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Idolatry is a term of religion describing the worship of a false divine entity rather than a true diety. Naturally, different religions may perceive anothers' rituals of worship as idolatrous, given that cultural divergence causes the perception of meaningful difference between concepts of worship and deity. All religions nonetheless claim it to be important that one avoids what it considers idolatrous, because such practice is believed to interfere with the search for and obedience to the "true God."

Table of contents
1 The idol
2 Etymology
3 Comparative religion
4 Idolatry in the Hebrew Bible
5 Christian views of idolatry
6 Muslim views of idolatry
7 Eastern religious views of Idolatry
8 Polytheistic views of idolatry (in general)
9 See also
10 Other meanings of idolatry and idol
11 References and footnotes

The idol

The term "idol" need not imply a physical object, such as an icon or statue; because the purpose of an act of worship is to bring one into connection with divinity or spirituality; that which generates confusion in this seeking may be called an idol. Examples might include an attachment to a materialist of egocentric value-concept such as country (nationalism, perhaps), money, or fame. Critics of religion or ritual often claim that divinity and worship themselves can become idols, according to the common dictates of the religion itself.

Traditional interpretations of Islam and Judaism usually consider the term "idols" as referring to physical objects or works of art that attempt to symbolise God. The concept of giving undue worship to icons or images may be referred to as iconolatry. The term idolatry and its root words have other uses as well.


The word idolatry comes from the Greek word eidololatria, which is 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. The term is also lacking 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. There are many Hebrew terms for idolatry such as avodah zarah, "foreign worship", and avodat kochavim umazalot, "worship of planets and constellations".

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Comparative religion

Philosophers of comparative religion deal with an understanding of the religious views of "idolatry," as 'that which interferes with a direct spiritual relationship with God, but often note and explore how the differences between religious perceptions of idolatry are largely factors of misunderstanding and perception. In the context of historical research, and with a historical perspective toward the meager aspects of the ancient human condition, the subjective and thin cultural differences that constitute the pejorative of "idolatry" are easily seen as relative.

Idolatry in the Hebrew Bible

Main article Idolatry in Judaism

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. 4:25, they see no shape or form. Many verses in the Bible use literary anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God's mighty hand, God's finger, etc.) but these verses are traditionally interpreted as poetic images rather than literal descriptions.

Idolatry is prohibited by many verses in the Hebrew Bible. 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 the worship of idols (or images); the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images) and even the use of idols in the worship of God, the one deity worshipped by the Israelites.

Christian views of idolatry

Main article Idolatry in Christianity

The Christian view toward what is considered idolatry and idol, is largely inherited from monotheist Judaism; Islam adopted a similar view as well, albeit with differences. But Christianity brought what is considered a more relaxed view on matters of law than a strict interpretation of Hebrew scripture dictated. This is seen by Christians not as a deviation from Jewish traditions, but an deeper understanding of the law in the context of human life and a "personal relationship" with God. Thus, in the Christian view, the idol and its worship is not so much the cause of sin, as it is a symptom of a deeper deviation from God; one which can 'be reconciled through Christ,' or after which man 'can be redeemed by the Holy Spirit.'

Paul of Tarsus would later interpret Jesus' teachings in a culturally inclusive way; one that tends to somewhat overlook the stereotypical earmarks of "idolatry," and defines Christianity as a universalist religion. This led also to the proselytizing and missionary (or conversion) aspect of Christianity, which could often cause a hostile relationship with pagan religions, rather than inclusive one. Christian proselytism would also at times have anti-Judaist aims for converting Jews, under the claim that the apparent Jewish exclusion of salvation, among other things, made a reverence for the written law a kind of idolatry. Islam and Christianity would also quarrel with each other but on a much larger scale, due to their mutual universalism and (often hostile) designs on conversion.

Muslim views of idolatry

Main article Shirk

Islam forbids idolatry and polytheism. Most sects of Islam forbid any artistic depictions of human figures, 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.

Eastern religious views of Idolatry

The Bible's discussion of paganism does not directly discuss the religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism; however, these religions have often been held to be idolatry by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Adherents of these faiths deny this characetrization of their religions.

A very small minority view holds that the symbols of the monotheistic Western religions are counterparts to the polytheistic figures of some Eastern religions. For example, some Buddhists consider the Catholic saints, as well as Jesus, to be examples of bodhisattvas. Some early Catholic missionaries believed that Guan Yin was a Chinese version of the Virgin Mary.

Hindu views of idolatry

Ancient forms of Hinduism were henotheistic and monist, though debates continue. Hinduism has never been polytheistic, however, as it has always held that a singular entity is the source of all. 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", or "gods") represent different aspects of one natural power, or more accurately, a singular being-non-being Brahman. 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. Some Hindu sects like Arya Samaj do not believe in veneration or worshipping statues. 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 excercise). Some Hindu sects like ISKCON will only consent to worship of icons that they consider the supreme God or its avatars.

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.

Buddhist views of idolatry

The question of whether Buddhism, 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 Dominicanss who argued that Buddhism 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 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 unconditioned, unmade; formless) that the Enlightened One would enter. This tradition partly grew and developed dramatically from the influence of Greek sculpture accidentally by Alexander the Great, who by trade introduced Greek statuary into what is now Afghanistan, from which the practice spread eastward to influence other religious art. 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 ones life (or the life of another) to rescue a statue, let alone worship one.

Polytheistic views of idolatry (in general)

Adherents of polytheism and animism reject the charge of idolatry, often from monotheists, 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 maintian 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. The traditionally Western view of Eastern religion or Earth religion's ("pagan") "idol-worshipping" is still often misunderstood.

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

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

anthropocentrism ethnocentrism religious pluralism sociology

Other meanings of idolatry and idol

For psychology, "idolatry" may be the philosophical and religious antecedent of attachment theory, which refers to the problems that develop in attributing exaggerated importance to symbols, which is thought to lead to a state of crippling "attachment." 'Putting something upon a pedestal' is a relevant idiom.

The term idol is also commonly used in various non-religious senses; see idol.

References and footnotes