The Soul Abhors a Vacuum: Why Deliberate Wisdom is the Cure for Hidden Religions

Posted in: Applying Wisdom

I recently finished Cal’s latest book, Digital Minimalism, and was thoroughly impressed by his core insight: we are mindlessly ceding our autonomy and personhood to technology. While everyone understands, and agrees that Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram are distractions, most people severely underestimate the damage these tools are doing to the core elements of self-hood.

His solution to the problem is equally impressive as it moves beyond simple “hacks” and encompasses a more comprehensive philosophy called digital minimalism: “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support the thing you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

While Cal focuses on the negative impacts of technology and effective solutions to combat these effects, I’d like to draw your attention to something I believe is equally as damaging as Facebook: hidden religions.

Everybody is religious, they just may not know it

In his famous commencement speech, This is Water, the late David Foster Wallace makes a bold claim.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

On one level, you may be an atheist in the sense that you do not believe in a supernatural being. However, your worldview and your day-to-day actions are oriented around certain values that you worship, whether you are conscious of them or not. These are the things that define you, your “default settings” as Wallace calls them.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

It is not just self-aggrandizing values that operate in the unconscious; I also propose that the overt political beliefs you hold, the causes for which you advocate, and the tribes you associate with all reveal unconscious worship.

With the risk of sparking an internet troll war, let’s take the nominally secular issue of climate change.

If you believe that it’s a problem, here are a few common religious elements of those who are very concerned with it:

  • Man has committed a great evil (pollution)
  • Man will be punished for this great evil (increasing levels of CO2 causing climate change which causes species to go instinct, glaciers to melt and flood cities, extreme weather events, etc.)
  • A faith in prophets (even though you personally are not a scientist you believe what 99% of scientists say in the subject)
  • Man must seek redemption to avoid our fate (by making dramatic lifestyle changes)

I point these out only to highlight that even the most secular of issues can have religious elements to it and that every person on some level will worship some sort of god without realizing that is what they are doing. Everyone has religious impulses and needs that they will fill in some way shape or form. 

Modernity fosters hidden religions

People have always been susceptible to hidden religions, however, modernity has particular incendiary elements that can dramatically accelerate their growth. There are two factors in particular that I believe are particularly impactful:

  • The decline of traditional religion and increase in secular religion
  • Increase in social isolation and increase in false tribalism

The era of secular religions

In the last several decades, those who are affiliated with religion participate less in traditionally religious rituals, and the number of those who have no religious affiliation has increased. I include myself in the latter category.

The problem is that if you don’t have a formal or traditional religion to help shape your moral outlook and behavior or to provide meaning to your life, you will need to find alternative sources of meaning.

In the excellent book turned film,The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the Pakistani protagonist, Changez Khan, a young elite consultant, sits with the owner of a publishing house in Turkey. Changez and his boss have already told the owner he needs to shut down the bookstore. The owner, over tea, sensing an uneasiness in Changez, tells Changez that “young men don’t make good mercenaries; they need a cause to fight.”

Changez felt the emptiness in his role as a consultant and longed for something that he could not describe, something that was eventually filled by his native religion, Islam.

Many of us do not have a native religion to turn to, and it feels strange to turn to any religion. The rituals and beliefs seem kooky.

But still, we are left with an ache deep in our souls and a desire for something more, and we will eventually fill it with something.

It’s here that we may turn to more modern, secular religions.

In the US, rugged individualism in a capitalist environment operates as such a religion. There is something deeply attractive about entrepreneurial rebels who build businesses that outlast them. It requires an assertion of the self, a will-to-power, and an apotheosis of your soul via IPO.

While I admire entrepreneurs as one who aspires to achieve business success, the danger is relying on individualism and the pursuit of business success as a substitute for a traditional religion, as nourishment for the soul and a guide to behavior.

These secular religions can take many forms. I spent quite a bit of time following the gurus of lifestyle design and personal development, which for many, have become their hidden religions.

My first career plan after college (to become a Navy SEAL after college) failed, I was stuck in a rut. I didn’t have a backup plan and didn’t feel like I would fit in to the “typical” corporate career paths that I could have potentially pursued. It also didn’t help that it was 2009 and I was in the middle of a worldwide recession.

Looking for some helpful advice, I read Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Work Week. In the book, he pitched the idea of lifestyle design and joining the “New Rich” where instead of working through the traditional 40 to 50 year career, you ruthlessly focus on optimizing your life such that you can maximize the time spent doing things you want to do and minimizing the time you spend doing things you don’t want to do. You don’t wait until you retire, you figure out how to design your life so you can enjoy it now.

The book offered a path to salvation, an alternative view of what my life could be if only I followed certain commandments.

I joined the church of lifestyle design and moved overseas to Egypt, started my own (unsuccessful) business and tried to find ways to never get a “real” job (I eventually did). I never did reach the promised land of an automated business that maximized free time and reduced my financial stress.

The lifestyle design movement and the personal development industry in general takes advantage of the timeless human needs to feel close to something sacred. For many personal development addicts, it becomes a secular religion.

