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Secular religions

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Secular religion is a term referring to ideologies or philosophies that have no spiritual, supernatural, or religious components but which the speaker claims mimic the forms of religious institutions.

Various elements of religion can be replaced or mimicked. This includes the philosophical basis of religion as an attempt to provide meaning and metaphysical underpinning, including providing impetus for moral behavior and good deeds. But it can also involve mimicking the ceremonial and social aspect of religion, replacing gatherings for worship with other regular gatherings and communal experiences, and replacing religious rituals for life events such as marking births, marriages, and deaths.

Atheism as a religion[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Atheism as a religion

This is one of the most commonly encountered examples of this trend. Critics of atheism, usually conservative Christians, assert that atheism itself is a religious belief. It is somewhat bizarre that people who cherish so strongly the sanctity of their own beliefs should characterize something so alien to them as being a religion. One possibility is that they are so entrenched in their own religious mindset that they are unable to comprehend the idea of a non-religious belief. More likely, though, is that they believe they are pointing out some deep hypocrisy, in that atheists claim to reject religion while actually practicing it.

For atheism to be considered a religion involves stretching the definition of religion to its loosest possible meaning - something like "a belief based on faith", in this case faith that there is no God. Even this is tenuous, for while some atheists have a strong conviction (arguably equivalent to religious faith) that God does not exist, an atheistic (or at least agnostic) viewpoint can also be achieved from taking the scientific (and therefore irreligious) attitude of only accepting as real things that are observable based on evidence. The argument can be further refuted by analogy. If disbelief in God is a religion, then so is disbelief in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, unicorns and leprechauns.[1] The comparisons "Atheism is a religion like baldness is a hair color" and "Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby" are also commonly used.

In fact, of the secular philosophies which are inaccurately described as religions, atheism is the least like a religion of all, since it does not dictate a specific worldview. Contrary to the assumptions of many creationists, atheism does not necessarily require an acceptance of the big bang theory or the evolution of the species; it predated both of these. All atheism requires is the lack of belief that any God does exist. Unlike religions, atheism does not require any specific activities or observances. Assessed against the criteria which make up most definitions of religion (belief in supernatural beings, worship, ritual, etc.), viewing atheism as a religion just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.[2]

Do any atheists believe themselves to be practicing a religion? It seems unlikely. The only times they tend to take this position are in very rare cases over civil rights issues or to exploit a legal loophole. For example, in 2005 a federal court of appeals ruled in favor of a prison inmate's right to start a 'religious' study group for atheists. Ironically but unsurprisingly, when atheism is labeled as a religion the loudest objections come from conservative Christians, in this case the American Family Association.[3]

This criticism may not be totally off in every case, as in Alain de Botton's call to build "atheist temples",[4] though in many ways that example represents a form of architectural oneupmanship with religion, which heretofore had a near-monopoly on impressive and awe-inspiring buildings.[5]

While atheism is not a religion per se, one characteristic of the so-called "new atheism" is the fact that its proponents sometimes evangelize or proselytize in a manner reminiscent of some religious believers. For these "new atheists," it's not enough for them to not believe in God; they actively work to encourage religious believers to engage in critical thinking and skepticism in regard to their religious beliefs.

Christian-originated secular religions[edit]

Unitarian Universalism is probably the closest thing to an organized religion that deliberately makes room for secularism. Unitarian Universalists are free to (in fact they must) create their own approach to religious belief and practice; for many of them, that means a religion with no concept of God/gods or the supernatural.

The Quakers have a non-negligible proportion of atheists.[6][7] A 2018 survey of British Quakers found 14% were atheists and 43% felt unable to express a belief in God, attending meetings for a sense of fellowship rather than divine guidance.[8]

Many consider the Church of England to be asymptotically approaching being a secular religion, providing rituals like marriages and funerals and a place for the elderly to meet their friends, and with 2% of clergy reportedly atheist, though it still looks like fire-breathing fundamentalism compared to those two.[9]

Civil religion[edit]

A boy celebrates Memorial Day in Washington.
See the main article on this topic: Civil religion

Those who decry "secular religions" often mean attributes often found in religions that secular ideologies, especially those aimed at improving the condition of humanity, sometimes acquire. Nationalism can serve this purpose. For example, there is little controversy about the messianic (in the larger sense) qualities of Marxism. The United States' foundation as a bastion of liberty and individual rights is also driven by a strong belief that these are good and essential to human happiness.

