An important aspect of many religions, perhaps even the most important aspect, is worship. This is entailed by the facts that 1) the deity or deities are deserving or worthy of worship and 2) people have an obligation to worship the deity or deities. But why are either of these things true?
Introduction: What is Worship?
We will assume for the sake of argument that God exists.
First, what does it mean to worship something? I would say that there are two necessary and sufficient conditions for worship:
- The worshiper experiences genuine reverence and adoration for the object of worship
- The worshiper’s behavior reflects this genuine feeling (e.g. the worshiper performs rituals to express their genuine feelings toward the object of worship; or the worshiper’s actions treat the object of worship or representations of the object of worship as having some intrinsic moral value that transcends its mere material and formal makeup or functionality)
If a person only has the first but not the second, then the person is not engaged in acts of worship and their beliefs and feelings have not produced any action – a person who believes in the Christian God, for instance, but never prays, reads the Bible, goes to church, or any other of the usual rituals and traditions, would not be said to be involved in the worship of God. If the person only has the second but not the first, then they are simply going through motions or obeying laws and social mores.
Next, we need to define what God is. I will take the usual Abrahamic properties that God is said to possess:
- God created the universe and everything within it
- God is omnipotent (all powerful)
- God is omniscient (all knowing)
- God is omnibenevolent (all good)
For the sake of argument we will not consider the problem of evil as a defeater for God possessing all four of the above properties. I will also be excluding, for the most part, specific doctrines concerning God that come up in the Abrahamic traditions: salvation, grace, the trinity or Tawhid of God, and so on. The reasons for this are 1) we want a conception of God that is as general as possible so as to apply as broadly as possible and 2) there is little to no reason to believe the specific doctrines aside from an appeal to the scriptures themselves and so therefore are a matter of revealed theology as opposed to natural theology.
Let us say then that: if God exists, then God possesses the above four properties. Are these properties necessary and/or sufficient for God to be an object of worship?
To answer that, we first have to consider what criteria something (and for this we will consider that this thing is a sentient being of some sort) has that makes it worthy of reverence and adoration.
People tend to be revered for the actions they took (or are taking). While motivations are important, it is not obvious that they are necessary. For instance, many people revere Martin Luther King Jr. They revere him because of his actions in bringing about civil rights legislation and ending segregation. If MLK was doing this purely as a means of self-aggrandizement, people would probably feel much less reverence for him, but that would not change the fact that his actions resulted in positive outcomes, which is still admirable. But lets take the strong position and say that a person’s intentions are not just important but necessary for someone to be deserving of reverence. Thus, we will say that the criteria for someone to be deserving of reverence are:
- The person has taken actions that are considered admirable by the potential worshiper
- The person intended to make those actions
- The person was motivated by the good outcomes those actions were meant to produce
What of adoration? Adoration can be defined as both love and respect. Love without respect can lead to mistreatment, condescension, or resentment; respect without love can be felt between enemies (e.g. think of the respect some of the Allies had for Rommel in WWII). But what makes a person deserving of adoration? I think most people would agree that everyone is deserving of some level of respect, at least until their actions demonstrate that they are not so deserving. But for our purposes, we want to think about a level of respect that goes above and beyond the default amount of respect that people deserve just for being sentient beings.
