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Idolatry is a major sin in the Abrahamic religions regarding image. In Christianity it is defined as worship of an image, idea or object, as opposed to the worship of a supreme being. In Judaism and Islam, the creation of imagery itself as well as its worship would amount to idolatry. In religions where such activity is not considered as sin, the term "idolatry" itself is absent. Some religious authorities and groups have used the term to describe other religions apart from their own.


"The Adoration of the Golden Calf" by Nicolas Poussin

The word idolatry comes (by haplology) from the Greek word eidololatria, a compound of eidolon, "image" or "figure", and latreia, "worship". Although the Greek appears to be a loan translation of the Hebrew phrase avodat elilim, which is attested in rabbinic literature (e.g., bChul., 13b, Bar.), the Greek term itself is not found in the Septuagint, Philo, Josephus, or in other Hellenistic Jewish writings. It is also not found in Greek pagan literature. In the New Testament, the Greek word is found only in the letters of Paul, 1 Peter, and Revelation, where it has a derogatory meaning. Hebrew terms for idolatory include avodah zarah (foreign worship) and avodat kochavim umazalot (worship of planets and constellations).

Idolatry in many forms

Template:Weasel Many religions hold that the purpose of worship is to bring one into connection with divinity. Any set of beliefs or practices which significantly interferes with this may, at some point, be termed idolatry. Examples might include:

  • A very strong belief in the inerrancy of a holy book, this would equate the book with God, see creationism
  • A very strong attachment to one's country that a religion considers inappropriate. In this case nationalism could be considered a form of idolatry.
  • A very strong desire to gain sex and wealth that a religion considers inappropriate. In this case greed could be considered a form of idolatry.
  • A very strong desire to gain fame or recognition that a religion considers inappropriate. In this case egocentrism could be considered a form of idolatry.
  • Worshipping one of God's creations (The Sun, moon, water, a cow, sheep, or king) instead of the One God who created them.
  • An obsessive desire to earn money could be classified as idolatry.

Idolatry in the Hebrew Bible

According to the Hebrew Bible, idolatry originated in the age of Eber, though some interpret the text to mean in the time of Serug; image worship existed in the time of Jacob, from the account of Rachel taking images along with her on leaving her father's house, which is given in the book of Genesis. Abraham's father, Terah, was both an idol manufacturer and worshipper. When Abraham discovered the true God, he destroyed his father's idols (See Terah for story).

The commandments in the Hebrew Bible against idolatry forbade the beliefs and practices of pagans who lived amongst the Israelites at the time, especially the religions of ancient Akkad, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.

Some of these religions, it is claimed in the Bible, had a set of practices which were prohibited under Jewish law, such as sex rites, cultic male and female prostitution, passing a child through a fire to Molech, and child sacrifice.

There is no one section that clearly defines idolatry; rather there are a number of commandments on this subject spread through the books of the Hebrew Bible, some of which were written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Taking these verses together, idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is defined as either:

  • the worship of idols (or images)
  • the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
  • the worship of animals or people
  • the use of idols in the worship of God.

The last category, the use of idols in the worship of God, is the basis of Judaism' strict monotheism. In a number of places the Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form; thus no idol or image could ever capture God's essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Deut. 4:15, they see no shape or form. Many verses in the Bible use anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God's mighty hand, God's finger, etc.) but these verses have always been understood as poetic images rather than literal descriptions.

The Bible records a struggle between the prophet's attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: "According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah" (2:28).

The Bible has many terms for idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible [Adherents of Jewish faith maintain that the Torah is the literal and eternally binding word of G-d]. Thus idols are stigmatized "non-God" (Deut. 32:17, 21 [1]; Jer. 2:11 [2]), "things of naught" (Lev. 19:4 et passim [3]), "vanity" (Deut. 32), "iniquity" (1 Sam. 15:23 [4] ), "wind and confusion" (Isa. 41:29 [5]), "the dead" (Ps. 106:28 [6]), "carcasses" (Lev. 26:30; Jer. 16:18), "a lie" (Isa. 44:20 et passim [7]), and similar epithets.

Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men's hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit.

Idols were either designated in Hebrew by a term of general significance, or were named according to their material or the manner in which they were made. They said to have been were placed upon pedestals, and fastened with chains of silver or nails of iron lest they should fall over or be carried off (Isa. 40:19, 41:7; Jer. 10:14; Wisdom 13:15), and they were also clothed and colored (Jer. 10:9; Ezek. 16:18; Wisdom 15:4).

