In common parlance, an idol is any "god" that we worship and look to for salvation. Its purpose is to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, for we believe it possesses the power and magic that we lack. An idol, though, is a false god, one that cannot really save us. Therefore, "idol" means anything which we hope will answer our prayers, but which in reality cannot. The classic image of an idol, of course, is that of a god made out of wood or stone, set on an altar and prayed to. This is a poignant image, for it speaks both of our desperate need for aid and of our willingness to invest faith in things that cannot give us aid.
The Course usage of the term "idol" retains this same basic definition and sees in it a deep commentary on the human condition and the system of the ego. For the ego's religion is the denial of God and the worshipping of substitutes for God, false gods, in which we have invested deep faith but which are unable to satisfy.
Idols as ideas
In essence, these gods that we worship are ideas. We have decided to place our faith in these ideas and look to them for our safety and our happiness. Giving our devotion to ideas is natural and inevitable, for we ourselves are ideas and even God is an idea. The problem is the kind of ideas we have presently chosen. Put together, these gods make up a gruesome pantheon. Their names are the god of sickness, the god of depression, the god of weakness, the god of cruelty, the god of fear and the god of death. We have placed these on our inner altar, and it is these whose image we worship, whose appetites we feed and whose powers to which we pray. And it is these with which we have replaced the God of Love:
And fear, with ashen lips and sightless eyes, blinded and terrible to look upon, is lifted to the throne of love, its dying conqueror, its substitute, the savior from salvation (T-23.II.15:6).
Of course, the chief idol, the central god in the hierarchy, is the ego itself. "A concept of the self is…an idol, made to take the place of your reality as Son of God" (Text, p. 610; T-31.V.2:1,3). "This is the mad idea you have enshrined upon your altars, and which you worship" (T-21.II.6:7).
These idols are a complete disaster in our minds, for instead of granting our requests, they only make demands. They are not beings that can actually relate to us and answer us. They are lifeless mental images, which, like computer programs, can only carry out their programming. In this case it is destructive programming placed there by us.
…idols do not share. Idols accept, but never make return. They can be loved, but cannot love. They do not understand what they are offered….They smile on no one, and those who smile on them they do not see (T-20.VI.3:1-3,8).
The god of sickness obviously demands the denial of health….This is the offering your god demands because, having made him out of your insanity, he is an insane idea (T-10.V.3:2,7).
Idols as external things
The core level of idols is the ideas, the false gods, mentioned above. The fact that these are what we really worship is hidden from our conscious mind. These idols, though, are eventually "made tangible and given form, and thus perceived as real and seen outside the mind" (T-29.VIII.3:2). Our sick attraction to these idols means that on the conscious level they take the form of external things that we think will protect us and make us complete. At one point the Course lists these things as, "Power, fame, money, physical pleasure…" (Manual, p. 32; M-13.2:6).The Course also includes other lists:
In this world, you believe you are sustained by everything but God. Your faith is placed in the most trivial and insane symbols; pills, money, "protective" clothing, influence, prestige, being liked, knowing the "right" people, and an endless list of forms of nothingness that you endow with magical powers (Workbook, p. 79; W-pI.50.1:2-3).
Be it a body or a thing, a place, a situation or a circumstance, an object owned or wanted, or a right demanded or achieved, it is the same (T-29.VIII.1:9).
In other words, an idol is anything outside us that we hope will make us complete. It is obvious, then, that just about everything we value constitutes an idol. In talking about idols, the Course often draws on the imagery of primitive religion. The implication is that even though we have largely outgrown praying to lifeless statues, the mind-set behind idol worship is still with us. In fact, it governs our entire earthly existence.
Why do we seek these things? Because the ego has convinced us that we are weak and incomplete, and that power and completion lie outside of us in the world. The world can grant us these things, we think, if we can procure its favor. Thus we propitiate a host of external gods to protect us from the dangers of the world and to fill the bottomless hole that we believe lies in our soul.
In some way, you believe [idols] will complete your little self, for safety in a world perceived as dangerous, with forces massed against your confidence and peace of mind. They have the power to supply your lacks, and add the value that you do not have. No one believes in idols who has not enslaved himself to littleness and loss. And thus must seek beyond his little self for strength to raise his head, and stand apart from all the misery the world reflects (T-29.VIII.2:3-6).
But idols have a dual purpose. Their conscious purpose is to keep us safe and make us happy. But their real, underlying purpose is very different. Remember, outer idols are simply projections of the inner idols, the gods of sickness, weakness, depression, cruelty, fear and death. The real purpose of external idols, then, is not to save us from these things, but to bring them to us. For a time idols seem to bestow safety and happiness, for that is what we seek in them, but in the end they always bring suffering.
This makes perfect sense, for the search for idols is based on the belief that we are incomplete. It says in the clearest possible way that completion is outside of us and lack is inside. Thus, the search for idols is the attempt
…to bring about your death. For you believe that you can suffer lack, and lack is death….Seek not outside yourself. For the search implies you are not whole within… (T-29.VII.4:1-2,5).
Rather than solving our belief in lack, idols reinforce it. And so, idols must fail to satisfy the needs for which we look to them. In the end, they must turn against us, for they are simply projections of self-destructive thoughts. Yet though this happens again and again, as long as we believe in lack we will continue the search for idols. When one idol falls we will simply replace it with another, to be followed by another, and on and on.
The lingering illusion will impel him to seek out a thousand idols, and to seek beyond them for a thousand more. And each will fail him, all excepting one; for he will die, and does not understand the idol he seeks is but his death (T-29.VII.3:1-2).
How ironic this whole situation is, that the infinite Son of God would seek for little earthly trinkets, and then think that he is their slave. The Course often comments on this irony.
The slave of idols is a willing slave. For willing he must be to let himself bow down in worship to what has no life, and seek for power in the powerless. What happened to the holy Son of God that this could be his wish; to let himself fall lower than the stones upon the ground, and look to idols that they raise him up? (T-29.IX.1)
How can idols be relinquished? Given their track record, this is the question that the whole world should be asking every day. To give them up, we must realize that idols do not really do anything. They have no authority over us and no power to change who we really are at all.
Today we look upon this cruel god dispassionately. And we note that though his lips are smeared with blood, and fire seems to flame from him, he is but made of stone. He can do nothing. We need not defy his power. He has none. And those who see in him their safety have no guardian, no strength to call upon in danger, and no mighty warrior to fight for them (Workbook, p. 319; W-pI.170.7).
Idols simply do not work. They do not make us happy; not because we have chosen the wrong idols, or have not obtained the idols we seek, but because all idols are unsatisfying.
They seem to dance a little while, according to the rules you set for them. But then they fall and cannot rise again. They are but toys, my child, so do not grieve for them. Their dancing never brought you joy. But neither were they things to frighten you, nor make you safe if they obeyed your rules. They must be neither cherished nor attacked, but merely looked upon as children's toys without a single meaning of their own (T-30.IV.4:4-9).
Seeing that "idols are nothing and nowhere, and are purposeless" (Text, p. 591; T-30.V.5:3), why would we seek them? What could a Son of God want from false gods when the true God offers him all that there is? "In your own mind, though denied by the ego, is the declaration of your release. God has given you everything " (T-4.III.9:1-2).
God gave you all there is….No idol can establish you as more than God. But you will never be content with being less. (T-29.VIII.9:7,10-11).