Idolatry and Christianity

February 20, 2007
Dileep Yogi

Alamgir Hussain in his article "Islam is in Desperate Need of a Little Bit of Idolatry" on Desicritics.org states

Although the Jews and Christian can hardly be called idolaters in the real sense of it, the true idolaters remain to be the Hindus, Taoist and Buddhists etc.

I completely admire Alamgir Hussain for his view on the Islamic perspective of idolatry, a view that he has derived through a rationalistic and realistic approach on the religion of Islam without any bias. I feel that he has a valid point in his assessment of the subject of Islam vs. Idolatry.

But the above quote is where I would definitely disagree. When it comes to Christians and Christianity, as per my understanding of the history of the evolution of Christianity, it ignites another thought on idolatry vs. Christianity. I also differ when it comes to Hindus and Hinduism per my view of the Hindu religion on idolatry vs. Hinduism. I will concentrate on "Christianity and Idolatry" in this article and will concentrate on "Hinduism and Idolatry" in a subsequent article.

Ever since the apostles of Jesus and the later converted Jews and pagans began preaching his religion, which broke out of Judaism probably out of a thirst in a section of the Jews for a reformation in the Judaic religion, Iconodulia and Idolatry were being injected into the Christian religion and Christian psyche. The best instance of this injection of idolatry into Christianity would be the veneration of cross and crucifix as religious symbols. Catholic encyclopedia begins the article "Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix" as follows.

"The sign of the cross, represented in its simplest form by a crossing of two lines at right angles, greatly antedates, in both the East and the West, the introduction of Christianity. It goes back to a very remote period of human civilization. In fact, some have sought to attach to the widespread use of this sign, a real ethnographic importance. It is true that in the sign of the cross the decorative and geometrical concept, obtained by a juxtaposition of lines pleasing to the sight, is remarkably prominent; nevertheless, the cross was originally not a mere means or object of ornament, and from the earliest times had certainly another — i.e. symbolico-religious — significance. The primitive form of the cross seems to have been that of the so-called "gamma" cross (crux gammata), better known to Orientalists and students of prehistoric archæology by its Sanskrit name, swastika."

Contrary to the skeptics of the Christian faith, the hangman's noose might not have been an icon of Christianity had Jesus been hanged, nor the headman's axe had he been beheaded, nor the stake had he been burned at stake - but only the pagan cross.

The cross was an instrument of execution in the Roman world; a mode of execution that the Greeks borrowed from the Persians and later the Romans borrowed from the Greeks. But the fact that the original Greek word 'stauros' used in the canonical gospels hardly means a crux in Latin or its English equivalent cross, but a stake or an upright pole on which slaves and non-Romans were impaled, not crucified, makes this skepticism completely justifiable.

For the first three centuries of the Christian era, the cross was in no way a religious symbol for Christianity but still an instrument of execution in the Roman world for the severest crimes of those times along with a stake or an upward pole. The takeover of the cross by Christianity as its central most religious idol from Paganism for the initiative of Constantine, the pagan emperor of Rome on whose will Christianity ironically triumphed, makes it obvious that idolatry has been a mode to express devotion for Christians and Christianity since then.

The same applies to other icons of Christianity too, whether it be the holy Trinity or the Eucharist or the concept of the virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus or even the entire concept of the mother of god. Trinity as an icon that Christianity embraced from paganism has always been a theme of debate and dispute as would prove the existence of Pneumatomachi (Greek for 'combaters against spirit', the third person of the holy trinity) in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.

The Christian Eucharist, known to common masses as "holy mass", and its relation to the Eucharist of Mithraism, the ancient Persian religion which was once virtually the official religion of Rome, might have irrationally been disputed by second century Christian apologists such as Tertullian and Justine Martyr; the fundamental claim being that the similarities between the evolving Christian faith and the existing Pagan faiths were diabolical.

But the Eucharist as a way to materialize the passion of Christ, for the unrealistically deeper and realistically superficial divisions between the different Christian denominations over its substantial aspects (catholic position is Transubstantiation and Lutheran position is Consubstantiation), its theological perspectives and metaphysical overtones has been, for the critics of Christianity a primary focus as a materialistic reward to the devotee for the materialist devotion, comparing the same to its pagan counterparts.

The virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is another overt and virtual idolatry that Christianity derived through its connection to the pagans and their religions. But rather than the connection of Mary's virginity to the pagan concept of the virginity of the mother of a god, it is the dogmatic conclusion that Christianity reached that is the subject of significance here.

