Is religion possible without physical symbols

I have had many Christians attempt to convert me over the years and one of the things they just love to point out is how other Christian religions are wrong. Catholicism is their favorite whipping boy, idolatry their favorite example. That got me thinking and I realized that they ALL have basic idols which connect them to their religion. Every religion I know anything about. The cross, the Bible, the Quran, the Yamaka, saints (pieces of their corpses, anyway. Catholics are frigging weird!). Every one of these things is some physical connection to their non-physical deity.

Granted I don’t know a whole lot about Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca or any of the other less common religions in my neck of the woods, but I have seen symbols associated with them too. And these symbols usually are not simply communicated. They’re usually not simply drawn. Physical objects are made of them. Something which can be touched while praying or held tight to ward off evil or draw strength.

Now, I am jumping back and forth here between “symbols” and “physical things”, so I should explain that. I’m talking about the physical representation of the symbol. For example, not just the idea of the cross, but a physical representation of that symbol which many believe, even subconsciously, holds some power. Not just the concept of the Bible, but the Bible as a physical representation of God’s word. These symbols, themselves, are often revered, sometimes even sacred objects. Burn a Quran and you’ll have some pissed off Muslims. Toss a Bible on the ground and you’re likely to get a speech about showing respect.

I find myself fascinated by this. Are these physical connections to non-physical belief particularly necessary for the belief? Are they a natural consequence of people being desperate for a physical connection to their non-physical beliefs? Touch is very powerful for us. Is it a tactile thing? A way to, in essence, touch God? I really have no idea, but I would love to hear yours.

I can’t think of any activity humans do that does not make use of physical symbols. Humans can assign emotional value to the most mundane objects probably because we evolved to feel a sense of “sacredness” over some things.

Maybe it has some connection to avoiding pathogens along with the normal way we mark relationships with other.

This is a very interesting question, @widdershins. Yep… there are LOTS of religious symbols:

Symbols are a huge element of religion because symbols are a huge element of everything:

A symbol is a mark, sign or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship.

Symbols allow people to go beyond what is known or seen by creating linkages between otherwise very different concepts and experiences…

Symbols take the form of words, sounds, gestures, ideas or visual images and are used to convey other ideas and beliefs. (Wiki)

You almost can’t do anything without symbols or symbolism. Symbols are what make us associate ideas with other ideas.

Re. Christianity, one of the oddities of more recent denominations (founded in the 18th, 18th century) is the idea of returning to the way religion “used to be,” when it was never that way. These Protestant churches are iconoclastic, eschewing visual representations in general because they think ANY images are idolatry:

But the images in Orthodox churches, for example, aren’t “worshipped” and aren’t “decor.” Iconography is actually a language. Orthodox icons are “written,” not painted, by “writers,” not artists. Every color, shape, number, position etc. explains a narrative, because prior to the 1500s or so, the vast majority of people could not read.

From the other side, the Orthodox accuse these Protestants of “Bibliolatry,” literally making an idol of the Bible by clinging to inerrancy and literalist, rather than mystical, interpretation of the text.

One more thing about symbols: You cannot understand them by taking them out of context. I’m old enough to remember the Satanic Panic, when everything, literally everything, was a Satanic symbol:

An upside-down cross could be Satanic, or it could be The Cross of Saint Peter (because he was crucified upside-down).

A swastica could be Satanic, or Nazi, or Buddhist or Hindu.

A peace sign could be Satanic, or … pro-peace.

A triangle… A TRIANGLE??


If you don’t consider written or spoken language to be made of symbols, then religion is possible without symbols.

For example, a society of blind people could have a religion without visual or tactile symbols.

But symbols are such a quick, easy and powerful method of communicating, some form of audible or tactile symbology would likely even creep into the example religion, eventually.

Since you brought it up,

You cannot understand them by taking them out of context. I’m old enough to remember the Satanic Panic, when everything, literally everything, was a Satanic symbol:
Might I point out that you forgot to add, that you can't understand the Satanic Panic without appreciating it was early stages of the political dirty tricks and brainwashing that Evangelicals have since learned to wield with such perfection these days, while rationalists and liberal types for the most part remain like deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing 18wheeler.

