Idolatry in the Twenty-First Century
A hundred years ago, the famed German sociologist Max Weber published a revised edition of his classic work. Inserted into the new edition were a few uses of the word Entzauberung, a word that did not appear in the first edition. The word was meant to describe the general condition of the modern Western world. Zauber is the German word for “magic”; Entzauberung is literally the “un-magic-ing” of the world. It is usually translated “disenchantment.” Although Weber himself used the word sparingly, it has taken on a life of its own. Many people believe it captures something essential about our present condition. In his exploration of the causes of secularization in the West, philosopher Charles Taylor has written, “Everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an ‘enchanted’ world and we do not.” Our ancestors lived in a world inhabited by gods and demons, ghosts and angels, wood sprites and saints. The boundaries between the material and the spiritual were permeable, and the immanent world made frequent contact with the transcendent. The premodern world was full of what Taylor calls “charged objects,” such as saints’ relics, that had the power to alter reality. Today, we live in a disenchanted world, devoid of divine or demonic spirits, devoid of mystery, a world with no ordered meaning. Or so the story goes.
In Weber’s view, disenchantment was the end result of a long process of rationalization, of which science and capitalism were the principal drivers. Weber was himself a rationalist, who described himself as “unmusical” with regard to religion. But he did not simply celebrate the process of rationalization and disenchantment. He thought that the technical advances of modernity came at a price, and he feared that modern people had become “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism ends with a melancholy description of the “iron cage” of modernity, a heartlessly efficient machine from which all enchantment had been ruthlessly eliminated, for better and for worse.
For an example of how this machine functions in practice, consider an Amazon “fulfillment center,” or warehouse. Not even Weber could have foreseen the lengths to which Amazon has taken rationalization. At an Amazon fulfillment center, poorly paid “associates,” who are often temporary workers with no benefits, scurry among bins retrieving and packing just about anything that can be imagined. A handheld device keeps track of their movements. After it directs them to the next item of merchandise, a timer starts: twenty-seven seconds to scan the next item four aisles over, for example. The device warns them if they are falling behind, and keeps track of their “pick rate.” Falling behind, calling in sick, and other offenses can cost a worker his or her job. Some “associates” have resorted to urinating in bottles so they won’t need bathroom breaks.
In January 2018 Amazon received patents on a wristband that can track a warehouse worker’s arm movements. An Amazon spokesperson presented the wristband as a boon for workers: “This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates. By moving equipment to associates’ wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens.” But according to James Bloodworth, who worked at an Amazon fulfillment center for six months and described his experiences in Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain (2018), the company’s real goal was not to make the lives of its workers easier. “It was all obsessed with productivity…. They started treating human beings as robots, essentially. If it proves cheaper to replace humans with machines, I assume they will do that.” In the Amazon warehouse, Weber’s description of the “iron cage” seems fully vindicated.
But this is only one side of the story. For the consumer, the purchase of nearly anything via Amazon is nothing short of magical. Images of millions of products can be summoned onto a screen. One can spend hours lost in a virtual environment of endless abundance. A few clicks later the desired product appears on your doorstep, like magic. If you have the money, or at least access to credit, you can summon almost anything from anywhere in the world, abracadabra. The entire production process—the sourcing of raw materials, the manufacturing and transportation, the packing and delivering—is invisible to the consumer, as are the people involved in this process. All we see are images of the shiny finished products on a screen, and then the products themselves on our doorsteps.
So it seems that there are two sides to our economy: a rationalized, disenchanted side typified by heartless efficiency, and an enchanted side still filled with charged objects and magic. In fact, these are really two sides of the same coin. Each of them implies the other.
Weber argued that religion is the original agent of rationalization, but also that rationalization eventually pushes religion out of the public sphere. Many summaries of Weber’s argument stop there, at the disenchantment of the world. But Weber also suggested that rationalization produces a new form of enchantment, a kind of “polytheism” of impersonal gods, which include the state and the market.
