Thursday Theological Inquiry #2

Proposition: Everybody worships something.

You sometimes hear theists stating this in response to atheists.  Whether or not the statement is true may depend on what is meant by worship.  Is there a meaningful definition of the word broad enough to apply to everyone in some way or other?

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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11 Responses

  1. Ryan Noonan says:

    On some level, I guess we all believe things that can’t be proven. But there are degrees of ridiculousness, and belief in the nonexistence of unicorns is just manifestly less ridiculous than belief in the existence of unicorns.

  2. Rodak says:

    “Is there a meaningful definition of the word broad enough to apply to everyone in some way or other?”


  3. Jaybird says:

    I wouldn’t say “worship” as much as “have propositions that they don’t want to discuss and will attack other people for so much as questioning.”

  4. rexknobus says:

    Just one (atheist) voice weighing in. Took a look at several on-line dictionaries to see if I could find a definition of “Worship” that had any relationship with anything I feel. Closest I came was “extravagant respect…” I can’t get past the undefined value of “extravagant” there. There’s a movie that I have watched over a hundred times and I have its poster in a very expensive frame behind my TV. I have bookshelves devoted to the complete line of a single author’s works. I have a spectacular mate of 30 years. Extreme love. Fanatic devotion. Perhaps.

    But “worship”? If all it takes to defeat the statement “everybody worships something” is one “no” vote, consider it cast.

  5. Kimmi says:

    No. You’ll have your classically depressed cynic somewhere, who doesn’t believe in anything.
    Except entropy…

  6. GordonHide says:

    Not only am I an atheist but I’ve never understood people’s regard for celebrities. There are people I admire but not enough to remember their names. So I guess I would have to say if there is something I worship, (for instance; a decent night’s sleep), it’s not a conscious being.

  7. Fnord says:

    If your definition of “worship” is sufficiently broad to include a majority of atheists, I strongly suspect you’ll find that, by that definition, a majority of (mono)theists “worship” more things than just their god. Probably, in large part, the same thing atheists “worship”. Whether it’s meaningful under those circumstances is a matter of opinion (if you want to denounce the corruption of worldly interests in general, it may be a feature, not a bug).

  8. J.L. Wall says:

    If we’re talking about “worshiping” things that aren’t God, then we’re talking about avoda-zara, or idolatry/idol-worship, but more literally “strange worship” — and even more literally “strange service.” Which isn’t quite the same thing as necessitating worship itself. Something a little less, rather — just the belief in the efficacy of the object that cannot effect.

    But that’s too broad. So perhaps, a reverently held such belief? The treatment of such belief as sacred? The understanding, because of the belief, that said object is itself sacred, in a way?

    The short answer, if we put aside my poor attempts at offering definitions is that to your question about worship, the answer is probably no. But if we’re talking about a particular type of belief that only MAY lead to a particular action — then the answer might still be yes.

  9. Burt Likko says:

    Sorry to have hung out of the conversation for so long; my neglect has cost the conversation an atheist voice.

    “Worship” to me indicates “adoration” rather than “faith.” Of course everyone has things that they really like, that they strive for, that they want, and probably that they hope can be universalized for the benefit of others. For me, these things include compassion, democracy, civil liberties, education, material prosperity, social success (by which I refer to things like romance and friendship and family), personal autonomy, and peace. Beauty, perhaps, although that’s a difficult concept to define all by itself, which is why I hesitate to include it. The same sorts of “good things” that anyone of good faith would wish for anyone else. I should like to think that I do things, at least from time to time, to advance those goods and make them more available to others.

    If “worshiping” these values means I like them very much and focus some effort, at least from time to time, on advancing them, then I’d say that yes, everyone worships something. But I don’t think that’s what the word “worship” means in its full sense.

    Those things are like a deity in that they are (mostly) ineffable, (mostly) the result of value judgments and preferences on my part, and (mostly) difficult if not impossible to prove to be superior to reasonable mutually exclusive alternatives on a truly objective level. They are not God-like, though, in that they lack personality, sentience, (mostly) reciprocality, or what I think is as the heart of the inquiry, sacredness and supernaturality.

    These things are important and worth striving for, I think. I believe them to be good and in many cases inherently good. When I point to inherent goodness of something, even something ineffable, I recognize that something called “faith” may be going on. This may be “worship” in at least one meaningful sense of the word.

    But these good things are not extrinsic to human society. They are not fundamentally tied up with the nature of the universe (something which I see as purely materialistic). It is not a massive or painful intellectual effort to imagine that other viable value systems would deprecate these values in favor of others nor to consider the notion that these values may well be mere preferences. Because some degree of those qualities seems inherent in the notion of a deity as explained to me by believers, I do not think the word “worship” is as appropriate or precise as the word “value” to explain my aspirations for these goods.

    • Patrick Cahalan says:

      It’s not just adoration (although I like that inclusion). It’s submission, as well.

      In order to worship something, you must first believe that you understand it well enough to grant it dominion over your will. One difference between the principled theist and the principled agnostic is that the agnostic hasn’t found anything that they understand well enough to grant it dominion over them.

      I would argue that most theists don’t actually worship, any more.

      This can be because they don’t understand something that is, or because the something that is likewise is ineffable in a deal-breakerish sort of way, or that the something is not.

  10. Rodak says:

    “I would argue that most theists don’t actually worship, any more.”

    It occurs to me that Catholics claim not to “worship” Mary, the mother of Jesus. If the way they speak of, and act towards, her is not “worship,” then I can must conclude the only true meaning of worship is defined by that which one confesses to worshipping.