The 1972 publication of The Satan Seller by Mike Warnke played a large part in launching this scare. Warnke continued to be referenced by the mainstream media as an “authority” on Satanism until his story was exposed as fraudulent in 1992.

Unfortunately, this revelation has had little effect on the majority of those who choose to believe in the power of Satan—i.e., fundamentalist Christians. During the late 1970s, John Todd became a brief sensation speaking in fundamentalist churches claiming witches, druids, and the Illuminati were in control of world politics, media, and even most churches. Todd and his claims were likewise exposed as fraudulent, but he continued to be promoted by fundamentalists like Jack Chick.

The scare was given another boost with the popularity of the 1980 book Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith, an alleged memoir of Satanic ritual abuse which was also exposed as a fraud. (Seeing a trend here?)

Other claims proliferated during the early 1980s, including backward masking of Satanic messages in rock music, Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal music as occult recruiting tools, disappearing pets and poisoned candy at Halloween as part of a larger conspiracy, and most significantly, underground movements of Satanists engaged in human sacrifice, “breeding” of children for same, ritual child abuse, and other crime such as sexual assaults to children.

The Satanic panic spread to society at large when law enforcement agencies began taking the wild claims made by evangelical Christians at face value. They used—and, on occasion, still use—such allegations as a basis for investigations of occult activity on the assumption that these activities (often committed by harmless neopagan groups or teenagers) are part of a broader conspiracy. Or, worse yet, that these activities are precursors to major crimes like kidnapping, rape and murder.[note 3] …

To clarify I am not talking about written symbols here. I am talking about the symbolism of objects. The Bible, a cathedral, the Muslim holy black rock, the cross, the Mormon’s magic underwear… I am talking about physical objects, often, but not always taken as sacred (but usually at least holy), which give you a physical thing to lay your hands on or look at to give you a physical link to the supernatural. What I am saying is that since you can’t see your belief or any evidence for it (because magic isn’t real) you need some physical “thing” to link you to it.

And you tend to see this, at least to some degree, in all magical beliefs I can think of, though it is a little different for non-magical beliefs. Crop circles tend to be “holy sites” for UFO enthusiasts, for example. UFO enthusiasts, Bigfoot enthusiasts and ghost hunters are constantly trying to collect “evidence”. Now, while that may be normal on some level, generally you believe something because you have evidence. You don’t normally go out to collect evidence to support your unfounded belief. The “evidence” they find, however meager, is a physical connection to their belief. Video is great. Pictures. A tuft of fur they can’t immediately identify. Recordings of strange sounds. I said earlier that I was talking about something they could hold or see, but in this case I guess any physical connection to their belief would be more accurate. It may not be an object at all, but a sound they have recorded or a digital image. Some physical connection to their nonphysical beliefs.

The Shroud of Turin is another great religious example. I hear that most, if not all Catholic churches have body parts of saints built into their altars. That’s a body part of a saint, an altar AND a church, three such physical symbols rolled into one.

I know that “symbol” isn’t the best word, but I couldn’t come up with a better one at the time. I think “physical connection” is a little better, but still lacking any real definition of what I’m talking about without further context as I gave above.


This may be of interest:



Might I point out that you forgot to add, that you can’t understand the Satanic Panic without appreciating it was early stages of the political dirty tricks and brainwashing that Evangelicals have since learned to wield with such perfection these days
Well no, I didn't "forget" to add all that. I didn't go into detail because it's a whole nother topic and I could write for hours on what the Evangelicals have done the last 40 years.

But since you mentioned Warnke, if you ever want to do a deep dive on this fucker, read the Cornerstone investigation about him. They are a Christian publication that went after him, what they found on him was stunning and the asshole is still doing it.

That’s closer to what I’m talking about than “symbols”, but still not quite it. As I said, UFO enthusiasts treat crop circles as a sort of “sacred site”. As far as I know, any belief system without evidence to support it is pretty much guaranteed to have some physical object to connect the adherent to their supernatural beliefs. Even “physical object” is not quite right. For ghost enthusiasts, as I said, their “physical objects” are things like video and audio recordings containing their precious “evidence”.


@widdershins I’m starting to understand what you mean, I think.

