Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Idolatry Then & Now Conclusion

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 15 (conclusion)

In Chapter 1, My Corporate Idolatry, I shared the story of the day I recognized that idolatry lives on in the 21st century.  The realization started with skepticism.  I initially though “isn’t idolatry statue worship, and didn’t that go away thousands of years ago?”  Idolatry is much more, and in this final installment of Chapter 2  how often Idolatry has periodicly come to dominate the very institutions that arose to combat it.

According to the book of Jeremiah, God ordered the destruction of the First Temple (aka Solomon’s Temple) because the Israelites had fallen into idolatry.  In the following passage, from Jeremiah Chapter 7, notice the behaviors associated with idolatry.

4 Don’t trust the lies that some people say. They say, “This is the Temple of the LORD.”  [The commentary explains that many people in Jerusalem thought the Lord would always protect the city no matter what, so it didn’t matter how evil they were.]   5 If you change your lives and do good things, I will let you live in this place. You must be fair to each other. 6 You must be fair to strangers. You must help widows and orphans. Don’t kill innocent people! And don’t follow other gods, because they will only ruin your lives8 “‘But you are trusting lies that are worthless. 9 Will you steal and murder? Will you commit adultery? Will you falsely accuse other people? Will you worship the false god Baal and follow other gods that you have not known? 10 If you commit these sins, do you think that you can stand before me in this house … and say, “We are safe,” just so you can do all these terrible things?”

The lesson for me is that any institution can fall into idolatry.  And Jeremiah 10:31 explains why. “The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way.”  http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah%205&version=NIV  In other words, the priestly hierarchy and leaders are preaching a different set of values than what God teaches.  (Which we summarized by the Golden Rule earlier in the chapter.)  Chapter 5 further elaborates:

5:26 For wicked men are found in My people; they lie in wait as a trap bites; they station an ambush, they catch people.

5:27 As a cage is full, so are their houses full of deceit; therefore, they have become great and they have become rich.

This dynamic seems to happen over and over again throughout history.  In my opinion, the rise of Christianity ~500 years was in part a reaction against the corruption/idolatry of the Second Temple.  And 1,500 years after that, Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation as a reaction against the corruption/idolatry of the Catholic Hierarchy.  And in his widely popular YouTube Video Why I Hate Religion and But Love Jesus, poet Jefferson Bethke advocates a direct connection to Jesus, bypassing religion because religions sometimes advocate views that he finds counter to Jesus’ central, people-first teachings.

What institutions influence your life?  Do they encourage people-first values?

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A Mistake You Can’t Afford To Make

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 14

There was a time when I thought my work in the genomics industry was going to revolutionize medicine.  The products I managed were going to help scientists find all the genetic predispositions for disease, and usher in an era of personalized medicine, where an individual would be prescribed the most appropriate medicine based on his or her genetic makeup.  My mistake, however, was thinking that anything the company asked me to do was in service of this laudable goal.  In other words, I had made an idol of my company, in that I let it be the mediator of my altruistic aims.

The Rambam, one of the great medieval Jewish philosophers, explained the origin of pagan idolatry as a similar error. “At first men believed in one God who governed the world through intermediary forces” like the stars and other heavenly bodies.  They worshipped the intermediaries as a way of bringing honor to the creator, and then made statues to give their worship a point of focus.  After a few generations, people forgot that the statues and heavenly bodies were only intermediates, and thus began to worship the idols outright. [i]  And the values associated with the statues began to drift and diverge from God’s values.

Intermediaries distort the original message.  This can be an innocuous process, like a child’s game of telephone, or may constitute deliberate manipulation by unscrupulous individuals.  Karen Armstrong, international expert on comparative religion and TED Prize winner gave the following example “Often when people talk about God, we attribute to Him the thoughts and feelings and opinions we have ourselves.  … It is often noticeable that the opinions of the deity coincide with those of the speaker.  This is a form of idolatry because what you are doing is worshipping a deity in your own image.”[ii]

Take a moment to reflect on your values, goals, and passions.  Now, reflect on how you are spending you time.  What is the biggest influence on how you spend you time?