Both Marxist and Western democracies have civil religions. The former Soviet Union staged public parades that featured images of Marxist culture heroes, and even shrines for pilgrimage such as Lenin's tomb. In East Germany, religious coming of age rituals like Roman Catholic confirmation (first communion) or Jewish Bar Mitzvahs were replaced by a state coming of age ritual, the Jugendfeier, which still persists in the reunified capitalist German state.[10] The United States' civil religion involves many rituals around quasi-sacred objects like the flag, and is heavily inflected with Christian tropes: the nation is The New Jerusalem, The Shining City on a Hill. America also has mythology about its Founders and esteemed presidents, with memorials and landmarks visited by the patriotic/pious. Some Americans, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, refuse to recite The Pledge of Allegiance, claiming that it is idolatrous. Other nations also have secular rituals such as citizenship ceremonies.

Evolution as a religion[edit]

This is a favourite argument of creationists, who like to claim that the issue of evolution (or, as they call it, "evolutionism" or "Darwinism") versus creationism "is not science versus religion, but religion versus religion (the science of one religion versus the science of another religion)". An example comes from The Lie: Evolution by Ken Ham,[11] but betrays a profound misunderstanding of both religion, which it defines only as a "cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith" (quotemined from Webster's Dictionary), and evolution. Ham's ridiculous argument seems to be that nothing can be scientifically concluded from fossils/evidence since we can study them only in the present and have no direct access to their role in the past, unlike "the irrefutable evidence of the Scriptures", which were clearly written in the time of Ken Ham.

From a more rational perspective, it is clear that the evolution of species is a scientific theory, predicated on scientific foundations and with scientific applications. Even if its acceptance is considered to be a matter of personal faith, it does not meet any of the defining criteria to be considered a religion.

In May 2015, Kenneth Smith filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson County, West Virginia Board of Education, the National Institute of Health, and Department of Education, claiming that evolution was a religion, and that it was therefore unconstitutional for his daughter's public school to teach it as fact. The suit does not mention any case law (e.g., McLean v. Arkansas (1982), "it is clearly established in the case law, and perhaps also in common sense, that evolution is not a religion and that teaching evolution does not violate the Establishment Clause."), and is high in errors and low in facts. Kenneth Smith is apparently the author of the pungent, racist Christian screed The True Origin of Man (2013).[12][13]

Philosophies drawn from "evolutionism" vary from social Darwinism to modern humanism. Some have more of a resemblance to religion, even if not meeting the full definition, but these are not part of the theory itself. Types of "evolutionism" that mimic religion often include notions that are decidedly anti-evolutionary or non-Darwinian. The notion of evolution as "progress," for example, heavily influenced thinkers such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Herbert Spencer.[14] Eugenics has often been characterized as a quasi-religious movement based on pseudo-evolutionary ideas. In fact, Charles Davenport, the grandaddy of eugenics in the US, produced a pamphlet titled "Eugenics as a Religion" that laid out a eugenic "creed." The movement became religious in the more literal sense as some Christian churches supported eugenics and held sermon contests for its promotion.[15] In modern times, E.O. Wilson has advocated using evolution as the basis of a quasi-religious mythos he calls the "epic of evolution."[16]

Environmentalism and 'nature worship'[edit]

Among the more persuasive variants of the 'secular religion' theory is an anthropological explanation proposed, for example, by Michael Crichton in his criticism of environmentalism. [17]

I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can't be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people---the best people, the most enlightened people---do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.[17]

Crichton controversially suggests that environmentalists look back to a fabled paradise state of Eden in which man lived in unity with nature, before deconstructing this idyllic view of nature which, in fact, few if any environmentalists have ever professed. Crichton points to a few similarities with religion, such as environmentalists' fear of 'apocalyptic' doom if humankind doesn't redress its 'sins' of pollution and destruction, before telling us that DDT and second-hand smoke are harmless. His argument that sustainability is put forward as a form of religious salvation makes little sense, since sustainability is a system for managing resources, having more in common with economics than with religion.

