“There is Actually No Such Thing as Atheism…”

Yesterday afternoon, I ran across this rather interesting quote from David Foster Wallace.  If you’re not familiar with Wallace, he was widely considered by many to be a master essayist and even something of a literary giant.  In point of fact, when Time attempted to compile a list of the best English language books written since 1923, Wallace’s own Infinite Jest made the cut.  But sadly, a little over four years ago, he lost his battle with depression and elected to take his own life.

Here, in this passage taken from his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace offers his thoughts on the subject of worship and atheism.  Not your typical thoughts from a less-than-typical speaker:

“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. 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. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

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.”

David Foster Wallace

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57 Responses to “There is Actually No Such Thing as Atheism…”

  1. James says:

    “Everybody worships.”

    False premise on which the piece is based. Had he opened with “I don’t know anyone that doesn’t worship….” that would have been fine. Otherwise it’s just rehashing the “no atheists in foxholes” lie.

    • G Snyder says:

      I actually think the guy is spot on. Maybe you’re getting stuck on the word “worship”, so feel free to exchange that with whatever else you’d like…but the idea of “living for” (something) holds true.

      It’s almost like the atheist professors that I deal with on a daily basis. They will look down on me for my Christian faith; the faith where I have Accepted that I am sinner in need of a savior, and the inerrancy of scripture. Either directly or indirectly, they mock my faith–as they feel it is lesser than their science.

      And with those that are actually willing to engage the issue, I’ll ask them if they have faith in the eternal. They invariably say no. The next question is the creation of the universe–we are forced to believe in the presence of eternal matter or an eternal creator. There is no other option. We all have faith; the real question is our state of denial in where we place our faith.

      So back to the quote at hand–I fully know we worship. Everyone worships. It’s just a matter of denial in what it is that we are worshiping and living for…

      • pinkagendist says:

        Of course your faith ‘is lesser’ than science by its very nature. It’s the belief in the unproven. It’s conjecture and supposition, no more valid than the belief in fairies or rain gods.

        • G Snyder says:

          I’m a PhD. Science *is* the same exact thing. We’re trained thinkers to put everything in simple yes/no artificial scenarios, and we try to falsify suppositions. Science proves nothing; it only falsifies (or “disproves”) presuppositions. And even then, it is fraught with delusions, confounds, and human error. (Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan’ addresses this, should you be interested.) When it all comes down to it–we don’t know much of anything.

          What most people don’t know is that “science” is a theory. It is a theory of knowledge acquisition It assumes: (a) order, (b) determinism, (c) discoverability. We have to have faith that these assumptions will hold. And if you read Taleb, you’ll see how we cannot make that assumption. Further, the statistics involved (at least in human research) is based on the idea of ‘the bell curve’, which only holds true when it holds true. (And often, it will not–which creates chaos.)

          If you’re interested in the philosophy of science, I’d recommend reading Thomas Kuhn. He does the best job at breaking it down for us. Nicholas Taleb is also some great reading to wrap our minds around the shortcomings of western science.

          And for that matter, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is perhaps one of the single best explanations on how the theory of (western science) is fatally flawed. In essence, western science tries to put reality in a simple yes/no type of relationship. And it’s more convoluted than that–we don’t “prove” anything…we try to disprove the opposite! And at least in all the biomedical research that I’ve seen, this is often derailed by a poor understanding of the question. As a result, we’ll always get answers, but to poorly made questions derived out of our own ignorance. In reality, Pirsig opines that we need an option beyond yes/no, which would be “mu”… simply stating that we ought “unask the question”, and that the reality of the answer is bigger than the scope of the question.

          And I believe he’s right.

          So in short, science requires every bit of faith that a religion does. It’s just that most people are either ignorant or in denial of this reality.

          • pinkagendist says:

            What absolute hogwash. In case you haven’t noticed, you’re typing on a computer. We can cure a number of diseases and this month we had pictures sent to us from Mars. That’s the result of science. The science we use to test and learn if our assumptions are right or wrong. It doesn’t require ‘faith’ in a magical sky-fairy who’s overly preoccupied with people’s genitalia.

        • G Snyder says:

          It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with a dogmatic mind. I will only suggest that if you are interested in learning what science really is–I have provided some excellent resources. Yes, they are primarily academic, but this is a well-read self-selecting audience. The term is bantered about, but few appreciate that it’s merely a theory/method of knowledge acquisition, based on assumptions that you consider “hogwash”.

          What your point seems to be is to suggest that science can be applied to provide tangible results. That’s true. (As can other methods of knowledge acquisition, but we won’t go there.)

          The counter-point to this is that faith in God can likewise produce tangible evidence as well, for those who are interested in seeking to be in the presence of the Almighty. I can give personal examples, but based on your previous reactions, I see no reason to do so at this point in time. God deals with us personally; my experiences will be rejected by others who do not have a personal relationship with God.

