What is religion?

Atheists often talk about religion as though it were nothing but a set of factual and ethical claims. Few would dispute that religions include such claims, but surely there’s more to it. What do you think is the difference between a religion and a philosophy? Or between a religion and a club?

Posted: July 13th 2011

George Locke

Religion is like a club in a number of ways. Among other things, there are activities associated with it, people use it as a way to meet people, and it provides a sense of community for those involved.

It’s also like a philosophy or worldview. It gives an explanation for why things are the way they are, and it provides a moral system along with advice or prescriptions for how to behave.

Obviously, not all clubs offer a worldview, and not all worldviews are attached to clubs. There are further distinguishing characteristics between religions and worldviews in general or clubs in general. For example, the worldview offered by religions include a supernatural component (with rare exceptions), and religious clubs are unusually chauvinistic (exceptions to this one are more common).

These analogies break down like any analogies, but the bigger problem is that atheists often disregard the club-like aspects of religion. One of the common criticisms of the atheist movement is that it fails to offer a satisfactory alternative to religion, and part of what these critics are referring to is the social dimension of religion: the way the group comes together to help members having hard times, the benefits of interacting regularly with a socially mixed group, etc.

Of course atheism doesn’t really offer a worldview either, and we shouldn’t expect it to. Atheism is a response to a single question (“Are there any gods?”), but when a theist comes to agree with the atheist about how this question should be answered, she’s often giving up a lot more than just a belief in the supernatural. While atheists seem to have a handle on how to help religious people adapt their worldviews to atheism, we haven’t done nearly as good a job of offering alternative “clubs”. If we ever do, I think we can expect the transition out of religion to be a lot easier, not to mention the intrinsic benefits (and dangers) of such clubs.

For this reason, atheists should pay better attention to the social opportunities that religion offers.

Posted: July 29th 2011

See all questions answered by George Locke


Religion requires a belief in god, which I will roughly define as a supernatural entity. Philosophies do not. This may put some eastern religions in the philosophy classification, but I don’t think that’s problematic.

I’m not sure how to compare religions and clubs. Churches and clubs are fairly easy; churches are religious clubs that enjoy preferential tax treatment (at least in the US).

Posted: July 22nd 2011

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

brian thomson www

Atheists often talk about religion as though it were nothing but a set of factual and ethical claims.

Well, what else is there? You want there to be more, but what would that look like? “Spirituality”? We don’t believe in that: not because we have decided not to, or were told not to, but because we see no reasons to believe in any of that. As always, the burden of proof lies with whoever is making the claim.

I’ll let the religious produce a definitive definition of religion for their own benefit, but my working definition is that a religion has a creed, a set of dogmatic beliefs that put you “inside” or “outside”. All the major religions have one, in one form or another, even if it’s not written down in a canonical form and enforced (e.g. Buddhism or Judaism). It requires some degree of dogmatic belief to join the club: even if there is a tradition of questioning and debate about the details of belief; the assumptions may be unspoken and unwritten, but they’re there, as in Shintō.

Posted: July 20th 2011

See all questions answered by brian thomson


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