Is “Private Religion” the Answer?
AS ORGANIZED RELIGION loses its grip on the masses, it is hardly surprising that so many people would formulate their own personal religion. The questions are, though, Can doing so really satisfy one’s spiritual needs? Is “private religion” the answer?
To address these questions, we might first consider whether private religion can truly stand up under the scrutiny of our “power of reason,” one of the greatest gifts that humans possess.—Romans 12:1.
The reasoning mind tends to reject what is self-contradictory. However, in a survey of private religion in Sweden, it was concluded that people often “rather spontaneously combine different (and possibly logically incompatible) life philosophy elements into their own philosophy.”
For example, only 2 percent of those who claimed to be “Christian in their own way” mentioned Jesus, even as a historical person. Yet, belief in reincarnation was mentioned frequently. Now, is it not inconsistent to label oneself a follower of Jesus Christ while ignoring his life and teachings—and even embracing doctrines diametrically opposed to those of Christ?a
Our power of reason also tends to shy away from things that seem hopelessly vague and undefinable. However, when asked whether they believed in “God or a divine power,” most people interviewed answered that “Something” of that sort might exist. One said: “I believe in something supernatural but not necessarily a God figure.” Those who did believe in God felt that he “played a rather insignificant role in their life.” The report thus described private religion as a “diffuse conceptual world,” and it concluded by quoting one of the most common answers: “I believe in something, but I am not sure what.”
A study of private religion in Canada showed similar results. The magazine Alberta Report observes: “We now see a high level of belief in almost anything imaginable, but there’s no rhyme or reason to it. And when we then try to measure the sort of guidance these private beliefs play in people’s lives, there’s really nothing there. There’s no ultimate moral authority. So it really doesn’t add up to anything.” The magazine spoke of “the fragmented god” because those espousing such beliefs are “grasping bits and pieces of the traditional creed.” Does it strike you as sound reasoning to base religious beliefs—even a hope for the future—on such vague, tenuous, and fragmentary ideas?
Our Need for Fellowship
Fellowship, brotherhood, and solidarity have long been cherished by religious believers. (Acts 2:42, 46) But since private religion is just that—private—how can it fill these needs?
Doesn’t private religion, with “every man his own church,” only multiply and deepen the religious divisions among people? “Religion is now a matter of private judgment . . . , and thus we have become a country of not a few hundred different creeds but a few million,” Alberta Report noted. Not surprisingly, then, private religion has even been described as a form of spiritual anarchy.
What About Values?
Swedish Bishop Martin Lönnebo points out in an interview with the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that “private religion cannot enrich our age, and it has trouble transferring its values to a new epoch.” This opinion finds a measure of confirmation in a common attitude among Swedish parents toward raising children. Svenska Dagbladet summarizes the attitude this way: “Believe what you want! And don’t force your children to decide. But let them choose when they are old enough.”
The newspaper acknowledged that providing children with religious values may be considered indoctrination. Yet, the paper concluded: “This handing over to children can be something good and may be the only way for them . . . to decide for themselves.” Indeed, the current plight of young people suggests that private religion has done little to unite families on the basis of solid values that can be passed on from one generation to the next.
It seems, then, that private religion cannot offer reliable, consistent answers to life’s questions, nor can it unite people or fill mankind’s need for moral guidance. The previously quoted article in Svenska Dagbladet expressed this view of private religion: “When ‘faith’ contains everything, it contains nothing. And when freedom never needs to be defined, it is weakened.”
Clearly, in many respects private religion falls short of satisfying the spiritual needs of people. Really, how could a person reasonably expect to fill such needs by simply selecting beliefs from various traditions, as if picking the most enticing dishes at a buffet table or smorgasbord? It also seems clear that organized religion has failed to fill such needs. Where, then, can we turn?
a Jesus did not teach that the dead are reincarnated. Rather, he taught that the dead are in a sleeplike state of nonexistence, awaiting a future resurrection.—John 5:28, 29; 11:11-14.
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Should we view religion as a mere buffet, picking and choosing beliefs that appeal to us?