Instead of teaching you how to get closer to God or to attain Nirvana, they teach you how to attain financial freedom or time freedom or self-confidence. They provide a narrative that can make sense of your suffering and provide a path out of it. 

Political causes, fitness movements, and personal development systems can only offer policy changes, healthy improvements, and productivity improvements but they use the language of the soul. Instead of limiting themselves to their domain, they make outlandish claims that are nonetheless attractive to those who don’t have more reliable sources of spiritual fulfillment.

Here is some copy from the popular cycling class Soul Cycle:

Our mission is to bring Soul to the people. Our one of a kind, rockstar instructors guide riders through an inspirational, meditative fitness experience that’s designed to benefit the body, mind and soul. Set in a dark candlelit room to high-energy music, our riders move in unison as a pack to the beat and follow the signature choreography of our instructors. The experience is tribal. It’s primal. It’s fun.

We call it a cardio party. Our riders say it’s changing their lives. With every pedal stroke, our minds clear and we connect with our true and best selves. Through this shared SOUL experience, our riders develop an unshakeable bond with one another. Friendships are made and relationships are built. In that dark room, our riders share a Soul experience. We laugh, we cry, we grow — and we do it together, as a community.

While I believe Soul Cycle is a great workout and you can certainly make friends there, I highly doubt that it is a community in any meaningful sense (and of course, this is marketing copy so it is hyperbolic by nature). 

In the absence of something concrete, secular religions are increasingly taking the place of more established and traditional moral and spiritual systems that are more effective at filling the needs of the soul.

Loneliness and Tribalism

A 2018 Cigna survey found that approximately half of Americans sometime or always  feel like no one knows them well and just under half of the respondents feel that they are not close to anyone and their relationships are not meaningful.

The natural response to the pain of loneliness and isolation is to seek the companionship of others. However, modernity has atrophied both our personal relationship building skills and had eroded institutions that facilitate the relationship and community buildings.

There are a number of factors that can explain this loneliness epidemic. Cal focuses on the technology that enable loneliness. The distraction of online communities on Facebook or Reddit or other platforms take away time from real-world relationship building activities. “Liking” a photo from your friend’s vacation is a poor substitute for having dinner with a friend and hearing about their vacation in person.

David Brooks, in his latest and excellent book, The Second Mountain, focuses on Americans’ cultural value of individualism and how it comes at the expense of “thick institutions,” those societal building blocks that offer non-utilitarian relationships and compelling moral ecologies, the food of the soul.

The core flaw of hyper-individualism is that it leads to a degradation and a pulverization of the human person. It is a system built upon the egoistic drives within each of us. These are the self-interested drives—the desire to excel; to make a mark in the world; to rise in wealth, power, and status; to win victories and be better than others. Hyper-individualism does not emphasize and eventually does not even see the other drives—the deeper and more elusive motivations that seek connection, fusion, service, and care. These are not the desires of the ego, but the longings of the heart and soul: the desire to live in loving interdependence with others, the yearning to live in service of some ideal, the yearning to surrender to a greater good. Hyper-individualism numbs these deepest longings. Eventually, hyper-individualism creates isolated, self-interested monads who sense that something is missing in their lives but cannot even name what it is.

One of the consequences of hyper-individualism and loneliness is the formation of tribes, the dark twin of communities. Tribes are groups defined by a distrust in the other, rather than mutual affection. 

This tribal reaction to loneliness is most obvious in our partisan political climate. If we are isolated, we can only know others who are different from ourselves by second-hand accounts of the other i.e. the news. 

Journalists can only summarize on relatively narrow topics. However, from these small bits of information, we can create our own strawmen enemies. 

In a tribe, your hidden religion is defined by a shared antipathy towards your enemies. It supersedes logic or moral reasoning and fuels our anti-virtues in our valid desires for meaningful relationships.

However, strawmen aren’t human, and should you actually meet and get to know a member of an opposing tribe, it becomes nearly impossible to dehumanize and vilify him. 

A true community can stand for something without dehumanizing others. It can be conscious of its values and impart those values to its members. It can meet the souls need for shared experiences and companionship without falling into the darker side of tribalism.

The cumulative effects of a decline in traditional religion and loneliness leads to an increase in secular religions and tribalism. Secular religions and tribalism often turn into hidden religions because they do not identify themselves. Millenials who follow lifestyle design principles do not realize they have oriented their lives around a set of rules established a handful of elite prophets… I mean bloggers. Politically motivated partisans do not feel they are dehumanizing their political enemies or cutting themselves off from those who think differently, they just know their cause feels righteous and just.

In time, we find that we have been living a life of rules and associating with people that we did not deliberately choose. We have internalized a way of being that leaves our soul hungry for something more that we cannot easily express. Without realizing it, you may have end up as a devoted member of the Church of Lifestyle Design, the Temple of Careerism, or the Congregation of Self-Care and Instagram. We have become converts to a hidden religion without even knowing it. 

The Deliberate Wisdom Method

The most harmful aspect of hidden religions is that they are…well…hidden. You did not consciously choose it and you are not aware of its influence on the choices you make.

