Atheists don’t exist.

Atheists don’t exist. April 5, 2013

Atheists don’t exist.

by Kyle Idleman

Phew, I’m glad that’s out there. Now, before you head to the comment section to remark on my ignorance, hear me out.

When you subtract the religious language, worship is the built-in human reflex to put your hope in something or someone and then chase after it. You hold something up and then give your life to pursuing it. If you live in this world, then, sooner or later you grow some assumptions concerning what your life is all about, what you should really be going after. And when you begin to align your life with that pursuit, then, whether you realize it or not, whether you call it that or not, you are worshiping.

To be clear, when I say worship, I’m not talking formal, organized religion involving robes, rituals and really old music. When someone answers the question of worship by saying, “I’m not the religious type,” he or she is missing the point. If that person is a member of the human race and comes fully equipped with mind, body and emotions, then it follows that the individual is, in fact, a worshiper. It’s factory-installed, standard equipment—not a buyer’s option.

Worshiping is what human beings do, right alongside breathing and eating and thinking. We identify things we want, both good and bad, and then we make sacrifices to get them. From the time we’re born and introduced to milk, we are forever pursing what we think will satisfy our appetites.

If you are a human being, you worship something. Whatever or whoever you worship is by definition your god. It has the highest place of importance in your life. It may be sex, food, success, money, entertainment, a spouse, a friend, or it may actually be God—but we all have something in our lives that trumps all others when it comes to the value we give it. Just one look at our calendars and checkbooks can give us all a pretty good idea of where we put our priorities and what we’re ultimately worshipping.

The end result, of course, is that our lives begin to take the shape of what we care about most. We each make the choice to worship, and then at some point we discover that the choice makes us. The object of your worship will determine your future and define your life. It’s the one choice that all other choices are motivated by.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it this way: “The opposite of theism is not atheism, it’s idolatry.” In other words, everyone is going to worship a god. We were created to be worshipers, as birds were created to fly and rivers were created to flow. It’s what we do. The question then, is who or what will be the object of your worship? Here are a few questions that might objectively reveal your god:

What is the area of your life where you are most disappointed? An area where there is a disproportionate amount of disappointment reveals where we have put our hope. Show me what you have put your hope in and I’ll introduce you to your god.

Where do you go for comfort when life gets hard? Maybe you open up the fridge for a little comfort food or you stop by and pick up a six-pack on the way home from work. Maybe it’s in the arms of stranger.

Where do you make financial sacrifices? Where your money goes shows what god you are worshiping. The Bible puts it this way “where your treasure is there your heart will be.”

What are your passions? How we spend our time has a way of showing us what we are most passionate about.

How do you introduce yourself to others? However we define ourselves and whatever we find our identity in reveals what god we are living for.

All of us, regardless of religious affiliation, worship some aspect of our lives. From my research and experience as a pastor, the most common things we worship are money, success, entertainment, sex, food, achievement, romance, family, and most of all—ourselves.

Life presents us with infinite worship choices. There are lots of options, with one exception: the option to opt out. There is no box for “none of the above.”

I don’t believe in atheists because religious or not, everyone chooses and worships a god.

Ok, now you can comment.

Kyle Idleman is the teaching pastor of the nation’s fourth largest church, Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., and the author of several books, including Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart and Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus.

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  • Dorfl


    If you define ‘worship’ widely enough, and ‘god’ widely enough, then the statement “everyone ‘worships’ a ‘god'” is going to become true. Much like the statement “everyone is secretly a dragon-wizard” is true if we define ‘is’ as ‘has some resemblance to’ and ‘dragon-wizard’ as ‘a man in a pointy hat’. The only reason that either of those statements actually sound interesting is that we implicitly assume words to have a meaning that is not too far of from the way they are used in everyday conversation. By creatively redefining the terms used it is of course possible to make a false but interesting-sounding statement become true – but only at the cost of making its actual content uninteresting.

    • Jakeithus

      You’re right, it is totally a matter of definitions. While the author of this post defines “worship” and “god” more widely than you choose to, nothing about his use of the definitions is inaccurate.

      In a sense, I think it can add more clarity and depth to the discussion between individuals, as it stresses the idea that the atheist/materialist argument isn’t “stop worshiping something as the ultimate pinnacle of reality”, it is simply “worship something different as the ultimate pinnacle of reality”.

      • Dorfl

        I’ll agree that he’s consistent in the way he uses his definitions. It would be difficult for him not to be, since he’s defined the terms broadly enough that I can accurately be said to worship my breakfast. Or at least I will in the morning, when I’ll be hungrier.

