Originally posted on Sightings at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Students of world religions sometimes speak in puzzlement about the long-held claim that “religion is a private affair.” Part of that claim is based on something notable and no doubt laudable. In my tradition, Martin Luther said that just as everyone must die for him/her self, each must believe for her/himself. Here private=personal. Higher authority, the Jesus of the Gospels, is quoted saying much about the value of religion determinedly out of public view and not to be observed. Much devotion, by mystics, pietists, and other serious people is part of the interior life, and no one else’s business. The American rationale was also developed in part in reaction to ancestral European religion-in-public being destructive, or to minimize civil (or uncivil) argument among contenders.

The “private affair” code probably was most evident a half-century ago. In recent years, the “public dimension” has been treated more honestly and openly. Moral Majorities and Christian Coalitions have come and gone and come in new ways. Religion is the hottest and touchiest subject in politics and cultural argument. It deserves to be noted and monitored, celebrated and criticized. Only minorities of Americans engage in religious processions, rallies, and stadium appearances. They leave to other “religions”—NASCAR, the NFL, rock music festivals—the celebration in the acts of crowds.

As for explicit gathering of crowds, we are learning to recalibrate size of crowds. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI—I leave to others first-fortnight comment on that to others and therefore append a link to an important one (by E.C. Kennedy)—led some commentators to note that he had not drawn crowds as large as those of the late John Paul II. Still, when the pontiff comes to town, we do expect to see a million or two of the faithful, plus gawkers, filling the stadiums and streets.

I am leading up to a global observation: Western European and North American crowds are midget and mini- compared to what goes on elsewhere and in other faiths. The news peg for this week’s e-column is coverage of Kumbh Mela, “a Hindu religious festival that occurs once every 12 years by the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers.” The New York Times covered it because, said the headline, there was a “Deadly Stampede at Hindu Festival That Draws Millions.” Not all print media were so generous with notice and space. The Wall Street Journal, often counted on by Sightings sighters, was less impressed. A two-line caption noted Hindu bathers, and printed a 1 5/8 by 3 ¼ color picture of the scene.

The Times: “About 80 million pilgrims—roughly the population of Germany” will be religiously observant with these sacred baths during a 55-day run, but ten million were coming daily-to-weekly early in the festival. The Christians of the world are a bit more “up” on Muslims’ pilgrimage to Mecca: “By comparison,” writes Gardiner Harris, “3.1 million people visited Mecca” during last year’s hajj. Hold on: “Each successive Kumbh breaks the record for the largest gathering in human history.” Around the globe secularization and post-religion counters religions in differing ways. Which means that it is hard to generalize about humans, their religious impulses and responses, and the stirrings of the spirit where one seldom hears talk about individuals being “spiritual but not religious.” Religion-in-public involves messy affairs, but it has to be noted by all observers of global phenomena. And from our North American distance, we do well to pay attention.


E. C. Kennedy, “On Benedict’s Bowing Out: The Butler Did It,” National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2013.

Gardiner Harris, “Deadly Stampede at Hindu Festival That Draws Millions,” New York Times, February 11, 2013.

Originally posted on Sightings at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Categories: Ethics

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.

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