David Foster Wallace on Atheism and Worship

In 2008, at the time of his untimely death, the Los Angeles Times declared that David Foster Wallace was “one of the most influential writers of the last twenty years.”[1] He was an award-winning, bestselling postmodern novelist, who loved to push boundaries in his storytelling.

Although Wallace was an agnostic, he made some profound statements about atheism and worship in his now famous commencement speech, which he gave to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.

Here’s what he said:

webdavidfosterwallaceYou get to choose what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: 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 … to worship … 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 plant you.

Worship power, and 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.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They are the kind of worship you just gradually slip into day after day … without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. [2]

Wallace, although not a Christian, understood and communicated a very profound and very biblical truth: everyone worships, but anything you worship other than God will “eat you alive.”

Romans 6:16 tells us that there is no such thing as not worshiping, and that anything we worship other than God will enslave us.

Rebecca Manley Pippert puts it this way:

“Whatever controls us in our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by it. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives. (Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker, p. 53)

Whether we call ourselves religious or not, all of us have a lord, a master, and we are all worshipers.

The only way to be free, is by having a lord and a master who will not crush you, but who will liberate you – and in Jesus we have exactly that: one who came not to crush us, but to liberate us from all that enslaves us and to fulfill our deepest longings.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,13)

What a tragedy it would be to know this truth and not come to the fountain of living water and drink in order to be liberated and fulfilled!

Here is a recording of Wallace’s speech. The part about worship begins at 17:50.