A Facebook friend of mine was engaging in some thoughtful discussion and disclosed upfront that he is an atheist. Someone responded with this:
“So you’re floating in existence and just doing self defined moralistic worship of yourself? You’re always worshipping something.”
That struck home because it is something I would have said… scratch that… I know I’ve said a version of this same thing back in the day when I was a devout Christian. Here is a slightly edited version of my response.
I’m not an atheist but I’m no longer a devout Christian. In fact, I no longer consider myself a Christian. I’d use the term “hopeful agnostic” for myself. I also have a pretty deep background in apologetics. I’ve taken college and graduate level courses, I’ve read the best Christian thinkers on the subject, and I am fluent in most of the arguments for the existence of a god, then the Christian God specifically. I still admire and respect a lot of the arguments these thinkers make. Onto the question.
Worship’s dictionary definition is giving adoration to a deity. I don’t do that but certainly I have some spiritual practices that are very worship like in that they are grounded in gratitude and reverence for life. So if we want to say that’s worship in a cultural sense, I’m okay with that. I’m okay saying I engage in a kind of secular worship on a daily basis. Here is where your question comes in. My friends and some family ask this and similar questions.
“Well, you are worshipping yourself then?” They mean it like an accusation.
I think the real question they are asking me is if there is no god is everything permissible? My Mom, for example, thinks that without a belief in her specific version of Christianity we’d all be murderers and worse without remorse because why not? No god, no morals! The type of apologetics (Ravi Zacharias, etc…) I learned steeped me in the idea that morals 100% require a god.
When I left Christianity I struggled with the loss of the moral framework I spent 40 years living in one way or another. As it turns out though, there are thousands of years of deep thinking on this very topic and there was no need for me to self-define in the way that you might be asking and my friends were certainly asking and my Mom definitely fears.
Stoicism, Buddhism, and others are deep wells of elegant and sophisticated thought on the idea of worship without a deity, the meaning of life (or lack of it), and agnostic/secular spirituality. They have a deep reverence for life, a love of learning, a want for practical solutions, and most have a healthy dose of humility and skepticism built in as well. Some even allow for the possibility of god, a posture I am thankful for (see hopeful agnostic). If you want to see at least one of these frameworks in action, just show up to just about any Unitarian Universalist community.
I want to make clear that I’m not interested in defending what I believe or practice now. What I want to clearly communicate is that these “godless” moral frameworks exist. They have millions of practitioners. They have existed for centuries. They enable me to wake up and value the strength, frailty, and intrinsic value of every life for it’s own sake. When I was a devout Christian, I did not think it was possible, and I didn’t believe my agnostic friends at the time when they told me it was. My conservative Christian education, for the most, gaslighted the existence of real moral alternatives. Now I am living what I thought wasn’t possible.
When I hear a question like yours now, the biggest difference in my response now is not whether or not I still believe in god. The biggest difference is simply that I’m 100% okay saying “I don’t know, I’m still learning how to love as best I can.” I don’t need the Truth as it were. This approach is sufficient for me these days.