It’s true that atheists are often most concerned about the Abrahamic monotheisms, but that does not mean that they take an especially narrow view of what religion is.
For atheists, part of the trouble with religion is that its leaders typically do not keep their personal beliefs to themselves. Instead, they claim a special knowledge and wisdom that enables them to tell other people how to live their lives, and to tell governments what laws they ought to enact.
In the Western societies where many atheists live, it is particularly the popes, priests, and preachers from various Christian denominations who claim that kind of moral authority. Increasingly, they are joined by Muslim imams and scholars.
Atheists, of course, deny that such people possess any moral authority. The religious leaders base their pretension to a higher moral wisdom and knowledge than the rest of us on their study of holy books and religious traditions. But these were not, in fact, inspired by any supernatural intelligence; they are all-too-human products from earlier, more ignorant, often more barbaric, times.
Thus, atheists in Western countries tend to be most concerned to point out the implausibility of the Abrahamic God, whose supposed existence gives religious leaders their hollow claim to moral authority. It is considerably less urgent, at least in Western countries, to criticise the claims made by Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, neo-pagans, and the adherents of modern cults, such as Scientology, or of vague New Age ideas.
That is not to deny that these are all religious ideas. Nor is it to endorse any of them as harmless; in fact, some may be far from it. But there are questions of priorities. For example, pronouncements by the Vatican, or by prominent Protestant fundamentalists, are more likely to influence American foreign policy and criminal law than those of a leading practitioner of wicca.
There is very little urgency in disputing the claims of philosophical deists, who postulate the existence of a distant, uninvolved creator, and do not claim to have imbibed any moral wisdom from such a being. Atheists don’t see the need for such a creator, but nor do they see deists as taking a position very different from their own when it comes to any practical issues.
Posted: June 14th 2007
See all questions answered by Russell Blackford