William Cavanaugh on idolatry and violence

William Cavanaugh on idolatry and violence January 9, 2010

But surely, the objection might go, nobody really thinks the flag or the nation or money or sports idols are their “gods” — those [the word “desecration,” for example] are just metaphors. However, the question is not simply one of belief, but of behavior. If a person claims to believe in the Christian God but never gets off the couch on Sunday morning and spends the rest of the week in the obsessive pursuit of profits in the bond market, then what is absolute in that person’s life in a functional sense is probably not the Christian God. Matthew 6:24 personifies Mammon as a rival god, not in the conviction that such a divine being really exists, but from the empirical observation that people have a tendency to treat all sorts of things as absolutes.

Suppose we apply an empirical test to the question of absolutism. Absolute is itself a vague term, but in the religion-and-violence arguments, it appears to indicate the tendency to take something so seriously that violence results. An empirically testable definition of absolute, then, might be “that for which one is willing to kill.” This test has the advantage of covering behavior and not simply what one claims to believe. Now, let us ask the following two questions: what percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians would be willing to kill for their Christian faith? What percentage would be willing to kill for their country? Whether we attempt to answer these questions by survey or by observing American Christians’ behavior in wartime, it seems clear that, at least among American Christians, the nation-state — Hobbes’s “mortal god” — is subject to far more absolutist fervor than religion. For most American Christians, even public evangelization is considered to be in poor taste, and yet most would take for granted the necessity of being willing to kill for their country, should circumstances dictate.

William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 55-6.

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  • And no, Cavanaugh is not suggesting that Christians should be willing to kill for their Christian faith!

  • Kyle R. Cupp

    Very interesting that Cavanaugh doesn’t in this example define absolute as that which one would be willing to die for, but switches the action from the passive “dying” to the active “killing,” a switch that brings to the surface what one would be willing to do for his or her absolute.

  • Kyle – Yes, he has used the other example before I think, but the “switch” fits into this book’s overall argument about “religious” vs. “secular” violence.