Antireligion and Anti-Religious Movements

Opposition to Religion and Religious Beliefs

Reflection of the church in puddle, Rome, Italy
Alexander Spatari Getty Images

Antireligion is opposition to religion, religious beliefs, and religious institutions. It may take the form of an individual's position or it may be the position of a movement or political group. Sometimes the definition of antireligion is expanded to include opposition to supernatural beliefs generally; this is more compatible with atheism than with theism and especially with critical atheism and new atheism.

Antireligion is Distinct from Atheism and Theism

Antireligion is distinct from both atheism and theism. A person who is a theist and believes in the existence of a god may be antireligion and opposed to organized religion and public expression of religious beliefs. Atheists who do not believe in the existence of a god can be pro-religion or antireligion. While they may lack the belief in a god, they may be tolerant of a diversity of beliefs and not opposed to seeing them practiced or expressed. An atheist may support freedom of religious practice or may be antireligious and seek to eliminate it from society.

Antireligion and Anti-Clericalism

Antireligion is similar to anti-clericialism, which is focused primarily on opposing religious institutions and their power in society. Antireligion is focused on religion in general, regardless of how much power it does or does not have. It's possible to be anticlerical but not antireligious, but someone who is antireligious would almost certainly be anticlerical.

The only way for antireligion to not be anticlerical is if the religion being opposed has no clergy or institutions, which is unlikely at best.

Anti-Religious Movements

The French Revolution was both anticlerical and antireligious. The leaders sought first to break the power of the Catholic Church and then to establish an atheist state.

The Communism practiced by the Soviet Union was antireligious and targeted all faiths in their vast territory. These included confiscating or destroying buildings and churches of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Shamanists. They suppressed religious publications and imprisoned or executed clerics. Atheism was required to hold many government positions.

Albania banned all religion in the 1940s and established an atheist state. Clergy members were expelled or persecuted, religious publications were banned, and church property was confiscated.

In China, the Communist Party prohibits its members from practicing religion while in office, but the 1978 constitution of China protects the right to believe in a religion, as well as the right not to believe. The Cultural Revolution period in the 1960s included religious persecution as ​religious belief was viewed as being contrary to Maoist thinking and needed to be eliminated. Many temples and religious relics were destroyed, although that was not part of the official policy.​

In Cambodia in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge outlawed all religions, seeking especially to eliminate Theravada Buddhism, but also persecuting Muslims and Christians.

Almost 25,000 Buddhist monks were killed. This anti-religious element was just one part of the radical program that resulted in the loss of millions of lives due to famine, forced labor, and massacres.