Cohen, The Case for Religious Naturalism: A Philosophy for the Modern Jew

Jack J. Cohen, The Reconstructionist Press, 1958. 296 pages.


Rabbi Jack Cohen presents The Case for Religious Naturalism: A Philosophy for the Modern Jew as a solution for the lack of religious participation by Jews in both Israel and the United States. He senses that Jews, as well as members of other religious traditions, have become disenchanted with the idea of religion due to the rise in scientific thought that makes belief in a supernatural God or divine revelation hard to accept. Cohen argues in this work that it is possible to take a naturalist approach to religion, specifically a naturalist approach to Judaism, that will still provide a foundation for communal religious life. For Cohen, this naturalist approach to Judaism is what will ensure the survival of the religion in modern society as it faces new challenges from science and the establishment of the State of Israel.Cohen’s first chapter focuses on discussing and defining the terms he will use throughout the book as a precursor to examining what he means by religion. The two terms he identifies as key to a discussion of religion are naturalism and supernaturalism. For Cohen, naturalism is “the disposition to believe that any phenomenon can be explained by appeal to general laws confirmable either by observation or by inference from observation” (21). Nature itself is used by Cohen to refer to the “totality of reality”, including the spiritual qualities of humankind (22). Naturalism precludes supernaturalism which posits a power not subject to the general laws of nature. Cohen believes one of the main tensions between naturalism and supernaturalism lies in the source of values. Naturalists hold that the moral order is constructed by human beings while supernaturalists insist that a moral order presupposes an absolute morality which can only be guaranteed by a supernatural power.

In the second chapter, Cohen focuses on describing religions in an effort to move away from a monolithic definition of religion. He believes any single definition of religion cannot do justice to the complexity of the ideologies and structures that humanity refers to as religions. Instead, he hopes a broad understanding of how religion functions in human society will prove more useful. For Cohen, there are two main trajectories of religion: group religion and personal religion. Both are a response to the human need for self-fulfillment, or salvation, which Cohen defines as “the whole complex of felt needs, the satisfaction of which becomes the ultimate goal in the life of a person or a group” (51).

Group religion, then, results from a communal response to the need for self-fulfillment as goals and standards to evaluate life are created. Patterns of behavior develop which then produce rituals, ideologies, and social structures. Group religion can be supernatural or naturalist, often historically developing alongside or identically with nationalism. It is when a group religion develops universal doctrines that nationalism and religion part ways and religion begins to cross national boundaries. This doctrinal form of group religion depends on “the acceptance, in whole or in part, of a particular system of theology, set of principles, ethical code, and ritual regimen” (68). Personal religion often arises in response to doctrinal religion as individuals find themselves in tension with the religion of the group. They form their own philosophies of life and patterns of behavior as they react to the same need for self-fulfillment, drawing on the wider religious tendencies of the surrounding culture.

Cohen next turns his attention to historical attempts by humanity to formulate conceptions of God, or what he calls the God-idea. According to Cohen, God-ideas fall into two interrelated and mutually informing camps, the religious and the philosophical. Religious God-ideas affect a person’s entire way of life, while philosophical God-ideas serve a more “universal, disinterested, and intellectual function” (76). By discussing various God-ideas, Cohen hopes to make clear the possibility that a religious community can function without a supernatural conception of God. The first God-idea Cohen addresses is the concept of the Absolute. The Absolute is usually conceived of as an ultimate unknown, but Cohen argues that in the search for the Absolute, absolutists presuppose limits and known qualities, thereby violating the absoluteness of what they seek. The next God-idea is the biblical concept of God which understands God as both transcendent and immanent. This supernatural being is beyond the world and yet intimately involved with it. It is the biblical God-idea that Cohen credits with allowing humanity to first conceive of an order to the world which can be known by humankind, the basis of all scientific inquiry.

The third God-idea is characterized by the concept of the Tao. Here, God is the universal order governing nature and humanity rather than a supernatural being that puts the order in place. This is a purely naturalistic God-idea in which humanity is subject to the same natural laws as the rest of creation. Spinoza’s concept of God as “the formal cause of a natural, mechanistically ordered world” is the fourth God-idea Cohen examines (92). The fifth is the concept of God as Mind, a consciousness directing the order of the universe. Next are two process concepts of God, one as articulated by Samuel Alexander and the other by Alfred North Whitehead. Cohen characterizes Alexander’s process God-idea as the ultimate goal of the creative “principle of operation” which guides the cosmos (97). He is contrasted with Whitehead who conceives of God as both the goal of the cosmos and the force bringing about the goal. The last God-idea examined is that of John Dewey. Expressed in androcentric language, for Dewey “God is the name we give to the total process whereby man’s most important ideals arise and are brought to fulfillment” (112). God is the natural process of humanity’s attempt to develop new ideals and values, not the ultimate goal of the process. God is, in fact, the process by which ideas are valuated.