To its most devoted adherents, environmentalism may present a coherent, almost religious, worldview which is espoused with zealotry, but its core beliefs rest on scientific observations and theories (such as global warming, espoused by the "warmist cult") rather than the supernatural deities which characterise a religion. Conservatives often counter this by attempting to associate mainstream environmentalism with pagan worship of the goddess Gaia or Mother Earth.[18] The point is to conflate the groups of hard greens and neopagans that subscribe to a sort of religious version of environmentalism with all environmentalism. These types often engage in magical thinking about the environment, such as subscribing to hard forms of the Gaia hypothesis. It may also include a form of "back to the land" romanticism or anarcho-primitivism such as that found in the works of John Zerzan. These brands of hard green environmentalism are more commonly found among hard-line Malthusians.

Marxism as a religion[edit]

East German Communist Party Congress.
Primitive communism is Eden; the invention of private property is the Fall; the stages of society thereafter are the different dispensations of sacred history; Marx is Jesus, the First International his apostles and disciples, the international Communist movement the Church, proletarian revolution the Second Coming, socialism the Millennium, and communism the New Jerusalem which descends from heaven...
—The Archdruid Report[19]
In one important sense, Marxism is a religion. To the believer it presents, first, a system of ultimate ends that embody the meaning of life and are absolute standards by which to judge events and actions; and, secondly, a guide to those ends which implies a plan of salvation and the indication of the evil from which mankind, or a chosen section of mankind, is to be saved.
—Joseph Schumpeter[20]

In former Communist countries, Marx was given a personality cult and was viewed as immune to criticism. Critics of communism were labelled as "counter-revolutionary criminals" and were jailed or even executed, which is analogous to execution of critics of state religion on charges of blasphemy in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. This took the form of the Gulag system and Great Purge in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao Zedong. According to "Empire" by Richard Kapuściński, in the Soviet Union, the idea of creating a religion without a god was considered. However, during Stalin's rule, his cult of personality effectively led to a religion in which Stalin played the role of a god. In God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens speaks of his loss of belief in Marxism as closely analogous to loss of religious belief.

While it displays similarities in such practices, Marxism lacks the supernatural beliefs (although the "force of history" is close), rituals, and other common aspects of religions. However, in the North Korean offshoot of Marxism, according to official ideology, there are miraculous beliefs related to the ruling family. For example, the birth of Kim Jong-il was accompanied by winter changing into spring, a star illuminating the sky, and a double rainbow spontaneously appearing. Marxism as a memeplex is analogous to the model of a religion, even including something of the transcendent (in its eventual goal of "class consciousness") and a mantra by which to dismiss or insult any doubter or unbeliever ("false consciousness"). The prediction of an eventual worldwide revolution that would result in an essentially utopian existence has also struck many as having religious overtones, for whatever reason.[21]

Philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that Marx has merely adopted the Jewish pattern of history and that, in order to understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:[22]

Yahweh: Dialectical Materialism

The Messiah: Marx

The Elect: The Proletariat

The Church: The Communist Party

The Second Coming: The Revolution

Hell: Punishment of the Capitalists

The Millennium: The Communist Commonwealth

In June 2021, Chinese dictator Xi Jinping said that "all party comrades should take their faith in Marxism and the socialism with Chinese characteristics as their life's purposes".[23]

Liberalism as a religion[edit]

The most famous example of equating liberalism with religion is Ann Coulter's book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism (2006), in which she argued that liberalism has become America's "official state religion", complete with its own creation stories, gods, martyrs, clergy, doctrines, and sacraments. The argument basically boils down to a familiar attack on the curricula and values taught in public schools, whose teachers Coulter regards as "clergy" baptising children into the cult of liberalism, and the alleged liberal bias of the media. It also involves lumping together many beliefs and stances, such as evolutionary theory and the pro-choice movement, which, although held by many liberals, are not part of a strict set of political or religious tenets. Furthermore, it takes a really warped stretch of the imagination to see abortions as religiously motivated "virgin sacrifices", as Coulter apparently does.[24]

The market as a religion[edit]

Extreme forms of "neoliberalism" have been characterized as "market-worship" or "market fundamentalism" (as possibly coined by Jeremy Seabrooke and popularized by the nefarious George Soros).[25] Ernest Partridge identifies the sacred text as Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, which explicates the all-powerful force of "The Invisible Hand" (even though Smith himself would disagree with this interpretation). He further identifies conservative and libertarian think-tanks as "seminaries", pundits as the "priesthood", and the government as "the devil".[26] Mark Wexler has also used the concept of the invisible hand in connection with intelligent-design creationism.[27]

The Market-God can have various co-gods or sub-gods,[28] such as Capitalism[29] Business,[30][31] and The Economy.[32] (Our economy - not someone else's.) Politicians of the populist sect may conceptually subdivide the Market-God and concentrate on its divine offspring, the Job-Market-God.[33]

The Temple of Reason and Philosophy.

