When you think of the word worship, images of an ancient human bowing down before a statue or a person singing to a divine force might come to mind. Perhaps you think of a meditative Buddhist, a Muslim engaged in daily prayer, or a Catholic bishop in flowing robes singing in Latin. Or maybe you think outside of mainstream religion and envision nature worship, such as a sun dance or veneration of a certain animal as the ultimate expression of worship. Regardless of what comes to mind, you still may be asking yourself: "what is worship?" The Oxford Dictionary defines worship as an "expression of reverence and adoration for a deity." Yet it's not always the divine that's worshipped in American society, further creating confusion around the subject. For many, worship has become a colloquialism for something that we're really stoked about or can't get enough of. "Oh man, Billie Eilish? Literally, I worship her music." In fact, it's become quite common to use similar terminology to communicate our deep loyalty and passion for our favorite bands, artists, and sports teams. As an outpouring of their adoration, we see people jump up and down, weep tears of joy, and spend lots of money to show their unyielding adoration. And as a whole, that's pretty culturally acceptable. Ever been to a Beyoncé concert? New York Times bestselling author Rich Cohen asserts that the worship of celebrities or other facets of culture fills a similar role to that of religion: "I have long believed that celebrity, the way we worship and package and sell our pop stars, is what filled the need for gods that was once filled by the pictures in stained glass. Hollywood is post-Christian Venice -- in other words, a pantheon of saints without the hassle and heartache of religion." Cohen brings up an interesting point: is worship exclusive to religion? Could the ways we treat celebrities, cultural icons, or even our jobs be considered worship? Our aim today is to fully unpack the literal definition of worship and understand how that definition has been changed or influenced by society and the ways we interact with various facets of our lives -- from the secular to the divine.



Even the earliest civilizations practiced this idea of believing in something bigger than oneself. More often than not, they worshipped the gods of their day by building ornate statues and temples, and doing rituals or forms of worship to ensure a proper harvest and minimal flooding. The Ancient Sumerians, for instance, built ornate ziggurats (stepped pyramids) as a means of getting physically closer to their gods and appealing to them for good fortune. These gods were often made into statues, idols, or images, and rituals were built around them as a form of praise. But it wasn't just deities that were prioritized as objects of worship, as oftentimes people looked to other humans for worshipful adoration. We see even in society today that the group "alpha" is often looked to with reverence and awe. This isn't a new concept. Humans often look to other people, concepts, beliefs, spirits, or deities as a form of making sense of the world around them. When that falls short, people turn to God, or gods, or other deity figures to channel their affections into. And as recent research shows, this isn't a made-up societal phenomenon. This is happening at a neurological level, suggesting that there's something biologically "hardwired" into us as humans to cause us to worship. Dr. Andrew Newberg, a University of Pennsylvania professor and researcher, found that certain brain activity is heightened when people engage in worship or prayer towards a higher force. In a study of Franciscan nuns, Tibetan Buddhists, and Pentecostal Christians, similar brain activity was detected in the parietal lobe, which deals with sensory function. Newberg continued that the parietal lobe is "involved in that feeling of becoming part of something greater than oneself." From this assessment, Newberg found that "these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God...there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power." Whether or not you find Newberg's study to be compelling, there's a case to be made that the idea of worshipping didn't come out of a vacuum. Even the Darwinist, survival-of-the-fittest theories can't fully explain the presence of pleasure centers in our brain needing to be fulfilled by some kind of worship or prayer.



For the average human, the results of Newberg’s study can be experienced on a personal level. A quick assessment of the relationships we have with friends, careers, influencers, possessions, and/or friends will reveal worshipful tendencies somewhere. It’s in the subtle behaviors, comments and choices we make on a daily basis that ultimately point to where we are giving our deepest honor and reverence. So the question is.. if we’re inevitably going to put something on a pedestal, what (or whom) do people believe is worthy of being put there?

Job & Vocation

For some people, it's their vocation or budding career. Sound weird to worship a dream career? Consider how much time, effort, and energy is put into attaining a successful title. LinkedIn exists for networking, but how satisfying is it when you can finally put "CEO" underneath your polished headshot? Poet Mary Oliver once said that "attention is the beginning of devotion." If that's the case, we should examine what in society gets the most attention. Arguably, it's what we do with our lives. It's the question that seemingly gets asked from the moment we turn 18, or the moment we leave college or whatever vocational training we've partaken in. What do YOU do? Jobs are undoubtedly important. We wouldn't try to downplay the fact that we're able to write blogs like this primarily because we have financial backing and a company to draw from. However, it's the misplaced, disproportionate attention often given to our careers that turns them into an object of worship. In a 2019 article for The Atlantic, popular journalist Derek Thompson asserts that "workism" has become a new religion, with people giving their full time and adoration into career aspirations.

"Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants."

Thompson goes on to say that a strange paradigm shift has happened in which the wealthiest Americans, who could very easily devote their time elsewhere, crave and enjoy work. They spend their free time on work and ingrain their identities in a seemingly endless pursuit. It becomes an object of worship, as more time and attention is being disproportionately funneled into financial freedom and career aspiration. "The problem with this gospel—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion." Again, it's normal to chase after your dreams or work hard to survive in an ever-fickle economy in which student loan debt and medical bills are constantly breathing down your neck. However, the line can easily be blurred between ambition and worship. As Thompson says, work has become a "gospel" and work is the object of their worship.

Celebrities, Cultural Idols & Other People

As mentioned up top with Billie Eilish, many people quite literally worship celebrities. They may not realize what they mean by saying that, or may be using the word facetiously, but the sentiment still remains: celebrities, like work, often receive the highest degree of our attention. Not buying it? Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS) is a real disorder. It's "an obsessive-addictive disorder where an individual becomes overly involved and interested (i.e., completely obsessed) with the details of the personal life of a celebrity" according to Psychology Today. Some negative ramifications include stalking or increased amounts of anxiety or fantasy when thinking about a particular celebrity. While this is an extreme condition and one that most people would likely scoff at, many of our behaviors and interactions with society's elite aren't far off. We still show some degree of adoration towards celebrities, musicians, athletes, and other "cultural idols."

Think about the idea of a 65,000 seat stadium being packed to the brim, with attendees heaping adoration and praise on one person who is quite literally raised up onto a stage or pedestal.

People go into a frenzy and reach their hands out towards said figure, crying and weeping and shouting words towards them. Doesn't sound quite that different from the prehistoric anti-flooding rituals. Many of us are guilty of this to some degree, whether it's excessive deference to someone you look up to, or obsessing over a tabloid to track a celebrity's every move. Why does this phenomenon happen? We mentioned earlier that early societies looked up to an alpha or strong leader, and how that phenomenon still exists today. Instead of looking to the primary hunter of a group, or a powerful monarch, we now take our cues from those deemed "influential" in society. A byproduct of social media's rise is the new phenomenon of the "influencer." Someone with so much social clout that brands, causes, and companies leverage that person's popularity for profit or gain. Point being: we're seemingly always looking up to somebody. We can go back to the Oxford Dictionary and see if society's relationship with celebrities checks all the boxes: "the practice of showing respect for God or a god, by saying prayers, singing with others, etc.; a ceremony for this." While most people don't pray to celebrities, the aforementioned concert experience could definitely be construed as a ceremony in which respect is shown to a "god" (which the celebrity has taken the place of) through singing and praising together. Consider the way in which recent hit documentary The Last Dance portrayed NBA superstar Michael Jordan. As the documentary describes, Jordan at one point became the most popular cultural icon in the world, with fellow NBA star Larry Bird once quipping after a legendary MJ performance that it was: "God disguised as Michael Jordan." Others referred to him as "His Airness." LeBron James, effectively Jordan's successor as best basketball player in the world, once recalled meeting Jordan as a teenager as a borderline religious experience. "Michael Jordan was kind of like that god," James said. "He was that angel sent from heaven. I kind of used him to help me get through some of the darkest days that I had." James also described him as "Black Jesus" in that first meeting. Though there is a level of exaggeration in their words, the point is that people, consciously or not, channel their affections into other people whom they've benefited from or find admirable in some way. If the primary definition of worship is intentionally giving time and attention to something, then this kind of treatment of athletes or celebrities certainly fits the bill. That said, often it's not even the famous, rich, or elite that become objects of worship. Sometimes we channel that attention and adoration into friends or family members we look up to or want to emulate. We begin hanging on their every word and try to become more like them. We eat up everything they say or propose, and spend money, time, and resources attempting to appease them. And ultimately, that becomes unsatisfying as they are an imperfect human themselves and therefore cannot satisfy all of your needs, no matter how much you look up to them. As mentioned before, when human sources become unfulfilling, many turn to a more spiritual or divine answer.

