Religion as Idolatry: A Theist's Perspective

This past week, in a small corner of the news there was information about a bombing of a Church in a small community near Arusha, Tanzania.  Several locals along with a handful of Saudi nationals have been arrested as responsible.  The target apparently was the Archbishop of Arusha, a man whom I know personally and whose installation I attended some years back in Tanzania.  Many innocent people were hurt, who were just gathered as a community to dedicate a new church building they had labored on.  I guess it was viewed as Christianity encroaching on an Islamic area or some such, rather than as a group of ordinary people gathering in shared community.

I thought it might be something worth reflecting on here, because I think it shows some things that I as a theist share with many thoughtful people here.   Together we would look at the event in East Africa with a mix of pain and anger, and say "look what religion hath wrought!".  The targeting of others; the death of innocents.

We would be right, together.  While religion, particularly the religions of the Book teach against idolatry, we theists too often forget that religion itself can be an idol.   Of course we humans can turn just about anything into idols or symbols of tribal identity; urban American youth for a time were committing violence over colored bandanas (any Babylon 5 fans out there remember the Drazi?).  Religion, however, can be a more potent idol than gang colors, and occasionally one up there with fame, political power, money, and perhaps even tribe/nation which is often the ultimate idol.

For me, I can see the idolatry in religion when people talk more about religion than they do about God; when they care more about purity of doctrine than they care about people and communities.  Those misguided and dare I say "evil" Islamists who committed the atrocity of bombing a church were turning religion into idolatry, elevating Islam above Allah, doctrine above people.   My own Church is certainly not immune.  With an institutional hierarchy, it's easy to fall into idolatry of religion as well as idolatry of fame/position/political power.  Our history is the tale of that sort of thing competing with constant calls for reform by individual holy people who care more about God.  That is the tale told by the Bible as well, over and over again.

There's a funny set of stories in the Old Testament.  In one, God tells Moses to make a brass serpent to cure people of snakebite.  Years later, the brass serpent is hanging up in the Temple and people are worshiping it, so God tells Hezekiah to smash the thing because it's become an idol.  Even good things can be turned to bad things when we hold on to them too tightly, and the critique of religion offered here has genuine merit.

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Comment by kOrsan on May 10, 2013 at 8:50pm

There's a funny set of stories in the Old Testament. 

The Bible is full of funny stories. In one, God sends his only son down to earth to die for the sins of the people he inflicted them on to begin with so he can forgive them. Years later, people are worshiping this son, so God sent someone to bomb a church.

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on May 10, 2013 at 9:17pm

Unfortunately it is not just in the past week that this form of religious intolerance has reared its ugly head. It has been going on for a few thousand years. I posted this adage by Voltaire earlier “as long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities”. 

Yes, people will act just as badly when it comes to Nationalism or some other cause or over some perceived differences with others. But religion is the cause and has been the cause for centuries of much of the violence on this planet of ours. While there are many good and honourable people within its ranks they would become better people if they could see it for the poison it is that most of us Atheists see it as. Even when these crimes are politically motivated they are often justified in the name of their god.

I am always amazed at the lack of condemnation for such barbarity by the elders of any religion. It does not matter whose god is bigger or better when they are all imaginary to start with.

Comment by Jimmy Russell on May 11, 2013 at 1:37am

I always liked the funny one about how God inflicts pain and suffering on one of his my loyal subjects just to prove to the devil how loyal he infact is.  Can't wait for the screen play. 

Comment by Sagacious Hawk on May 11, 2013 at 3:54am

I was always interested in the way that Christianity changed the worshiping of idols to a metaphorical act. Historically, those idols were gods of neighboring local pantheons and even included Yahweh and his wife, Asherah, prior to the return from the Exile. It was after their return from Babylon that they actually became a monotheistic culture that destroyed all previous idols of other gods.

I guess in a world where there are no more pagan religions to be wary against, it was only a matter of time before such idolatry became non-physical. I wonder if there is a specific moment we can point to where the meme came from? I'll have to look into that.

@Belle Rose:

I've heard many theists say the old line, "If you don't worship the Creator, you'll worship the Created." - This is bull-pucky. We can all agree of the atrocities of religion but our basis for believing how those atrocities come about are two completely different world views. I could see you arguing that it is because of our sinful nature. Therefore we must be cleansed by accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior...Yes, I know. WE however would say that humans are capable and should be expected to rise above such horrible actions by taking personal responsibility both for themselves AND for those around them.

Excellent answer! I like it.

Comment by Suzanne Olson-Hyde on May 11, 2013 at 5:40am
@Prof Bob - They weren't an ordinary group of people gathered in shared community. They were catholics, in a catholic church, two groups fighting over territory, my religion is better than your religion. Nothing else. Really sad if any Atheists got caught in the melee.

You take your chances when different religions intrude on some other religions territory. They invariably become violent.

Continuing your thought - we are but human, therefore we sin, therefore we must repent, and this line of thinking excuses all the atrocities in the name of religions, in this case the catholic church. AKA Pedophilia, which in some countries is not thought of as a crime by a priest or whatever, but a disorder, in need of treatment. Bad luck they didn't do just that, take them out of the system, instead of shunting them around or paying off victims to shut up, and by the way, sign a confidentiality agreement to never bring the subject up again.
Comment by TheyCallMeDave on May 11, 2013 at 6:47am

You're a fan of Babylon 5? Well Get the hell out of our galaxy!

Comment by Dale Headley on May 11, 2013 at 9:51pm

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.  -  Physicist, Steven Weinberg

Comment by Simon Paynton on May 12, 2013 at 6:02pm

@Sarah -

"Would it be selfish to want revenge? Or would that be natural?

I like this, I don't know how true it really is: 

To seek vengeance is to seek destruction. 

and definitely

Success is the best revenge. 

What's the difference between revenge and punishment?  Punishment is part of the Golden Rule.  We say, if you treat me well (cooperate) then I will reward you by treating you well in return.  If you treat me badly then I will punish you by withdrawing my cooperation in some way.  Do we always want to do this?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Sometimes we forgive. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on May 12, 2013 at 6:06pm

And sometimes, the offender punishes himself: my silent strength will turn his own weakness against him.  He's looking to play out some script, an old game: if I don't join in then he has to deal with the real issues. 

Comment by Simon Paynton on May 12, 2013 at 6:14pm

I agree with what Prof Robert says.  That's why fundamentalism is such a good idea.  The problem with what passes for fundamentalism most of the time however is that it's pure idolatry. 

We haven't gone far enough with fundamentalism in my opinion - too few people have got down to the nitty-gritty.  That's precisely why there is so much idolatry - people are just confused about what's important. 


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