The atheist denies the transcendence of the human spirit, the aching need we experience to break out beyond the finite, the limited, the material, into the realm of unending beauty, joy, love and happiness. But in his practice he contradicts himself, for in rejecting the real God he inevitably sets up and pursues his own self-chosen gods. He cannot succeed in stifling his own spirit, for he, like the rest of us, requires absolutes, something to glorify and worship. Dostoevsky was correct in his observation that every human being believes either in God or in one or more idols. What is first secularized, that is, declared autonomous and independent of all religious influence, is eventually deified, that is, declared to be sovereign and authoritative in all areas of life.
Among the idols that replace the living God in modern society four stand out: pleasure, prestige, society and sports.
Money could be considered the supreme idol, but actually it is the supreme means, for without much of it the four gods could not be well served. That the four idols are four gods can be seen in any large daily newspaper or in any extended viewing of TV.
The pleasure principle is so thoroughly adopted by millions of people that they act according to it without the least advertence. For many the choice of food, friends, recreation, travel and leisure is based predominantly, if not exclusively, on how much and what kind of pleasure is available. In its extravagant forms of drugs and self-centred sex, clear moral norms are readily rejected or set aside because the idol must be served.
Living in the minds of other people is idol number two. One of the ways in which prestige is worshipped is the sheeplike acceptance of the decrees of fashion designers. The dead earnestness of famous dress designers and the meek acquiescence of women to the decrees declared from the heights of Rome, Paris and New York border on the ludicrous. Men are now increasingly joining women in their worship of vanity via all sorts of idolettes: hair sprays, skin lotions, figure-revealing clothing, jewelry, etc. Far more money is spent on these trinkets than on food for the poor, care for the disabled, comfort for the sick, the enhancing of religious worship. Attending a cocktail party in a dress or jacket that is considered out of date would strike immeasurably more horror in the hearts of some people than being reminded that millions of people will go to bed tonight with empty stomachs.
Communism in one way and capitalism in another worship idol number three, society. The former, however, furnishes the most obvious and ludicrous example of replacing one religion with another.
The fourth idol in many nations is sports. I recently saw a TV documentary that portrayed the intense rivalry between the fans of two football teams. Not only was it plain that sports had become a type of religion complete with its rituals before, during and after the games, but I noticed an obvious absence of joy in the very playing. During the interviews the ‘stars’ seldom, if ever, smiled. The game was deadly serious business.
The void created by the theoretical or practical denial of God is especially obvious in the widespread illusion that the results of sporting games really matter. Nothing in the real world changes as a result of what happens on the playing field.