Influential Prose

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Who Advocated Religious Individualism?

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The modern understanding of religious individualism, as defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia, “describes the attitude of those persons who refuse to subscribe to definite creeds, or to submit to any external religious authority.” It is conceptually similar to “cafeteria Christians,” a phrase used to describe Christians who take an a la carte approach to their faith. This is done by accepting some aspects of Christianity while rejecting others. For example, one might accept the teachings of Jesus while dismissing the stories of virgin birth and resurrection as myth. The religious individualist expands on this idea to encompass different faiths. Rather than go all in with one religious tradition, a personalized set of ethical views are derived from the elements of a variety of faiths.

Søren Kierkegaard
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is frequently referenced in relation to religious individualism, but as an ardent Christian, Kierkegaard’s expression of the idea diverges from the current definition. His view could be termed introspective individualism, or internalized religion–faith that is deeply embedded within the individual. Kierkegaard was a fierce critic of the Christian Church of Denmark, and his focus on the individual over the institution contains the seeds of the modern understanding of religious individualism. Today, the religious individualist proactively assembles a collection of values from several sources rather than passively accepting a package of values from a single, institutional source.

Martin Luther
The first advocate of religious individualism was Martin Luther. A respected Catholic priest and professor of theology, he sparked the Protestant Reformation by challenging the church’s positions on indulgences and the path to salvation in 1517. Luther openly defied the Pope by declaring that the Bible, not the Pope, was the final word on divine knowledge, a direct challenge to the Catholic Church’s authority. He also translated the Bible from Hebrew and ancient Greek to common German, making it more accessible to individuals. This further weakened the church by depriving it of the sole power to interpret Biblical understanding. Individuals could now evaluate the Bible for themselves and form their own opinions, a change that would have profound and lasting consequences.

Jean-Marie Guyau
In 1897, French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau published the “The Non-Religion of the Future,” a book that describes religious individualism in the modern sense. Guyau argues that religion as it exists is in decline and speculates about the dimensions of a secular society. The following year, the “Philosophical Review” published a dismissive review of Gayau’s book, but his ideas have proven prescient in the United States and northern Europe. Much of Europe is now predominately secular, and the segment of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated is growing faster than any faith group.

Religious Deregulation
Sociologist Roger Finke of Purdue University portrays the separation of church and state in early American history as religious deregulation, which triggered variety and vitality in American worship. Religious individualism can also be viewed as a process of deregulation, but on the individual level. Individualism has always been about maximizing personal choice; religious individualism simply extends this power to the realm of values by rejecting subordination and advocating the diffusion of power from institutions to people.

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Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:17 pm

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