The Top 10 Needs That Fuel Modern-Day Idol Worship

Sep 6, 2022

Dear Souls & Hearts Community,

So often we hear homilies, sermons or read spiritual writings about idols in the modern day. And that is a good thing, it makes sense. The first commandment of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy reads as follows:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Deuteronomy 5:6-10)

Our Lord’s First Great Commandment is this:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:36-38)

Both of these passages condemn idolatry. And the first commandment and the greatest commandment in the Old Testament and the New Testament, respectively. Idolatry is a big deal.

Idolatry looks different today than it did 2000 or 4000 years ago. Rarely does a priest in the confessional hear a penitent open with, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned, it has been two weeks since my last confession, and I have fallen into old sins again. I raided the jewelry box and scrounged up a gold bracelet, a watchband, some cuff links, some earrings, some old rings, then I borrowed the neighbor’s blowtorch, and I melted them all down and made this beautiful little golden calf. Then I burned incense to the golden calf, made sacrifices to it, danced wildly around it and worshiped Baal. I hate it when I slip up like that.”

No, today we hear about the modern versions of idols, and what usually gets mentioned are things like money, power, sex, control, approval from others, and so on. The idea is that we are misusing those things, and elevating them to be the highest goods in our lives, usurping the role of God. We are commanded to give up such idols and return to the Lord.

Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods defines a modern-day idol in the following ways:

  1. An idol is something that we look to for things that only God can give.
  2. An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.”
  3. If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol.
  4. What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.

A 2021 study by Lifeway Research surveyed 1000 Protestant ministers in the U.S., and asked them what they thought were the biggest idols in their congregations. The top four responses were comfort (67%), control or security (56%), money (55%) and approval (51%) identifying the idols that have significant influence on their congregations. Success, social influence, political power, sex/romantic love also were notable idols, according to these pastors.

And that is pretty typical. We often hear of money, success, control, sex, and power being described as modern-day idols.

I don’t think those are the primary idols. Those are just the proxies – they are just the sought-after means to try to meet the underlying need.

So you might ask, “Well, Dr. Peter, if money, sex, power, control, approval and so on are only the means and not the real object of idolatry, then what are the real idols that we are worshiping?”

I’m glad you asked.

In the natural realm, I see those means as oriented toward meeting the primary integrity needs and the primary attachment needs that we all have.

A lack of curiosity

In my experience, people have almost no interest in getting at what is the root of the types of idolatry we practice. Why are people so interested in money, power, sex, or control? For so many people, there is a notable and curious lack of interest in why we choose a particular modern-day idol to elevate. And the guidance is so often just to relinquish the idol, devalue it and move on. It feels to me like a form of Bob Newhart’s Stop It Therapy. We can do better than that. We can see what is motivating us toward the idol and find better ways to have the legitimate underlying integrity needs and attachment needs met.

Primary integrity needs and primary attachment needs

In episode 62 of my podcast Interior Integration for Catholics, titled A New and Better Way of Understanding Myself and Others, I laid out the primary integrity needs and primary attachment needs that we all have. Here are my top five integrity needs:

  1. My need to exist and survive
  2. My need to matter
  3. My need to have agency
  4. My need to be good
  5. My need for mission and purpose in life

And here are the top five attachment needs (taken from Brown and Elliott (2016).

  1. My need for felt safety and protection in relationship
  2. My need for a felt sense of being seen, heard, known, and understood
  3. My need for a felt sense of being comforted, soothed, and reassured
  4. My need for a felt sense of being valued, treasured, delighted in, and cherished
  5. My need for a felt sense of support for my highest good

Here is the core of my argument. I maintain that in the natural realm, all of those “modern day idols” (money, sex, control, power, etc,) are pursued in the service of meeting one or more primary integrity needs or primary attachment needs. We do not pursue money for its own sake – rather, we are seeking to fill the integrity need or the attachment need that money seems to promise to meet. Many people seek money, not to have a bunch of paper bills or a lot of digital zeroes and ones in a bank account. Rather they seek money because money represents a sense of safety and security or serves to prolong or ensure their existence. Many people seek sex, not just for the sake of sex, but to feel comforted or to feel valued and cherished. (There is more going on with modern-day idols in the spiritual realm, but my focus here is on the natural realm.)

