You like a ‘happy ending’? Too bad. But then, life is all about disappointments, isn’t it? I’m just kidding—this next part is so good, I am going to set it to music and hire a chorus of topless dancers. Nowhere is it written that logic must be painful—but I am doing my best to make it so…

Does this count as a topless dancer?

‘A Religion Without God’: Taboo, Ritual and Religion (part 3)

We might also argue, from historical models, to show that our geometric proliferation, or hybridization of Cahn’s new religion of naturalism, is not an exaggeration. Christianity began, supposedly, around a central corps of people and a simplified codex of ideas. From the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, to the fall of Byzantium in 1454, CE, examples of heresies prosecuted by the Catholic Church and put down, number in the hundreds. All religions may be subject to similar excesses. One might well be afraid that Cahn will have to be prepared for a similar, prolonged siege by heretical doctrines arising from within his own religion, if his new orthodoxy is to take hold.

Byzantium was an ancient Greek colony that later became Constantinople, and then Istanbul.

We are thus presented with another problem for Cahn’s new religion. What agency within the group (of Cahn’s religion) is charged with putting down these inevitable heresies, and the rival orthodoxies that are likely to arise? One might argue that the authority that such an agency would have to draw on, would have to be the kind of authority traditionally ascribed to deity. If, as Cahn has stated, participation in ritual, as a part of tradition, will strengthen his religion, then an orthodoxy is implied. What Is not provided for, is the authority to assure full and faithful participation of the individual within the group, whereby this orthodoxy might be maintained.

If the group itself is to fulfill the role as the enforcer of full and faithful participation, factionalism within the group is likely to result. Each faction could have its own interpretation of proper and improper participation, by an individual, or even by different groups of individuals. Each faction would then want to enforce its interpretations. This enforcement might lead to the formation of rival factions. Even worse, among the rival factions of enforcers, those with an extremely legalistic sense of “what is” and “what is not” full and faithful participation, could assume for themselves a role as “deity.”  Cahn does not ensure that the participation of the individual can maintain an orthodoxy for his naturalistic religion; and yet, an orthodoxy must be maintained.

One faction might pursue naturalistic, non-theistic, mini powers, or “little gods.” Of course, these would not be worthy of worship, per se, but they would inhabit the world, more or less poetically, to allow individuals to express certain ideas or events that might otherwise go unexplained. These “little gods” would be both naturalistic and supernaturalistic, at the same time.

Another faction might sometimes believe in god and sometimes not. These beliefs would be conditional and tied to events, symbols, memories and anecdotal traditions. The primary force and weight of the rituals in this faction would be carried by language. A moment of crisis, for example, might elicit prayers or oaths: A car careening out of control would inspire invocations against harm; epithets would hedge against the adverse outcome of a sporting event. Eventually these ephemeral, emotionally inspired, or ecstatic uses of words (as ritual invocation within specific, emotionally charged moments) could become a “sacred tradition.” In this kind of sacred tradition, speech might be thought, eventually, to invest objects, events or even people with “supernatural’ qualities.

A car careening out of control would inspire invocations against harm; epithets would hedge against the adverse outcome of a sporting event.

Both of these examples describe heretical traditions that would shake the foundations of Cahn’s orthodox tradition of naturalistic religion. Without an agency of enforcement, there is little Cahn, or his successors could do to keep these heresies from swelling into fully realized theisms, within his tradition.

Fear is missing from Cahn’s new religion. This to me, is curious, because most scholars imagine the origins of religion in fear: Fear of death, fear of natural phenomena, fear of the unknown. Ritual and religion protect us from some perceived harm. The closest Cahn comes to addressing the issue of fear, is his argument on moral action and whether morality is based on the fear of punishment (191). Cahn borrows his argument from the Euthyphro (Plato) and decides that men do not act morally because they fear punishment.

The issue of whether men might act ritually based on fear, is not addressed. If men act ritually based on fears, and if the origins of the rituals are lost to an unrecoverable antiquity; the question can only be answered with speculation. Moral acts and ritual acts are not the same. The sources of our fearsare more than just the fear of punishment (this is only one of our fears).

Moral action is not the issue, but fear; fear as a basis for ritual activity. If these fears remain unassuaged, they are still able to engender new rituals; if Cahn’s rituals fail to address these basic fears, new rituals will spring forth to replace them. Cahn can’t ensure that these new, fear-based rituals will not be theist rituals. And these theist rituals might not only compete with Cahn’s rituals, but that they might even overtake and replace his rituals and the entire tradition to which they belong. Cahn’s naturalistic religion might thus be overthrown.

Cahn could start a religion without God but could not sustain it. Religion itself, in its primary function of linking back within a given tradition, would exclude the prescriptive or non-prescriptive use of ritual, within his religion. The symbolic content of his religion as a tradition, could force it into a participation (symbolic) in rituals that served former traditions, rituals or gods. The individuals who participate in his religion might invent heretical traditions over time that would be theistic in nature. There are too many factors that Cahn has not taken into account and cannot control.

Cahn could start a religion without God but could not sustain it.

Participants in the new religion could become hopelessly arbitrary in how they observe the new rituals. Factionalism could result from attempts to restore the proper observance of rituals, to maintain the traditions necessary to the survival of the religion as a naturalistic and non-theist religion. These complications must arise. There is no mechanism of authority to sustain an orthodoxy and keep in check the numerous mutations of the central core of belief in its expression through ritual and in (especially) symbolic participation.

We have seen how Cahn’s religion might fail, due to the nature of the symbolic and of a symbol’s connection to and role in, ritual observance; and we have seen how his religion might fail due to human factors—like the inability to conquer one’s fears with reason. Most of these issues are not specifically addressed by Cohn in his arguments for his new religion.

Cahn argues that it is not all that different from Supernaturalistic, theistic religions.

Cahn defends his naturalistic religion and argues that it is not all that different from Supernaturalistic, theistic religions. He suggests that the two differ only in the absence of the deity. He fails to demonstrate that his naturalistic religion is sufficiently different from its supernatural counterpart, to not fall prey to the same foibles as the latter. I have argued, to the contrary, that the absence of a deity (or other meaningful authority) would make his system vulnerable to a profusion of protestant-isms. His naturalistic religion has no “supreme authority” to secure full and faithful participation by its members, in their ritual observances.

Religion it seems to me, in order to be forceful, should have an element of fear in it. Taboo and ritual may be rooted in fear that is not specifically theist. Although, often the specific source of sanctions, behind these fears, has been lost to time or neglectful memory, this un-knowingness is part of what makes them effective. Taboo also prescribes the observance of its own liberating aspect. All is well, as long as the taboo is not broken. Should Cahn devise a way to introduce this concept into his system, without attaching taboo to a deity, or deity to a taboo, he might have a formidable new religion.

Cahn’s arguments, especially those concerning ritual, the symbolic and tradition, are an insufficient foundation for a successful religion without God.

Next time we will resume our regular etymological programming…thanks for playing. – Kelly Knox

[1] Cahn, Stephen.  In the article excerpted from Philosophical Explorations: Freedom, God and Goodness, (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1989) and reprinted in Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, Seventh Edition, John R. Burr, Milton Goldinger, eds. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall (1996)

[2] Napier, A. David. Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press, (1992) Introduction

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