At first the gods and their images were conceived of as identical; but in later times a distinction was drawn between the god and the image. Nevertheless it was customary to take away the gods of the vanquished (Isa. 10:10-11, 36:19, 46:1; Jer. 48:7, 49:3; Hosea 10:5; Dan. 11:8), and a similar custom is frequently mentioned in the cuneiform texts.

Did idolators really worship idols?

Did the idolators of Biblical times believe that the idols they worshipped were actually gods or spirits, or did they believe that their idols only were representations of said gods or spirits? The Bible does not make this clear, and thus apparently outlaws such practices and beliefs in either form (according to some interpretations).

Yehezkel Kaufman Template:Ref harvard has suggested that the Biblical authors interpreted idolatry in its most literal form: according to the Bible, most idolators really believed that their idols were gods, and holds that the Biblical authors made an error in assuming that all idolatry was of this type, when in fact in some cases, idols may have only been representations of gods. Kaufman writes that "We may perhaps say that the Bible sees in paganism only its lowest level, the level of mana-beliefs...the prophets ignore what we know to be authentic paganism (i.e., its elaborate mythology about the origin and exploits of the gods and their ultimate subjection to a meta-divine reservoir of impersonal power representing Fate or Necessity.) Their [the Biblical author's] whole condemnation revolves around the taunt of fetishism."

However, Kaufman holds that in some places, some Biblical authors did understand that idolators worshipped gods and spirits that existed independently of idols, and not the forms of the idols themselves. For instance, in a passage in 1 Kings 18:27 [8], the Hebrew prophet Elijah challenges the priests of Baal atop of Mount Carmel to persuade their god to perform a miracle, after they had begun to try to persuade the Jews to take up idolatry. The pagan priests beseeched their god without the use of an idol, which in Kaufman's view, indicates that Baal was not an idol, but rather one of the polytheistic gods that merely could be worshipped through the use of an idol.

Orestes Brownson Template:Ref harvard affirms that the pagans in the Hebrew Bible did not literally worship the objects themselves, so that the issue of idolatry is really whether one is pursuing a false god or the true God.

Idolatry in Jewish thought

Main article: Idolatry in Judaism

Judaism strongly prohibits any form of idolatry, and holds that idolatry is not limited to the worship of an idol itself, but also worship involving any artistic representations of God. Judaism holds that any beliefs or practices which significantly interferes with a Jew's relationship with God may, at some point, be deemed idolatry. The proper Jewish definition of idolatry is to worship a power (such as the Sun, moon) or a thing (water, sheep, etc) instead of attributing the power to the One God who created these powers. It is considered a great insult to God to worship one of His creations instead of Him. Non-Jews are also forbidden from worshipping more than one god, or a non-divine object or person, by the Noahide Laws.

Christian views of idolatry

The Christian view of idolatry may be divided into two general categories. The Catholic and Orthodox view (not necessary limited to the Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox communion, and sometimes further complicated when you add Anglicans and Methodists into the equation) and the Fundamentalist view. The Puritan Protestant groups adopted a similar view to Islam, denouncing all forms of religious objects whether in three dimensional or two dimensional form. The problem springs from differences in interpretation of the Decalogue commonly known as the Ten Commandments. "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 in 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 the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." (RSV Exodus 20:3-6).

It would appear that both Orthodox and Protestant views of idolatry condemn idolatry as it is practiced in non-Christian religions. The Catholic missionary Saint Francis Xavier referred to Hinduism as idolatry, and Protestant Christian apologetics makes similar claims about various non-Christian religions.

The Roman Catholic and particularly the Orthodox Churches cite St. John of Damascus' work "On the Divine Image" to defend the use of icons. He wrote in direct response to the iconoclastic controversy that begun in the eighth century by the Byzantine emperor Leo III and continued by his successor Constantine V. St. John maintains that depicting the invisible God is indeed wrong, but he argues that the incarnation, where "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14), indicates that the invisble God became visible, and as a result it is permissible to depict Jesus Christ. He argues, "When He who is bodiless and without form... existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you draw His image..." He also observes that in the Old Testament, images and statues were not absolutely condemned in themselves: examples include the graven images of cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant or the bronze serpent mentioned in the book of Numbers. He also defends external acts of honour towards icons, arguing that there are "different kinds of worship" and that the honour shown to icons differs entirely from the adoration of God. He continues by citing Old Testament examples of forms of "honour": "Jacob bowed to the ground before Esau, his brother, and also before the tip of his son Joseph's staff (Genesis 33:3). He bowed down, but did not adore. Joshua, the Son of Nun, and Daniel bowed in veneration before an angel of God (Joshua 5:14) but they did not adore him. For adoration is one thing, and that which is offered in order to honour something of great excellence is another". He cites St. Basil who asserts, "the honour given to the image is transferred to its prototype". St. John argues therefore that venerating an image of Christ does not terminate at the image itself - the material of the image is not the object of worship - rather it goes beyond the image, to the prototype.