          In conclusion, science requires faith. Just ask any high energy particle physicist (or other sub-specialies that are highly engaged in theoretical applications). And “science” has lead us wrong time and time again. Too many examples to list…

          I am a scientist. I enjoy developing prosthetic devices that alter CNS processing as a means of improve the quality of life in my patients. However, I’m not going to put my faith in anything man-conceived regarding my eternity.

          At its core, the method of science cannot explain all of reality. So in those cases, we fill in the gaps with faith. “The big bang” is a prime example.

          The two go hand in hand quite well, actually. But your eyes may see it differently. Pascal’s Wager may also apply, should you be interested in taking it there.

          • pinkagendist says:

            You haven’t defined science in any way, shape or form. You’ve defined a religious take on science, which has to be skewed and biased as to not invalidate your pre-packaged religious views.
            ‘God’ is pure conjecture. A fantasy invented in every ignorant culture that has existed on this planet and a means to control the populace by way of fear and threats.
            In case you haven’t yet realized it, it was man who ‘conceived’ your god. It’s all the word, delusion and manipulation of men.

          • Carrot says:

            (laugh) Hard to have a conversation with a dogmatic mind. You do realize you just described yourself, right? Science is not magic. It doesn’t change based on “personal relationship” with the elements. Chemical reactions will happen in exactly the same way each time you carry out the same experiment. That’s why you test and re-test and prove the original theory by the evidence you find OR you change the theory based on what the evidence you get. I will not get what I want each time I pray to God, no matter how often I say the words and really need what I’m asking for. 10 Hail Marys don’t always equal a touchdown.

            No one is asking you to put faith in man made devices. That statement it very telling in your disregard for science and the understanding gap going on. Faith in God doesn’t render science invalid. It still works. You can have both. The biological sciences continue to work, the chemical sciences, physics – all of it still continues to work to constants whether or not you believe in God, how you believe in God or even what God you decide to believe in. You can still believe in God and understand and _accept_ how chemical reactions and gravity make the stars burn in the depths of space.

            Before you assume your Martyr’s Crown, lamenting the fact that people look down on you because of your faith, listen to how you’re talking down to people who do not believe as you do.

        • G Snyder says:

          I only ask that you pick up any graduate or doctorate level text on the method and theory of science. Or read any of the higher level authors previously mentioned.


          Then, we can have a more meaningful dialogue.

          Peace be with you.

          • pinkagendist says:

            I’m a PhD too, sir- and not in science fiction as I believe is your case.
            There is no dialogue to be had when people like you cannot make the basic differentiation between fact and fiction.

          • Zig says:

            Spot on G. Way to support the truth, while diffusing the typical ramblings of the hostile left. As a relatively new Christian I learn a lot from the content and manner of these types of discussions. Watching how character and truth come into play in discussions with a discontented view is very helpful as I move forward in my faith.

        • G Snyder says:

          Ah! Interesting!

          What’s your area of specialty?

        • G Snyder says:

          And what’s your take on Taleb’s stance on epistemic arrogance re: the narrative fallacy and (bio)statistical analysis?

        • popesicle says:

          pinkagendist: If you choose to look at it that way. One might see this as more of a… faith in something greater than man, rather than putting faith in man’s own knowledge and intellect (which even you must admit is hardly perfect). We’re not throwing human reason out the window–if we do, we’re in serious trouble–we’re just acknowledging its limits. Simple as that.

          Query: Why does the secularist in this conversation seem more dogmatic than the Christian?

          Scott: I think the actual comment on atheism is intriguing, but leads to a whole host of confusing semantical arguments. It really boils down to what you define as atheism and worship, and you can boil down anything to nothing. That said, the rest of the passage is great. Love it.

          • G Snyder says:

            I think your points nail it. The camp that defines the rhetoric has greater room to (for lack of a better word/concept) make up the rules as they go. (Defining atheism & worship.)

            Case in point–atheists are forced into accepting the premise that they have faith in the existence of eternal matter. Matter that was present before the creation of space & time–in which space & time could be created. There is no way around this reality, if they choose to be consistent in their own belief structure.

            But when confronted with this reality–I’ve never had an atheist swallow such a reality. None have had the fortitude to heatedly admit as such. Instead, dogma comes out and an attempted slight of hand to redefine the issue. (When the issue is quite simple–deny it or not, we have faith in something…which you pretty much have to define as the presence of eternal matter. Then–all of a sudden, faith in an eternal creator seems much less absurd in comparison.)