Let’s begin with the first part of his argument. Weber regards magic as a primitive form of religion. Early cultures practiced magic to try to control nature and mitigate its various dangers; if we perform a certain dance, it will bring rain on our crops. Magic was this-worldly—not ethical, but transactional. It tried to coerce or bribe the spirits that lived in material things. There is a sort of rationality in this quid pro quo. When the great salvation religions erupted in the Axial Age, however, they introduced a new kind of rationalization. The gods were now personal and otherworldly, transcending the material world, and so interactions with them took on an ethical tone. Such gods were universal rather than local, and this gave rise to the notion of stable and universal laws that govern nature and society. A rational social order was complemented by an intellectual order that answered the human need for coherent meaning. People needed a way to deal with senseless suffering. So salvation religions developed the myth of a savior and an ethical system in which the gods could punish the unjust and reward the righteous. Since the righteous often suffer in this life, while the unjust often prosper, explanations were sought outside of the present world. Present suffering was explained by the sins of a former life or by one’s ancestors, or an afterlife was posited to ensure that the guilty were punished and the righteous rewarded after death.
For Weber, this puts salvation religions in a state of permanent tension with the world, which leads to the second part of his argument: the more religion becomes rationalized, the more it becomes otherworldly, while the worldly spheres of politics, economics, family, sex, etc. take on increasing autonomy. Worldly activities like business and war cannot meet the high ethical standards of the great salvation religions, so the religious person either flees from the world into mysticism or becomes a worldly ascetic, like the Puritan. According to Weber, the Puritan accepts the ultimate meaninglessness of this world but tries to work out his salvation in inner dialogue with God while following his worldly vocation as a businessman. This is how Protestantism led to capitalism. For the Puritan, the Catholic sacraments were mere magic, an attempt to manipulate God. The Reformation swept the world clean of such idols, so that God would be all in all. But removing God from the material world to protect God’s holiness would eventually lead to the disenchantment of all worldly pursuits. Science, for example, deals only in facts; it cannot produce meaning. Capitalism responds to whatever the market dictates; values are irrelevant to it. The bureaucracy of the state seeks efficiency; it does not respond to the will of God.
For a lot of people, what they know of Weber ends there, in disenchantment. But Weber himself took a third step, writing not only of the godlessness of the modern world, but also of its “polytheism.” Weber was convinced that human beings have an elemental need for meaning. For Weber, the split between fact on the one hand and meaning or value on the other is both a reality and a serious problem, because we still urgently want to know what the meaning of our lives is. According to Weber, “Science is meaningless, because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’” Weber rejects the idea that we can return to religion; he regards that route as suitable only for the person too weak to face “the fundamental fact that he is destined to live in a godless and prophetless time.” But Weber translates the question “What shall we do and how shall we live?” into the question “Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or should we serve perhaps an entirely different god, and who is he?” Polytheism is a direct consequence of rationalization. The divorce between fact and value means that “the various value spheres of the world stand in irreconcilable conflict with each other,” with no factual basis for adjudicating their rival claims. There is no rational way to resolve such conflicts. We must take the irrational leap of simply choosing some values rather than others. Weber writes: “We live as did the ancients when their world was not yet disenchanted of its gods and demons, only we live in a different sense. As Hellenic man at times sacrificed to Aphrodite and at other times to Apollo, and, above all, as everybody sacrificed to the gods of his city, so do we still nowadays, only the bearing of man has been disenchanted and denuded of its mystical but inwardly genuine plasticity.”
Here it is important to note that Weber seems to see no difference between the observable behavior of people in the ancient world and that of people in the modern world. Weber continues, “Many old gods ascend from their graves; they are disenchanted and hence take the form of impersonal forces. They strive to gain power over our lives and again they resume their eternal struggle with one another.”
