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Is It Possible to Be Religious Alone?

December 2, 2009

Is it possible to be religious alone, or is religion inherently social? This question was recently put to me. Here’s my answer.

First, it’s my position that practically everything is inherently social. The language you speak was given to you by a community. The food you eat was provided to you through an economic system. The thoughts you think were made possible by a worldview or ideology you’ve internalized. You wouldn’t be you without the group(s) you’re a part of.

So, in a sense, you can’t be religious alone because even when you’re alone you’re doing something that’s social. Even religious experience, as Wayne Proudfoot has persuasively argued, is produced (at least in part) through the language one uses to think about religion.

On this view, asking if one can be religious in private is like asking if one can speak English in private: one can, but what one is doing is still social.

But one could still say, “Yes, of course. But even if religion is inherently social in this way, can one nevertheless practice religion in private?” Well, any answer to this question is semantic and will hang on how you define “religion.” If you define religion in advance as something done in a group, then no. If you define religion as “praying to supernatural beings,” then maybe so.

However, what’s often going on, I think, in these debates, is some sort of authenticity claim. Private religion represents true religion or religious communities represent true religion. Since I think authenticity claims are inherently dubious (they’re usually just rhetorical attempts to claim authority for oneself or one’s group), I’d not engage the latter debate at all.

Last, perhaps the question concerns a supernatural matter. Maybe the question is this: will God talk to me when I’m alone or only when I’m worshiping in a group? My answer to this, of course, is that gods don’t exist, so it’s a bad question.

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