Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Word of the Day: Ideolatry

We're all familiar with the horribly elided term 'idolatry', from Greek eidolon (often translated 'graven image') and latreia (often translated 'worship' or 'service'). The original Greek was eidololatria, but I guess it had one 'lol' too many for the English, who chopped the word short.

However, the lesser-known word 'ideolatry' actually comes from a more basic concept — it comes from the Greek idea, or 'form', or (almost literally) 'imagining'. The Greek idea carries with it the sense of constructing a visual image in the mind's eye. To indulge in 'ideolatry' is to worship an idea, something that exists in the internal workings of one's mind as a virtual image.

In what way is ideolatry different from ideology, which is more familiar to most of us?

Ideology in general is the science of putting ideas into a rational system. An ideology is a construct of ideas, a conceptual framework or system incorporating ideas which may or may not have a rational basis. A consistent ideology (which is what ideologies are supposed to be but sometimes are not) is one in which all the incorporated ideas are linked by a consistent internal logic within the ideological system. Whether it is a rational ideology is a different matter.

In what way is ideolatry different from idolatry, which is more obvious to most of us?

Ideolatry is more subtle. Instead of worshipping Mammon, we worship a concept of finance, or the idea of money. Instead of sacrificing children to Moloch, we worship a concept of education, or the idea of drill-and-practice. Instead of venerating Ishtar, we worship a concept of fashion, or the idea of beauty contests. Instead of giving things up to Belial, we worship a concept of modernity, or the idea of reductionism. We give service to ideas, and they become our reasonable worship.

Sometimes, it takes the analysis of a less-used word to bring out ideas that we forget to think about. Sometimes, it is good to think about whether a set of ideas has become an ideology, and whether ideology has become ideolatry.

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