Why do atheists define religion so narrowly?

Religion can mean a lot of different things to different believers, even to members of the same religion—only that believer can understand what her/his religious beliefs mean to her/him.

Posted: June 8th 2007

Russell Blackford www

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

vjack www

This question contains an important assumption that I’m not sure is accurate – that atheists define religion narrowly. My experience has been that atheists tend to be better versed in religion than many believers. It seems that religion is something about which we have often thought deeply, while many believers are content with blind acceptance.

As an atheist, I certainly recognize that religion can and does mean different things to different people and that great diversity exists even within a particular denomination of a religious tradition.

At the same time, I think that it must be possible for believers to reduce their belief system to a set of central principles. In other words, there must be some things which one must believe in order to accurately be classified as a member of a particular religious group.

Posted: June 9th 2007

See all questions answered by vjack


There are many forms of religious belief that need to be questioned, but some are more benign than others.

Generally, it is those theists who believe their holy scriptures are literally true and strive to impose scripture onto public policy that need to be addressed most urgently.

Atheists usually do not criticise Deists and Pantheists who hold a vague Spinoza-like concept of a spiritual transcendence, as these people generally do not harm society with their beliefs.

Posted: June 9th 2007

See all questions answered by RTambree


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