Christian theology requires proselytizing, the spreading of the faith by gaining converts by use of trained missionaries. This often caused hostile relationships with pagan religions and other Christian groups who used images in some manner as part of religious practice.

Fundamentalist Protestants often accuse Catholic and Orthodox Christians of Traditionalism, Idolatry, Paganism and Iconolatry since they do not "cleanse their faith" of the use of images.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians use religious objects such as Icons, incense, the Gospel, Bible, candles and religious vestments. Icons are mainly in two and rarely in three dimensional form. These are in dogmatic theory venerated as objects filled with God's grace and power -- (therefore Eastern Orthodoxy declares they are not "hollow forms" {see idol} and hence, not idols). Evidence for the use of these, they claim, is found in the Old Testament and in Early Christian worship (see Wikipedia article under heading "Icons").

The offering of veneration in the form of latreía (the veneration due God) is doctrinally forbidden by the Orthodox Church; however veneration of religious pictures or Icons in the form of douleía is not only allowed but obligatory. The distinction in levels of veneration, which is doctrinally technical and not distinguishable in the form of actual practice, was and is often lost on the ordinary observer. The distinction is maintained and taught by believers in many of the hymns and prayers that are sung and prayed throughout the liturgical year.

In Orthodox apologetics for icons, a similarity is asserted between icons and the manufacture by Moses (under God's commandment) of The Bronze Snake, which was, Orthodoxy says, given the grace and power of God to heal those bitten by real snakes. "And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any person, when he beheld the serpent of brass, they lived"(Numbers 21:9). Another similarity is declared with the Ark of the Covenant described as the ritual object above which Yahweh was present (Numbers 10:33-36); or the burning bush which , according to Exodus, allowed God to speak to Moses; or the Ten Commandments which were the Word of God "Dabar Elohim" in tablet form. These inanimate objects became a medium by which God worked to teach, speak to, encourage and heal the Hebrew faithful.

Veneration of icons through latreía was codified in the Seventh Ecumenical Council during the Byzantine Iconoclast controversy. Icon veneration is also practiced in the Catholic Church, which accepts the declarations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, but it is practiced to a lesser extent, since Catholics today do not usually prostrate and kiss icons, and the Second Vatican Council enjoined moderation in the use of images. Eastern-Rite Catholics still use icons in their Divine Liturgy however.

Most Protestant groups avoid the use of images in any context suggestive of veneration. Protestantism from its beginnings treated images as objects of inspiration and education rather than of veneration and worship. Occasionally icons may be seen among some "high" church communities such as Anglicans, but they are not viewed or used in the same manner described in Orthodox doctrine, and their presence sometimes causes controversy.

Very conservative Protestant groups avoid any use of religious images, even for inspiration or instruction, as incitement to what they view as idolatry.

ūūūÀÀÀ== Muslim views of idolatry ==

Main article: Shirk (idolatry)

Islam forbids idolatry and polytheism. Most sects of Islam forbid any artistic depictions of human figures, even those of Muhammad, this being shirk, which originally means "partnership": the sin of associating some other being with the one God, Allah. This is considered akin to idolatry, if not idolatry outright. Furthermore, images of God are even banned outright in most sects of Islam, reinforcing absolute monotheism in Islam and attempting to eliminate any and all forms of idolatry.

  • Kafir: a person who refuses to submit himself to Allah (God), a disbeliever in God.
  • Kuffar: plural form of kafir.
  • Kufr (verb): to show ungratefulness to Allah and not to believe in Him and His religion.

These words are used by most Muslims, as loose synonyms or translations for idolators and idolatry, although some have used them to define all non-Muslims.

Eastern religions and idolatry

Although there are many different interpretations of the term 'idolatry', it is essentially a term that belongs to the Abrahamic faiths (see etymology above), where the issue of idolatry is especially central to their ethics (see the 3rd Noahide Law, etc) as something that is prohibited.

As a rule, any interpretation of the term by the non-Abrahamic religious who feel that they have been subjected to the label of 'idolatry' will not effectively represent the reasons why they have been labelled as such.