In Weber’s view, Apollo has been replaced by impersonal forces like capitalism, but “gods” is not a casual metaphor. As Weber says, “they strive to gain power over our lives.” Weber believed the individual has the freedom to choose among the various gods on offer, but this choice is made in the context of unchosen constraints. The new gods we can choose must struggle not only against each other, but against the gods we do not choose. Weber writes of how Puritan asceticism “did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.”
Weber concludes that “material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history.”
In the nineteenth century, figures like Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche thought that doing away with God or the gods would lead to liberation for human beings. Humanity would finally take the reins of its own destiny. Weber was much more pessimistic. He emphasized the fragmented nature of human meaning in the modern world and the power and inertia of large social institutions. Together, these make complete liberation impossible. Weber seems to agree with Marx and Nietzsche that there is no pre-given order, that we humans are making it all up as we go. For Weber, however, human technical prowess produces wonders that end up dominating us. As the monster says to Dr. Frankenstein, “You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!”
So the gods eliminated by rationalization return in a different form to rule over us. In the political sphere, Weber describes how nation-states employ rationalized violence to protect borders, pushing religious scruples—like the pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount—into the private sphere of values. But war then out-religions religion, creating a new form of devotion to the nation-state. War, Weber writes, “makes for an unconditionally devoted and sacrificial community among the combatants and releases an active mass compassion and love for those who are in need…. In general, religions can show comparable achievements only in heroic communities professing an ethic of brotherliness.” Weber goes on to argue that the state does a better job than religion at giving meaning to death. In the economic sphere, Weber describes capitalism as the height of rationalization, precisely in its depersonalization of transactions. Money is “the most abstract and ‘impersonal’ element that exists in human life.” Weber adds, “For this reason one speaks of the rule of ‘capital’ and not that of capitalists.” Making money is no longer just a means to serve the life of people: “Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life.” In short, we continue to serve gods every bit as transcendent and irrational as the gods of old. The holy has not disappeared but migrated from the church to the state and the market.
What about the Amazon packages that land on our doorsteps? Do they belong to a realm of disenchantment, of rationalized materialism? Marx did not think so. When a table is made for use, there is nothing mysterious about it. But when it becomes a commodity for exchange, Marx writes, “it is changed into something transcendent.” It becomes a strange thing, “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” As commodities, things float free from both the material conditions of their production and from their own physical properties as use values: “In order…to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor.”
By “fetishism” Marx meant more than people obsessing about material things. He meant that material things become enchanted and take on a life of their own. When an object becomes a commodity, its value depends not on its usefulness, but on what it can be exchanged for. A contemporary example: despite widespread hunger, farmers dump milk and the government warehouses cheese in order to support the price of dairy. What matters is the exchange value—the price—not the use value. Cheese is not primarily food for people to consume, but a commodity to be exchanged for money. Because their value is expressed relative to other commodities, Marx says, commodities establish social relations among themselves.
And as commodities take on life, life is drained away from actual people. Hungry people don’t count in the market unless they have money, and workers are regarded as “labor costs,” which need to be minimized. Commodification also hides the conditions of work. All the consumer sees in the store or on Amazon’s website is the commodity and its price. It takes a Herculean effort to uncover the people who actually made the product and delivered it, and the conditions in which they worked.
Before the industrial revolution, people made nearly everything they had in their homes, and what they didn’t make was usually made by people they knew. Things were closely linked to their makers and to their use value. Now we make almost nothing for ourselves, and buy almost everything we use. It is hard to overestimate what a change this is in how we relate to the material world and to other people. When the sheer volume of things in the world took a quantum leap in the nineteenth century because of mass production, people needed to be taught, as one advertising manual put it in 1901, that “they have wants which they did not recognize before.”
If we look at the history of advertising, we see how merchandise took flight from the material world and entered into the realm of transcendence. In the nineteenth century, advertising was largely informational: you can buy shoes at John H. Johnson’s shop. By the early twentieth century, advertising had become more about persuading than informing, but it was still closely related to the physical product. An ad might show a picture of a shoe and then describe its virtues. The objective would be to convince the reader that this was a comfortable, reasonably priced, well-made, and stylish shoe. Such an ad would appeal both to the consumer’s rational sense of use value—shoes should be easy to walk in and not fall apart too quickly—and also to the buyer’s more intangible sense of fashion, of being recognized by others as stylish and as having the good sense to buy a reputable brand.
