Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Active rejection of either religion in general or any of its more specific organized forms. It is thus distinct from the secular , which simply refers to the absence of religion.

Irreligion is a reaction or alienative response to established religion. More specifically, irreligion is those beliefs and actions that are expressive of attitudes of hostility or indifference toward prevailing religion, together with indications of the rejection of its demands. The term hence covers actions as well as beliefs, such that the desecration of churches or anticlericalism would each come under the heading of irreligion . The value of the term is that it draws attention to a sociocultural phenomenon that is distinctive of the modern Western world. For, although atheism and skepticism have a history stretching back to at least Greco-Roman times, the widespread rejection of religion, especially in the form of organizations devoted to its elimination, is unique to modernity.

First appearing at the time of the French Revolution, irreligion has become a significant ingredient in such major modern movements as communism, socialism, and anarchism. However, the term is not always used this specifically, often being applied loosely to refer to the absence or rejection of religious belief (Demerath and Theissen 1966). In contemporary usage, it is increasingly employed as a synonym for unbelief, and thus the distinction between the areligious and the antireligious is often glossed, as too is that between those individuals with no religious affiliation and those who are members of organizations actively hostile to religion. For, although irreligion may be individual or organized, it is most noticeable in its organized form. The principal irreligious organizations are those for humanists, secularists, rationalists, and atheists. Thus the principal irreligious organizations in the United States would be the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, Freethinkers of America Inc., United Secularists of America, the Rationalist Association Inc., the American Rationalist Federation, the Freethought Society of America, the Secular Society of America, the American Ethical Union, and the American Humanist Association.

Colin Campbell


C. Campbell, Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (London: Macmillan, 1971)

N. J. Demerath III and V. Theissen, "On Spitting Against the Wind," American Journal of Sociology 6(1966):674-687.

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