Ideas

After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion, Part 3

Public discussion of religion tends to polarize between two extremes: religious fundamentalism, and the aggressive atheism of such writers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But much of what people actually believe falls somewhere in between. It is subtler and more tentative. David Cayley explores the work of five thinkers whose books have charted new paths for religion. Part 3:...
A detail from the book cover "Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and The Political Meaning of the Church", by William Cavanaugh.

Public discussion of religion tends to polarize between two extremes: religious fundamentalism, and the aggressive atheism of such writers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But much of what people actually believe falls somewhere in between. It is subtler and more tentative. David Cayley explores the work of five thinkers whose books have charted new paths for religion. Part 3: William Cavanaugh, author of Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and The Political Meaning of the Church. 


The founders of the American republic were frank about the religious character they wanted to give to their new state.  Ben Franklin called for "a cult" of the nation. Thomas Jefferson suggested preserving mementos that would function, he said, "like the relics of the saints." They would "help nourish devotion to this holy body of the union." A few years later the leaders of the French Revolution would try to deify reason, with temples and festivals dedicated to this new god.

These are examples of what William Cavanaugh calls Migrations of the Holy. That's the title of a book in which he argues that what we now call religion is often just a distraction from the real objects of our devotion, and the ends for which we're really prepared to make sacrifices.
 

William Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago.

Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and The Political Meaning of the Church is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


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