Aug 152011

This is a summary of my article with the same title, which is more comprehensive and has lots of citations to support its assertions.

This page proposes roles and rules for religions in society to allow us all to coexist without conflict. Hobbies can coexist. Religious practices are hobbies.

A hobby is a spare-time recreational pursuit. Recreation is the expenditure of time in a manner designed for therapeutic refreshment of one’s body or mind. Believing that stamps exist isn’t a hobby. Hobbies involve activities, such as “stamp collecting”. Believing that a god exists isn’t a hobby. Religious practices are hobbies. They are not yet in lists of hobbies, but no list of hobbies claims to be complete.

Religions start as failed sciences, and continue as hobbies.

The struggle for a rational attitude towards religion

I tend to take a highly analytical approach to anything complicated. I prefer to have a rational and open basis for my opinions that I can justify to myself and to others. This page is the result of my analysis of the roles of religions in society. There were a number of steps over several years.

I assert that by realising that religious practices (customs and rituals) are hobbies, we have the means to analyse where the boundaries of religions’ roles should be, using existing well-understood examples that successfully allow lots of disparate communities to coexist. It is a model for coexistence that can’t be criticised as totalitarian or untried or contrary to human rights.

The principles are described below under two main headings: “Guidelines for religious practices” and “Politics and religious practices“.

Discussing religious practices as hobbies enables us to analyse situations with a clarity and objectivity that can get lost when the typically irrational doctrines of (contradictory) religions are used as a basis for decision.

Professional religious activity

Some people’s jobs are to practice, promote or support religions. These cases should be analysed by identifying the equivalent for other hobbies:

  • A pastor facilitates the hobbies of the congregation rather like retailers of photographic goods or photography teachers facilitate hobby-photographers.
  • A religious organisation employs pastors (in a general sense), in the way companies may employ people who facilitate hobby photographers, or perhaps acts like a trade-union for pastors.
  • A professional photographer does the equivalent to what a hobby photographer does, but gets paid for it as a job. It is not clear what the religious equivalent is, because there is little or no marketplace for religious products and services except for people who practice religion as their hobby. Perhaps the religious equivalent is a theologian?

These should be treated in the same way as the equivalent for other hobbies. They should pay taxes in the same way, and not have additional privileges.

Socially stable strategies

According to the World Christian Database, in the contemporary world some ten thousand religions are currently practised. Most of these don’t resemble Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. The core beliefs of these religions are incompatible, and with easy global communications it is probably impossible to say or do anything of significance that is not objectionable to members of at least one religion. Many religious people want to change society to be better aligned to the fundamentals of their religion, which would clearly make society less acceptable to many others.

An extreme that many religious people aspire to is some form of totalitarianism. This might be a “global Islamic State“, or a Christian Dominion within a particular nation. Another model might be that of political parties, where first one then another governs within a nation. So we might have a Christian state for a while, then replace it with an Islamic state, then have another type. But people want to practise their religion over a lifetime, not just for a few years at a time. We need an alternative that permits both coexistence and continuity, alongside people who don’t practise any religion.

Hobbies are demonstrably a case where people with different passions, sometimes bordering on obsessions, have achieved (reasonable) coexistence and continuity. It is rare for fights to break out between the photography society and the flower arranging society, except over the booking of the meeting hall! Sometimes different hobby-groups can cooperate with mutual benefit. The reasons include the expectations that hobbyists have of their roles towards society as a whole and towards other hobbyists in particular.

My assertion is that if all religious practices were treated like other hobbies by the state, by religious organisations, by religious people themselves, and by atheists, much of the conflict in the world would dissipate, without depriving adults of their human rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. The rest of this page expands on this.

(Disclaimer: I am a paid-up member of the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society, and Liberty, the human rights organisation).

This page is not concerned with the question of whether or not gods exist. If that question were to be treated as important, it would be necessary to resolve it with a degree of confidence that matched the impact of the consequences. Until that happens, we have to ignore that question when discussing the roles of religions.

Guidelines for religious practices

These follow from the fact that religious practices are hobbies.
The aim here is not primarily to document specific answers, although that is sometimes possible.
The aim is to show that sensible analysis based on this approach can lead to useful answers.