Perhaps the reason we can’t find an actual word for this is that it isn’t the thing, but the modifier of the thing. Sacred, powerful, magical…

Even that’s difficult to pin down. For ghost hunters it’s “evidence”. In every case, though, it’s some physical thing that they can “experience” in some way to link them to their supernatural beliefs.

Ever heard of a “blanky”? Aka, security blanket? A blanket that was paired through earlier conditioning to have a calming effect (on a child) when presented (across situational settings) and a corresponding aversive reaction when it’s removed.

Some psychologists refer to such objects as totems.


Some refer to religions as little more than blankies to salve our insecurities.

;- )

Totems would be a good word, I think. I saw you mentioned that earlier, but it only vaguely registered at the time.



Since you mention cathedrals, crop circles and other locations, you might be interested in the concept of “thin spaces.”

This is from the Preface of my own book, “Sacred Sites of Wisconsin,” which I published through Trails Media in 2001:


Preface “Ancient sites beckon you to hit the road soon”

From actual fortune cookie received by authors before traveling over 9,000 Wisconsin miles

Where Does One Find The Sacred?

People have always sought out those special places where there seems to be a strong connection with the divine. The ancient Celts referred to them as “thin places,” where the veil separating Earth from the spirit world was virtually transparent. They are the places that inspire feelings of awe, of reverence, of reassurance.

Throughout history, certain geographical spaces have attracted people of a certain religion or belief system – sometimes, more than one. Jews, Christians, and Moslems all claim the Jerusalem as a sacred city. Early Christian churches were often built on land already considered sacred.

For the traveler seeking to find the spirit – however he or she chooses to define that term – Wisconsin provides countless opportunities. Most sacred sites simply exist quietly. There may be one right down the street, and you may not know it. This book will help you find some of them. Some will still need to be discovered. When we began to list the sites for inclusion, we found no single resource for the information in this book. We found many instances of cultural or scientific selectivity and lots of confusing and contradictory data.

Certainly, every person defines the concept of sacredness differently. You may have your own sacred site in your home or backyard that is yours alone. You may find someone else’s beliefs strange, and therefore find someone else’s sacred site hard to accept or comprehend. This book will provide locations and descriptions of sacred spaces you may want to visit – either because they reflect your own belief system or they teach you about someone else’s belief system. We purposely did not include the private or fragile places that we became aware of, unless the owners or protectors approved or insisted that we do so.

The State of Wisconsin is blessed to be home to huge number of sacred sites, many of which have features that make them unique in all the word. We started with an accumulated database over 850 sites. This database included some of the oldest holy places in the state. These sites have meaning for ancient peoples as well as modern people. They transcend time and dogma to truly become “thin places.” Since sacredness is outside of time, sites of great antiquity as well as brand new structures are included in the guide…

The book is no longer in print. But I had my 15 minutes of fame.

I am less than an hour away from Wisconsin. And Illinois, if that matters. And seriously, I swear the MOMENT you are on the other side of the state boarder the scenery changes dramatically. It’s difficult to describe. There are limestone bluffs all over the area, but the MOMENT you cross that boarder into Wisconsin they become simply breathtaking.

I also love that their “Level B” roads are the most beautiful gravel roads I’ve ever seen in my life. I used to live a quarter mile down a Level B road in Iowa. In Iowa a Level B road means that there are probably some rocks under the dirt somewhere. Wisconsin’s Level B roads are better than the best maintained gravel roads I’ve seen in Iowa.

America is a pretty boring country as far as “sacred sites” are concerned. The closest I can come around here to anything I would consider even remotely “sacred” are old Native American stomping grounds and burial mounds. The old stomping grounds are cool because you can dig for arrow heads. The burial mounds, not so much. You shouldn’t really be digging in those at all, and wouldn’t unless there’s something messed up in your head.

My book was actually the most complete listing of both Catholic grottos and Native American Effigy Mounds. (Those usually aren’t the burial mounds.) Worked with everyone to make sure everything in the book was safe for people to visit without hurting anything.

I also wrote “Sacred Sites of Minnesota” but it sucked. We looked into doing Iowa and Michigan, but it turned out that Wisconsin actually had a lot more sites of historic importance.