My thoughts this week are more of a meditation on the meaning and derivation (etymology) of the word Psychology as it relates to the origins of religion. If you have been following my progress through this series of etymological offerings, you will know that psychology is a term compounded not just from two Greek words, it is a joining of two Greek ideas: Psyche and Logos. Psyche, among the ancient Greeks, was not so much a matter of mind or soul, but spirit. Spirit is a Latin interpretation; we look for “inspiration”; we observe “expiration dates”; we scarcely realize that “inspire” and “expire’ simply mean (from the Latin root word) to “breathe in” and to “breathe out.” So, for the Greeks and later, the Romans who were tutored by the Greeks, spirit is somehow equal to breathing. When we are born, we gasp for that first breath, and become in-spirited; when we die, we expel our last breath, and we expire.

From this simple beginning we have the foundations of all religious and (especially) the philosophical thoughts on life, death, soul and consciousness. One question often face by philosophers, psychologists, and people with too much time on a Saturday night or Sunday morning, is and has been, “is it possible to have a religion without god?” My argument is lengthy; but, fair warning, I’ll split it up into a few installments, so the reader can ignore them at her or his leisure. I should note too, I am a devout agnostic; but I can’t resist dismembering bad arguments.

I am a devout agnostic.

A Religion Without God’: Taboo, Ritual and Religion (part 1)

A religion without God is possible to imagine but would be difficult to sustain. The practitioners of this religion could enjoy the benefits of ritual. Although, in order for such a religion to be sustained, and to employ rituals containing symbolism, its rituals could not be part of a tradition that linked-back to any previous tradition. The exclusion of God, and the use of new rituals, may require this new religion to remain within a closed tradition; a closed tradition may be shown to be contrary to the nature of religion itself. If any of these obstacles proves true, then we might conclude that a religion without God, could not sustain itself. It may be that man’s appeal to the authority of a particular God, holds a religion together, as a unified orthodoxy, over time.

Stephen Cahn raises the intriguing prospect of “A Religion Without God” [1].  His argument also betrays some intriguing possibilities that detract from the case he makes for his “naturalistic religion.” As compelling as his idea is, Cahn does not tell us “why” we should entertain it. If he intends for his discussion to be purely theoretical, he neglects to mention this as his purpose. For this discussion, it may be necessary to decide for Cahn, that his is an attempt to reason through the possibility “of a religion without God,” or that “people should not believe in God.” The closest Cahn comes to a statement of his own purposes for the article, comes at the end, “…such options are philosophically respectable. Whether to choose any of them is for the reader to decide” (192). He presents one of the options.

There are non-supernatural religions already

When it comes to precisely what it is that we are to choose from, Cahn asks: “[h]ow can there be a nonsupernatural religion?” ( 188). Cahn offers the examples of Jainism and Theraveda Buddhism and their denial of a “Supreme Creator of the world,” (188). To begin his point then, he argues, there are non-supernatural religions already, so we can imagine one more. The “how” of such religions’ existence is replaced by the “fact” that such religions exist. The assumptions that reside in this substitution, are beyond the scope of this inquiry.

Cahn distinguishes between supernatural religions and naturalistic religions. The primary agency he uses to describe these differences is ritual (188-9). His thesis is grounded in the claim that ritual, prayer, metaphysical belief and moral commitment, do not require “a commitment to traditional theism” (188).

Cahn’s argument so far is, that naturalistic religions do exist, and that naturalistic religions need not rely on a commitment to theism, to contain elements of ritual, prayer, metaphysical belief and moral commitment. What has not been made clear is, a definition of “religion”; and how religions use ritual, prayer, metaphysical belief and moral commitment. I will focus on just one of these elements to see if Cahn has made a convincing case.

We can find in Cahn’s article, two basic types of ritual: “ritual [as] prescribed by religious organizations [wherein] the act symbolizes some aspect of religious belief” and those “prescribed by our society and [that are] symbolic [of the individuals’ mutual respect—for example—handshakes]” (188). Although, both of these types of rituals may be superstitious, the secular variety need not be (189).

Cahn implies, though never quite proves, that religious rituals are inherently superstitious in nature. Cahn does not say, if social rituals can be absolutely free of superstition; or, if freedom from superstition is desirable, or necessary, to the use of ritual in his naturalistic religion. He states only that social rituals may have elements of superstition; they need not be superstitious.

Cahn also speculates that naturalistic rituals:

are strengthened all the more if the ritual in question has the force of tradition, having been performed by many generations of who have belonged to the same group and have struggled to achieve the same goals. Ritual so conceived is not a form of superstition, rather, it is a reasonable means of strengthening religious commitment and is as useful to a naturalistic religion as it is to supernaturalistic religion (189).

This is where I believe Cahn’s argument begins to break down: Tradition.

A naturalistic religion is one that is not theist. Cahn has told us that our perceptions of religions assume all religions to be like those that are familiar to us (188). This point will, later, be crucial to our examination of Cahn’s hypothesis of a naturalistic religion, (one not based on a belief in God) that would use rituals (that are not superstitious, but still symbolic) within its own (foundational) traditions to strengthen its religious commitment over many generations (189).  We recall that the word “religion” derives from the Latin words for “to link back.” We are linking back to an experience of “God,” or, perhaps to an experience of “society,” that we as a group, have “always” held in common. This linking back takes place within a “tradition.” We cannot link back within a tradition to which we do not belong. In in the case of conversion, belonging may be said to be (an accepted) willingness to participate in the tradition.

This is a good point to take a break. Next time, be sure to bring a warm sweater and pack a picnic lunch. As you may have noticed, I am taking a break from etymologies, strictly speaking, in order to indulge my liking for philosophy—and argument. The second part of Psychology—the Logia or Logos, part—is also the root word for Logic. Logic is, in broad terms the use of well-reasoned argument to prove a point. The point I am trying to prove in this series, is that I can be completely self-indulgent and just run with an idea. If you need to refer back to part one, in order to follow the argument, I would encourage you to do so—or just go with the flow, and trust that it will all make sense somehow. Thus endeth the first part. – 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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