The Fallacy of the Idol Worship Argument

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The Problem of Sacred Objects

Some religions argue against the Vedic system that its followers worship “idols”. An “idol”, or a deity, as the Vedic traditionalists call it, is a symbol of God. It communicates meanings just like symbols in a book. If we burn a book, we don’t burn the ideas denoted by the book; we only remove one way of accessing those ideas. Conversely, if you we the book respectfully, then we gain knowledge from the book. Likewise, if someone breaks the deity, they don’t destroy the person symbolized by it. They just lose access to the person symbolized by that deity.

Even those who argue against idol worship, sometimes called iconoclasts, happily read books. Religions consider their scriptures sacred objects. But they don’t extend that same level of sacredness to other objects. Different religions consider different symbols, icons, and pictures sacred. But there is no philosophical justification why sacredness must be extended to some and not other objects. In this article, I will try to discuss the reasons for sacredness.

All sacredness comes from the meaning depicted by an object. The books and deities represent and communicate meaning. The distinction between a book and a deity is therefore artificial and unjustified. We can either have sacred books and deities or nothing would be sacred.

The Symbolic View of Reality

This requires us to understand that everything is an instance of an idea, including God. God is the most primordial idea called non-dual knowledge. He is also the original instance of non-dual knowledge. When the original idea is also the instance of that idea, then the idea becomes a person. The same idea, however, can also be instantiated in subsequent instances. Those instances can books and deities. Creating subsequent instances of the original idea neither changes the original idea nor creates anything new. It just makes the idea accessible to more people. A book is published and a deity is installed simply to communicate that idea.

All material objects are also instances of ideas, with the pure idea also being an original instance. A material object is not “stuff” as most people currently think. It is also the instance of an idea, and it may comprise instances of other ideas. A table is an incarnation of the idea of a table, a symbol of that idea that communicates the idea. Material objects are also text and so the world is a book to be read. Since all these things are not straightforward for most people, I will discuss them briefly in this post for those who might not have encountered them.

All followers of all religions are therefore idol worshippers because all of them revere some book. There is no fundamental difference between books and idols as they are both symbols of meaning. Those meanings, however, may be sacred or unsacred, which makes the symbol also sacred or unsacred. Therefore, if deity worship is an abomination, then by the same measure, reverence for any religious text is also an abomination. If an idol is simply stone, wood, or metal, then by the same measure, a book is nothing more than paper and ink.

The philosophy of religion is coextensive with the philosophy of language. You can either say that symbols represent meaning or not. Those symbols can be carved out of wood or stone, cast into metal forms, or drawn on paper, with or without colors. There is no fundamental difference between the shapes of linguistic squiggles drawn on paper and the shapes of deities formed out of metal, wood, or stone. There is also no basis for drawing a distinction between deities and books, or at least, not a rational and consistent one.

The Platonic Theory of Forms

Plato conceived of a world of pure and ideal forms, of which the present world was but a poor imitation. The imperfect forms were created by a combination of substance and form, where substances include things like air, fire, water, and earth. Thereby, the trees, humans, and tigers of this world were imperfect reflections of the pure form of a tree, human, and tiger. By looking at these imperfect worldly forms, we could get an inkling of what the pure forms were, although we could not know them perfectly. Perfect knowledge was impossible.

The Platonic theory of forms is symbolism in a primitive form, in which the form is the meaning represented by substances such as ink, paper, metal, wood, or stone. The problem with Platonism is that whatever Plato called substance is also a collection of forms. For instance, a stone has the properties of shape, color, hardness, heaviness, etc. each of which is a form. The forms are also subdivided into other forms; for instance, color can be white, black, and gray; the shape can be square, circle, or triangle; and so on. Therefore, whatever we call a stone or wood is not a substance; it is also many distinct forms.

The form vs. substance distinction is false. There is only form. But there are whole vs. part forms. For instance, a human form is a whole form, while hand and leg forms are part forms. The variation between hand and leg forms—e.g., in a human vs. animal body—has to be solved from a theory of whole and part forms, although no such theory has been developed in Western philosophy.

Symbolism of Ordinary Objects

Due to the form-substance dualism in Western philosophy, and because nobody knew how to study forms, all scientific thinking after Plato (i.e., beginning with Aristotle) focused only on the substance. Descartes called the mind “the thinking substance” and matter “the extended substance”. Thereby, all mind-like properties (e.g., meaning) were removed from matter, and matter was reduced to just one property, i.e., extension. Even if we measure temperature or speed, we are measuring the movement of a pointer on the dial of an instrument, which means that we are always measuring length. We just change the instrument that measures length to arrive at a different kind of length. We give a form to the instrument by calling it the instrument that measures speed, temperature, pressure, weight, etc., to strip the measured object of form.