            So my point in all of this is to suggest that true atheism doesn’t exist…because I’ve never met one that was able to freely admit faith in the existence of eternal matter. (Such a belief, even to them, would feel absurd.) Instead, atheism may be the rhetoric labeling an extreme form of self-idolatry (addiction to free-will) manifested as rebellion against God. (And the biggest rebellion is that of a child, closing his eyes and clutching his ears while screaming, trying to shut out the sensory stimulation of their Father’s communication with them.)

    • Hey James (Husband of Carrot, I believe??) …

      Welcome to the site, sir. In fairness to Wallace, I have ripped this single passage from a much larger commencement address. So his fuller context is missing from our discussion. Ultimately, I don’t think he’s really tackling atheism as a religious impulse so much as he is addressing the adult propensity towards chasing after the things we adore. And as adoration is closely associated with worship, I think he’s merely pressing the point by using the word “atheist.”

      Out of curiosity, have you ever read anything by Wallace? I have not. But my chance encounter with this quote and the brief research I did on his life leave me really rather curious about the guy. So on the chance that you have read something, would you be so kind as to point me in the right direction of where to start? Thanks.

  2. Lin says:

    For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
    Obviously there’s plenty of treasure to pick from and worship. It’s only the True Treasure worthy of worship that gives LIFE.

    • G Snyder says:

      ^^ Like!

    • I think what I found to be so interesting in this piece is that Wallace brilliantly summarized what I struggled to teach my students about idolatry last year. We tend to think of idolatry in terms of certain religious rites and practices. But I think Wallace gets it right when he argues that we worship the things we falsely adore and chase after.

  3. Mark Notestine says:

    Very well written observation by him that we all worship something(s).

    Worship of anything outside of God is to also help supress, in our wickedness, the truth of God made plain to everyone in creation. The so-called natural theology of Paul in Romans 1:18-31, Augustine, Aquainas, etc.

    Worship of anything outside the Triune God of the Bible and the gospel of grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone is subtle worship of our own works. Worship of ourselves in that we think we can contribute to our own salvation.

  4. “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. ”

    Certainly weird.

    Also not true. But he’s welcome to his opinion, whoever he is.

  5. Welcome sir. Having read your comment, I was wondering if you would you be willing to tell me what you think is “not true” in this statement. Because I don’t think Wallace is actually denying the existence of atheists. What he’s arguing is that we all worship something, and that these material “somethings” eventually fail us. Do you not think that people idolize and worship the things of this life?

    Thanks again for stopping by.

    • “Do you not think that people idolize and worship the things of this life? ”

      Certainly people do.

      I, on the other hand, do not. And if I am not unique in this (and I don’t think I am) then he’s wrong. Plain and simple.

      • Interesting. Even as someone who claims to worship Jesus the Christ, I still find that my heart leans towards a worship of things in this world. At times, I worship my marriage, I worship my security, I worship my material wealth, etc…

        May I ask how you prevent your heart from inclining itself so strongly in favor of things such as this?

  6. I think it depends on what you interpret Worship to mean….

    • Hmm, defining worship? That’s actually trickier than it first appears. How about this? Adoration, veneration, or giving supremacy of place in one’s life. Do those work as operational definitions?

      • “or giving supremacy of place in one’s life”

        Not that one.

        A kid in a boarding school has her schooling in a place of supremacy in her life. But that doesn’t mean she worships it.

        • Mark Notestine says:

          Whether one worships something may not necessarily surface until a crisis. If the girl in boarding school was asked to cheat or deny their faith some way. If the girl cheats or denies then she worships her schooling. If she holds to her faith regardless of the consequnces then she does not worship her schooling. For me I look at the highest priority things in life and if they were to conflict, the one that wins is the one I worship. Hopefully that turns out to be God.

        • Fair enough. Dang … I was about to say “a willful giving of supremacy of place in one’s life,” but that doesn’t cut it either. Because some things we worship, we worship out of raw desire, not will. Besides, willful suggests a lack of emotion, and worship typically entails an emotive response. This is tough to define …

          • G Snyder says:

            Splitting hairs as a means to avoid the reality.

            We worship what we dedicate our time and energy to. We worship that which we meditate.

            Something that had really helped clarify this for me is the AA Big Book. If you haven’t read it, you need to. Tonight. You can find free PDF’s of it online. Definately divinely inspired and life-changing. It’s not about alcohol; it’s about personal sanctification.

        • Mark Notestine says:

          So perhaps another way to look at worship in the context of the writer is, “we ALL have something that takes first priority our life”. So “worship” = “first priority” in context of the writer?

          • “So “worship” = “first priority” in context of the writer?”

            If that’s the writer’s definition, it is a bad definition, in my humble opinion.

            Sure we all have priorities. But our main priority is not necessarily something we worship.

            If you (the general you) are trying to find a definition for worship that fits something I do, then perhaps ‘worship’ is not what you actually mean.

