What Do You Worship?
We worship with our actions, even if we don't pray.
I began writing this on the subway to a clinic defense, a monthly occurrence where a bunch of folks who support bodily autonomy and abortion try to stop Christo-fascist clinic harassers from disrupting people trying to get medical care, abortion related or otherwise. It was early on a Saturday morning in the notes app on the train that I started finally getting this down, because of New Years, followed by the start of a new job, and I’ve been exhausted. But, even in that lazy hazy early-morning brain state it immediately occurred to me how darkly coincidental it is that what I wanted to focus on this week was worship.
I wanted to write about worship for a bunch of reasons, from seeing people scrape before Elon Musk as he posts Reddit memes to seeing men uplift Andrew Tate even after he’s accused of trafficking women. I rarely see these acts framed as worship, but I have yet to find another word that captures the act of placing something or someone on a particular pedestal where they’re immune from critique and even immune from being affected by their own actions, and revered and looked to as something so much greater than what they are. More importantly, it’s not just these men that we see being worshiped, it’s what they represent. Wealth, masculinity, and the power associated with these attributes and the systems they’re tied to are venerated and worshiped in strange modern prayer mechanisms like social media comments and sad tribute videos.
The dictionary definition of worship is, “the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity” and Saturday morning I saw people doing what they believed to be worship. For starters, the Christo-fascists were verbally praying, quietly but in unison as they processed towards the planned parenthood they had assembled to harass. They also held rosary beads other items like crosses, large and small. Two men even held a portrait of the Virgin Mary up between them as they moved slowly in the direction of the clinic. But in my head, even though I knew that many of them believed themselves to be worshipping Christ and God and even Christ’s mother, it felt to me as though something else, or several other things, were really being worshipped that morning. On the surface I think it’s pretty easy to see how a whole lot of people have replaced conventional gods with money or status or various metrics of appearance or social media indicators. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has a great depiction of this, with the gods of ancestral religions from various parts of the world competing for people’s worship and attention with new gods like Media, Technical Boy, and Mr. World (who might represent globalization? Finance?) And it’s not too far from reality. This depiction does leave out the major God(s) of monotheism, but I would argue that many adherents of the major monotheistic religions worship these new gods at least as much as the gods of their own faiths, and that they do so just as much and sometimes more than atheists or agnostics worship these new gods of ours.
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And the folks I saw in downtown Manhattan this past weekend were, in my eyes, worshipping all sorts of gods, none of which were the one they claim to believe in. They were worshipping the gods of Power, Control, and Hate. Some of those who showed up were explicit fascists, while others appeared to be conservative Catholic grandparents believing their actions brought them to the side of righteousness who most likely went to brunch in Jersey after their monthly clinic harassment. For them, and perhaps for you, the idea that their prayer and their actions that morning constitute the worship of deities like hatred might seem far-fetched. But for me, it all comes down to a particular definition of worship. I think I first encountered this definition from the great organization Never Again Action, a group led by Jews and immigrants organizing to end the persecution of immigrants across the United State. These good folks at Never Again were posting about one of their actions one day and said, “Today we pray with our feet.” In that phenomenon where once you see something once it appears everywhere, I’ve encountered variations of this phrasing many, many times since then—often coming from people and groups I respect quite highly. And it’s shifted my definition of worship. It’s not that I now think that the conventional definition of worship, usually prayer done alone or in a congregation, is illegitimate, I think it can focus us and change us in many ways. But I think the more powerful form of worship, and the form even many religious folks practice during the many hours a day they’re not engaged in formal prayer, is our actions.