We now denote the properties of an object as a tuple {5T, 3M, 6S} where T is temperature, M is mass, and S is speed (for instance). The material object is thus denoted by symbols like T, M, and S, but science does not talk about forms. If you ask: “What do we mean by T, M, and S?” then you will be pointed to measuring instruments. But the instrument is not contained in the measured object. So, how can the property be contained in the measured object?

Philosophers of science have not been able to answer this question because they always think in terms of substances. If a clock defines time, and time is not a form, then to say that time passes in my body, that clock must be present in my body. That clock must be present in every single body because it is the definition of time. If instead, it is simply a measure of time, then there must be something called time as a pure form, that transcends all things, and yet, is immanent in all things. Both answers are problematic for science. Therefore, we should not assume that scientific materialism is a good idea even in the study of matter. Factually, each scientific property is an incoherent idea.

The correct answer is that there is only form. The measuring instrument is one instance of the form and the measured object is another. These two are immanent renditions of the transcendent form. They are also combined with other forms, which is why we cannot say that the instrument is contained inside the measured object, although we can say that the same form exists in all places. Both measured and measuring instruments are symbols of forms.

The Vedic Theory of Forms

When we take the problem of forms seriously, then we have to consider whole and part forms, and the whole form must be both immanent and transcendent to the part form. An example is a body and its parts like hands and legs. Human legs are different than tiger legs because the hand or leg forms are modified by the immanence of human or tiger form in them. The modified hand and leg forms are then combined into the tiger or human form by the transcendent form. Otherwise, leg-form and hand-form have an original pure existence, in God’s body. His body defines the meaning of pure leg and hand forms.

Contrast this to Platonism where the hand and leg forms are separated things in the Platonic world, along with shape, size, color, and so on. In fact, opposites like hot and cold, bitter and sweet, black and white, must be separated forms. But in Vedic philosophy, all these forms are combined into God’s form. This is why God’s form is the whole, pure, and complete form. Shape, size, color, sweetness, etc. are part forms. The whole form, if symbolized by some part forms is a symbol of the whole form, called a deity. Since the whole form is transcendent, hence, breaking the deity doesn’t destroy God. Since He is immanent, hence, worshipping the deity is worshipping the whole form.

This is similar to how humanness is immanent in every part of the human body. If you remove one of the human body parts, the whole humanness still exists, although an aspect of that humanness is unmanifest. For instance, the voting rights of a war veteran with amputated legs are not reduced, because even with amputated legs, the veteran is a full human. That humanness is a transcendent form, which is why it is not reduced even if some parts are removed. Of course, the veteran cannot go to war because full humanness is not manifest.

This theory of forms is responsible for what people call “biological evolution” in which some transcendent forms are manifest or unmanifest over time. Their bodily structures can also seem to change simply due to the manifestation or unmanifestation of some of the eternal forms. But since all forms are eternal, hence, all species are eternal. And yet, they are not eternally manifest.

The Theory of Linguistic Forms

When a form begins manifesting into something perceivable, the first step is a sound that gives the form a name. This name is not an arbitrary man-made linguistic label like the word “human” assigned to the human form in English. It is rather a sound that if heard perfectly evokes the human form in the mind. The sound we hear is an effect of the mental form, and the mental form created upon hearing is the effect of the heard sound. The sound emerges from the form, and the form emerges from the sound. This problem has been studied in neurolinguistics through what is called the Bouba-Kiki effect. The sound “bouba” produces the mental effect of something round and bulbous, while the sound “kiki” produces the mental effect of something sharp and angular. Individually, these sounds have no dictionary meanings in English.

The process of chanting the names of the Lord is based on the same principle as the Bouba-Kiki effect. The forms are immanent in the names, and by chanting, these forms can manifest in all the senses. God can therefore be perceived by chanting because the form of God is immanent in the sound. Hence, the names of the Lord are also sometimes called the deity incarnations of the Lord.

Once the name manifests from a form, a structure manifests from the name, quite like the word “cube” can be expanded into a cubic structure. This structure cannot be seen but its effects can be perceived as push and pull, hot and cold, inertia and force. This structure is called vāyu or “air”. Since force, heat, and inertia can be perceived as the touch sensation, hence “air” is perceived as touch. It corresponds to what modern science calls “dark matter” and “dark energy”. It is also responsible for geometrical effects like the curvature of space in relativistic theories. We cannot see the curvature of space, hence it is dark. But it exerts force, inertia, and heat; hence it exists.

Then when this structure is filled by visible properties, or what we call quanta in modern physics, we say that a visible object has emerged. The so-called quantum-gravity problem involves two tiers of reality, namely, “air” and “fire”. The “air” is an invisible structure and “fire” is the visible atoms in that structure. The space of modern science is not the “ether” of Sāñkhya. Instead, the space of modern science is “air” expanded from words. Like a chapter title expands into a section structure, which is then filled with paragraphs, similarly, “ether” is the chapter title, “air” is the section structure, and “fire” is the visible paragraphs. We can say that a word expands into a structure that is then occupied by words.

