19 February 2006



Imagine there is a religion, let's call it R. And this religion has a deity which we can call D. Now, D has a number of attributes, in fact an infinite number of attributes, which we can label A1, A2, A3.....Ainf. Some of these attributes are that D, is unique, is infinitely good, wise, generous, caring, loving, that D created us, and that D can help us with our needs.

Imagine also that there are a group of people, P1 P2,....P+n, with n being an arbitrary large number. Some of the attributes of P are that they have limited knowledge, intelligence, limited capacity to meet their needs, limited means of acquiring knowledge, the bulk of information is obtained through sense perception and they feel pain.

Now, some members of P claim to represent D or to have a direct access to D. In most cases an average P would know about D through one of these special members of society; let's call them M for messengers of the Deity. M's are responsible for our knowledge that D created us, that D can care for us and so on. An important fact to take into account is that a person in this society does not have direct access to this deity.

Knowledge about D is based on faith and not on the standards usually applied to knowledge within this society. Furthermore, various messengers have decreed that belief in D is mandatory, that D has set out a number of laws for society to follow and that only the messengers have been trusted to convey and interpret these laws. Some of these laws say that members of the society have to worship D and thank D for giving them life. Members of the society have to pray to D when they need something, for example good health. Finally, there are no objective tests that can be applied to verify the truth or veracity of what the messengers say.

Given the supposed limited capacity of the average member of society to acquire knowledge about D and the lack of direct access to their deity, a number of systems of communication have been evolved to convey the idea of D. The main systems of representation are the following. The most direct form is of course other members being appointed as representatives of D, i.e. the messengers themselves. An other system is that of writing the teachings of supposed teachings of D in some form of book or document. The third system is to paint an image representing D. Usually in the context of some event, for example, a painting representing D creating the first person on Earth. The fourth system is to represent the figure of D in stone, or clay or whatever. This last system is the closest we have to a representation of D in solid form, but for our purposes I will included with images.

Most people with a normal capacity to classify and distinguish entities would recognize that a painting representing D is not D themselves. A photo of our pet gerbil is not the same as our gerbil. However, there are those who, for some unknown reason, do believe that a painting of D is D. So, if I carry a photo of my pet gerbil with me, I'd be carrying my gerbil with me. Believing that a painting of D is D is what idolatry is all about. And as a consequence if we believe this we would be believing that it is the painting that created us and that is responsible for our well being. So, when we thank D for creating us and to help us with our needs we would be thanking a painting. Hence idolatry. An irrelevant side issue might be whether idolatry can also be practiced against the messengers as much as against the deity. Reason seems to suggest that there cannot be idolatry against the messengers on the grounds that a messenger is not the same as the deity. Furthermore, by the same standards set by R, there is no one more important than D.

Coming down back to Earth, what can we make of this?

The way human beings have developed means that sight is the most important means we have to acquire information. This does not mean that the other senses do not convey information, only that sight is the most efficient. By efficient I mean something like a good ratio between the amount of information conveyed, say per second or minute, and maybe the stability of the information over time. Thus, reading is more efficient than listening. Of course, other senses convey specialised information which sight cannot convey. So it's not that we use only sight to convey information, but that sight is the most efficient for us.

To demonstrate this we use written language today to convey the bulk of our knowledge and information. Of course, a lot of information is available today through recordings, radio, podcasting and even meetings. Television and cinema mix both images and sound to convey information. And even the written word is used very often with images. Paintings, drawings, sketches, cartoons and photos employ only sight to convey information. However, the written word is sometimes regarded by many to be a pictorial form of our concepts, information and knowledge. There is nothing absurd in saying that written language is a drawing of our thoughts, ideas, information, knowledge and concepts. For example, the hieroglyph is a form of early pictorial writing. A painting of a sunset and a description of a sunset are the same thing using different media. If we accept this position we must also accept the realistic possibility that books and images are logically equivalent. At least as far as paintings and books are sight based media to convey information.

