Human beings are inherently religious. We will worship someone or something.
Of course, some folks claim to believe in no god. Truth be told, the deity they refuse to bow before and direct prayers to is rarely a god of the “to whom the universe may concern” generic variety; it’s almost always the Judeo-Christian “God.”
Not even the small capital “G” God of truly off-the-rails “left of left, touchy-feely” religion and aging flower children (denying that wispy cut-rate deity must be as satisfying as denying the existence of a cumulus cloud), the God most atheists deny is the large capital “G” God of Believers, Bible-lovers, Baptists and such. God with a holy name. God who is a Person and not an it. The God they can deny and feel like they’ve accomplished something. The God they can slap in the face and feel like they’ve hit Somebody.
The God many atheists spend their lives resenting (so much that they let themselves be defined by a resentment of Someone they don’t think exists) is often the God of their parents, or their childhood church, or some other group they think has been overly strict with them, potty-trained them poorly, or otherwise ticked them off. Atheism is payback.
The God they deny is the God whose standards and rules are as real as the law of gravity, but gravity is confining, and they’ve decided to shake it off. Never mind that ignoring gravity on a globe governed by it is uphill business fraught with bumps and bruises.
Most atheists are unable to espouse disbelief as quietly, as, say, a person who doesn’t believe in collard greens as food. No matter how sincere he is in his conviction that collard greens are a weed and not a food, he feels no particular need to found an Anti-Collard Green Society or take out a sanctimonious ad in the paper; he just doesn’t eat them, and, if you do, he may look down his nose at you, but it’s no skin off his snout.
Atheists tend to be testy about disbelief. Agnosticism, a more honorable position I think, may partake of these self-righteous qualities, but is often less militant. In our culture, atheism is often an “in your face,” “up yours,” full-blown religion. Agnosticism is a question; atheism is a statement that seems to require, at the least, a raised eyebrow, a gaze down the nose, a snooty sort of disbelief.
But gods we will have, even if we toss out God. The psalmists made unmerciful fun of folks who carved statues carefully so they wouldn’t topple over, then put them on stands and worshiped them. But the god-makers the psalmists lampooned had more sense than modern pagans in business suits who worship only themselves and their 401k’s.
A few decades ago liberals made fun of conservatives who worshiped a God with rules; now many of the same liberals worship rules with no God. They tack up many more commandments than ten. Lacking belief in an afterlife, they center on constricting this one, all in the name of salvation; it’s just that “salvation” is mostly about saving your body (no trans fat and no cigars ever, and don’t even think about taking a Coke can into a school cafeteria) or saving the earth (you never met a Bible thumper more self-righteous or blindly believing than a devout environmentalist so green his brain has molded).
Human beings will worship someone or something. We may be sure of that. So . . . who or what will we worship? That’s the question.
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at