I’ve been slowly making my way through Married to the Sea‘s archives. It’s a silly comic most of the time, but sometimes it gets political. This one reminded me of a point I like to make. It’s the 10 Commandments as a graven image that gets pushed into schools and courthouses. On top of violating freedom from government imposition of a religion, showing undue favoritism, and all that, it makes the point that the 10 Commandments is essentially an idol.
To me, idolatry is about treating a person or thing as perfect, infallible, or inherently worthy of worship. Celebrity idols get defenders who rationalize their scandalous behavior or try to shame critics into silence. “Leave Brittney alone!” to cite a dated meme. Jingoism is idolatry of a nation, and I see plenty of it in my fellow Americans. A large number of internet Libertarians I encounter seem to idolize the free market despite the known problems that come from a lack of market regulation. Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, decade/generation nostalgia, sports teams, newage gurus, quacks, Mother Nature. The list goes on. Even atheists and skeptics can fall prey to it when they take hero worship too far.
It’s not rational or healthy.
Naturally, religion does plenty of it, but we’re often told to give religious idolatry a pass or given flimsy rationales why idolatry A isn’t like idolatry B, therefore it’s not idolatry. Of course, what’s being idolized isn’t always obvious to the idolators. Going back to that cartoon, it’s the 10 Commandments that’s the idol. The Bible and the Quran are subjected to idolatry as well. To me, the idea of divine inspiration seems to act as a rationalization for idolizing the Bible.
Burn a copy of the Bible or the Quran and watch the outrage. It’s not all that different than the outrage from burning a flag. While there’s some understandable anger about the disrespect and disagreement with the sentiment expressed by the burning, many go beyond expressing that and try to make laws where expression by desecration is treated as a crime, even if someone’s doing it to a copy they legally own. There’s no real victim, just an idea being publicly criticized in a theatrical fashion. Often, these people are so irrationally enraged, they can’t even bring themselves to care about the intended message behind the burning. Their idolatry gives them an excuse to be intellectually lazy and unconstructive. It gives them an excuse to ignore what may be a real problem in favor of experiencing a cheap and easy adrenaline rush. It gives them an excuse to give in to their darkest desires while feeling justified in their harmful responses.
For the infallible aspect, it’s also an excuse to be intellectually lazy and condone authoritarianism. We live in an imperfect world where certainty is hard to come by. We make progress for the better when we’re allowed to question anything and can expect people to put effort into answering those questions instead of hurling accusations of insolence and arrogance for merely asking. Claiming infallible authority is an effective way for scoundrels to get away with anything while making innocent people feel guilty for pointing out the harm they’re doing. Obedience isn’t inherently a virtue. Trust isn’t supposed to be blind or one-way. An imbalance in decision-making power is a warning sign of an abusive or exploitative relationship, not a healthy, cooperative partnership. Idolatry creates fertile ground for the former.