Reason as a religion[edit]

During the bleakest days of the French Revolution, the Cult of ReasonWikipedia was established by the newly-created French Republic. The atheistic state religion was created as an attempt to substitute the Roman Catholic Church, and would soon resort to the same methods used by its predecessor. The Cult of Reason transformed the Catholic altars into "Temples of Reason"Wikipedia and even had its own liturgy, the "Festival of Reason"Wikipedia. The persecution of the Catholic Church by the adherents of the new cult unsurprisingly strengthened the opposition to the Revolution[34] and, as a result, the Cult of Reason was replaced in 1794 by the Cult of the Supreme BeingWikipedia, which made the same blunders nonetheless. Both religions were finally abolished less than a decade after by Napoleon Bonaparte, who made Catholicism once more the de facto official religion in France.[35]

Transhumanism as a religion[edit]

Transhumanism has been characterized as a techno-utopian political ideology and a secular religion.[36][37] The Singularity in particular has been derided as a "rapture of the nerds".[38] Other quasi-religious concepts infest the philosophy, such as the Cartesian dualism implied by mind uploading and the quest for immortality in cryonics. Transhumanists themselves dismiss this as mere "pattern-matching".[citation needed]

Personality cults[edit]

Personality cults that lack supernatural elements are often characterized as secular religions. The Juche movement in North Korea, also referred to as Kimilsungism, is regarded by some as a religion, with worshipping former dictator Kim Il Sung as a major component.

There is similar sentiment regarding Objectivism, which is reflected in the term "Randroid".

Synanon, a drug treatment center with an authoritarian leader, even recognized its de facto status as a religion despite being a secular movement, and attempted in the mid-1970s to legally reorganize as the Church of Synanon.

Atheistic religions[edit]

Although atheism alone is not a religion, it is possible for an atheist to hold religious beliefs, and some religious sects or groups are largely nontheistic.[39]