Believe what you like. There should be no thought police, and in fact it isn’t even possible. (Well … atheists tend to believe it isn’t possible. Many religious people believe their thoughts are being policed by their god!)


To what extent should one practitioner of one hobby be able to interfere with those of another? Where they both want to use the same resources, some conflict has to be managed. We already have many ways of handling such conflicts, such as “first come, first served”.

But interference because of matters of private rules, for example wanting to impose your own private rules on other hobbies, is not acceptable. For example, members of the flower arranging society should not be able to impose their own private rules on what the photographic society can do. They can’t say “it is wrong for anyone to publish photographs of roses because that has been agreed by members of our society”.

Private / public

Is it wrong for a photographer to carry a camera in public, or for a photographic society to display members’ photographs in the local library (with permission, of course)? Is it wrong for a flower arranger to display bouquets and window boxes in public, where they don’t cause a nuisance? Is it wrong for amateur singers to hold public concerts by prior arrangement? No.

Is it wrong for a naturist society to hold a parade along the high-street with everyone nude? Possibly, and at least special arrangements would be needed!

Religious festivals or other celebrations are often public. If they don’t cause a nuisance, and/or are by prior arrangement, they should be acceptable. In fact, it would typically be wrong for either atheists or other religions to prevent them. The people organising and running the festival, and everyone affected by it, should use “hobby” as the measure of what is acceptable. If aspects of the festival go beyond society’s normal boundaries for hobbies, they may not be permitted, or special arrangements may be needed.


To what extent should schools and other state organisations teach hobbies? Or to discriminate between hobbies, for example to promote flower arranging instead of train spotting? This depends of the ages of the children, what other lessons are impacted, the objectives of any national curriculum, etc. It also depends on what is meant by teach.

Typically, there are more important things for schools to do than teach hobbies during normal working time. If they do introduce hobbies, it should be on a non-discriminatory basis. There should be no effort made to significantly immerse children in any hobby in order to promote that hobby. Appropriate lessons should be used – flower arranging has little relevance to a class on physics, even though flowers obey the laws of physics!

Religions, more than many other hobbies, can claim to be relevant to the history and culture of particular nations. It makes sense to teach their place in history, in history classes. But the focus must be on their history and how this influenced their communities, good and bad.


Consciousness-raiser: “Children should not be labelled by their parents’ religion. Terms like “Catholic child” or “Muslim child” should make people cringe.”

Would it be OK to take your children angling with you? To give them the equipment, and let them try it? This sounds like normal parenting. Would it be OK to attempt to ensure that your children are anglers for the rest of their lives, to the exclusion of any other hobbies? That sounds like a form of child abuse, or at least child neglect. Would it be OK to prevent your children ever practising a hobby? No. What if your children don’t want to go angling with you? That is a good question – an exercise for the reader!

This is probably the biggest departure from my original position of “religions are OK when practised by consenting adults in private“. Parents must be able to involve their children in their religious practices. But not to the extent of inhibiting their ability to change their minds when they are old enough to make their own informed decisions. (Angling isn’t based on belief in things for which there is no evidence, and it could be argued that therefore religion should be more restricted than angling!)

Apostasy must be permitted without undue pressure once children are old enough to make their own informed decisions. Atheist parents themselves must not inhibit their children’s ability to adopt a religion later.


To what extent should employers have to cater for any special needs of practitioners of particular hobbies? Should photographers automatically be permitted to carry a camera at all times? Should flower arrangers automatically be permitted to wear a lapel bouquet in their uniform? Should employees be allowed to discriminate against customers who have a different hobby from theirs? Typically, the answer is no. (However much I may want to make an exception for photographers!)

There are good reasons for requiring employers not to discriminate against people because of factors that are not under the control of the (prospective) employees which don’t interfere with their performance in the job. (Race, sex, and sexual orientation are obvious examples of such factors, and disability is deserving of special consideration in a compassionate society). But hobbies (hence religious practices) do not deserve automatic special consideration.

