An e-mailer wrote me asking about an assertion I made that "religion is the only thing that will 'get people to live together without being bossed around by police and government.'" He wonders "is there no place for the atheist conservative/libertarian? Or the agnostic? My religion is very personal and I do not wish to share it with others in a formal, organized setting."
It's a tricky question. Most people in the educated elite today find "organized religion" a little distasteful, and express their search for meaning in more personal, philosophical terms. Including me. Right now I am listening to a Teaching Company lecture series called "The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions" given by Jay L. Garfield of Smith College. Garfield skirts around Christianity but gives full value to the Bhagavad Gita, Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans, Confucius, the Tao, Buddhism, Hume, Kant, Mill, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Gandhi, and the Native American Lame Deer. All very private and personal.
But the implication of 20th century philosophy from Wittgenstein to Habermas is that meaning is a shared thing. There is no private knowledge; indeed private knowledge doesn't make any sense. The immensely successful knowledge of the natural sciences is instrumental, an attempt to understand nature in order to dominate it--and other humans. But it is also social. Scientists advance the boundaries of knowledge by bouncing ideas and claims off each other and shamelessly appropriating other peoples' ideas. If you read Charles Darwin, you will find that he mentions another scientist or naturalist and their findings on every page.
If knowledge is a "knowledge game" between people, then the way to knowledge is a process of discourse between people.
When it comes to moral knowledge the importance of knowledge as a social process, a discourse between equals, suggests that discourse creates a community, even that community demands a discourse.
Let's return to the question: Can there be such a thing as a private religion, can moral ideas exist except in a social setting where people are held to their commitments?
The immense value of organized religion as it has flourished in the United States under the doctrine of the separation of church and state is that religion provides a means of social consensus and control that operates in the space between individual and government. The point about society is that it is social. People live in a community and they influence each other and live together most of the time without resort to government and to hegemonic power. It is only when they fail to resolve their differences that they resort to government and force.
To live in a private space is to live beyond the influence of others. It means not having to listen to the opinions and maybe the authority of others. I fear that the modern yearning for privacy--in which all of us participate--is little more than a flight from accountability. We humans are social animals. We live together. If we are honest with each other we must acknowledge that the modern turn of increased individuality and government represent a troubling shrinking of community and social life, and who knows where it is leading us?
Anyway, the limit of privacy and individuality is the point at which it bumps up against another person and another idea of the good. Then what? Do we work together to resolve our differences or invoke the nuclear option and call in government?