…quite often people confuse their fictional heroes with God. As they confuse their human lovers. Or themselves. It is a great hindrance to a happy life.– Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter
While reading Adam Gopnik’s review of recent books about atheism – see “Bigger Than Phil: When Did Faith Start to Fade?” The New Yorker, February 17 & 24, 2014 – I wondered, what do atheists worship? Science, some answer, and the thinking, ‘Self-Making’ mind. A Self-Maker, similar to a phenomenologist, seeks to elevate experience and happiness over religion. Been there, I thought, but often in fear. As Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s daughter noted, confusing my self with God was ‘a great hindrance to a happy life.’
About a year ago, I read David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address and thereafter have thought about atheism from the perspective of worship. People can choose what to see, Wallace said, and decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. But “…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. Everyone worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Wallace recommended a Deity or an inviolable code of ethics because “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
He explained, “If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
“But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
Ironically, changing egocentric ‘default’ settings involves the very thinking that Self-Makers idolize.
In The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, Peter Hitchens, brother of the late writer, bon vivant and famous atheist Christopher, wrote about his return to faith as a young adult. While visiting cathedrals and churches in England and France, Peter Hitchens recognized the great skill and wisdom of his forbearers and “the inevitability and certainty of my own death.” Standing in front of an altarpiece depicting The Last Judgment, he trembled, “for the things of which my conscience was afraid.”
Fear challenges me like Peter Hitchens’ conscience because of David Foster Wallace’s power worship. The desire to manipulate others in order to fix the world, to steal power from others to make things right, lurks in the shadows of my brain and can leap into action unless I stop and think. Without God, I am alone in a space that must become smaller and smaller in order for me to feel in control. I hide behind a false face in fear that people will discover who I really am.
Last Wednesday evening, Keith and I attended a Lenten event at church. We talked about what fear, love and trust in God meant. It is not fear but the awe of God that keeps me anchored, humbled, loving, trusting and trustworthy.
Faith in the beauty of God’s creation, His blessings and infinite mystery is the source of my happiness. Let me not worship any idol, I think and pray. Let me not be confused; let me change my default settings. It’s not about any thing or person or me. It’s always about God.
Peace to you all on St. Patrick’s Day, another snowy day here at Vanaprastha.
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I think it’s safe to say that atheists worship nothing. They may prioritize and respect things they value. Worship is the wrong word.
It is safe to say that atheists deny the existence of God, a supernatural or divine being. But it is not safe to say that atheists do not worship.
Worship means reverence paid to what one idolizes, an honored person, idea or thing venerated with admiration and devotion. With honest self-examination, I think each of us can identify what we worship, what we hold in highest esteem: belief in a higher power or in an ideology of the human intellect or in things (the ‘almighty’ dollar) or in people – the beautiful, sexy or powerful (as in ‘your worship’), family, friends or ourselves.
With or without much thought, we all choose what we value and respect, prioritize our time and devote ourselves to something and/or someone. We all decide what we worship.
Thank you for your comment and for reading my blog. -C.D.