If worship is reverence to some deity, and we indulge Neil Gaiman’s idea that there are new gods all around us, then it becomes pretty straightforward that a lot of our actions are in service of these entities and systems and ideas. We informally talk about people worshiping celebrities often, but what they’re really worshiping, more often than not, is the money and status and fame those celebrities have attained. The reverence people have for billionaires, the thought that these people are infallible, with the correct opinion on any topic and the right to intervene in all areas of life, is worship. Where it gets a little trickier is to see that these mean so much of what we do on a daily basis, from the TV we watch to the way we use our phones to the activities we choose for our weekends is often wrapped up in the worship of these things, these new gods. Of course many of us do tons of wonderful things for our health and the wellbeing of other people and the planet and our communities—I don’t want to say we all spend our lives wrapped up in the worship of deities we might not really want to be bowing down to. But the truth, I think, is that between the dark roads a lot of organized religion has gone down, and the inadequacy of the replacements we’ve found, we do spend a lot of time in the worship of ideas and systems not worthy of our devotion.
If you’re an atheist or agnostic, or one of the many wonderful people who I know read this that practice a religion that actively works towards the liberation of all people, this whole thing might seem extremely unappealing to you. But I’ve reached the good part. The point of all this isn’t that people worship “the wrong things” through their actions, it’s that we can worship something better and freeing and generative through ours. The point is that seeing how the compounding effect of giving our time to greed, for example, amounts to a form of worship, we can begin to see that the devotion of our time to the pursuit of justice can amount to a liberatory worship. If that sounds like too much, for any one of a million reasons, I’ll frame it a little differently. I think what we do here is sacred. Here being on Earth and in this life. Not inherently or objectively sacred, but sacred in that we have to choose what matters and what I’ve chosen is life. To some of you, reading that word might be unappealing, and if you’ve read about my little saga moving away from religion and coming back, to spirituality at least, you know how I think that’s totally fair. But for me the word sacred has a weight I haven’t felt elsewhere. To say something is sacred is more than saying it’s important or significant, it’s saying it’s important beyond measure, significant beyond our ability to quantify our measure. And that’s how I feel about life, both ours and that of other living things. Which is to say how we spend this life is sacred, and what we spend it worshiping matters beyond measure.
I don’t want to preach (much) so I’ll tone it down a bit. There’s a famous Aristotle line, I believe, that simply says, “we are what we repeatedly do” which I think has a ton of truth to it. There’s other factors in who we are and what we become, a bunch of ‘em, but what we do is the single one we have by far the most control over. And collectively we build and create what we repeatedly do together. So if the worship angle rubs you the wrong way, I think we can at least agree that on the very literal level the ways we spend our hours matters tremendously, and the language I’ve used above could be rephrased as being about the importance of intentionality in our actions. When I was a high school teacher, for example, we had 50 minutes a day to do as much with our kids as we could. So we planned with great intentionality, packing a lesson into the narrow constraints afforded us by time. And I don’t think every minute should be spent intentionally, I think we should relax and do little or nothing fairly often, but taking the time to zoom out and be intentional about our lives is a beautiful thing. For one it gives us time to craft our purpose, to consider that our purpose is what we make it and then take action, and two it can save us from simply being adrift in the currents of society.
I’m verging on getting back into a (newly discovered?) preaching mode here, so I’ll calm down now and wrap it up. The topics I wrote about here will continue to weave their way in and out of my writing, but the bottom line is this: I believe most of us have a desire to hold something sacred, to see some things or ideas as having worth beyond that which can be measured. And for me, the most essential or core concept that I choose to hold sacred is life, followed by thriving and happiness and a few other concepts. But, in the absence of a clear articulation of these alternative deities we might want to worship, meaning revere with our actions as well as our words, it’s easy for us to fall into the worship of money or power or hatred. So I want to work towards clear articulations of a sort of secular sacredness, and I hope you’ll join me in considering that. I hope this idea is clear, even if it’s not complete, and I hope to keep engaging with you on these topics. I would love to hear what you have to think on this one, even more than many of the other pieces. So happy New Year (for the last time, promise), and excited to talk through these ideas with you in 2023! - Josh
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I really appreciate this article, and I think you’re spot-on. You articulate everything I’ve been feeling about worship in America in recent years, and eloquently.(And as someone who also recently left religion for spirituality, and sanity, and basic kindness, I will be taking a dive into your back catalog of posts!)
I worship my loved ones, including four dogs, and the memory of everyone who has passed over. I practice peace, kindness and patience. I am imperfect.