The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Idolatry is a term used by many religions to describe the worship of a false deity, which is an affront to their understanding of divinity. Many religions consider the beliefs or practices of other religions to be idolatrous.

The concept of giving worship to icons or images is called iconolatry. However, the term "idolatry" only rarely refers to the worshipping of physical idols.



The word idolatry comes 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. 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".

"The Adoration of the Golden Calf" by Nicolas Poussin
"The Adoration of the Golden Calf" by Nicolas Poussin

Idolatry in many forms

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 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 money 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.

Idolatry in the Hebrew Bible

The commandments in the Hebrew Bible against idolatry are rejoinders to the beliefs and practices of the ancient polytheistic religions of the ancient near-east and middle-east. Specifically, the Bible makes rejoinders against the religions of ancient Akkad, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.

Many polytheistic ancient near-eastern and middle-eastern religions had a set of practices which the Israelites found horribly immoral, such as orgiastic sex rites; cultic male Censored page; cultic female prostitution; passing a child through a fire; 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)
  • even the use of idols in the worship of God, the one deity worshipped by the Israelites.

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. 4:25, 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 average person's tendency to accept 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).

Biblical terms for idolatry

The Bible has many terms for idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which filled the writers of the Bible. 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 outlaw such practices and beliefs in either form.

Many historians of religions agree with Yehezkel Kaufman's study, which holds that the Biblical authors interpreted idolatry in its most literal form: according to the Bible, most idolators really believed that their idols were gods. Kaufman holds that the Biblical authors made an error in assuming that all idolatry was of this type. Instead, Kaufman holds that most idolators only believed that their idols were 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, refer to the story in 1 Kings 18:27 [8]
, where the Hebrew prophet Elijah ridicules the priests of Baal atop of Mount Carmel. The pagan priests beseeched their god without the use of an idol, clearly indicating that Baal was not an idol, but rather one of the polytheistic gods that merely could be worshipped through the use of an idol. For Kaufman, these recognitions are the exception, not the rule, and are of little importance.

Orestes Brownson ¹ 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.

Were ancient Israelites ever henotheistic?

Were ancient Israelites ever henotheistic? According to many modern scholars of religion, some of the narratives in Genesis presuppose monotheism, while others presuppose henotheism.

Idolatry in Jewish thought

Main article Idolatry in Judaism

Judaism strongly prohibits any form of idolatry. Judaism 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.

Christian views of idolatry

Main article Idolatry in Christianity

The Christian view of idolatry is inherited from Judaism; Islam adopted a similar view. 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.

Some Christians hold that idoltary is not so much the cause of sin, as it is a symptom of a deeper deviation from God. Thus deviation can be removed by abandoning idolatrous beliefs and worshipping Jesus as God and messiah.

Classical Christian theology requires proselytizing, the spreading of the faith by gaining converts by use of missionaries. This often caused hostile relationships with pagan religions.

Christian proselytism also was aimed at Jews, but for separate reasons; Christians do not believe that Jews are idolatrous, but rather gravely mistaken in not accepting Jesus as their God and messiah.

Many Christians held that the Jewish adherence to their Torah and related Jewish law was effectively a form of idolatry, separating the people from God.

Muslim views of idolatry

Main article Shirk (idolatry)

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 and idolatry

It appears that Exodus 36:35 And he made a veil of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen: with cherubim made he it of cunning work. is evidence enough to show that Exodus 20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth is not to be taken literaly - indeed that it is laudable to make likenesses of cherubim for instance, so long as one does not make the mistake of worshipping them rather than YHVH. In Exodus 20:3 there is reference to false gods, reinforcing the non-plural stance of the Abrahamic religions.

So, though the Philonic interpretation of the Decalogue splits Exodus 20:3-4, the other standard interpretations do not do so. In this case, it seems just to say that the term idolatry is a misnomer (or blind) in that even a simple interpretation of Exodus makes it clear that it is not so much the graven image or idol, but the worship of anything other than YHVH which is condemned. In a broader sense, a reasonable interpretation of this portion of the Decalogue would be Do not be heterodox, or as mentioned in the etymology above, Do not practice "avodah zarah" (foreign worship), more simply, for Abrahamics, idolatry is the worship of anything or being other than YHVH.

It follows that the non-abrahamic religious (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Shinto and so on) are idolators (according to Abrahamics), not for having statues in their temples, but for worshipping or revering beings that are not YHVH. Likewise, many Hindus have mutual feeling and have a similar term by calling such followers of the Abrahamic religions as yavanas and mlecchas , which mean infidels. Many Hindus considered those not following the Vedic path to be barbarians and infidels.