        I don’t agree that redefining words in this way adds any clarity though. It might have done so if the human brain had worked like a computer, so that you could completely change the meaning of a word by writing “nouns.worship = put hope in thing and chase after it”. But that isn’t really how our minds work. Even if we explicitly give a word a new definition, connotations of the old definition will still remain.

        I think this is why the statement “Worshipping is what human beings do, right alongside breathing and eating and thinking” ends up sounding insightful, even though it’s trivially true with the definitions used: Our minds can’t avoid seeing that the statement – given the standard definitions – would be very interesting. We then realise that it is also true – given Idleman’s new definitons. If we’re not careful, we fail to notice that it is only the uninteresting interpretation of the statement that is actually true, and then end up seeing profundity where none exists.

        • Jakeithus

          Thanks for the response. I don’t agree that Idleman has redefined worship to mean something other than the way it is commonly used in our society. In a strictly religious context, worship has typically been understood to be what is done in church (singing, praying, etc), but in wider society, worship has been used the same way it is used in this post. Someone might worship a star athlete, or worship the opposite sex, or worship a particular idea. As a Christian, my personal worship of God is much more than what is done in a strictly religious setting, and the definition given here is more accurate than singing songs. If singing songs to a divine being is the connotation that an individual gives to worship, that is there own personal issue.

          Of more relevance is how a person defines god, but of that there is ever less shared agreement in our world, and therefor using a broad definition like is used here adds something to the debate. Not everyone believes in a personal and transcendent God, but everyone does have a god that they worship as the ultimate point in their reality.

          • Dorfl

            You may be right that people sometimes use the word worship similarly to
            the way Idleman has chosen to define it. Of your examples “worshipping
            an athlete” is the only one that actually resembles anything I’ve heard
            used. But English isn’t my first language, so it’s possible that I just haven’t heard the others.

            Whether Idleman’s definition is very far away from standard usage or
            fairly close to it doesn’t really remove the basic problem though. He is
            making a statement that would be interesting for a fairly narrow
            definition of the terms used, but which is only true for a much broader
            one. So what he says is either true or interesting, but not both.

            Imagine that I had said:

            “Polyamory is defined as the capacity to love more than one person. I
            love tea. I also love autumn air. And ‘the Zither Player’ by ‘Dirty
            Three’. I love many things, and most everyone else I know does as well.
            Therefore, it is clear that everyone is naturally polyamorous”.

            I hope you can see that this argument is:

            a) Correct.

            b) Uninteresting.

            It’s only by my deliberate confusion between different definitions of
            the word ‘love’ that it could be taken to say anything important.

            Now, I don’t think Idleman is deliberately playing semantic games. I
            think he came up with an argument, looked at it and saw that it was
            interesting, looked at it again and saw that it was correct, and just
            didn’t notice the slight shift in interpretation that caused him to
            effectively look at two different arguments.

          • Pengs and Phils

            This comment above hits the exact point I just posted, just missed it in the replies.

          • LouiseCA

            We should live our lives in such a way that our lives are a form of worship to God, if indeed, we are Christians. But there is a worship, real worship, that is so profound that our very worship itself is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, as it is supposed to be. When this happens, it is an experience so incredible and magnificent, that nothing in the world can compare to it. And it is within those times of real worship that we come to know God more intimately, we grow spiritually, and we become strong enough to face anything that comes along, and deal with it victoriously.

            And that…is the truth.

          • Dorfl

            This may or may not be true.

            It’s not really relevant to the point we were discussing, though.

    • telboy1999

      Dorfl, I couldn’t agree more. Not only does the creative (and completely arbitrary) redefinition make the content uninteresting, it pretty much renders it meaningless too.

  • “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

  • Welcome to Luther’s large catechism. To have a God is to have something that he heart trusts completely. And we all have something we trust ultimately. Pick wisely.

  • Tel

    Sure, most or even all people may worship something. That does not mean they believe it to be a god or deity. One can lack belief in all gods and still have an object of worship.

    Worshipping something practical and physical and known is, in my experience, a lot more rewarding than worshipping something non-physical and unknown like God.

  • Pengs and Phils

    Basically echoing some of the comments, I think you redefined too many things here. The title itself is a perfect example. Atheism is the belief that there is no god. Using that definition, even you agree atheists exist. That is the one I have the main problem with. While I don’t agree with your redefinition of worship, I understand it and the point you are trying to make, that humanity does have a desire to pursue, to believe in something.

    This is my first comment here, I found this through the author of a piece on Life of Pi, which I am doing my Junior paper on. The title caught my eye for the reason in the comment above, and I thought I’d leave this here. I am an atheist by that definition. If we redefine all words, we can make anything true. Words have meaning because we agree they have the same definition for all.

    That said, still not a bad view to have, keep the open mind.