The fourth chapter moves to the heart of Cohen’s argument as he strives to prove that a naturalist approach to religion can fulfill many of the traditional roles and functions of religion, allowing humanity to lead full and meaningful lives. This is possible when the religious questions asked by humanity change, as for example from “why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?” to “how can suffering be alleviated?” (120). Questions such as the later are what allow humanity to strive for the salvation Cohen articulated earlier as self-fulfillment. He argues that humanity is really searching for confirmation that there is an order to the world that they can utilize to minimize suffering and give their lives meaning. The naturalist approach to addressing the religious concerns of humanity focuses on asking what humanity means by God and what the significance of believing in God is, rather than trying to prove whether or not God exists. For Cohen, “God is that quality of the universe, expressed in its order and its openness to purpose, which man is constantly discovering and upon which he relies to give meaning to his life” (130). This God-idea is open to the charge of moral relativism, but Cohen believes humanity is able to progressively formulate, reason through, and correct values in such a way as to ultimately make human created values meaningful and less prone to dogmatic absolutism.

A naturalist approach to religion still allows for the transmission of values and religious thought to the next generation. In fact, Cohen argues that a naturalist approach to religious education will keep children more engaged in religion as it acknowledges their ability to grapple with the hard questions and think deeply. Ritual as well can be retained in a naturalist religion once it is recognized that rituals function to enhance life “through the dramatization of great ideals” (148). Cohen believes new rituals will spontaneously develop as people try to live out their naturalist ideals, and old rituals can be transformed to hold new meaning for naturalists. Finally, Cohen addresses the possibility of naturalist worship, specifically prayer. Prayer still has a place in naturalist religion as long as it is not petitionary prayer, a small portion of traditional prayer according to Cohen. The greater purpose of prayer is an expression of emotion meant to connect humanity to God and remind humanity of what gives life meaning. This function of prayer still has a place in naturalist religion.

Chapter five turns to an examination of the nature of the Jewish religion particularly in regards to its sense of unity and in light of the modern differentiation between nationalism, religion, and culture. Cohen describes how Judaism developed historically as an ethnic religion which encompassed all aspects of life including nationalism and culture. While the separation of religion, nationalism, and culture had been in process since the Exile, it was not until the Enlightenment and Emancipation in Europe that the three as distinct aspects of Jewish life became a reality. In modern times, even with, and especially argues Cohen, the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews must find a way to understand their religious identity as Jews as not contingent on a national identity. Cohen argues in support of Mordecai Kaplan’s characterization of Jewish identity as peoplehood, a “group with a ‘we-feeling,’ consciousness of kind, or homogeneity, [that] has a right to make the most of that consciousness for the salvation of its members” (177). This identity of peoplehood aligns closely with Cohen’s conception of group religion which he feels allow Jews to face the challenges of the modern world in a way that preserves Judaism’s universal values and particularity.

Chapters six and seven contain Cohen’s description of the challenges facing the Jewish community in Israel and the United States respectively. In Israel, Cohen identifies the main challenge as that of developing a form of Judaism which is not in tension with a democratic state. He believes Orthodox Judaism and the concept of a Toraitic state cannot be the foundation for a democracy, but Cohen finds great potential in the social ideology and organization located in the developing halutziyut philosophy of those in the kvutzah. If this halutziyut philosophy is developed fully along with a naturalist approach to religion, Cohen believes a Jewish group religion will arise in Israel that will unite Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and non-observant Jews. In the United States, the challenge facing Judaism is the development of a sense of community and peoplehood. He argues for cooperative religious education among all sects of Judaism as the starting place for creating this sense of peoplehood. Following the naturalist approach to religious education mentioned earlier, Cohen believes Jewish children will become better aware of their connection to the plurality of ways of being Jewish.

Cohen does an excellent job of demonstrating how a naturalist ideology can be religious. His understanding of religion as concerned with human self-fulfillment and the alleviation of suffering is compelling, and he sets a good foundation for the presence of ritual and prayer in a naturalist religion. He also articulates a particular form of naturalist religion which draws on the traditional Jewish rituals and doctrines, arguing persuasively for a naturalistic approach to being Jewish. While the religious naturalism he presents does not in itself lead toward a Jewish identity, the naturalistic Judaism he develops is able to promote the sense of peoplehood he desires.

by Thurman Anne Hillman
Boston University, 2010

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