          • G Snyder says:

            Ok-so I cheating. Looking it up on M-W.

            Reverence. Respect. Admiration. Those seem to be the key words.

            Not my words…theirs.

            So if we don’t worship anything, are we like the nihilists from “The Big Lebowski”?

          • G Snyder says:


            Silly iPhone.

          • G Snyder says:

            (And The Big Lebowski reference was a joke…)

  7. Lin says:

    How I find out what I value the most is by taking note of what I first think of in the morning when I awake or what I spend the most time thinking of whether it’s my marriage, striving to obtain security, material wealth, etc. THat is your treasure or what you worship.
    As many have alluded to denial or deception, have any read Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute? That book helped me see how I deceive myself by how I perceive people, thoughts, etc. Good read, great application for all situations imo.

  8. “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.”

    Actually I’ve never seen anyone more afraid of death than atheists. To them death is finite and they constantly live in fear of losing their lives and becoming “worm food.” Those that are always seeking power and the need to control things are usually the ones who believe that this is all that there is and thus you have to take advantage of everything possible (and everyone possible) before your life is over. To leave something unexploited is not “living life to it’s fullest” in their minds.

    • Midori Skies says:

      You obviously haven’t seen me, then. I was MUCH more afraid of death while I was still a Christian. As an atheist, I have comes to terms with the fact that, hey, I just don’t know what will happen when I die. Perhaps I shall cease to exist, but why be afraid of that? I cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to not exist, so why waste time worrying about it? Besides, knowing that life ends, and knowing that it might be an actual end, makes me appreciate this life that much more. Note: appreciate, not desperately exploit. I find your insinuation that believing that this life is probably all there is leads to seeking power and taking advantage of people to be frankly insulting. What it really does is make me want to do every thing I can to make this world a better place because there might not be any other world.

  9. I would completely disagree with you Synapticcohesion. My stepdad was a devout Catholic, and he was a good man. He was very very afraid of dying, as he aged. I do not think one has to be an athiest to be afraid of death.

    “Those that are always seeking power and the need to control things are usually the ones who believe that this is all that there is and thus you have to take advantage of everything possible (and everyone possible) before your life is over.” hmm…you mean like the Church during the middle ages? they sought power and controlled a LOT.

    • Perhaps you are right on your first point. As for your other point, if you were seeking power and knew that you could control many if you exploited people’s religious beliefs, would it not be a shrewd move to gain power in the Church–or even in politics? When you see many of those in control behind the scenes, you often see that they are not devout Christians at all and tend to engage in a lot of corrupt, “un-Christian” activities. Deception comes easy to those without a moral compass.

      • And you need not be a Christian, or a person of ANY faith, to have morals.

        • G Snyder says:

          Dare we bring up absolute vs relative morality? Particularly relative to self-deception, personal selfishness/idolatry and denial?

        • G Snyder says:

          I agree with you. Morality can be had by any faith (or even the faithless). The bigger question, for me at least, is the quality of the morals. (Or perhaps differently stated, who has ownership or authorship of the morals.)

          But this is an issue for another time 🙂 I’ve gotta work…

          Blessings and Peace,

  10. Great article. Paul Tripp frequently says the same thing in other words, “We always worship”. He only says it from a Christian perspective: we were born to worship. It’s in our DNA (so to speak), so we will always worship someone or something (consciously or subconsciously) as Foster states.

  11. “Respect. Admiration. Those seem to be the key words.

    Not my words…theirs”

    First of all, dictionaries are tools we use to define words. Not the end-all be-all of words.

    That being said, there are plenty of things I have respect or admiration for. Nothing I have ‘reverence’ for in any real sense of that word. And no worship.

    I haven’t seen The Big Lebowski, and I’m not a nihilist. I just don’t worship anything.

    Is it hard to understand that as a possibility?

    • G Snyder says:

      I respect your position, and I won’t pester you about it. I just think it’s impossible. Do you revere your own life?

      My take on it is that we’re getting caught up (or hiding behind) semantics. But the emotive or visceral truth remains. There are things in life that we ‘live for’. We put our sense of identity and security in them. We are, for lack of a better word, ‘justified’ by them. These things–they justify our existence. (Or–perhaps better stated… we justify our existence in our association with them.) These are the things that we _________. (Insert whatever word you want.)

      Blessings and Peace,

      • ” Do you revere your own life?”

        Not as I understand the word, no.

        “There are things in life that we ‘live for’. We put our sense of identity and security in them. We are, for lack of a better word, ‘justified’ by them.”

        Perhaps. But to say I ‘worshiped’ any of those things would be inaccurate or misleading, in my humble opinion.

        And it implies I treated them like I would treat a god I loved and believed in or a king I loved and believed in. That is not the case.

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