Even Buddhists are deemed idolators (though they have no god to worship) not because they have statues in their temples, (which they do not worship, having no object of worship), but merely because Buddhism is heterodox to Abrahamics, and outside of the Abrahamic religious project.

Common responses to the idolatry badge are generally focused on the 'graven image' blind, rather than the more general instruction against foreign worship. Typically, the responses focus on the identification of representations of God within the Abrahamic traditions: in statue, painting, text, word, or thought. However, as it is quite apparent that Exodus 20:4 must be accepted interpretively, most responses are rendered inapplicable.

For those that do not accept the need to interpret Exodus 20:4, there are many problems to do with attaching the term 'idolatry' to the claim of, for instance, Hindus who respect beliefs of Jews and Muslims as viewing God without form, which they characterize as Nirguna Brahman; more so those Buddhists, who claim that representing the ineffable in any sense - even conceptually - cannot lead to liberation; (Buddha was famously silent about the existence or non-existence of God, and asserted that worshipping God is not a method to achieve Nirvana).

Hindu views of idolatry

Hinduism is not one religion, but rather is the set of indigenous religions that together constitute the religious hertiage of people from India and nearby regions. Ancient forms of Hinduism were polytheistic. This is not so different from charactertizations in the Bible. Jews initially held Yahweh as a tribal god before elevating Yahweh to be the God of all. The Vedas had many hymns to devas,(i.e., gods in Western terminiology) which are not to be confused with God. Furthermore, some Hindu sects focus on the Hindu Agamas, another form of sacred literature, which instead focus on monotheistic forms of God such as Vishnu, Shiva or Devi.

Over time, many of these forms of Hinduism slowly evolved into henotheistic, monist and monotheistic forms. Eventually most forms of Hinduism taught that a singular entity, i.e., Brahman is the source of all creation. Contemporary Hinduism really 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. The murti concept has often been criticized as idolatrous by the Semitic religions, when in fact Hindus do not worship idols, rather they use these murtis as a way to focus on God. However, some Hindu sects like Arya 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.

It is interesting to note that just as the Semitic faiths called worshippers of non-Semitic faiths to be 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 , which mean infidels. Many Hindus considered those not following the Vedic path to be barbarians and infidels.

So the conclusion is that the feeling for others' beliefs is mutual and perhaps nationalistic. Such a thinking may have led Chaitanya for reversing the words, Hare Rama, Hare Krishna to Hare Krishna, Hara Rama, when he taught the mantra to non-Hindus. Many Brahmins find it offensive to teach such a sacred mantra to outsiders and such a mantra phrase change would less offend their sensibilities. Many also considered the teaching of the Censored page mantra to outside the Brahmin community to be prohibited. These views can be a minority viewpoint but it is important to note that bigotry and intolerance are widespread throughout the world.

(An alternative view follows) From a Hindu point of view, Hindus would consider the Abrahmanic God (Yahweh) to be the same as Narayana. Furthermore, Muslims, Christians and Jews all supposedly worship the same God yet Jews wouldn't consider Allah to be equivalent to Yahweh even though Muslims believe that Yahweh and Allah are the same God. The same goes with Christians and Jews. All paths to God are different but equivalent. As the Vedas state, "Truth is one, the wise call by different names."

Additionally, Sikhs are not idolators either as they have similarities with Abrahmanic religions as their religion has both Muslim and Hindu influences even though Sikhism is a separate and independent religion. Many in fact state that Sikhism is an Abrahmanic religion and Sikhs would be offended to be labeled idolators. (please see wikpedia article.)

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 Buddhist as 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 Dominicans 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 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 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 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.

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

anthropocentrism, ethnocentrism, religious pluralism, sociology

References and footnotes

  • "Idolatry", article in "The Encyclopedia Judaica", Keter Publishing
  • "The Worship of the Golden Calf: A Literary Analysis of a Fable on Idolatry" Herbert Chanan Brichto in Hebrew Union College Annual, Volume 54, 1983.
  • "The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonin Exile" Yehezkel Kaufman, translated by Moshe Greenberg, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960
  • "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
  • 1Orestes Brownson, Saint Worship, p. 116, Sophia Institute Press
  • 2See The Shroud of Turin Story
  • 3"Whether the adoration of latria is to be given to the image of Christ? "

Last updated: 02-02-2005 05:01:59
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01