If we choose to ban images and statues of D, because they might lead to idolatry, shouldn't we also ban writing about D on the same ground? Let's take a simple example: what's the difference between: ;-) and 'winking-smiley'? Both the pictogram and the words convey the same idea. Admittedly, we might use the pictogram in a different context from the words, but at the basic level they mean the same. Maybe a crude way of showing that pictures and words are the same, but, nevertheless, it makes the point.

There is, however, one basic difference between the images and writing. If we take a single character to mean a single piece of information than the pictogram is more efficient at conveying the concept we want to transmit. The pictogram takes three pieces of information against fourteen pieces of information to convey the basic idea. It is not our job to decide whether pictures are more efficient than words to convey messages, however, certain messages do seem to be conveyed much better as an image. Think of the emergency signs in a building, traffic signs or the latest fashions. This has an immediate implication for our topic, images can be very powerful, as we all know. It is, therefore, not unreasonable for a religion to want to control images.

However, other messages are much better conveyed in writing. Expressing our thoughts and feelings are better expressed in writing. Philosophy is a very good candidate for writing, but maybe not architecture. Of course, architecture also uses a different type of media i.e. mathematical formulae. Accounts of events over time are also better explained in writing than as a static image. However, those who ban images of D have to explain why they allow writings about D; if they do of course. Since both images and writing are capable of conveying idolatry information.

One of the probable reason why images and artefacts might lead to idolatry is because it is very difficult to depict metaphysical thoughts and ideas as images. How can we depict a deity we have never seen? Wouldn't it be more natural to depict a deity that was familiar to us? As
Descartes pointed out, it is very difficult to imagine something which we don't have experience of. So when we do try to depict a creature from out of this world we still end up with a creature that might look strange, but in reality is not that strange. A unicorn is no more that the idea of a straight horn attached to a white horse. It is quite reasonable to suppose that any attempt to depict a deity would end up with something quite ridiculous which at the very least can be a distraction from the real message of the religion.

Take one of the most infamous examples of idolatry in history: the golden calf made by the Jews in the desert. What's easier to identify with: a calf that represents food and energy or a deity, which you've never seen, that makes you walk an empty desert without any food or water? Isn't this the basis of the challenge idolatry represent to a religion? The easy way is not necessary the best way out. Believing that a painting is miraculous is much easier to comprehend than the idea of some abstract being no one can see, touch or speak to.

In the real world, religions deal with idolatry in many different ways. Some tolerate certain images but not others; some religions prescribe the images they allow and of course some religions do not allow images of any form or subject. However, we are really concerned with those religions that take idolatry to extremes.

However, why should we have this strong sense of a religion or a deity in us, in the first place? Before looking at religion, I'd like to look at a principle that seems to dominate our life. There is a tendency or propensity to assume that because something is good than we should or ought to do it. In and of itself, this is not a serious problem. It becomes a serious when we make the mistake of thinking that a necessary condition is a sufficient condition. In other words, that something is good for us becomes something we are obliged or even forced to do.

That we ought to do what is good for us goes without saying. In fact, I would say that this was a necessary condition in our life. But a necessary condition does not imply sufficient condition. Let's take a simple example. Most people would agree that drinking milk is good for one's health. However, there are those of us who are allergic to milk and have to be careful how we consume this product. Even still, it's amazing how many times one has to explain to people that one is allergic to milk. The reason why this happens is because people assume that because milk is good for us then every one should drink it. It does not occur to these people that some might be allergic to milk. Some apply the same fallacy to religion or belief in a deity; just because a deity is good or a religion is good then we must believe in them and follow them.

But we can take a different approach. Whatever our beliefs are or irrespective of whether there is such a being as a deity, it has been demonstrated that religion is very often good for health. Needless to say that this claim is backed up by relevant medical studies; see the essay for the meeting "The necessity of Faith". This does not mean that medical science is fallible, but certainly more objective than what we have had so far. Nor does it mean that because following a religion can have benefits that can be objectively proven, it is necessarily the best option, that things will not change over time, that other solutions are not as good or better and so on.