Moreover, defending their activities based upon the existence of graven images, pictures or other aspects of their worship will not affect their status as idolators by those who accuse them of idolatry.

Many modern Abrahamics reject any views of idolatry addressed against the main religions of the world and feel a great sense of kinship with other world religions even though history has sometimes characterised a very different attitude.

Hindu views of idolatry

Template:Weasel Contemporary Hinduism focuses on worship of either Vishnu or Shiva (whom adherents venerate as God) or God's power personified, Shakti or Devi. These personal aspects of God or His power are the only means to attain mukti or moksha. Moksha, unlike the Buddhist counterpart of nirvana, is union with God. The Bhagavad Gita condemns worship of demigods or deities as such worship is limited and does not lead to moksha.

Early Rig Vedic monism was realized in the Upanishads and Hinduism has multiple streams of thought that range from monotheist to monist. The multiple Hindu divinities ("divine aspects",) represent different aspects of one natural power, or more accurately, a singular being-non-being Brahman. The concept of God without form or Nirguna Brahman is not unique to Judaism or Islam and is in fact held in Hinduism. However, human beings are sensory beings and have a need to visualize God with form. The personal forms of God (i.e., Saguna Brahman is expressed through Vishnu or Shiva.

For this reason, murti, or icon worship, is very much a practice for most Hindus, who choose to connect through bhakti, loving devotion, with God. While murti worship is sometimes equated with idolatry, critics of this point of view argue that the Hindu concept of murti worship consists of veneration of the image or statue as representative of a higher ideal or principle, while idolatry objectifies divinity as the material object itself. Besides, some Hindu sects like Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj do not believe in using murtis as a way to focus on God since they worship God without attributes as Nirguna Brahman. Other sects argue that the human mind needs an Ishta Deva (chosen deity) to help him to concentrate on the Divine principle during sadhana (spiritual exercise). In particular, some Hindu sects like ISKCON will only consent to worship of icons that they consider the supreme God (i.e., Vishnu or Krishna) or His avatars.

When Hindus use idols in worship, they are worshipping God (Brahman) and not the idols themselves. The idol is just a piece of stone until God is invoked in it, and then it serves as a means to focus and meditate on God and is not believed to be the God in physical sense. As Hindus believe that God is Omnipresent; that God is within everyone and everything; that the soul and the supreme are not different; therefore, worshipping different Gods, deities, Goddesses, or Idols, is worshipping the Supreme because everyone and everything is God.

Hindus do not worship the idol as God, but worships the Almighty who resides in that 'idol', as God resides everywhere. His immanence in all that is animate and in all that is inanimate is a fundamental tenet of Hinduism. See [ 'Idol of a deity is deity itself']

Followers of Vishnu use the saligrama (a black stone pebble, found only in the Gandaki River at Mukti Kshetra and Damodar Kunda, one of the most sacred pilgrimage places in north-west Nepal) or sometimes some turmeric paste aggregated into a conical form ,in place of the idol, signifying that a form is not essential to be attributed to God. Similarly, followers of Shiva mediate on the Siva linga.

Just as some followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism have called Hindus idolators or kafirs for not worshipping Yahweh or Allah, Hindus have a similar term for calling followers of non-Vedic religion, (i.e., foreigners) yavanas and mlecchas.

Shinto views of idolatry

Shintoism is a religion which worships kami or nature spirits; it often uses various objects to represent these spirits in its shrines, which often gives the appearance of idolatry to westerners. Claims of idolatry are present.

Christian views regarding Confucianism as idolatry

The question of whether Confucianism, and Chinese folk religion, consists of worshipping a God or veneration of a saint was important to the Catholic Church during the Chinese Rites controversy of the early 18th century. This dispute was between the Dominicans who argued that Confucianism and Chinese folk religion was worship, and therefore incompatible with Catholicism, and the Jesuits which argued the reverse. The pope ultimately ruled in favor of the Dominicans; a decision which greatly reduced the role of Catholic missionaries in China.

Buddhist views of idolatry

Buddhist art employed different measures to represent the Buddha. Empty gaps were firstly used in murals or in another case, a footprint. Statues actually appeared half a century later within the Mahayana school and were often used to represent Gautama Buddha in his exact pose during Enlightenment under the bodhi tree. Since a Buddha comes only by the form of a man, this practice was not considered idolatry by the remaining schools; it was the (exemplar) human being represented and not the Nirvanic state (which is believed to be unconditioned, unmade; formless) that the Enlightened One would enter.