Respect, then, we can say is a type of regard for someone elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. We respect people who are good at what they do, or if they have admirable qualities, or if they have been able to achieve much (this latter one being especially notable if the person has had to surmount obstacles in order to achieve what they have). It may not be a necessary condition for respect, but we tend to respect people more if their actions, qualities, and achievements also have some moral value to them: just because Hitler was able to achieve the conquest of most of Europe does not entail that he is deserving of respect. Yet, it is possible to respect someone you hate, and so I wouldn’t put the moral value of a person’s abilities, qualities, or achievements as a necessary condition for respect. I would probably state the criteria for respect as follows:
- the object of respect has notable abilities, qualities, and/or achievements (notable meaning that these properties stand out as being greater than the typical average)
- the object of respect has not acquired these abilities, qualities, or achievements through cheating or deception (the object of respect genuinely possesses these things)
Love is a complicated notion, since we have myriad different kinds of love: romantic, familial, platonic, abstract (i.e. the love a person might feel for “humankind” or for notions of “liberty”), or even the love a person might have for a favorite food or favorite activity. All of these types of love can probably be characterized by a desire to think about or be proximate to the object of love and a desire for the well-being (or even flourishing) of the object of love. Thus, I will say that love must satisfy the following criteria:
- a desire to have the object of love be a part of one’s life in some way
- a desire for the well-being or flourishing of the object of one’s love
But what criteria must the object of love satisfy in order to be deserving of love? This is an even trickier issue to sort out. Different people have different criteria for what makes someone worthy of love. Lets say, though, that to be worthy of love, it must be a healthy kind of love. In other words, the love that someone who is abused feels toward their abuser is undeserved by the abuser. Thus, we can say that a necessary, though not sufficient condition for an object of love being deserving of that love is being generally good toward those who harbor love toward the object of love.
Another necessary condition would perhaps be that the object of love has reciprocal feelings of love back toward those who love it. One-sided love would not satisfy our criteria that the love be healthy. But what is a sufficient condition for an object of love to be deserving of love? I might propose that a healthy personal relationship is sufficient for deserving at least some level of love (certainly it would suffice to not hate someone). But, we’re not saying that someone satisfying these things must love the potential object of love, only that it makes the potential object of love deserving, or perhaps at least worthy, of love. Thus, I will say that the following conditions must apply for someone to be deserving of love:
- ONLY IF the potential object of love has a net positive effect on the person (necessary but not sufficient)
- ONLY IF the the potential object of love is able and willing to reciprocate the love (necessary but not sufficient)
- IF there is a healthy and personal relationship between the two persons (sufficient but not necessary, since a person can love someone who doesn’t know they exist, such as loving a favorite artist)
So, what have we done so far? We’ve defined God as being an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator. We have also said that worship is defined as reverence and adoration, where the former has to do with a person’s actions and intentions and the latter has to do with respect and love. Now the question is: do the four properties attributed to God make God deserving of worship?
Is God Deserving of Respect?
We certainly have respect for people who create things. Our favorite artists, musicians, architects, authors, actors, and so on all create things and as a result we have respect for their abilities and achievements in those areas. Thus, God being a creator seems to at least satisfy that God is deserving of respect.
There are issues, however, when we bring in omnipotence. If God is omnipotent, then creation is not a big deal for God. God did not have to overcome any obstacles. Creation would be for an omnipotent being what breathing is for a human (in fact, it would be easier to create all existence for an omnipotent (infinitely powerful) God than it would be for a human to breathe). I said that overcoming hardship was not a necessary condition for respect, and so we could still respect God for creating the universe. However, it seems difficult to say that an omnipotent being creating the universe was any kind of achievement or noteworthy ability, since it is just a part of God’s nature. Still, one could make an argument that being a creator does seem like a trait for which one could respect God. Therefore we will conclude that God is deserving of respect.
Is God deserving of love?
Does God have a net positive effect on someone? This is difficult to say in general. Some people might find that God, or at least their belief in God, has a net negative effect on them. Think of the Judeo-Christian God’s support for slavery. Or think of the gay or transgender person who suffers much guilt and shame over their feelings because they believe that God condemns them. Or children who grow up in churches that like to preach fire and brimstone. Or in Islamic countries where women are turned into second class citizens. The religious might argue that these things (whichever particular ones they believe in) are for our own good: that it is wrong and immortal to engage in homosexual acts or to defile our bodily temple through sex transition, or that it really is the case that women are subservient to men.