The Expansion of Meaning Forms

In set theory, we use three concepts of set, objects, and structure to describe this process. The cube is a set, with many objects (points), and a structure on the set and in between the points. If those points could themselves be considered sets, then there will be another structure, with another set of objects within it. This process is employed recursively to describe the perceptual and conceptual apparatus in Sāñkhya. For instance, the mind is like a set, prāṇa is like a structure, and the ideas in the mind are like objects. The appearance of different ideas in the mind (called “thinking”) is due to the prāṇa focusing the mind on different parts of its structure (like vertices of a cube).

One such idea is “my body”. This object expands into another set, structure, and object. The second-order set is the sense of hearing, the second-order structure is places of words (i.e., figures of speech and the grammatical structure), and the second-order object is words. From these words expand yet another set, structure, and object which is called the sense of touch, the places of touch, and the objects of touch. Similarly, the objects of touch then expand into the sets, structures, and objects of sight, taste, and smell, recursively. Since the set, structure, and object are the three modes of the same thing, hence, we use modal logic to avoid the contradictions of one word having three meanings. But these three meanings constitute the process of expansion by which the mental idea transforms into a sense-perceivable object. It is a symbol of the mental idea, it communicates that idea, and it has been produced from that idea.

Modern physics is a partial study of the visible portion of sense perception using physical properties like energy, momentum, mass, charge, etc. There is no physical theory of smell and taste, dark energy and dark matter, or of sound’s effects on other sense perceptions and the mind. One out of the five “gross material elements” of Sāñkhya is studied in current physics improperly and the other four elements are simply beyond the scope of current physics.

The five sense-perceivable properties of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell contain the original form, which means that the form can be evoked in the mind by sense perception. For instance, just by the smell of a mango, the taste of the mango, the picture of the mango, the softness of the mango, and the sound of the name mango can be created along with the idea that this smell corresponds to a mango. This is because the idea of mango is in the smell. Thereby, all sense percepts are symbols of the meaning form, and the meaning form is immanent in and transcendent to the sense perceivable qualities.

Religious Implications of Forms

Everything has expanded from God and God is immanent in everything. But that immanent form is realized better through some sense perceivable objects than others. This is just like an author can be known better from his personal diaries than from non-fiction works. The author is immanent even in the other works, but he is manifested more in the personal diary. These diaries of God are religious symbols. God can be known by chanting some names, touching His deity, offering the deity food, clothes, and flowers, eating and drinking sanctified food, and smelling the odors of flowers and clothes offered to the deity far better than His other manifestations. This is because the transcendent is also immanent and manifest. If we worship the deity, then the transcendent is known through its immanence. However, if we break the deity, then the transcendent is not destroyed. It ceases to be immanent; we lose access to the transcendent and make it harder to access the transcendent in the future.

The primary difference between Western and Vedic philosophies is that the meaning of the symbol is in the symbol in Vedic philosophy, while the meaning is in our minds in Western philosophy. Factually, even a religious book—e.g., Quran, Bible, or Torah—is not sacred under the Western theory of meaning. It is paper and ink that we consider sacred because there is no objective difference between a religious text and a book of pure fiction. If we like, we can assign some arbitrary books a sacred status, and that assignment of sacredness would merely be someone’s personal belief. This is how religion becomes a matter of personal belief, rather than a scientific fact about a book or activity.

If we want to escape this conclusion and designate some things as sacred, then we have to say that there is a transcendent reality immanent in things. That conclusion, however, will not just be limited to the book. It can be extended to anything, including incantations, rituals, deities, food, clothes, places, and practices if there is manifest immanence of transcendence in them.

Hypocritical Rejection of Deities

The same theory of symbolism that makes a book sacred also makes a deity sacred. Both are symbols of meaning, the meaning is immanent in the symbol, and whatever is immanent has a perceivable effect. If we cannot perceive what is immanent, then we can measure its presence by its effects because the immanent reality may be dark to our vision, but its effects are not dark.

These conclusions, however, cannot be understood without a theory of meaning. Plato’s theory of forms remained unsustainable due to the form vs. substance distinction. By eliminating the presence of pure forms in this world, the possibility of knowing the perfect truth was also eliminated. Christianity claims that God is transcendent but never immanent. So, how can anything in this world be sacred? How can God be present in a book or place of worship if He is always transcendent and never immanent? Modern science then separated the study of matter from the study of meaning and purpose in the mind. Thereby, every object in this world is meaningless and purposeless, including sacred texts, places of worship, deities, and so forth. For any religion to claim that some things are sacred while other things are not is now a matter of pure faith that can never be justified based on any rational principle.

