“There is actually no such thing as atheism” (David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech)

Ben points to this wonderfully trenchant commencement speech from author David Foster Wallace. It’s probably the most honest and least sentimental commencement speech I remember reading. I only wish I could write like this.

In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like “displayal”]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

What do you worship?

4 thoughts on ““There is actually no such thing as atheism” (David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech)

  1. I choose to worship nothing, enjoy life for what it is, and have my thoughts firmly planted in reality. It seems to me that every non-spiritual concept that this write up suggests somebody would worship is some part of a need to strive for perfection. Why not just recognize that perfection is a nonexistent construct in the mind. I’m not perfect, there is no ultimately perfect amount of money I can attain which will satisfy me, and the same goes for power. What I can do is live life for the enjoyment of living. I take pleasure in following advancements in science and technology, and knowing that everything I believe holds up to scrutiny, because if it doesn’t then there is no reason for me to believe it. And definitely no reason for me to worship it. And guess what. I am an Atheist, there is such a thing as Atheism. So the idea that there is “no such thing as atheism ” does not hold up to scrutiny.

  2. I think the key is the word, “worship,” which is a loaded term. In my opinion, living life for the enjoyment of living and taking pleasure in following advancements in science and technology constitute “worship” of a sort–that is, activities that you imbue with a positive value judgment (but with which others may disagree).

  3. Anonymous

    Samuel Skinner
    This man is confusing worship with value. You worship things for favor or because a particular property they hold. You value things for being cool and useful.

  4. David

    I define atheist as one who does not believe in a god.
    I infer that DFW defines atheist as one who does not worship anything.
    That and (as others have said before me) DFW’s apparent definition of worship make up the heart of this misunderstanding.

    According to DFW*:
    worship money = feel poor
    worship power = feel weak
    worship beauty = feel ugly
    worship intellect = feel stupid
    worship: to value highly and never be satisfied with (unlike my definition: how you should treat something which you pray to, or fear, or give thanks to)

    My advice: don’t fret if you don’t have as much as you want of what you value highly. Keep in mind this is part of the nature of living. It doesn’t mean you should stop wanting things. Don’t value things or ideas so highly as to be self-destructive. This has no bearing as to whether “worshipping” money, power, beauty or intellect is a good idea or should be a priority, just don’t rely solely on them for happiness. Money, power, beauty or intellect are things to value. As for how much: I am not one to make value judgments for you, nor meta-value judgments, i.e, what to value. That’s for you to decide.

    * I also note he doesn’t say anything like:
    worship Jesus = feel unworthy, sinful, or unquenchably self-righteous in conversion of others
    This is an interesting omission for such an honest and unsentimental commencement speech.

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