Here beginneth the second part; here we are once again, indulging in the philosophical question—can there be a religion without god? I should once again warn the reader, that I am an unapologetic agnostic—which means (a-without; gnosis—knowledge) I just don’t know. Is there a god? Is there no god? In the absence of proof, how are we going to know? This is a question that has bothered people since ancient times. In a way, when we study words, and their origins we are trying to gain insight into the secrets of the universe. You will remember that “logos” is the power of the word to become manifest in the world—in other words, according to the Greeks and the ancient scribes of Israel, the universe is made of words.

Is there a god? Is there no god? In the absence of proof, how are we going to know?

A Religion Without God’: Taboo, Ritual and Religion (part 2)

So far, Cahn’s argument seems to allow for all these interpretations. He certainly does not specifically oppose any of these ideas, interpretations, or definitions. We turn then, again to the idea of ritual. Cahn identifies two types of ritual: Those religiously prescribed, and those societally prescribed, and that are either religious or non-religious; he omits the possibility for prescriptive ritual that might be both social and religious (perhaps specifically and even, uniquely).

I believe that Cahn would admit these as forms of ritual, until the point whereat their existence, alone, would contradict the argument he is making. And, unless Cahn is arguing that the types of rituals he defines are the only types of ritual at all, his argument is not yet in danger.

None of these excluded rituals has been placed in the context of tradition; it might be suggested that to do so would endanger Cahn’s naturalistic religion. This may be why he avoids a profusion of the types of rituals that he is willing to enumerate. The more types of rituals there are, the more possibilities there are for revival strains of ritual, even within “the same” tradition. Unless Cahn applies his terms more specifically, a geometric expansion of ritualistic epidemic, will find Cahn’s naturalistic religion beset with heresies (including, no doubt, a resurgence of viral theism).

The action of shaking hands is said to be symbolic…

Cahn must be very careful how he defines and then amplifies, the word “symbol.” Cahn has preferred not to define his use of the word “symbol.” He has however, used the word to help with his definition of ritual as in, it “symbolizes” and it is “symbolic of”.  A religious ritual is said to symbolize some aspect of religious belief, (188) and the action of shaking hands is said to be symbolic of two individuals’ respect for each other (188). In both cases, it is fair to say that Cahn wants us to see a symbol in a very limited sense. “Symbolize” and “symbolic” simply describe “a part” of what ritual is and do not carry the whole meaning. In the light of our earlier suspicions, this is a prudent course for Cahn.

It is reasonable to describe ritual, symbol and religion, as events, as things or as descriptive; all three words can be defined as the actions that compose the events and the words that describe those actions or events—without invoking strictly theist sensibilities. That ritual and religion enjoy this triple nature would easily be agreed to by Cahn; and is easily understood by anyone reflecting on the nature of religion and ritual. That a symbol has a similar nature is something that Cahn might reject, out of hand. The following brief analysis is borrowed from “symbolic anthropologist,” A. David Napier:

A symbol is therefore, something that both stands in place of and represents something else while, at the same time, partaking of that other thing; and symbolic space provides the stage, the container, the vessel that delimits the ways a symbol may be manipulated [2].

The symbol then, like ritual and like religion, enjoys a similar triple nature. It is a thing, it is part of that which it participates in, and it is an act of participation. Within the “symbolic space” of ritual (Napier xviii) the symbol takes on an identity that Cahn’s simpler usage will not allow. Cahn has not foreseen and cannot forestall the symbol’s act of being “symbolic.” Cahn has not foreseen, nor can he avoid, the active participation of the symbol in the reality of that it symbolizes. Cahn’s prescriptive, naturalistic ritual—even though it is non-theistic—is symbolic of supernaturalistic ritual that is theistic; therefore, his naturalistic ritual participates in, and in some way becomes theistic—by virtue of the symbolic. If, magnified by tradition, the repetition of Cahn’s naturalistic rituals are likely to become “strengthened,” then this contrary participation in the theistic, will also become repeated and strengthened.

What he sees as strengthening his naturalistic religion, would in fact, be its downfall, even without the complicated argument derived from the nature of the symbol in ritual. Cahn is relying on many factors he cannot control to impel his religion into the future. First, he relies on the repetition of ritual by successive generations of groups, to accomplish the strengthening of his naturalistic religion. Second, as each generation succeeds the previous one, he cannot abolish previously established traditions. Third, he cannot maintain an orthodoxy for his new religion, because it has no established authority, except the participation of the group.

Let’s consider, once again the kinds of ritual that we have been dealing with so far: prescriptive religious ritual; non-prescriptive religious ritual; socially prescriptive, non-religious ritual; and individually prescriptive, non-religious or religious ritual—that may be, equally, both.

If we add to the list, two further distinctions that Cahn himself makes, as to each of these types of ritual being: first, superstitious or not superstitious; and second, symbolic, (both in the less ordinary sense, that Cahn allows, and the more extraordinary sense that he might wish to avoid, but must allow.) The –allowable—forms of ritual that his naturalistic religion, must both contend with—and avoid, over time—have been mathematically increased. (Their numbers are increased to at least 16 types of ritual.) In the system he describes, his newly founded tradition merely needs to avoid linking back to a single type of theism. If we posit a theistic and a non-theistic brand of each of the types of ritual, he now must avoid at least sixteen types of theistic ritual, and at least as many potentially non-conforming types of non-theistic ritual. The element of time has still not been introduced into these computations.

Each of these contrary rituals has equal claim to the full weight and authority (at least in theory) of a historical time frame, as does each generation of his tradition. The element of time, and a sense of history also add consequences to the already complicated introduction and maintenance of Cahn’s naturalistic religion.

Cahn could dismiss this (mathematical model for an) argument, as mere semantics, or as a statistical manipulation. However, we must first insist that Cahn define his terms more clearly, to somehow show that the arguments underlying the model are not valid, in order to show the model is not valid. Otherwise, we might conclude that Cahn’s naturalistic religion with its elements of ritual and symbolism, as a part of a tradition and as enacted by successive generations, could revert to theism.

I know, I know, I know—that is an awful lot to digest in one go. So I suggest we take another break… reflect on what we’ve thought about so far, and leave the rest to part 3. Part three may or may not have a magical ending. (It won’t).  If you haven’t eaten the lunch you packed, or put on your comfy sweater—I suggest now is not the time to start. Instead, let’s pause to reflect on what has transpired so far: If you don’t clap—Tinker Bell will die at intermission.

Logic is hard. Cahn is a schmoe; and now it’s time we have to go.

– 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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A Religion Without God: Taboo, Ritual and Religion (Part 1) by Kelly Knox
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