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Worship or Respect... It's an Either-Or

Some time ago, a believer asked me whether I would worship God if incontrovertible evidence of his existence were presented. I said, “No,” which elicited this retort: “You demand evidence for God, yet now you say you would ignore it even if it were presented!” Not so; I would accept that God exists if the evidence were incontrovertible, but the question was whether I would worship God, and I answered truthfully that I would not.

To believers, God exists; and if God exists, he is to be worshipped. To them, it is not a question: What else would they do with God but worship him? To me, it is a question: Depending on what I understand from that incontrovertible evidence, I might feel love and respect, or fear and hatred. But I would never worship God; I don’t worship anything.

What’s wrong with worship?

I see worship as an ostentatious display of obsequious piety, often accompanied by loudly proclaimed self-abnegation. True reverence does not announce itself to the world.

More important than the unsavory public aspect of worship is the fact that an object of worship cannot be questioned or critically scrutinized. Absolute devotion precludes the intellectual detachment necessary for rational scrutiny of a person or an idea. But without critical scrutiny, we cannot really know the object. Thus, worship is intrinsically blind (which makes the phrase “blind worship” redundant).

If we don’t really know the object of worship, we can’t really respect it; how can we respect what we don’t know? Similarly, how can we love what we don’t know? We may be infatuated or obsessed or besotted with a person or an idea, but those states must not be mistaken for love; love is not defined by fervor.

Believers claim they do know God, and that they love and worship him because they know how good and great he is. But who are they actually worshipping—God or the character called “God” in their sacred book? The differences between God (if such an entity exists) and Bible-God is a separate topic. Here, just note that idolatrous primary faith in a book means worshipping the main character from that book.

What’s the point of worship?

I take this truth to be self-evident, that whoever wants to be worshipped doesn’t deserve it. Believers who feel compelled to worship something create God as receptive to worship, with no sense of the disrespect inherent to the assumption that God would want or appreciate our worship.

Why would people want to worship? Worship is a way to jettison the challenge and burden of mental and moral responsibility through total self-abnegation; it is a means of losing individual self, a strange human longing that may be fulfilled through religion or membership in a cult. Christianity turns this longing into a virtue: Kenosis is a cherished notion describing willful surrender of self to become an empty vessel for God’s will (the model, presented at Philippians 2:5–8, is Jesus himself, the Son of God taking human form to serve God the Father by dying on the cross to redeem mankind from sin). The practical problem with this phenomenon is that demagogues and cult-leaders exploit their worshipful followers in dangerous and destructive ways.

Ignoring cults, my impression is that some worshippers within mainstream religions are just following the lead of an exuberant pastor who weeps at the pulpit, crying “Lord! Lord!” and asking the flock if they love the Lord more today than they did yesterday; and others are so terrified of damnation that they loudly praise God and curse their own unworthiness, desperately fawning and groveling to ingratiate themselves to a dangerously unpredictable tyrant lest he consign them to hell.

Why am I skeptical? Because worshippers can’t answer the simplest questions about the Lord they claim to know and love and respect and worship: What is so good and great about God? About his serial acts of genocide and infanticide, as depicted in the Hebrew scriptures? About his sentencing humanity to infinite punishment for finite crimes, as hinted at in the Greek scriptures? And about the fact that the so-called crime for which Man is condemned is “sin,” which has no coherent meaning other than imperfection, the state in which God himself created us? Where do they see goodness and greatness?

The believer smiles. “God himself has paid the price for our sin and has provided the means of saving us from damnation, through faith in Jesus.” What sin? What crime? Is everyone in the world a felon? And does even the most vicious felony warrant eternal damnation? “We cannot impose our sinful standards of justice on God!” says the believer. Why not? It is rank hypocrisy to praise God for his justice and mercy in imposing the same penalty that we would condemn as unjust and merciless if imposed by anyone else.

What about Jesus’ attitude toward worship? He spoke disparagingly of those who would come to him crying “Lord! Lord!” and he identified his true followers as those who were wise enough to heed his teachings (Matthew 7:21–24). Always, he emphasized actions, not fervent professions of faith. He knew that shouts of devotion are facile and worthless. (Of course, that doesn’t stop poseurs from strutting about to show off their white-hot faith while sneering at those they call “lukewarm Christians.”)

This is the point about worship: It is mindless. And we cannot claim to respect that which we approach mindlessly. Worship and respect are mutually exclusive attitudes. It is a clear either-or choice.

An invitation

I have been accused of arrogance and egotism, but I see nothing wrong in rejecting the very concept of worship and refusing to submerge my rationality beneath religious fervor.

I am not accusing worshippers of hypocrisy or dissembling or conscious disrespect for God. I see worship as a kind of dictated behavior among the religious. Though I find their worshipful attitude meaningless, I do not impugn their sincerity. But in equal sincerity, I invite them to consider this thought: If Jesus is to be believed, God has no use for worship.

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