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Capitalism vs. the Second Commandment: Part I

Idolatry is a big theme in the Bible. The Ten Commandments prohibit graven images, and God's anger at the Israelites' infidelity to him in the Old Testament is generally expressed through commands to smash the idols of the other gods.

To modern Americans, idolatry seems a little distant. The big competitor with Christianity is not Caananite paganism, or even another transcendant religion*, but secularism. To make the sin relevant, Sunday School teachers like to point out forms of secular idolatry, particularly the "worship" of money.

To understand idolatry, we need to look at the distinction between the second commandment -- no graven images -- and the first -- no other gods. At first blush, the commandments seem repetitive -- isn't an idol just another god, who happens to be represented or encapsulated in a physical object? The usual explanation given for what makes idolatry wrong is that it places one of God's creations above God. To make an analogy between your relationship with God and your relationship with your spouse: the first commandment says not to cheat on your spouse with another person (including imaginary people like movie characters), the second says not to value something your spouse produces -- like their paycheck or their artistic works -- above the person. (This spouse-idolatry is essentially a violation of the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative -- treat a person as an end, not a means.)

But does the creation-over-creator logic work for all forms of idolatry? Take money for instance. I don't think God specifically created money. Of course he created all the stuff that forms the basis for the existence of money, but to say God created money is like saying Microsoft created this blog post because I'm typing it in Internet Explorer. And this seems to apply to nearly all idolatry aside from the worship of natural sites (even those are, in a sense, socially constructed to the degree that picking them out, preserving them, and ascribing meaning to them is a human artifice). When the Israelites bowed down to the golden calf, they were worshipping the calf shape that Aaron made as much as they were worshipping the element Ag that God made.

Fear of idolatry has resulted in some sects engaging in iconoclasm -- the avoidance of creating any images that might be treated as idols. But of course people have to make things of one sort or another to survive, and as the money example shows, it can be the most mundane and utilitarian human creations, not just the religious or artistic ones, that can become idols -- indeed, they may be even more likely to become idols. But in becoming idols, they cease to be utilitarian. Money becomes a graven image when it's sought for its own sake, rather than because it's useful as a means of exchange. Idolatry, then, is the confusion of a means with an end.

A second important point about idolatry is the nature of worship. Worship consists of declaring that the thing being worshipped is greater than the worshipper. It's an act of submission. The mistake of idolatry, then, is to treat something that is less than the worshipper, as most human creations are, as if it were higher. This inverts the tool-user relationship. In the case of inanimate idols, this is especially problematic, since the idol doesn't have interests of its own, just those that the worshipper projects onto it.

*I don't believe all non-Judeo-Christian religions are necessarily idolatrous, even those that worship material items or places. Explaining why would be a long digression even by my standards.


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