Deities, Beliefs & God

When people consider the idea of "what is worship?", the first association is often religion and belief systems. Though other human beings or passions can be "worshipped" in the form of giving one's time or full attention, there's something inherently different about worshipping a divine force, spirit, or creator. Circling back to Dr. Newberg's earlier study, we find that something "unlocks" in our brains when we engage with the divine. The research suggests that more brain activity comes from exploring the unseen rather than with what is known or observable. You'd think it would be the opposite. A 2009 Danish study in Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience journal concurs with Newberg's assertion, citing that the amygdala (the feelings & processing part of the brain) "lights up" when one engages in prayer or a worshipful act. In fact, their fMRI scans showed enhanced brain activity when deferring to a higher authority figure such as a deity. From a purely scientific standpoint, it makes sense that worship, or at least engaging with the divine, would fulfill something that no human being, cause, or project could. As meaning-making creatures, many human beings need to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" would argue otherwise, stating that those "on the bottom" are just looking out for their primal, base survival needs. But history indicates that isn’t true. Often those with the least material wealth and goods have the richest and deepest faiths. Rwanda, which underwent a horrific genocide in the 1990s, has 93% Christian population despite a devestating poverty rate and the lingering ramifications of internal strife. Case in point, there isn't a correlation between one's need for religion and one's overall wellbeing. In fact, it can be argued that those with the least hope need something to channel their hopes and dreams into; oftentimes that beacon of hope is a deity. On the flip side, many in wealthy countries, such as the United States, are increasingly turning away from religion despite having the more bandwidth, time, and resources to devote to a belief system. But is worship just about hope for an afterlife or an escape from the drudgery of one's own situation? Or is there hope of more, such as a feeling of connectedness to a divine force or creator?


We looked at three primary areas that tend to be "worshipped" in our society: jobs, people, and the divine, and that list is obviously not exhaustive. Each area influences our lives differently, and our personal outlooks and beliefs will determine where our value lies. If you believe life is a meaningless existence in which "you've got one shot," it would make sense to put stock in the observable, the knowable, and the right now. But for some, material success doesn't feel like enough, and there's that aforementioned urge to "belong to something bigger." Problem is, many don't know where to channel that deeper desire. A 2017 article from Thought Catalog asserts that happiness is often found within personal fulfilment: "We often go to great lengths to find the missing piece that will fill the cracks in our lives seamlessly. When in fact, all we had to do was look within ourselves." Derek Thompson (author of the previously mentioned article on Workism) even admits this: "I am devoted to my job. I feel most myself when I am fulfilled by my work—including the work of writing an essay about work. My sense of identity is so bound up in my job, my sense of accomplishment, and my feeling of productivity that bouts of writer’s block can send me into an existential funk that can spill over into every part of my life." That sounds hopeful in theory, but is it enough? What happens if we don't have a positive view of ourselves? What if we "make it" and find out it's not happily ever after? For many, there's a deeper longing for something outside ourselves, or those around us. Broadly speaking, it’s worth considering what happens when we make each of those elements the center of our worship. Jobs: A job is necessary for basic survival needs, as it is often the vehicle that gets us food, shelter, and resources. Though many bemoan their jobs, there is this inherent idea (particularly in America) that you just grind it out for 40-50 years and then go retire in Florida to enjoy the well-earned fruits of your labor. If material gain is your end goal, a job will help you get there. But even the most sought-after vocations ultimately have an expiration date, and many find themselves "lost" once they hit retirement. As retirement coach Larry Jacobson said in a recent Forbes article, the most common refrains of retirement are the following: "A lack of social interaction, a lack of purpose, and a feeling you’ve reached your peak and are no longer needed." The job runs out, and then what? What do you put stock into? People: For some people, the lack or termination of a job isn't the end of the world, because family is their everything. And while family is important and often not prioritized in our hyper-individualistic society, family, friends, or other people still can't make us feel fulfilled. Because human beings are prone to mistakes, we will frequently leave feeling disappointed if all of our stock is placed into the hands of fallible people. The Divine: Now, this isn't to say that a particular belief system or belief in God is a cure-all. Even adherents to different faiths grapple with existential questions and experience periods where they feel disconnected or unsure of their faith. However, there is something to say about the idea of a lasting, eternal existence. If this life "isn't all we've got," and we don't have to live with the #YOLO mindset, it relieves some of the pressure. It can give peace and solace knowing there's something greater out there; a place to channel our deepest hopes and questions. Religious or not, hopeful or skeptical, we invite you into a journey of addressing these questions in our series on Worship, as we tackle questions around why we worship, what's going on when we worship, and the history of worship within the church. Oftentimes we either write everything off or just accept it blindly as "what's always been." But what if the choice wasn't so binary? For the skeptic, it's important not to dismiss worship as a passing fantasy, as science clearly shows that something deeper is going on. And for the ardent believer, it's crucial not to view it as a checklist item or something that you do because you're told it's important. Worship reveals something about the human condition and our curiosity to engage with the mysterious, unknowns of the universe around us. Perhaps it's more than just a ritual needed for survival. Perhaps it's more than just appeasing a deity. Let's find out together.


The worship conversation has many different layers, so we want to send you email content that hits different and these fields help us do that.

*Your data is covered through our privacy policy.