Irreligion vs Atheism

Posted by on January 25, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 3 comments


I hate labels.No not the ones you stick on your Tupperware to show you what’s inside. I mean the labels people use to describe themselves and others.

On the up side, they help people to decide where the person they are dealing with stands politically or socially, or whether they will see eye-to-eye on issues, in an instant. They give a quick insight into just what kind of person one might be dealing with, without having to be told a life story in order to do so. On the down side, they pigeonhole and group people based on the label, and can have negative or unsavoury connotations attached to them. Twitter and Facebook as mediums of communication rely on labels in order to help people expand their followings and followers, and also help with online debates to tell whether a person is being genuine or just having a bit of a laugh at the other’s expense. Whether you like them or hate them, labels are useful.

One label I use often is that of “atheist”. It is a label that declares I do not believe any god exists. In America, this is the most despised label there is, and not for reasons pertaining to the belief in god; The atheist is seen as “rude, obnoxious, angry, evil, liberal, communist, socialist, Nazi, sodomite”, and so on, but of course none of these extra meanings have anything to do with atheism. The label atheism is tarnished in the minds of many, and the mental and emotional baggage it brings can stir instant resentment. Whether the atheist fits any of these expanded labels is irrelevant. As an atheist, I resent this resentment. So what can we do about this?

An interesting point was brought up to me earlier this week, with regards to the difference between “irreligion” and “atheism”, and how the two can overlap and intersect. For many, they prefer to consider themselves irreligious as opposed to atheist, because irreligion may still leave room for a god or deity of some description, whereas atheism does not. Irreligion may also be used to describe an indifference toward religion, a dismissal of the relevance of religion, or an outright hostility toward religion. It seems the term has many different possible meanings, ranging from passive right through to active, and can be used by atheists and theists alike, depending on where allegiances, loyalties or philosophies lie for the individual.

The term “irreligious” can be interpreted in so many ways that it is difficult to pin down as a single description or attitude. It’s almost like the idea of “personal religions”, where people may have a “personal relationship with Jesus” or their own set of beliefs depending upon what works for them.

It is possible to be an irreligious and yet still believe in god. There are many who dislike the idea of an organised religion, who think that the specific tenets or dogmas of a given religious organisation may cause harm or are irrelevant to their lives, yet they still see room in the universe for not only the possibility of a god, but the necessity of a god to exist. This is a commonly held deist position, where people do not belong to a particular religion, yet believe in god. There are also those who think the whole idea of organised religion is irrelevant, and only serves itself, much like a virus’ only drive is to replicate and reproduce.

It is also possible to be an atheist and be irreligious. An irreligious atheist not only says there is no evidence nor need for a god to exist, but they think religion is irrelevant, boring or even harmful to humanity. One thing should be made clear here; if one is atheist, yet interested in religion, it does not make them a religious atheist. The opposite of “irreligion” within belief is “religion”, but within atheism it is something else. And although some seem to want to make a religion from atheism (Alain de Botton, Sunday Assembly, etc.), I personally would never become part of such a group, for I feel it undermines the whole idea of fighting against organised religions for their crimes, harms and failings. If atheism ever were to become an organised “religion” as such, I would probably have to disassociate myself from the term altogether, as it will have gained a meaning for which I no longer stand.

As strange as it may sound, it is possible to be religious and yet be atheist. Religions do not all depend upon the belief in the existence of deities, in fact, forms of Buddhism are as atheistic as they come. A religious atheist is one who practices a religion, yet believes there is no god.

Antitheism can be seen as irreligious in the sense that an antitheist actively seeks the end of religion, seeing the harms of organised religions as particularly harmful to humanity. Many antitheists can pursue this with an almost religious fervour, and are sometimes accused of being “fundamentalist atheists”. This descriptor is true, insomuch as it describes the fundamental, or basest, core of a person’s view of the universe, but “fundamentalist” has connotations that are almost exclusively in the realm of religion, and are almost exclusively associated with extremism.

I would call myself “irreligious”, because not only do I think there are no gods, but that religion, by and large, is a force for wrong-doing in the world, rather than the good it purports to do. In this sense, I see religion as a thing to be criticised (if not mocked at times). I am neither disinterested in religion (I find it fascinating), nor do I see it as irrelevant (it can’t be irrelevant if it affects so much in society). It is a very real and relevant topic to discuss; I think people could easily live better lives without kowtowing to the doctrines set out by men many hundreds of years ago, and whole societies could set aside any petty differences they may have in the name of religion. I don’t hate religious people, but I do dislike what religion does to people. It fosters a sense, however comforting it may be, that humanity is somehow more important than the rest of the universe. It also fosters ignorance, and makes people content in believing that which is not true. Because of the vague nature of its doctrines, its can be changed and manipulated to suit the wants of he manipulator. Because it is taught early for most, it sits deeply inside of people as a basis from which to grow and can affect many decisions that person makes.