For the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodoxy, Mary's virginity is one of its dogmas and the same is perpetual virginity, a proclamation that the Church adopted in the Lateran Council held in CE 649, that Mary was ever virgin, a virgin before, a virgin during, and a virgin after the birth of Jesus ("ante partum, in partu, post partum"). The implication of the concept of the "in partu virginity" of Mary the Immaculate having been that her hymen was preserved intact while bearing Jesus, a position later reasserted in the early periods of reformation, Christianity finally ended up in iconizing the hymen of our lady, Mother Mary!

This process of iconization of Christianity, a process that lasted the entire first millennium, had never been without objection and struggle, never been as peaceful as the message of Christ. But there were instances in the history of Christianity, where this iconodulia, which is self contradictory to the very basic essence of Abrahamic faith, was subject to violent and intolerant resistance and reversal up to a certain extend.

However, this attempt to de-iconize the religion of Christ could not succeed. Besides the support that the iconoclasts enjoyed from the then Byzantine emperors, perhaps for the devotional fulfillment that mortals enjoy in attaching visible and materialistic entities to the invisible and non- materialistic, immortal god.

Islam was the catalyst for the Byzantine iconoclasts in infringing the law of veneration of the images and idols. Islam being more aniconic than Christianity was influential enough to excite the iconoclasts, but this elementary inspiration of Islam from the east could not be influential enough to eradicate the elements of iconization from Christianity, nor could it have transformed Christianity as aniconic and as iconoclastic as Islam.

But iconodulic Christianity went ahead, condemned iconoclasm an heresy, reinstated the iconization of its important figures in the ecumenical council held in Nicaea in AD 787, a remarkable victory for the iconodules, rewarding the iconoclasts the eternity of hell fire.

This eighth century iconoclasm was not the last effort in de-iconizing the Christian religion, but was followed by another one eight centuries later, when reformationists attacked and destroyed Roman Catholic idols and icons. But Luther justified the use of religious images as long as they were not venerated.

The transformation of the religion of the "anointed one" from being a pure Abrahamic religion to a Greco-Roman religion was accompanied by iconization as well.

On the evil of idolatry, Christianity has placed itself in a hypocritical and conflicting position, wherein claims of being aniconic for its Abrahamic genus and at the same time being iconic for the pagan adoption; being exclusive and dogmatic for the former, justifying the latter as just an honorification of its key figures and saints; as just a means to spark the memory of these figures in the minds of its followers, for the earthly way to attaining the heavenly salvation.

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Idolatry and Christianity


Author: Dileep Yogi


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Phillip Winn
February 20, 2007
03:46 PM

Interesting thoughts, Dileep. I'm grateful for your perspective as an outsider. As a Christian, I'm quite bothered by a tendency to idolatry within Christianity as well.

I actually think that idolatry is part of human nature. That is, I believe that all (or most, at least) people seek out idols, though most people don't call them idols. In the Jewish Torah or Christian Old Testament, we see that the people of God repeatedly turned away from Him in favor of idols they could see and touch, and I don't think people in the Jewish and Christian faiths have done much better since.

As you hint in your article, there were actually wars fought over iconography in early Christian history before the issue was theoretically "settled" by a church council. Still today some Christians believe that icons (aka statues or paintings) and crosses and things like that are idols, while other Christians do not.

It is an interesting issue indeed.

February 20, 2007
07:19 PM

interesting read. this is the first time I see idolatry being discussed. thanks for the blog!

Is there a conflict between idolatry and superstition? Can symbols be useful for other purposes without having to embrace "out of control" irrational belief systems.

Dileep Yogi
February 21, 2007
12:59 AM

Dear Phillip Winn,

I feel my name as well as my nationalty (Indian) have misled you, I am a Roman Catholic of Indian ethnicity. But still you can say that my views are as an outsider as I have tried to be as impartial as possible. You may or may not agree with my views but it is not and should not be about the religion to which one belongs but about the freedom of thought and critical analysis.


February 22, 2007
04:12 AM

beautifully written. just last wee, I was having a discussion with a friend about the "non-idolating" muslims who "idolate" the khaba stone!! the human psyche is comfortable to "perceive" form until the formless is experienced.

Alamgir Hussain
February 23, 2007
10:18 AM

Thanks Dilip. As a freethinker, I probably cannot grasp some of the finer points, yet others are of little interest to me. However, idolatrous polytheism is the foundation of monotheism and it is difficult to dissociate the mother from the child. Having said, a little bit of idolatry have always been good, history's the witness. Concentrating power to one hand causes tyranny, without failure.

February 23, 2007
03:33 PM

Nice post, Dileep. The religions that have been able to blend philosophy, rituals and idols in the right proportions have shown staying power throughout history. It's less to do with religion and more to do with the people trying to absorb it as most commentators have noted. Great reading!

September 6, 2007
09:24 AM

If a person thinks about another person (for example movie star) all the time, but acknowledges that the person is below god, is that idolatry ?

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