These are all specific doctrines that don’t fall under our four properties that God possesses and so don’t really apply to this analysis, but even if they did, wasn’t it God that made the decision that homosexuality and transgenderism were wrong? Or that women are lesser beings than men? If those things are true, and God is the one who commanded that they be true, that still doesn’t seems like something that produces a net positive. In other words, creating a law, and then creating beings who by their very nature break the law (e.g. homosexuals being same-sex attracted, or women possessing conscious experience equal to men despite God proclaiming them less than men), does not seem like something a loving creator would do.
As far as reciprocation of love, this is difficult to determine. God doesn’t seem to make special intercessions on people’s behalf (see my analysis of God answering prayer). God allowing suffering to persist in spite of people petitioning Him to make it stop sounds abusive. One would think that if God reciprocated the love and devotion His worshipers give Him, that He would make a show of it.
The Christian could argue that God did show this through Jesus’ sacrifice; the Jew could argue that God shows this through his Law and covenant. But these things require that we buy into a particular doctrine, which wasn’t part of our four properties that God possesses that we’re using in this analysis. Theists could argue that God shows reciprocal love toward His creation by having created us in the first place, though the skeptic could point out that had we not been created then we wouldn’t suffer, and so by creating us God has afflicted us with suffering.
People in the Abrahamic religions attest to having a personal relationship with God. This is difficult to verify. A stalker claims to have a personal relationship with their victim, but that doesn’t mean the victim knows that the stalker even exists, much less having a healthy, reciprocal relationship with the stalker. Claiming to have a personal relationship with God is a far cry from being able to demonstrate that the actual, literal being that is God has personally influenced your life in some way through a one-to-one personal relationship.
Is God deserving of reverence?
One could argue that creation was an admirable action that God has taken. Where God being deserving of reverence gets tricky, though, is when we consider God’s omnibenevolence and His motivation for creation. If God is omnibenevolent and could not do any wrong, then God’s motivation is in question. When we think of someone’s motivations, say those of MLK, what makes their actions worthy of reverence is that they could have done otherwise. MLK could have decided never to become a civil rights leader. Or, after experiencing his first setback, could have given up on it. Why we revere MLK is that he persevered, which demonstrates the greatness (and perhaps even purity) of his intentions.
God, on the other hand, cannot do otherwise than what is good. If it was discovered tomorrow that MLK was actually a mindless computer sent back in time from the future and could not have done otherwise than fight for civil rights, our reverence for him would wane considerably, if not vanish altogether. God, unable to choose to give up or succumb to temptation not to do what is good, is little more than a robot doing exactly what He is programmed to do. We even have to call into question whether God has any intention at all: did God have any choice in creating the universe?
In this analysis I wanted to examine whether God is deserving or worthy of people’s worship. If we take only the four properties that the Abrahamic religions attribute to God – omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, and being the creator – then God does not appear to be worthy of worship. While there might be an argument that could be made for respecting God, there seems to be little reason to either adore or revere God.
One must also take into consideration whether God created humans for the purpose of worshiping God. This does not seem to be an admirable thing to do. It would be like building an AI whose primary function is to worship you, and you would punish it if it did not worship you. One could make a sort of Pascal’s Wager as to worshiping God, and simply do it in order to avoid His wrath, but then you would likely not satisfy the condition that worship requires a genuine high regard for the object of worship.
Certainly you could make an argument that Jesus is worthy of worship, if what the gospels say of Him is true. We feel reverence and respect for people who sacrifice themselves for us, and if it is true that Jesus died for people’s sins that this would be an exceptional sacrifice. This, of course, requires one to buy into the Christian doctrine, including the gospels and the interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection in Paul’s epistles. That these specific events, and the interpretation of these events, are true is not very likely, but that is a whole other topic.
Ultimately, I don’t see any good reason why God is deserving or worthy of worship. Even if we include specific doctrines about God, none appear to me to rescue God’s worthiness for worship. The Pascal’s Wager argument, if we are assuming that God exists, is the best one I can think of for why a person ought to worship God (perhaps hoping to fake it until they make it as it pertains to the genuine sentiments condition). But as it stands, this sounds like an abusive relationship to me, not one worthy of worship.
Edit (11/15/2022): the following video touches on this subject: