Everybody Else’s Biggest Problem: Everybody Worships

Welcome to the sixth installment of act three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s […]

Mockingbird / 7.6.16

Welcome to the sixth installment of act three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, the entire series can be found here.

dfw220_1872552a“Everybody worships.” Two simple words, subject and verb. Everybody. Worships.

Google the dyad and the source explodes off the screen, a wholly unexpected wellspring for theologians (and Mockingbird).

David Foster Wallace was an enigmatic literary genius. It’s almost embarrassing for me to say, the height of clichés, but I must: Reading Infinite Jest changed my life. DFW’s hyper-intellectual maze of words and atonal writing style sprung a creative trap in me that may not be evident in my novel, Eat What You Kill, but, trust me, both are woven through my very being. DFW did something that, naively and mistakenly, I did not, at that point in my life, believe possible: He made fiction an intellectual exercise, a measure of intelligence, a journey into random, self-indulgent, story-telling. David Foster Wallace gave me permission to write.

A decade after devouring Infinite Jest, about 40,000 words into EWYK, I found myself volunteering at Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s welcome table, and there it was, excerpted on a banner hanging on the wall:

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…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

Back at home I found the source, a commencement address DFW delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, generally regarded as “the greatest graduation speech of all time.”

Unfortunately I can’t reprint the entire speech for you. It’s readily available online. But for our discussion today I should quote a few sentences that precede the short excerpt Redeemer offers on its Sunday banner.

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: 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.

No such thing as atheism…no such thing as not worshipping…everybody worships. As you can imagine, DFW’s words have not been graciously received by some folks of certain philosophical persuasions.

“I’d suggest that Mr. Wallace suck it up and go back to believing in talking donkeys,” one atheist advised on Quora.com. Another self-identified “long-term atheist” opines “I don’t worship anything, so Wallace is obviously wrong.” Finally, a third proclaimed, “He’s wrong. The statements made in that speech are arrogant and manipulative. Some people don’t worship anything, no matter what this nitwit claims.”


I suggest these critics (and many, many more) should consult a dictionary. Merriam-Webster provides several definitions of “worship.” One is “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem <worship of the dollar>.” Dictionary.com offers a similar definition, “to feel an adoring reverence or regard for (any person or thing).” Clearly, if we claim to be sentient beings on the healthy side of sociopathy, we worship.

(If one must be hopelessly obstinate and desperately force the semantic critique of the speech delivered by a man labeled “genius” by The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Salon and dozens more, one should start with dictionary definitions of god, then deify, then deity and finally atheism. Honestly, I don’t have the patience for the folly, and here and now I don’t have the word count.)

Psychologists agree, we humans worship. Professor Matt Rossano recently wrote on HuffPo: “I’m sympathetic to the view that humans will, either by design or default, end up worshipping some god, if by god we mean ‘that to which we willingly offer service and sacrifice in exchange for a sense of meaning and purpose.’” In 2009, Dr. Stephen Diamond wrote in Psychology Today, “We live in a society that worships success, celebrity and money.”

Christian theologians add another layer to our “default setting,” as DFW called it. Pastor Greg Laurie writes “of course, not everyone worships God, but when you get down to it, everyone worships. Everyone has built an altar in their lives to someone or something.” Best-selling author Tim Keller agrees.

26063bc32a2e9629baf29ba93c758d1bWallace was by no means a religious person, but he understood that everyone worships, everyone trusts in something for their salvation, everyone bases their lives on something that requires faith. A couple of years after giving that speech, Wallace killed himself. And this nonreligious man’s parting words to us are pretty terrifying: “Something will eat you alive.” Because even though you might never call it worship, you can be absolutely sure you are worshipping and you are seeking.

The bottom line is, DFW is undeniably correct. Everybody worships. Everybody is devoted to something; everybody has an extravagant respect or admiration for something; everybody feels an adoring reverence or regard for something. Power, intellect, beauty – among others, DFW singled out these “objects of esteem.” He told the Kenyon audience:

But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious…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. And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.

And there is it, the ultimate object of our enlightened devotion, the foundation of our modern altar, the dark water in which we readily drown: Self.

v0081874_posterframeWhen we choose to worship temporal, material things, when we bestow upon our authentic and mindful selves that supreme authority, at the core of it we are worshipping ourselves. And how might the self-worship of a materialistic, relativistic, navel-gazing, spiritual-but-not-religious narcissist manifest itself? Recall from Living in a Material World the words of a team of professors writing about consumer brands as a new form of religion: “Far from abolishing magic, religion and spirituality, we are experiencing a re-enchantment which sacralises the secular.” Our default is to worship. If it’s not trendy to worship a transcendent supernatural being, we will “sacralise the secular” and worship something of the moment, something that doesn’t offend the sensibilities of the elites we hate to emulate.

We absorb this reality innumerable times daily in our popular culture, the deification of material things. I could write an entire book on the topic (and many authors have). Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Last month the Observer declared “being ‘religious’ isn’t exactly chic. ‘I’m not religious – but I am spiritual,’ one often hears. Truth is, even the most fashionable types feel the need for some kind of higher power, especially if they don’t have a therapist on speed dial.” One solution, the Observer continued, is to worship our fitness instructors, a common phenomenon ripe for ridicule.

On the satirical Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,

the main characters attend SpiritCycle, where everyone worships a spin guru named Tristafé, only to find out he’s sitting on the toilet instead of a spin bike, in a Wizard of Oz twist. Their devotion is ruined, along with the illusion that anyone could be that physically fit

Holly Rilinger is Flywheel’s most sought-after instructor and, go figure, a reality television star. She told the Observer: “What I hear more than even ‘That changed my body’ is, ‘You helped me through my divorce,’ ‘You helped me through the toughest time,’ or ‘I’m exponentially happier now.’ People call my class Prozac or they call it church.”


In his famous speech, DFW warned against the worship of “body and beauty and sexual allure.” If you worship those things, he said, “you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.” Worship our bodies and our personal fitness gurus don’t sit alone on the proverbial, and often literal, toilet of despair; singing the praises of the latest miracle juice cleanse, we join them on the throne.

In an election year it’s appropriate to discuss our divisive worship of political ideology. In 2011, in an essay titled “The Politics of Authenticity,” we read in The Economist:

Our broadly political commitments reverberate even in our judgments about the metaphysics of the self. The authentic self is the ideologically-validated self. This may help explain the widespread tendency to see those with whom we fundamentally disagree as victims of “false consciousness”. We cannot help but suspect that they are in the grip of some kind of illusion, while we are clear-eyed and at home in the world as it is. Our ideological opposites are not only at war with truth, but alienated from their true selves.

And when we self-identify with our political ideology, when we worship it because it validates who we perceive ourselves to be, how might we respond to those who disagree with us, to those who question our faith? Remarkably, in what is truly this author’s dream confluence, in 2005 DFW gave us the answer: We respond to the perceived threat with fear, anger and frustration.


Pew Research Center reported two weeks ago:

For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger.

Dedicated ideologues – the true believers who volunteer their time or donate their money to candidates and causes – are of course the most threatened. Among committed Republicans, 62% are afraid of the Democratic party, 58% are angry, and 58% are frustrated. Among committed Democrats, 70% are afraid of the GOP, 58% are angry and 60% are frustrated.

As a nation, over the past few decades we’ve seen the rise of selfishnessmaterialism, and cafeteria spirituality, not to mention the decline of organized religion (as measured by the increasing number of religious “nones”). If indeed everybody worships, should we be surprised that political polarization is at an all-time high? Have we filled a spiritual void by simply “sacralising the secular”? Let’s leave that as a rhetorical question and explore a couple more common objects of our devotion.

“I’m very good at being a dad and I’m proud to say it, because as parents do, I worship my kids,” Johnny Depp told iVillage in 2010. Just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be healthy and fit, or holding political opinions, there’s certainly nothing wrong with loving our children. But when parental love becomes worship, what might result?

unnamed-2Perhaps you’re familiar with a term coined in 1990, “helicopter parenting,” which consists of being over-involved in children’s lives, making decisions and solving problems on their behalf. Multiple studies confirm that children of helicopter parents are more likely to be anxious and depressed, to have lower life satisfaction and worse physical health, and to have lower academic engagement, than their less cosseted peers. In a June 2016 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, researchers note that “helicopter parenting has become an increasing concern among practitioners, college administrators and professors” because it has “a deleterious effect on emerging adult college students’ mental health.” Do we want to make our kids anxious, depressed, unhappy, indecisive and uninterested in education? Based on the tragically and historically unprecedented poor state of millennials’ mental health, we already have.