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[i] Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest  by David Hartman the Jewish Publication Society (1976) p 54-56

[ii] NPR Talk Of The Nation: Interview with Karen Armstrong January 10, 2011 about her book Twelve Steps To a Compassionate Life. Listen here.

Why Idolatry? For the Sex Of Course

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 11 

 In the previous post, I discussed idolatry by error.  Here is one of my favorite stories that illustrates idolatry by error.

“During the 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, a young Israelite solder went to the marketplace of a newly conquered tribe of idol worshipers. He regularly went to see a beautiful girl with dark eyes who sold cloth from a tent in the market center.  At first he went for the low price, but after a few days he was invited in to sit and drink wine.  Flush with wine and conquest, the soldier pulled her close and murmured in her ear.  She pulled out an image of the idol Pe’or from her bodice and said to him “If you want me to do your bidding, bow down to this.”

He flung her back, eyes burning. ‘I will never bow to your trinket!’

She answered ‘What do you care if you only expose yourself to it?’ Since he had to disrobe anyway, what harm? As it turns out, exposing oneself was a way to worship Pe’or.  His face burned with shame, but the sex was beyond fantastic.”  – adopted from Babylonian Talmud[i]  I like this story because it illustrates the allure of idolatry, the gradual way it can creep up on you, and the not uncommon discovery that one has already committed idolatry without even knowing it.  And while giving reverence to a statue may not seem like a big deal today, in biblical times it was punishable by death.  Seem harsh?  Yes, but those were harsh times.  But even then, the death penalty was reserved for the most serious crimes.  And I think idolatry carried such a harsh penalty because it is so alluring.

And what is the problem with idolatry today?  For the religious of course, idolatry remains a mortal sin.  For the non-religious, I think of it this way.  Modern psychology is clear that lasting happiness comes from connections to other people and not from possessions.  A lifestyle of idolatry puts people second, and elevates the importance of something else which results in weaker interpersonal relationships, which in turn means less happiness.  So, for a happier life, put people first.

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[i] adopted from the Babylonian Talmud Sifrei on Numbers, sec 131;  Idolatry by Moshe Habertal and Avishai Margali.  Translated by Naomi Goldblum.  Harvard University Press p 24-25.

Protect Yourself From a Sociopath in the Office

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 6

In the last post, I argued that The Golden Rule, which states that we should consider and incorporate the needs of other people before we take action, is a universal value.  But in my opinion, the Golden Rule is not sufficient as a guideline.  If we only consider the needs of other people, we risk losing sight of the needs of the most important person, oneself.  What is more, not everyone follows the Golden Rule, which can be a surprise to those who do.  “Simon,” a director at a mid-sized corporation in the Midwest, shared his experience with me.

“I was at a management offsite, a touchy feely thing.  I brought up the Golden Rule, [as a model for how to interact with others.] One guy said ‘that doesn’t work for me, because I don’t care how I am treated.’ He was almost sociopathic about it.  He would do what it took to get ahead. It wasn’t like he was even trying to hide it. That just amazed me that there were people out there like that.”   Simon discovered that he had been operating according to a different set of values than some of his coworkers.  Could the person he was referring to actually have been a sociopath?

A sociopath is someone who does not have a conscience, and according to Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, up to 4% the population could fit the clinical definition of a sociopath.  And treating a sociopath “as you would like to be treated” is a recipe to be taken advantage of at best, and inviting disaster at worst.

Ok, maybe talking about sociopaths is a bit extreme, but I am trying to illustrate a point: while The Golden Rule is a universal value, it is not sufficient to cover every circumstance.  So I have another rule I live by – the “Don’t Be a Doormat Rule.”  I also call it the Rule of Self-Preservation.  Simply put, it says that you have a duty to look out for your own welfare, because if you don’t, who will?  In the next chapter, we will begin to examine corporations and company-first values.  And sometimes, putting the company first runs counter to the Rule of Self-Preservation.

