A large percentage of human beings have worshipped dieties that do not exist, suggesting that the urge to worship is really a desire for awe.

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All recipients of admiration, all persons esteemed, all venerated lovers—get a taste for what it feels like to be worshipped. Nothing elevates the mood better. You can skip through a day of a hundred and one trials when you know someone somewhere adores you.

And adoring someone else is almost as pleasant as being adored. Having an object of regard to lavish one’s praises upon lifts the mood. It’s a giddy thing to pen a poem to your lover’s eyebrow.

Such ‘worship’ may be the height of human disposition. And since religions deal in professed superlatives, worship was absorbed into religions as the ultimate offering to the gods and considered the most excellent state of existence for humanity, an existence projected into a perpetual afterlife of adoration of the gods.

That is, since being adored is the best experience we humans could have, humans imagined adoration must be the best experience the gods could have too—an obvious projection by humanity onto the gods.

Worship as awe could be a pre-religious and post-religious human impulse. Perhaps everybody alleluias.

But really, as we know, the religious injunction to worship is all about human needs and nothing at all about the gods’ needs. Why would gods need worship?

Do gods require an emotional push to get through a sullen Sunday afternoon? Do gods have ego needs? Do gods have an anemic self-image, a confused identity? Do gods need reasons to smile? Do gods get disheartened and spend their time moping when only one billion of many billions of people adore them? Do gods crave apologies and heart-shaped spiritual candies from their inattentive flocks?

The gods require none of this. It would be enough for gods to contemplate eternal verities tracing through their minds at any given moment of time. A true god would rather ponder a mathematical conundrum than be accosted by the inharmonious din of human singsong.

Worship is a human need, not a God’s. This explains the persistence of worship in the absence of actual deities. Given that Gods and otherworldly entities do not exist, though they have been worshipped by millions of people over thousands of years, we may interpret the felt urgency of worship as a deeply rooted human feature.

But how do we explain the minority of people in every age who escape religious feeling and would rather skip a flat rock on a windless pond than hinge their knees to imaginary idols? Where is a need to worship in the irreligious?

What if we say the urge to worship is the desire for awe?

Maybe, upon scrutiny, the irreligious have their surrogate Gods, their objects of desire, their diamonds in the sky. Didn’t Carl Sagan capitalize the word ‘Nature’ in his books? Maybe everyone, even the atheist, worships in the way of awe. Worship as awe could be a pre-religious and post-religious human impulse. Perhaps everybody alleluias.

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...