The rejection of “idol worship” is hypocritical because they cannot establish why their own chosen religious symbols are sacred. For them to say that deities are not religious symbols begs the question of how a Cross, Star, or Crescent is sacred. Without a theory of meaning and the immanence of that meaning in things, nothing can ever be considered sacred. However, if that meaning’s immanence is recognized, then there are rational criteria for sacredness.

Objective Measures of Sacredness

In principle, we can say that God may exist in different houses (temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues), books (Gita, Bible, Koran, and Torah), rituals, foods, and clothes. However, before we can make such claims, we have to test God’s immanence in these things through objective criteria:

  • Do we get scientific knowledge of the world around us that we can confirm by observation?
  • Do we get a comprehensive understanding of moral action to produce a moral society?
  • Is our mind purified of anger, lust, hatred, greed, egotism, and fear by religious practice?
  • Does the form of God spring in our minds by the perception of religious symbols?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then the religion that uses such symbols for the purification of a person is true, right, and good and God’s immanence is manifest in the symbols. If not, God is hidden in things that we have designated sacred. The measure of sacredness is not blind faith in scriptures, messiahs, or even God’s existence. It has to be decided by the effects of associating with the sacred objects. By such association, we must get verifiable truth, a moral society, happy people, and ultimately the direct perception of God.

Everything can give us the truth, right, and good because God is immanent in everything. However, God’s presence is not equally manifest in everything. Thus, associating with a table, chair, or bed is not the same as associating with a truthful book, deity, mantra, or sanctified food. Thus, we do not call everything a sacred symbol. We designate those things as sacred symbols whose association manifests sacredness in us. Of course, one who has attained perfection sees God’s presence in everything and what is unmanifest to others is manifest to him. Thereby, everything is sacred for a person who has attained perfection. But for one who is following the path toward perfection, God’s presence in some things is emphasized through some sacred symbols because by associating with them sacredness will be manifest within us.

The empirical test of sacredness is the change in the hearts, minds, and lives of religious practitioners. The heart is the emotional reality, the mind is the cognitive and conative reality, and life is the relational reality. By the purity of emotions, cognitions, conations, and relations, we get an enlightened, moral, and happy person and society. By applying this objective measure of sacredness, we can know which religion is sacred to which extent simply by observing the hearts, minds, and lives of the people practicing the religion.

Observation and Inference

It is sometimes said—phalena parichyate—we can know if something is true, right, and good by the results it produces. There are two well-known methods of knowledge called pratyakṣa or observation and anumāna or inference. Seeing God is pratyakṣa. But even if we cannot see God, we can still perceive the change in the hearts, minds, and lives of people who associate with sacred symbols. By those effects, we can infer God’s presence, because there is no other way to explain the appearance of knowledge, morality, and happiness in them.

This is not to say that God cannot be perceived directly. It is rather to say that direct perception follows three stages—(a) perfect knowledge, (b) moral action and organization, and (c) peaceful and pleasant emotions. The appearance of these symptoms cannot be explained in any way other than God’s immanence in the sacred symbols. But because we haven’t yet perceived God directly, therefore, these fall into the category of inference rather than observation (anumāna instead of pratyakṣa). Further progress yields observation too.

Religions devoid of sacredness in their symbols define their success in terms of materialistic achievements—e.g., military conquests—instead of knowledge, morality, and peacefulness. But as their power reduces, they do not infer their defeats as God’s anger toward them. Instead, they become nihilistic. For them, God exists to serve our needs. If our need isn’t served, then God does not exist.

Correct and Incorrect Inferences

The symptom of false inferences is that they transform into their opposites over time. The symptom of true inferences is that they get stronger over time. The truth is therefore called non-reducing. If we aren’t convinced that knowledge, morality, and peacefulness are the correct symptoms of sacredness, then we can take any other symptoms of sacredness we like and we will always find those symptoms disappearing over time and the assumptions about sacredness would be replaced by their opposites—such as atheism or nihilism.

Sacredness, therefore, isn’t just a personal belief. It is an objective truth. It is measured by objective criteria. But if we invent criteria for sacredness, then the religion that invented it once will have to reinvent it, again and again, until the sacred has been completely transformed into the originally profane.

Those who adhere to the objective criteria of sacredness will affirm the sacredness because they have accepted the correct symptoms of sacredness. The deity is such a sacred symbol. If we worship the deity, then we will progressively get knowledge, morality, and peacefulness. Over time, we will also see God directly. This is the scientific principle of sacredness—the whole truth is immanent in every partial truth, but some partial truths reveal the whole truth more. If we associate with that sacred symbol, then we can find the whole truth.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Fallacy of the Idol Worship Argument," in Shabda Journal, September 27, 2022,