David Foster Wallace said in his 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College, “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. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
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…
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.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”
Whatever David Foster Wallace worshiped did indeed eat him alive: just three years after giving this speech, he took his own life. Wallace clearly understood how terrifying the human condition is: we are such ravenous worshipers, that we fashion gods for ourselves and create religions around them, even if they are tyrants.
That’s the thing about worship: it’s not isolated or limited. It spreads into every facet of life: our affections, our will, our emotions, our money, our time, our dreams, our fears. And because it’s humanity’s default setting, it can happen below the level of conscious choice. Like Plato’s delusional cave-dwellers, we can believe that we are perfectly free even while we are in midst of pseudo-religious activities so slavishly devoted, they would put ascetic Buddhist monks to shame.
Our idols aren’t objects on a shelf that we occasionally dust off and burn incense to. We start using them as a means of distinguishing between sacred and profane. We form a set of ritual activities around them. They give us a law to follow and penalties for failing to keep that law. They reward us for doing well. Mostly, they hold out a promise of future hope: usually an idealized version of ourselves that we can attain through constant devotion.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I get ready to go back to grad school. Scholarship is a noble pursuit that will rightly demand most of my time and attention during the week. But it’s one of those things that can become its own religion before you realize what’s happened. I think that might be one reason why scholars are disproportionately atheist or agnostic: academia fills in the gaps that religion fills for many of us. The academic world has its own distinction between sacred and profane (learned versus ignorant), its own set of ritual activities (classes, conferences, committees), its own laws and rules, penalties for failing to keep those laws (poor grades, not getting published), rewards for doing well (graduation, titles, tenure), and the promise of nirvana-levels of happiness through enlightenment.
I plan to apply myself wholeheartedly to my studies, and I foresee lots of stressful hours in the library and many a sleepless night ahead. But I don’t want my studies to become my religion, because the academic world can eat people alive.
The same thing can happen with any idol. Materialism gives us a sacred and profane (wealth and its signs versus poverty and its signs), a law (consumption), and a promise of happiness through purchasing power. It even gives us houses of worship (malls) and a seductive rhetoric (advertising).
Most of the time, we don’t even realize that we’ve created these religions, and our acts of worship are unconsciously performed. Sometimes, the only way to know whether we’re worshiping something or whether we’re just really committed to it is how we respond when it lets us down.
For example, I may love my job, work long hours, and be an excellent employee without turning my job into an idol. But what happens when I don’t get the promotion that I felt I deserve or a great idea I’ve worked on for weeks get shot down or I even lose the job? Is my identity crushed? Is all my hope for the future taken away? Then it’s possible that my job had become my idol.
“Our hearts are idol factories,” said John Calvin. I guess today’s more hipster version of this quote is that our hearts “repurpose” objects and relationships and lifestyles in the world around us to create idols.
The solution isn’t to stop worshiping, because that isn’t possible. The solution is to set our hearts on the only object of worship who won’t destroy us–who was in fact destroyed so we wouldn’t have to be. Our hearts were made for God, and they’re restless until they find rest in him, said Augustine. Every idol I create or repurpose is my heart’s restless longing for the true and only worthy object of its affection: its creator.