What do you think of the Rule of Self-Preservation?  Here is a table of quotes that support the position.

Quotes that support The Rule of Self Preservation

Natural law includes our right to self-preservation and forbids humans from taking actions destructive to their own lives. Thomas HobbesLeviathan
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Declaration of Independence
Chi pensa per se, pensa per tre.Anyone who thinks for himself things for three. Italian proverb, similar to He who looks after himself will be able to look after his/her family.
Put on your [oxygen] mask before assisting others Airline safety instruction
If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun. Not at the head, where a fatal wound might result. But at some other body part, such as a leg.[i] The Dali Lama, answering a question about self defense.
“Pray for what you want, but work for the things you need.”“What is done for you – allow it to be done.
What you must do yourself – make sure you do it.”
Essential Sufism http://www.katinkahesselink.net/sufi/quotes.html retrieved 3/21/2012
Keep five yards from a carriage, ten yards from a horse, and a hundred yards from an elephant; but the distance one should keep from a wicked man cannot be measured. Indian Proverb


[i] Bernton, Hal (15 May 2001). “Dalai Lama urges students to shape the world”. Archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com. Retrieved 29 Feb 2012.

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The Search For Universal Values II: The Golden Rule.

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 5

In the last few posts, I have been contrasting idolatry as a system of relative values with a set of universal values that do not change with circumstance. And what are those universal values? I argued that the Ten Commandments are a good place to start, but are insufficient in part because ten is too many values to keep track of.  Then, I discovered The Golden Rule – found in over 15 religions and philosophies worldwide.

In 1993, 300 representatives of the world’s religions met in Chicago in an attempt to define a Global Ethic – a set of universal ethical principles.[i]  The cornerstone of this Global ethic was determined to be the Ethic of Reciprocity, aka the Golden Rule, because it is found in so many different religions and philosophies worldwide.

The Golden Rule In World Religions

Religion Statement
Old Testament Love thy neighbor as thyself

Leviticus 19:18[39]

Judaism That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation.  Talmud
Christianity Do to others as you would have them do to you.  Luke 6:31
Buddhism Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.    Udana-Varga 5,1
Islam No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.   Sunnah
Hinduism This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.  Mahabharata 5,1517
Confucianism Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. Analects 12:2
Jainism Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others. Knowing this principle of equality, treat the other with compassion.
Taoism Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.
Humanism Ethic of reciprocity: people should aim to treat each other as they would like to be treated themselves – with tolerance, consideration and compassion.
Pima Indians (Arizona) Do not wrong or hate your neighbor. For it is not he who you wrong but yourself.
The Yoruba people of Nigeria One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.
The Ba-Congo people of Angola O Man, O woman, what you do not like, do not do to your fellows. 
The Platinum Rule Treat others the way they want to be treated

Amazingly, babies as young as six months show a strong preference for puppets who shared with other puppets over puppets who did not.  [ii] Yale professor Paul Bloom, discusses his resultsWhen looking across the versions of the Golden rule in the table, the bottom line seems to be: consider the needs of other people before you take an action.  Language is imperfect and I am convinced that these versions of the Golden Rule are all expressing the same core idea that is a fundamental part of human nature.

These findings constitute evidence that preverbal infants assess individuals on the basis of their behavior towards others. This capacity may serve as the foundation for moral thought and action, and its early developmental emergence supports the view that social evaluation is a biological adaptation.[iii]

In summary, the first universal value is The Golden Rule, because it is found in numerous cultures and religions world wide, and it seems to be build on an innate human ability to assess how individuals treat one another. But as we shall see in the next post, following The Golden Rule is not sufficient, because in the real world there are people who will take advantage of those who are too giving.


[i] Scarboro Missions Golden Rule and Golden Ethic – https://www.scarboromissions.ca/Golden_rule/global_ethic.php retrieved July 5, 2012

[ii] The Moral Life of Babies Paul Bloom May 5, 2010 New York Times

[iii] Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Hamlin JK, Wynn K, Bloom P. Nature. 2007 Nov 22;450(7169):557-9.

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