I recently attended a Veritas Forum event here at Northwestern University, entitled “What Gods Do We Worship Now?” with the subtitle “Challenging the Religions of Culture.” The Veritas speaker was one N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop, Christian apologist, and theologian. He made his argument in two parts. The first part: American culture has turned its back on the Abrahamic god (which made me wonder what American culture he was familiar with), replacing it with the worship of Aphrodite, Mammon, and Mars. He supported this argument by saying that people are really into sex, money, and power, and since Aphrodite, Mammon, and Mars were, at one time, worshipped as gods of those things, we are worshipping those gods too. The second part of Wright’s argument was that Jesus is/was the physical incarnation of wisdom/love, and that putting him first in your life will give you great results.
Now, as you might expect, I took issue with just about every part of this. Tasked with bringing a question from the SSA, I asked how Wright could justify his stance that the affinity for sex, money, and power is a replacement for belief in the Abrahamic god when, for over 1500 years, the Abrahamic god has been widely worshipped, and we’ve had the exact same behavioral problems then as we do today (I backed this up with what Wright described as “the most eloquent litany of Christian folly” he’d ever heard). What was brought up most often in the post-Veritas discussions that I attended, though, was the question of what constitutes “religion,” “worship,” or a “god.”
At these discussions, I repeatedly pointed out that there is no ritual veneration attached to sex, money, and power in contemporary America. Similarly, while we can all agree that those things exist, people almost never attribute supernatural characteristics to them, unless prompted by other religious beliefs (for example, the conservative Christian belief that homosexuality is inherently sinful, because of a prohibition believed to be put in place by their god). Going off of that, the pursuit of sex, money, and power does not entail any moral requirements. Religious theorists typically characterize a religion as being made up of those three things, often handily abbreviated to “code, creed, and culture.”
So, lacking those three Cs of religion, in what sense can sex, money, and power be considered “gods” or “religions.” The well-meaning Christians I talked to after the forum said that, of course, Wright didn’t actually mean that sex, money, and power are really gods, and people don’t worship those things like one would worship their god. Wright was just using an analogy, I have been repeatedly assured, to say that some people are putting sex, money, and power at the top of their lists of priorities.
That begs the question, in my mind, what was the point of all that? I don’t need some British theologian to cross the pond just to tell me that folks are prioritizing sex, money, and/or power. Based on the list of sponsors for the event (1001 flavors of Christian evangelists), as well as Wright’s previous work, I get the feeling that the religion/god analogy was chosen to specifically cast Christianity and sex, money, and power as mutually exclusive adversaries (despite centuries of evidence).
Well, that’s poppycock. As I mentioned above, sex, money, and power only count as gods and the pursuit of them only constitutes a religion by the loosest of definitions. By this logic, the Catholic Church is a corporation. The Pope is the CEO, archbishops are regional managers, churches are franchises, priests are store managers, congregants are investors, prayer is the currency, and “salvation” is the product. In a similar vein, maybe I should say that the Anglican Church is actually a university. The English monarch is the school president, archbishops are deans, bishops are department heads, priests are professors, deacons are grad students, and congregants are undergrads.
This has not been just a flight of fancy. Rather, I hope that it will illustrate how absurd the Veritas argument is. The Catholic Church is a corporation and the Anglican Church is a university to the same extent that money is a god or that having sex is a religion. If you strip all of these things of their functions and just arrange all the components in the same configuration, then I guess they do kind of look the same, but they are entirely different animals.