Faith is Not a Private Matter

Jason Dulle

It has become more and more common these days to hear people say "faith is a private matter and should be kept to oneself." This sort of statement usually comes from those who are opposed to religion in general, but as the roots of pluralism grow deeper in our society we are finding more and more religious individuals touting similar sentiments. This got me thinking…Is faith a private matter? Is it even possible to keep faith private without destroying the religion itself?

If faith was private and we kept it to ourselves how would one know if there were any others out there who shared their same beliefs if they dare not speak of those beliefs to others? How would a religion and/or a religious movement ever come into being, and how would it grow? Furthermore, how could faith be transmitted from one generation to another?

It seems that if we kept our faith to ourselves it would be impossible to know if any others shared those same beliefs, and thus religious organizations would never form. If faith were kept private that faith would die with the individual who holds it. It could never be transmitted from one generation to the next. We would expect, then, for religious faith and religious movements to only last for one generation. In fact, if religion worked the way these pluralists indicate it should work, we would never know if anyone else besides ourselves had any religious views at all, there would be no religious organizations, and we would not be able to share our faith with even our own children. After all, faith is a private matter and should be kept private.

Not only is the idea of private faith impossible and irrelevant on a practical level, but the claim is self-refuting. When someone says, "Faith is a private matter and should be kept to oneself," ask, "Is that your belief? Then keep it private. Don't try to force your religious views on me." You see, the claim that religious faith is private is itself an idea about religion, thus qualifying as part of their faith. While those who hold to the private faith notion are keen on proclaiming their religious views, they disallow you the same liberty. This is self-serving and self-refuting.

Tactical Approaches

Another approach is more tactical. Ask the individual, "Why do you believe that? From whence do you derive the authority to make such a claim?" To say "faith is private and should be kept that way" is a mere assertion. The individual making this claim has not given you any reason to believe that the nature of faith is personal. Make them justify that claim. What are their reasons for holding to this view? They must justify their claim if they expect us to take it seriously.

Another tactic is to ask, "What do you mean by private?" This dovetails on the question posed above, but seeks clarification of terms. By "private" they could have in mind the notion that faith is personal; i.e. possessed by the individual. We agree. Faith is something that one possesses personally. It cannot be forced on them. They have to commit to it for themselves (in a psychological and spiritual way). If they affirm that they are using "private" in the sense of "personal," ask What follows from this observation? Yes, faith is personal, but how is it that because faith is personal that it cannot be discussed publicly? How do we get a prescription of silence from a descriptive observation about the psychological nature of faith?

If by "private," however, they have in mind the idea of being confined to the individual without the possibility of parole, ask them where they got this idea from. What is it about the nature of faith that requires us to keep it personal? Why is it that it cannot be made public, even in mere discussion? The individual will have a hard time coming up with any reasons at all to support their claim, but even if they do come up with something we still have to ask How do you know that? Where does the authority for that view come from? I would venture to say that the conversation will be over at that point. The fact is that most people really haven't thought much about what they mean when they say faith is private and should be kept to oneself. We have the fun job of pointing that out!

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