Buddhists do not venerate the objects themselves, but rather the meaning and symbolism represented by the object, which is the beneficial practice of meditation. Often Buddhists will bow before the statue, not as an act of literal worship for the carved image, but to evoke faith and respect in the individual towards what the statue symbolizes; the doctrine and discipline that Gautama Buddha founded. It is considered a grave error in Buddhist thought to risk one's life (or the life of another) to rescue a statue -- let alone worship one.

Daoist views of idolatry

In one form, Daoism (very commonly seen spelt Taoism) is a polytheistic and animistic religion which includes the conception of a pervasive universal principle called the Dao (道), which manifests through the mana-like energy called qi (氣). (In another form Daoism refers to a philosophical school, not a religion.) Early Daoism was in fact only partially aniconic, picturing most deities (even important ones such as Xiwangmu/西王母) while disallowing the anthropomorphic representation of the central deity Taishang Laojun (太上老君). As the manifestation of the ineffable Dao, He was represented either by an empty throne and canopy or vicariously through that of Shakyamuni Buddha.

However, since at least the Tang dynasty, Daoism has incorporated the use of divine images (called shen2xiang4/神像) even for its highest trinity, the San Qing (三清). In both Daoism and Chinese Folk Religion, statues, paintings, or name plaques of deities are given central place as focus of worship in temples and homes. While all representations of deities are afforded reverence and respect, images which have been ritually "opened to light" (kai1 guang1 dian4 yan3/開光點眼) or have been venerated through pious worship are exceptionally invested with and made conduit of the divine numen of the god, known as ling2qi4 (靈氣). Through ritual offerings and scriptural chants, such icons are believed to maintain the living presence of the deity, who gives guidance and bestows blessings upon the devout.

However, while the high gods of the Dao might be iconicized, they are still regarded as ultimately transcending both form and numen in a way unavailable to the deities of the popular religion. As beings directly emergent from and suffused with the primordial Dao, They may take on form through incarnations, icons, and in visualization mainly to aid humanity's spiritual advancement.

Daoism's complex theology, cosmology, and animistic worldview would might reject the Abrahamic conception of idolatry as materialistic nihilism. As a life-affirming religion, the manifest world is not considered intrinsically evil. Furthermore, being an admittedly polytheistic religion, a criticism on grounds of idolatry is a non sequitur. Daoist icons are simultaneously much more than mere symbols yet not literally synonymous with the gods. Indeed, the monotheism which informs the taboo of idolatry would be regarded as a blasphemous anthropocentrism of the Dao, denying divinity from plural manifestation and personal immediacy in the world, hence a "deviant view" (xie2jian4/邪見).

Polytheistic views of idolatry (in general)

Adherents of polytheism and animism reject the charge of idolatry as an inaccurate description of their religious beliefs and practices. Polytheists generally do not believe that their statues (or other physical objects) are gods; rather, they are symbols of immaterial gods. Rather, they maintain that physical idols are simply the representational form of a divine deity — the act of "worship" is not for the object, but for the divinity that the object is believed to represent.

Polytheistic and Animistic beliefs that have given rise to the charge of idolatry include:

  • Certain objects or places have supernatural powers independent of God.
  • Prayer or rituals within the presence of certain objects or places are likelier to have an effect then when performed elsewhere.
  • Prayer is paid to images, paintings or statues of polytheistic pantheons, or to relics of polytheistic religious figures.

These beliefs are generally held to be at variance with monotheism, which holds that all power comes from God alone, and not from any other gods or agents. In such systems, "God" at best is only the stronger of many other gods, and thus God would not be omnipotent or omniscient.

Scholars of religion generally do not equate idolatry with polytheism, primarily because polytheists accused of idolatry usually do not have the beliefs ascribed to them. Specifically, most polytheists hold that their idols or icons are only symbols of the gods they worship, and these idols or icons do not possess supernatural powers.

See also


  • "Idolatry", article in "The Encyclopedia Judaica", Keter Publishing
  • Template:Cite journal
  • Template:Note label[[|Kaufman, Yehezkel]], The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile {{{author}}}, The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, University of Chicago Press, University of Chicago Press, , ISBN 0226427285.
  • "Judaism and the Varieties of Idolatrous Experience" by Bary S. Kogan in Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992
  • "Judaism and Idolatry: In Defense of Images" by Elliot N. Dorff in Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992
  • Template:Note label[[|Brownson, Orestes Augustus]], Saint Worship and the Worship of Mary {{{author}}}, Saint Worship and the Worship of Mary, Sophia Institute Press, Sophia Institute Press, 2004, ISBN 1-928832-88-1.


External links