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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K3575-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2015
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

The use of material images of various gods (idols) in religious worship has a long history and a central place in the polytheistic religions of the ancient world. The worship of these gods is strictly prohibited in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This practice is generally referred to as idolatry. In addition, the making of images of the one God along with the use of such images in worship is also considered idolatry within these three monotheistic faiths. In the ancient societies within which Judaism, Christianity and, later, Islam emerged, almost all aspects of life were touched by the presence of idols. For a Jew (particularly in the diaspora) or a Christian to faithfully negotiate one’s way through the activities of daily life in such a world required sustained attentiveness and resolve.

Over time, idolatry became more generally and metaphorically associated with ideas, motivations, beliefs and commitments that draw believers’ attention away from God. In some instances in Christianity, idolatry simply becomes a synonym for sin.

Although it is not common today for Jews, Christians or Muslims to worship fabricated images of their own or other gods, some of the ongoing philosophical and theological issues concern how God’s creation can manifest the invisible God. In what ways, if any, can the created world mediate God truthfully to humans? Can such things as icons be instrumental in the worship of the one God without that worship being idolatrous? In recent French phenomenological writing, some of these issues receive attention.

Although these concerns may seem distant from those of the Bible and Quran, they share a common recognition that idolatry stems from a failure of attentiveness, an inability or unwillingness to focus one’s attention and desire upon God in the face of myriad distractions.

Citing this article:
Fowl, Stephen. Idolatry, 2015, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K3575-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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