Speaking of mental health, let’s look at one more example before we wrap up. According to Psychology Today, “Celebrity worship syndrome has been described as an obsessive-addictive disorder where an individual becomes overly involved and interested (i.e., completely obsessed) with the details of the personal life of a celebrity.”

Yes, you read it correctly. Celebrity worship is a recognized psychological syndrome, with a host of nasty symptoms, as described in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience in 2014:

Findings reveal that individuals with high scores on celebrity-worship scales tend to display a number of psychosocial characteristics. For example, these individuals may harbor concerns about body image (particularly young adolescents), be more prone to cosmetic surgery, and have a personality style characterized by sensation-seeking, cognitive rigidity, identity diffusion, and poor interpersonal boundaries. Likewise, celebrity worshippers may exhibit narcissistic features, dissociation, addictive tendencies, stalking behavior, and compulsive buying. Studies also indicate that individuals with high levels of celebrity worship are more likely to have poorer mental health as well as clinical symptoms of depression, anxiety, and social dysfunction.

Good grief, it reads like a laundry list of 21st century pathologies, a compendium of the malfunctions of our post-modern progressive culture. One must ask, Is the cure for our collective ills to turn off the television, to put down People? I pray the answer is No, at least until my wife and I finish binging the new season of “Orange is the New Black.”

But I digress.

circa 1957: American singer and actor Elvis Presley (1935-1977) performing outdoors on a small stage to the adulation of a young crowd. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If the hypothesis is true that everybody worships something, and celebrities qualify as something, then we’d expect irreligious people to be more likely to exhibit celebrity worship than their religious counterparts, and that’s exactly what the science shows.

“As religiosity increases for both men and women the tendency to worship celebrities decreases,” reported a team of researchers in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2002. Religious people should not be smug, however. “The mean correlation coefficient for the 12 measures was a rather unimpressive – 0.20,” indicating that while theists worship celebrities less than “nones,” the difference is not tremendous, “suggesting that many religious people apparently ignore the religious teaching that ‘Thou shalt worship no other Gods,’ or fail to connect it to their worship of celebrities.” (Other studies add color to the finding, from a 1994 examination of Star Trek fans and how “they organize, recruit and hold ceremonies commonly known as conventions” to the obsessive nature and the religion-like rituals celebrity worshippers exhibit and employ to demonstrate their devotion.)

Another symptom of celebrity worship is obsessive information gathering. “Information about the celebrity, or any little thing from their life, is like a fix the worshipper must have,” psychologist Abby Aronowitz told WebMD, rendering TMZ the moral equivalent of a corner crack dealer.

In 2009, ABC News interviewed Dr. John Lucas, an attending psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, on the subject of celebrities and religion:

“What we know of them through People magazine and other media sources fills a gaping and painful void in our lives,” Lucas said. The dwindling influence of religion adds to that sense of yearning in people, he added, making the stars’ exploits and eccentricities, their loves and losses, more than a form of entertainment. “Religion is faltering, and in the process people are grappling with infantile wishes, with magical thinking.”

A typical example of “infantile wishes, with magical thinking,” as a 2000 study discovered, are “illusions regarding the individual and the star (such as day-dreaming that the star will visit the fan one day).” WebMD reported “experts say some even begin to believe they have some special connection to the celebrity.” The results, as numerous cases of criminal stalking tragically reveal, can be fatal.


The $64,000 question is, of course, Why does everybody worship? Why do we seek out and deify an earthly avatar, a material object of esteem, something we can reverentially adore?

David Foster Wallace points us in the right direction. We seek “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” But our freedom fails us. We are inept lords of our own lives; we are unworthy of our worship. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” But we are selfish individuals, unable and unwilling to sacrifice for others. We crave a proxy, a cosmic stunt double, someone or something outside the confines of our skull-sized kingdoms willing and able to sacrifice on our behalf. But that something or someone is not known in our natural world, so we seek out “some kind of higher power” capable of what we frail humans are not. When we fail or refuse to find it, we fill the void and worship “an image or representation of a god.” That is the dictionary definition of idol, and, in one form or another, it is what we worship. Everybody worships…idols.

But why do we idolize children and celebrities and intellect and power and politics to fill the painful void? What is our most common and beloved idol, a source of security, identity, arrogance and pride? DFW began his famous speech with a parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

What the hell is water? What the hell is greed?