plausible for any of us to have feelings of transcendence, sanctity and suchlike that come to us seemingly out of nowhere (sic, seemingly?).  And to keep it to one's self.  How many? Well, who knows? The point is they aren't telling right?

But the question would be--is this religion?   If not, what is it?  And is the distinction merely conventional?  Is there anything about a purely "private" (pseudo-) religion that makes it worthwhile to distinguish away the public variety?

Trying to think up examples of people who might be candidates for observation in this inquiry, I can come up with just one--Abraham Lincoln.  There's every reason to believe that he read and (somewhat?) comprehended the King James Bible--not just comprehended, but resonated with its majestic sonorities.  Yet it is almost impossible to identify a public person more cagy about his private religious commitments (if any).  I suppose some would respond that the fact that he is rooting himself in the King James Bible means that his commitment is not "private;" rather, it makes him the receptical for a vaunted tradition. But is this enough?  Was Lincoln, then "irreligious" because he didn't bandy it about?  Or can there indeed be  a "private religion?"

Update:  thanks to my old pal Anon for the ref to de Botton; I had read his little book on Proust but nothing else of his.  Also on reflection, I think I was considering the more general category of religions that don't like to proselytize: I'm thinking perhaps of the Druze who, so I am told, do not vouchsafe their secrets to the children until they are about 50 years old  Teaching Druze Sunday school must  be a challenge.


Anonymous said...

Hi Buce - long time listener first time caller ... I think Alain de Botton is talking about this sort of thing (Secular Cathedrals, etc)


The New York Crank said...

I estimate that there's a new religion created every 17 seconds in this country. In fact, the national genius may be the invention of religions.

I'll not name some of them here, lest I bring the wrath of the Convinced down on your head and mine. But from Joseph Smith to L. Ron Hubbard, to name just one unlikely pair, this is a nation of brilliant spiritual inventors.

So go, declare yourself the leader of the Private Church. Or of the Church of Listless Nonbelievers. And then send out missionaries and recruit others.

Speaking of which, someone recently brought me to a meeting of atheists in Manhattan. Since then they've been e-mailing me regularly to help them man tables on the streets to help them convert others to atheism.

Everybody's got a religion in this country, even if the religion is not believing in religion.

Yours most crankily,
The New York Crank

Noni Mausa said...

Social glue is one use of religion, but not, I think, the chief one. Square dancing or football could also do the job, more conducent to health and less to massacres.

We are unique as a species in our ability to believe absurdities and abstractions. This ability has served us well in a thousand ways, and I believe that what we call religion is a formal framework that cultivates and to some extent contains this wild talent.