Logically, it makes sense to first identify your hidden religion(s) and then to replace it with something better. I call this this deliberate wisdom method.


There are a number of ways to identify what is it that you worship. One of the most powerful ways is to subtract and react

Cal recommends performing a 30 day digital declutter process in which you deliberately forego technology platforms that you use on a regular basis. It often leads to a recognition of how dependent you are on them.

Similarly, to identify your hidden religions you must subtract activities that function as ritual worship. In some cases it may simply be a thought exercise. It would be irresponsible to simply quit your job to see if you suffer from workism.

However, if you imagine a life in which you did not have your current job and you had no way of getting it back and you react very negatively to it, that is a clue there is something about your work that you worship.

This is the “react” component of subtract and react.

Perhaps your job is considered prestigious. Taking that away from you or replacing it with a non-prestigious job may make you feel ashamed or embarrassed, suggesting you might worship social status, even if you don’t like the job itself.

Or let’s say you stop reading your favorite political op-ed writers for a month. Do you begin missing the feeling of righteous anger at what the other side is doing to the country? You might miss the feeling of moral certainty and being a part of a tribe.

Often, the needs that are being filled by these “worship” rituals aren’t bad. We all want to feel like we’re doing the right thing or at least are on the right side. We want to associate with those who are like us. We need to feel like we are contributing to society and be recognized for doing so.

The way we attempt to meet those needs however, can be harmful. Therefore, it is critical that once we identify our hidden religions that we replace them with something better.


A few years ago, I started a project where I would conduct a series of 30-day experiments attempting to cultivate virtues from an ancient wisdom tradition. These traditions had to meet two primary criteria: they had to be at least 500 years old and still surviving in some form. It is somewhat arbitrary but as a general guideline, it helped filter for traditions that are robust enough to survive many types of pressures.

For example, for my Stoicism month, I took a daily ice bath for 30 days to cultivate a tranquil mind. For my Islam month, I attempted to cultivate humility by praying five times per day. I called this project the Ancient Wisdom Project (AWP).

What I discovered was that ancient wisdom is a far superior source of life advice than most contemporary information sources, and it is an effective way to meet the needs you are trying to fill through your hidden religions. 

Let’s say that one of your favorite ways of relaxing is to binge on Netflix (I am guilty of this). Unfortunately, the marathon session of the Office more often leaves you feeling gross and unsettled rather than rejuvenated.

The desire to rest is good, but learning how to rest is a non-trivial task. 

Judaism is a wonderful source of wisdom if your goal is to learn to rest. The rules for observing the Sabbath or Shabbat, though extremely puzzling to non-Jews, force you to truly make the most of this period of rest. Indeed, it does more than this, it turns what can simply be a period of rest into a demarcation in time, separate the profane from the sacred.

To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of creation of heaven and earth.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

If you constantly feel as if you are taking two steps forward and one step back, study Taoism. You’ll learn that often the right answer is to take the path of non-action (Wu-Wei). 

The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering.

Tao Te Ching

If you spend too much time thinking about yourself and your needs, learn from the Jesuits (a Catholic order) who made it their mission not to aggrandize themselves but to find God in all things. 

Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.

Saint Ignatius, Prayer for Generosity

If you seek pleasure in all the wrong ways, learn how Epicureans rationally assessed whether something would bring them joy. 

We must put the following question to each of our desires: What will happen to me if the object of my desire is achieved? What will happen if it is not? 

Epicurus, The Art of Happines

Some of these ancient wisdom traditions will be pure philosophies while others may be religions and some may be a hybrid.

What is common to all of them is that the topics they cover and the wisdom they provide is comprehensive and effective. The values they teach and the rituals they ask you to perform will in many ways be superior to the ones your hidden religion has imparted on you.

Most importantly, none of these ancient wisdom traditions ask you to simply “believe” them. They will throw some ideas out at you and demand you think critically about them. There is nothing hidden about them. You will get to choose what you value, what your worship.

Do and Reflect

One of the most counterintuitive experiences of AWP was the reversal of what I thought the cause and effect relationship of ancient wisdom. I used to think that good people, particularly religious ones, held a belief system that they valued and their good actions sprung from this abstract foundation.

What I experienced with AWP was the opposite. I did not belong to any of the religions or traditions I was experimenting with and I certainly did not believe in all of their teachings or dogma. But after praying five times per day for a month, my desire to worship something greater than myself grew and Islam made sense at a deeper level not accessible through logic or reason.  

As someone who is prone to living much of my life in my head, who believes that I can think my way out of all my problems, it was quite the revelation to discover that doing becomes a form of knowledge and wisdom.

The do and reflect loops is critical to ensuring that you do not simply let ideas sit in your brain and live permanently as abstractions. It ensures that your actions are not that of an automaton, but rather someone who has, over time, made sure your works are a reflection of the type of person you want to be.

We live in a particularly challenging time. While we have never been more comfortable materially, we have never had so many forces competing for our hearts and minds.  Unless we are deliberate about what we follow and pay attention to, we will end up following a hidden religion that we do not consciously acknowledge but from which we suffer deep harm.

The soul abhors a vacuum … but it is up to you how you fill it.