By the mid-twentieth century, there had been a shift further away from use value and toward the more intangible and spiritual aspirations of the consumer for freedom, sex, prestige, recognition, and other forms of transcendence. A shoe might still appear in a shoe ad, but there would no longer be any mention of its use value. Indeed, there might not be any mention of the shoe itself. Under the influence of Freud, Pavlov, and other psychologists, advertisers began to appeal not to the conscious self but to the subconscious. Such ads did not lie, because they didn’t make any explicit claims at all. They simply associated a physical commodity with non-physical aspirations. As in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, two completely different things—meat and a bell, domination and dress shoes—were associated in the subconscious. And just as Pavlov could have used a whistle instead of a bell, sex could as easily be associated with cars or shampoo or soda as with shoes. The actual material objects began to matter less than the fantasy world associated with them.
As consumerism became aspirational, the brand came to take on more importance than material objects. Beginning in the 1940s, corporations began exploring what brands mean to culture and to people’s lives. Brands increasingly became ways of marking one’s identity. Corporate marketers like Bruce Barton began to encourage businesses to discover their “souls.” More and more, corporations used theological language to describe themselves. As one corporate manager put it, “Corporate branding is really about worldwide beliefs management.”
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the actual product could vanish entirely. A recent Nike ad shows nothing but the swoosh and the words “Write the Future.” Today the leading corporations are more concerned with manufacturing brands than with manufacturing products. Products are made in a factory; brands are made in the mind. According to Naomi Klein, the key moment came in 1988, when Philip Morris bought not Kraft the company, but Kraft the brand for $12.6 billion dollars. In No Logo (1999) Klein writes: “In the new market…the product always takes a back seat to the real product, the brand, and the selling of the brand acquired an extra component that can only be described as spiritual. Branding, in its truest and most advanced incarnations, is about corporate transcendence.” Empirical research supports Klein’s claim. In a series of studies published as “Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?” in the journal Marketing Science, researchers from the United States and Israel found that subjects with strong traditional religious ties were much less likely to choose name brands for products that are used as a form of self-expression. The authors conclude that brand loyalty functions as a substitute for traditional religion.
Commodity fetishism is not simply an obsession with things. It is not materialism, but rather a kind of dematerialization. When use takes a back seat to exchange, commodities become vehicles for a flight into transcendence.
These themes can all be found in the biblical critique of idolatry. We tend to shy away from critiques of idolatry because they seem intolerant: “You don’t worship like we do, so you’re an idolater.” And yet the concept of idolatry seems to capture something important about the contemporary scene. Even though Pope Francis is renowned for his optimism and love for all, he makes frequent recourse to the language of idolatry. In his first encyclical, Lumen fidei, he states that the opposite of faith is not a simple lack of belief but idolatry. When one stops believing in God, one does not simply stop believing; rather one believes in all sorts of things. Francis describes this as “an aimless passing from one lord to another…. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: ‘Put your trust in me!’” Francis has repeatedly used the language of idolatry when describing the contemporary economic system. In Evangelii gaudium he writes, “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Exodus 32:1–35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
Idolatry as Francis uses the term here does not refer to the explicit worship of gods with proper names. Although the Bible often does use the term in this way—in its description of sacrifices to the god Baal, for example—the Bible treats idolatry principally as a matter of behavior, not belief. Idolatry is considered not primarily a metaphysical error, but a betrayal of loyalty to the God of Israel. For this reason, the primary biblical images for idolatry are adultery and political disloyalty. The image of adultery is exemplified by the story of Hosea, who is told to marry a prostitute to symbolize the dalliances of Israel with other gods. The political image is exemplified by 1 Samuel 8, when the Israelites ask for a king to reign over them. God says to Samuel, “It is not you they have rejected but me, not wishing me to reign over them anymore. They are now doing to you exactly what they have done to me since the day I brought them out of Egypt until now, deserting me and serving other gods” (1 Samuel 8:7–8). Although the king is not explicitly worshiped as a god, the Israelites have trusted the king rather than God to protect them, and this is idolatry.