No, religion is not irrelevant at all. In fact, it is very relevant, in the sense that it is a current and topical problem of today. While its usefulness may have passed, it’s not going anywhere soon.

The term “irreligious” is harder to spell than atheist, but it encompasses a wider spectrum of people than atheism ever could. I see many, who feel scarred by a tarnishing of the label “atheist”, looking for a better thing to call themselves. Maybe “irreligious” could foot the bill, since it is not exclusive to whether or not one believes in a god. To fight against the institutions of religion it will take more than the small group of people calling themselves atheists. It will require people from all walks and beliefs, wherever they may come from or whatever that may call themselves; From moderate deists and irreligious theists, to antitheists and atheists. Irreligion is a much more useful term, because it breaks down the barrier of the “god problem”. It removes any stigma of belief versus lack of belief, and allows for constructive conversations for those, whatever the belief, to remove the damaging influence that many religious folk see as their “duty to god”. Whether god exists or not is not the problem. The problem is the way people enact their beliefs, how they affect others in politics and cultures, and how they do this as though the creator of the universe is on their side. Irreligion, or a disdain for organised religions, especially within cultures, may be a label that can overcome many elements that the label “atheism” has gathered over the years.

Those irreligious people who see religion as simply an outmoded, outdated and archaic practice, one that is irrelevant to the goings on of the world, may not be as passionate about the separation of church and state, or the influences that religions have upon the lives of all people. And they simply may not care. But these people can be allies also when one points out how religion is affecting their lives, or the lives of innocents, or the lives of women and children. All it takes to get them onside too is to convince them of this harm, and show them how it affects them.

I am an irreligious atheist. Where do you fit into this labeling structure? Do you see this as a useful term?

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  1. Hello Martin:
    1) I understand and agree with the point you are making about the range of meanings of the word “irreligious.” It seems to me, though, that the breadth of meaning is exactly what makes the word not particularly useful. After all, if it can refer to anyone from you and me, who do not believe in any god and who dislike religion in all its forms, to someone who claims to be “spiritual but not religious,” then by itself the word doesn’t seem to do much of anything useful, and is hardly any different from the old term “anti-clerical.”

    2) Yes, the term “atheist,” at least in America, is a strong pejorative. So what? I use it proudly, an attempt to defang the use of the word by those who oppose what I stand for. As the old line goes, “The fool has said in his heart ‘there is no god.’ The wise man says it out loud.” Words such as “protestant” and “queer” have undergone similar appropriations by those for whom it was, at the first, a pejorative label.
    3) For the record, there is also a book by the mathematician John Allen Paulos (author of the famous book “Innumeracy”) entitled “Irreligion.” In it he refutes, in a breezy and informal manner, a number of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. It’s a quick, useful read.

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  2. Excellent post, Martin.Some atheists seem to feel a need to redefine the word atheism and turn it into a label, as theists have tried to do. If you’re an atheist, some atheists say, you must respect women’s rights and support a woman’s right to have an abortion and vote Democrat and support human rights and so on. Other atheists say being an atheist includes being pro-life, supporting responsible Conservatism and supporting Israel’s right to be intolerant of Palestinians and so on …
    Atheist simply means ‘not theist’. An atheist is someone who rejects theism. Most atheists also reject the ideas that have evolved from theism, ideas which are considered irrelevant or even damaging to humans and human society.
    The fact is that atheism is not a worldview but it can be part of a worldview. Yet some atheists want others to label them and their worldview as atheism to the detriment of others and their worldviews. Are they so scared of being socially isolated that they cannot accept that they have a worldview that is basically individualistic and merely includes atheism along with many other views like socialism or conservatism, altruism or self-interest, humanism and skepticism, or, more likely, a combination of many different views?
    Some atheists may feel the need to join with others with a similar worldview, but to try to redefine their own worldview as atheism is, for me, trying to give atheism a label it doesn’t need or deserve.
    On the other hand, maybe we have to accept that labelling is what humans do?

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  3. Yes very useful. Another great post, M.S.P.

    I see at least 2 contexts where those labels frequently get thrown around; the personal & the religio-political.
    On the left we can cope your 1950s beliefs if your don’t block these Bills based on 21st century thinking.
    But the right can see right through irreligious atheism because they’ve known since they were kids that it’s in fact 1955.

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