I scoured the internet and compiled a long list of modern-day idols and I grouped them according to the primary integrity need or the primary attachment need that those modern-day idols might meet. The purpose of this exercise is not to create an exhaustive list of idols that is perfectly accurate in pointing back to the underlying need for which each idol is sought. Rather, I am inviting you to consider how these different popular modern-day idols might be connected to the underlying needs.

Integrity needs

  1. I exist
    1. Possessions – Money, wealth, income “ I have therefore I am”
    2. Substance abuse
    3. Eating – I can feel that I exist when I eat
    4. “Prepping,” firearms, and ammunition to preserve one’s existence
    5. Safeguarding civil rights and freedoms
    6. Rugged individualism
    7. Intellectual knowledge (especially knowledge useful in predicting the future)
  2. I matter
    1. Money, wealth, income
    2. Prestige and popularity
    3. Career success
    4. Recognition
    5. “Likes” on social media, downloads of my material, views of my videos
    6. Connections with powerful others
    7. Productivity, accomplishment
  3. I have agency, I can make things happen
    1. Power
    2. Money, wealth, income
    3. Video games
    4. Sports fans
    5. Gambling
    6. Achievements of various kinds
    7. Hobbies I am really good at
  4. I am ontologically good
    1. Prestige and popularity
    2. Identification with good causes
    3. Winning
    4. Superiority in comparing myself to others
  5. I have a mission and purpose in life
    1. Social, political, and environmental causes
    2. Over-investment in a particular ministry, neglecting duties of state

Attachment needs

  1. A felt sense of safety and protection
    1. Physical Health
    2. Money, Wealth, Income
    3. Possessions
    4. Power
    5. Control
  2. A felt sense of being seen, heard, known, and understood
    1. Prestige
    2. Physical attractiveness – body image, fashion, wardrobe, cosmetics
    3. Screens – especially scenes in which one identifies with a character being loved
  3. A felt sense of being comforted, soothed, and reassured.
    1. Substance abuse
    2. Emotional eating
    3. Oversleeping
    4. Certain friendships
    5. Music
  4. A felt sense of being valued, treasured, delighted in, cherished
    1. Prestige or popularity
    2. “Likes” on social media, downloads of my material, views of my videos
    3. Gaining the approval of others
    4. Career success
    5. Overattachment to “affectionate” pets, especially dogs, i.e. “fur babies”
  5. A felt sense of support for my highest good – unconditional support and encouragement
    1. Scruples – in the service of working so hard to be good enough to win God’s approval
    2. Perfectionism

Some idols cross many of these needs

There are some modern-day idols that apply to so many attachment needs and so many integrity needs. For example, pornography and its associated fantasies can easily be used to try, in a maladaptive way, to meet the first four attachment needs and the first three integrity needs. Similarly, the remembrance of lost loves, dwelling on past relationships (that did not work out) can be focused on trying to recapture magic that is oriented toward meeting a number of attachment or integrity needs.

Distracting idols

Finally, the pursuit of some idols seems to be to distract from the intensity of how attachment needs or integrity needs are not being met. The function of these idols is to draw attention away from the need and minimize awareness of what is missing. Common distracting idols include:

  1. Acquiring possessions
  2. Gambling
  3. Video games
  4. Shopping
  5. Excessive exercise
  6. Hobbies
  7. Social, political and environmental causes
  8. Productivity
  9. Fantasy and role-playing games
  10. Screen time
  11. Flights into fantasy
  12. Travel
  13. Music
  14. Pleasures
  15. Food

Why is it important to connect our idols back to our needs?

If you recognize that any of the modern-day idols and read our modern-day gods for you, you can connect them back and see of the associated underlying need is one you might have. If we know what the underlying need is that we are seeking, we can bring that need directly to God. God can meet all of our attachment needs and all of our integrity need in the natural realm. He has a plan for all those legitimate needs to be met. If we are frantically trying to fill those legitimate needs with something other than what He has intended for us, we will end up frustrated and ultimately alienated from Him and either hate or be indifferent to ourselves – self-hatred and indifference to ourselves are the them of the most recent Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, episode 97, which was just released earlier this week. It is titled Unlove of Self: How Trauma Predisposes You to Self-Hatred and Indifference and I hope you will check that out if you have not already listened.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Please forward this email on to anyone you feel might benefit from it – word-of-mouth is the most effective way that we at Souls and Hearts can spread our message.

P.P.S. In next week’s reflection, I will share with you another way of looking at idols, one that I prefer and more about how to overcoming idolatry. So, stay tuned for that!

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