Note, though, that God does allow Israel to have kings as long as they don’t replace him. Idolatry in a general sense is when people give an inordinate amount of trust or loyalty to something other than to God. Isaiah, for example, accuses the Israelites of idolatry for putting trust in an alliance with the Egyptian army. “Woe to those going down to Egypt for help, who put their trust in horses, who rely on the quantity of chariots, and on great strength of cavalrymen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 31:1). Isaiah links this turning away from God with the idolatrous reliance on what is created rather than on the Creator: “The Egyptian is human, not divine, his horses are flesh, not spirit” (Isaiah 31:3). In the biblical view, any created thing can be an object of idolatry. So Paul criticizes those whose “gods are their bellies…[and] their minds are set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19), and warns against “greed, which is the same thing as worshipping a false god” (Colossians 3:5).
Weber’s and Marx’s idea that we become dominated by our own creations is embedded in the biblical critique of idolatry. In 1 Samuel 8, when the people ask for a king to replace God, Samuel warns them that the king will take their sons for his armies and their daughters as servants, will confiscate their land and harvest and animals for his own benefit, and finally, “you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the lord will not answer you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:17–18). So Jesus is drawing on a long tradition of idolatry as domination when he warns, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). The Greek scripture leaves the Aramaic term “Mammon” untranslated here to personify money as a god, one that demands service. The idea in Weber and Marx that inanimate objects come alive by taking life from us is also found first in the Bible. Psalm 115 says “their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see…. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”
The biblical concern with idolatry implies that humans are spontaneously worshiping creatures. In Exodus, the Israelites could stand only a little less than six weeks of Moses’s absence before they demanded new gods to worship: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us’” (Exodus 32:1). The story of the Golden Calf is a story not only of the human capacity for self-deception, but also of the inherent human need to worship. This recognition allows for a sympathetic account of idolatry. When Paul is in Athens, the Book of Acts reports that he is “distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (17:16). But he also recognizes the Athenians’ idolatry as evidence that they are searching for meaning and ultimately for the true God.
Weber explains the basic human need to worship in terms of the need for meaning, a need that leads us inevitably to make gods. He is pessimistic that this need can be overcome. Marx, on the other hand, is convinced that people will cease making gods after the revolution. Once workers control the means of production, labor will cease to be alienated from its own products. But the revolution came and made a new god of the Communist state, to which tens of millions of lives were sacrificed. Unlike Weber and Marx, the Bible insists there is a real God, different from all our manufactured gods. We don’t need to create gods because there is a God who created us, a God who loves us and wants us to build a kingdom of peace and justice here on earth.
In his famous Kenyon College commencement address in 2005, the novelist David Foster Wallace told the graduates, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” He goes on to say that the reason you might want to worship a real God “is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” Worship money, and you’ll never have enough. Worship your body, and you’ll always feel ugly. Worship power, and you’ll always be afraid. And so on.
As Weber and Marx and the Bible intuit, however, avoiding idolatry is not as simple as making a personal choice to change one’s attitude about worship. Idolatry is embedded in whole economic and social and political systems that hold us in thrall. In an unjust system, we are all idolaters, and there needs to be systemic change to free people from false worship. If there is no true God, that task seems impossible. But as Jesus tells the disciples, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
William T. Cavanaugh is Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University. This article was adapted from the 2019 Albacete Lecture on Faith and Culture, which was organized and hosted by the Crossroads Cultural Center and the Albacete Forum.
Reproduced with the permission of Commonweal Magazine.