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In layman’s terms, the word “idolatry” can be defined as “the worship of an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.” An “idol” can then be defined as “an object of extreme devotion,” “a likeness of something,” “a false concept”—or simply stated, a false god.

The practice of, or belief in, the avoiding or shunning of images of divine beings, prophets, or other respected religious figures is known as aniconism. The destruction of religious images within a culture, of which there have been many major episodes throughout the course of history, is called iconoclasm.

Idolatry and Religious Beliefs

idolatry Elijah

Religious idolatry is strongly forbidden in all the Abrahamic religions. However, views and opinions as to what exactly constitutes idolatry may differ between the different religions, which in some instances causes considerable contention. In religions other than Abrahamic religions, the use of cult images or idols is accepted without question. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. Man commits idolatry whenever he honours and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods, or demons (for example satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money etc. (Catechism of The Catholic Church, passage 2113, p. 460, Geoffrey Chapman, 1999).

In Judaism, idolatry may basically be defined as performing an “act of worship toward any created thing, to believe that a particular created thing is an independent power, or to make something a mediator between ourselves and the Almighty.” [1] Therefore, Jewish law teaches that it is considered a high insult to God to worship one of His creations either instead of Him or in conjunction with Him. That teaching extends to the non-Israelite nations in that they are forbidden to worship anything other than God Almighty. In short, “Judaism holds that any beliefs or practices which significantly interfere with a Jew's relationship with God may, at some point, be deemed idolatry.” [2]

A religion such as Hinduism, on the other hand, openly invites all forms of worship. Therefore, it neither prescribes nor totally rejects the idea of idol worship. “Each individual icon thus becomes to the Hindu worshiper a complex statement of faith and every detail may be a focus of meditation and spiritual insight.”[3]

The Christian view of idolatry may generally be divided into two general categories, the Catholic/Orthodox view (which accepts the use of religious icons and other images) and the Protestant view. Fundamentalist Protestants still often accuse these other Christians of idolatry, iconolatry, and even paganism for failing to "cleanse their faith" of the use of images; in the Protestant Reformation such language was common to all Protestants. Puritan groups adopted a view similar to Judaism (as a result they were accused of Judaizing), denouncing all forms of religious objects, whether in three-dimensional or two-dimensional form, including even a plain cross (Richardson, R. C. (1972). Puritanism in north-west England: a regional study of the diocese of Chester to 1642. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. p. 26).

The main problem in deciphering and discerning what is classified as idolatry and what is not, seems to stem from the various interpretations of the Ten Commandments. Of particular discussion are the verses of scripture found in the Old Testament Book of Exodus. In Exodus 20:3–6 are recorded these words:

3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
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:
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Modern Day Idols—What or Whom We Worship

In the modern day vernacular, man has many idols which he places in higher esteem than the True and the Living God. In fact, many of those man-made things (idols) such as homes, cars, careers, social status, fine apparel, college degrees, fame, and lavish possessions have in essence become the gods of some people. They sacrifice greatly to have such things and make those things the center of their life. “Their land is [also] full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made” (2 Nephi 12:8, Book of Mormon). Yes, these are they who having heard “go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection” (See Luke 8:14.) In the Book of Mormon (a comparable volume of scripture to the Holy Bible and thus Another Testament of Jesus Christ) the pointed question is asked, “Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?” (Mormon 8:39). Indeed this is a question which leaves many wondering, wandering souls weighing in the balances as far as being able to render a satisfactory answer. In answering that question, they must also give an answer to a few other questions that are put before them:

O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God? Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of Christ? Why do ye not think that greater is the value of an endless happiness than that misery which never dies—because of the praise of the world? (Mormon 8:38).

The warning given by Isaiah the prophet is ever so pertinent to us today, “They shall be ashamed, and also confounded, all of them: they shall go to confusion together that are makers of idols” (Isaiah 45:16). The Lord Himself has said,

They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16).