  • Nontheist Friends are Quakers who do not believe in the personal God of the Bible.[40]
  • Many Theravada Buddhists lack belief in any deities in the traditional Western sense (the Buddha was not a god, although stories of his life often have supernatural aspects).
  • Some traditional schools of Hinduism, such as Carvaka, Mimamsa and Samkhya, are generally compatible with atheism.
  • LaVeyan Satanists almost exclusively deny the existence of God, but it's a very tongue-in-cheek "religion."
  • Unitarian Universalists have diverse views of theology, but Atheists and otherly Non-Christians outnumber Christians within the church.
  • There are various types of nontheistic Judaism. Beliefs usually range from strict adherence to the laws of the Torah without a belief in the Jewish god to those who simply were born into or participate in elements of Jewish culture, making it more of an ethnic than religious identity. This usually goes by the name of "secular Judaism," "cultural Judaism," or "Jewish atheism."
  • Dudeism is a non-theistic religion based on Taoism, using the film The Big Lebowski to spread its message of chilling out with White Russians,Wikipedia weed and going bowling.[41]
  • Raelism is a non-theistic religion that doesn't believe in [any Earth] Gods, however...
  • Humanism is not a religion, but organisations such as Humanists UK provide officiants for weddings and funerals, taking roles traditionally filled by religious figures.
  • Researchers of New Religious Movements note that some "therapy cults" have religious elements.[42]
  • AtheopaganismWikipedia upholds the values associated with Neopaganism (respect for Nature and others, equality of sexes, celebration of festivities as Halloween, etc), while at the same time having a secular worldview rejecting the supernatural elements, considering deities as personifications of different concepts, etc. and magic to be just psychological, and supporting science.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. See "Religion of Atheism" for another example of this counterargument.
  2. See "Atheism & Religion" and "Is Atheism a Religion? Defining Atheism and Religion", for a full analysis of why atheism does not fit common definitions of religion.
  3. "Court rules atheism a religion", World Net Daily, August 20, 2005.
  4. Oh, Please, PZ Myers
  6. Nontheist Friends website
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Nontheist Quakers.
  8. The Quakers are right. We don’t need God, Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 4 May 2018
  9. Two per cent of Anglican priests don't believe in God, survey finds, The Independent, 27 October 2014
  10. An Interesting Coming of Age Ritual in Germany,, Mar 6, 2017
  11. Reproduced at
  12. Antievolution lawsuit filed in West Virginia National Center for Science Education (May 22nd, 2015)
  13. Kenneth Smith, The True Origin of Man. iUniverse, 2013, via Google Books.
  14. See "Is Evolution a Secular Religion?" by Michael Ruse and Evolution as a Religion by Mary Midgley for further discussion.
  15. Topic: Religion, Eugenics Archive
  16. See the Wikipedia article on Epic of Evolution.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Michael Crichton, "Environmentalism as Religion".
  18. See, for example, Conservapedia's "Environmentalist" article, "Environmentalism as Religion" by John M. Ostrowski, and "Environmentalism is a Religion (Photographic Proof)" (which featured as a main page "news" item at Conservapedia during September 2008).
  20. Schumpeter, Joseph A., 1883-1950. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Third Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.
  22. Russell, B: "A History of Western Philosophy", page 363. Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1972
  23. China's Xi Jinping Tells Party Members Marxism, Socialism Should Be 'Life's Purposes'
  24. See "Is There a Godless Church of Liberalism or Atheism? Responding to Ann Coulter" and "Is Godless Liberalism a Religion?" for repudiations of Coulter's theory and explorations of why liberalism is not a religion.
  25. And then there was market, P. Sanaith
  26. The State Religion, Ernest Partridge
  27. Invisible Hands: Intelligent Designs and Free Markets, Mark Wexler: "The other invisible hand emanates out of the notion of intelligent design (Carey, 1998; Dembski, 2002; Ruse 2004)."
  28. Persons of the Trinity, demigods, saints - take your pick of the available theological terminology...
  29. Yip, Francis Ching-Wah (2010). Capitalism as Religion? A Study of Paul Tillich's Interpretation of Modernity. Harvard Theological Studies, ISSN 0073-0726. 59. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674021471. Retrieved 2018-07-27. 
  30. Evans, Alfred Bowen (1856). The Religion of Business: the Business of Religion. London: Edward Lumley. p. 15-16. Retrieved 2018-07-27. "That a life of business and a life of devotion to God must go together, with the Apostle's admonition before our minds, there can be no question [...] business and religion, the duties of this life and the preparation for the life to come, with a man of fervent spirit, are not two things, so much as two phases of the same thing." 
  31. Compare: Zender, Tom (2010). God Goes to Work: New Thought Paths to Prosperity and Profits. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 17-18. ISBN 9780470617700. Retrieved 2018-07-27. "It has even been stated that people today do indeed worship at work instead of at church. [...] Business-as-religion never took hold of the United States and the other major world states in the way conspiracy theorists once feared it would; but those brief years are just one example of how spirituality and business have attempted, and failed at, amalgamation. Spirituality and business have a natural attraction. Like opposite sides of a magnet, they are eternally drawn to each other through their similar roots. They are flipsides of the most basic of all concepts: the transaction." 
  32. For example: Friedman, Jonathan (2000). "Religion as Economy and Economy as Religion". System, Structure, and Contradiction: The Evolution of 'Asiatic' Social Formations. Walnut Creek, California: Rowman Altamira. p. 326 ff. ISBN 9780585246598. Retrieved 2018-07-27. 
  33. See the Wikipedia article on Job market.
  34. Roberts, J. M., & Westad, O. A. (2013). The History of the World (6th ed.). Oxford University Press. Page 739.
  35. Documents upon Napoleon and the Reorganization of Religion.
  36. Transhumanism – The Final Religion?
  37. Is Transhumanism a Religion?
  39. Religion Facts: The Big Religion Chart (last updated June 24, 2011)
  40. What is a Nontheist? September 20, 2006
  42. Arweck, Elisabeth (2006). Researching New Religious Movements: Responses and Redefinitions. London: Psychology Press. p. 116. ISBN 9780415277549. Retrieved 16 March 2021. "Schneider (1995: 189-190) lists organizations, such as Landmark Education, Verein zur Foerderung der Psychologischen Menschenkenntnis (VPM), Scientology/Dianetics, Ontologische Einweihungsschule (Hannes Scholl), EAP, and Die Bewegung (Silo) as examples of 'therapy cults'. These groups do not immediately suggest religion or Weltanschauung, but reveal ideological and religious elements on closer inspection."