Religions have also been a useful source of moral standards and even group identity. So given this positive effect of religion, we can further argue that we get the sense of religion and a deity from the fact that we derive some benefit from religion. It could very well be that we have this sense of a deity not because we were created by such a deity, but because believing in a deity is beneficial. So, instead of a deity creating us, we created our particular deity because this makes us better. Purely on an evolutionary argument, if religions did not convey some benefit to our survival they wouldn't have lasted the test of time. That some religions have died out or that some are dying out is evidence for this evolutionary principle. But how can we explain a religion or a belief in a deity from being good for us to being forced to believe in such a deity?

I would argue that for a religion to be good for one, one has to believe that it is good. Knowledge implies, at least, the belief that something is the case. This is not the same as taking some drug, which has a chemical effect independent of our beliefs. For example, other things being equal (OTBE), paracetamol reduces certain sensations of pain irrespective of what my beliefs about paracetamol are; don't forget the OTBE. On the other hand, if we don't believe that a religion is good for us, then we are unlikely to do those things that could have a positive causal effect on us. And usually, if we believe that something is not doing us any good or we're not deriving any benefit, there is a chance that we stop doing it. Of course, in real life there are a number of complex reasons why we stop doing something; not being good for us or not giving us any benefit are just some of the reasons.

Hence, any member of the group that rejects the group's particular religion or deity, would be a direct threat to that religion. In other words, if no one believes in our religion then we cannot benefit from that religion. It is of course legitimate to adopt an absolute position with this argument; i.e. arguing that a single person will not make much difference is not allowed. In any event, the benefit from religion accrues more from group dynamics and not because of our particular beliefs.

I submit that it is not the belief per se that is the cause of the benefit, but that the belief is held in the context of a religion. For example, belief in a deity makes us feel good because the group's approves of our behaviour, not to mention the deity themselves. The group tells us that if we believe in D then good things may happen to us. Thus our beliefs become centre point to a religion and coercion is also an efficient means of controlling behaviour. Hence the need to force belief.

Seeing religion in this context, makes sense to condemn idolatry. Idolatry is a direct challenge to the survival of the religion that brings benefits to the group. Earlier I said that one of the things we expect from a religion and belief in a deity is to have some of our needs catered for. For example, it is very common to pray for the restoration of one's health when sick. We are all familiar with some of the activities that religion can help people with: charity, education and networking. The moral question, however, is this; does condemnation of idolatry also apply to people who do not belong to the group?

It is unlikely that this question can have a justifiable Yes answer under all possible circumstances. These are some of the basic circumstances when it is not justifiable to hold others to one's idolatry norms: 1) we are not a member of a given (religious) group, so we do not owe a duty to that group, 2) we derive no benefit from a given (religious) group, 3) the norms of the other group are in conflict with our prescribed duties resulting from membership to our (religious) group. I think that items 1 and 2 are quite straight forward. The third point is more complex. Mainly, do we have a duty not to put ourselves in a situation were we expect a conflict of interest to arise?

Let's say our employer forbids the payment of bribes to prospective clients. Do we have a duty not to approach prospective clients who expect to be bribed? Applying this example to the subject of idolatry, do we have a duty not to associate with a group that might have idolatry practices by our religious norms? The issue then becomes, not whether non group members have a duty to follow our norms, but whether we have a duty not to associate with people who's practices violate our norms.

We normally associate idolatry with religion. I have even discussed the theme of this essay in the context of religion. Are we justified in doing so? Let's take another look at the definition of idolatry. Believing that something is the case by replacing the truth by a falsehood. For example, replacing a deity by a painting. Can we extend this idea to apply beyond the scope of religion?

It is ironic that the most eligible example we can find today is the attempt to replace scientific reasoning by religious belief; i.e. the attempt to introduce intelligent design or creationism as a doctrine of science. The irony is of course that in the history of religious belief it took scientific reasoning and objective criteria to demonstrate that a religion does have some real benefits. Or as they say, people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Take care


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