Politics and religious practices

These follow from the fact that religious practices are hobbies.
The aim here is not primarily to document specific answers, although that is sometimes possible.
The aim is to show that sensible analysis based on this approach can lead to useful answers.


Should we have a minister for train spotting? Should we automatically give seats in the House of Lords to senior members of flower arranging and photography societies? Should the media always consult gardeners on moral issues? No.

The UK has a Christian background. That should be recognised as a matter of history. The UK once participated in the slave trade. That too should be recognised as a matter of history. We need a new model that handles coexistence of different practices without being inappropriately constrained by history.


Obviously hobbies (and therefore religious practices) must obey the law.

To what extent should the law have to cater for any special needs of practitioners of particular hobbies? It is best to have laws that achieve the required public-good effect, (for example, non-violence), rather than laws which attempt to identify according to special cases. It is the public-good effect that is important. And “public” means at least “all law-abiding citizens”.


To what extent should hobbies have special tax status, whether for charitable or other reasons? That is for each nation to decide for itself.

Having decided, those principles should apply to religious practices, given that they are hobbies.

Medical treatment

What should our attitude be towards parents who let their children die through lack of medical attention because they thought they could cure them by praying for them? Or because they believe that their religion prohibits that treatment?

What should we say if the child agrees with the decision not to have medical attention?

Think of “prayer” as part of a hobby; think of “their religion” as the rules for their hobby. Then ask “what should our attitude be towards parents who let their children die because they thought their hobby was a substitute for medical attention, or their hobby prohibited medical attention?” This would probably be a criminal offence, serious but less than murder.


Religious practices should have special privileges to the same extent that other hobbies have them, typically not at all. It is when people of specific religions try to claim more privileges than other hobbies have that atheists and people of other religions tend to object.

There is no justification to give Muslims (say) special privileges that photographers don’t have.


Are religious practices really hobbies?

An important fact must be taken into account. You can practise a religion without believing in its god. This page is about activities, not about beliefs, because it is concerned with social interactions.

Some activities used to be religious, but are now less so, or for some people not at all. Christmas is obviously based on Christian practices, (and before that, the practices of other religions). But side-by-side with people for whom it is a religious practice are those for whom it is “just” a social activity, where components (for example, playing music, acting in plays, singing) are hobbies. Halloween is another example, where the relationship with religion is even more distant. Yoga is a religious practice in India, but typically not elsewhere, and it is practiced daily by many Westerners as a method of exercise. The internal beliefs held by practitioners are irrelevant to the social impact.

Is there any characteristic of religious practices that distinguishes them from hobbies? I can’t identify one, either by examining definitions of hobbies or by looking at lists of hobbies. Even if there were such a characteristic, would it undermine the thesis of this page? I am not aware of any significant reason to treat religious practices, legally and socially, in a different way from other hobbies.

Is atheism a hobby?

Hobbies involve activities. Believing that a god exists isn’t a hobby. Not believing that a god exists isn’t a hobby. Believing that a god doesn’t exist isn’t a hobby. Being an atheist isn’t a hobby.

Activities arising from atheism, such as socialising, interacting in forums, or writing pages like this one, are hobbies!

(Is atheism a religion? No. See Wikipedia, Wiktionary, or any other credible dictionary. But it is irrelevant to this page, because atheist practices are hobbies to be evaluated along with religious practices).

Is this premature?

There are many initiatives to study the nature of religions and/or attempt to resolve conflicts between religious people and the rest of us. Why not wait for those to deliver?

Questions frequently arise such as “what should our attitude be towards parents who let their children die through lack of medical attention because they thought they could cure them by praying for them?” Such issues (and there are many of them) won’t wait. We need rational ways of making progress sooner rather than later. This page describes an approach that can’t be criticised as totalitarian or untried or contrary to human rights such freedom of religion and freedom of speech. It is a “safe” default position to adopt pending a hypothetical better approach.

What evidence is needed for a god?

This page identifies the roles for any particular religion without attempting to answer the question of whether that particular religion’s god exists. But religious people may justify their claims for extra privileges on the grounds that their god exists and supports those claims. Their privileges will be at the expense of others, and so they need evidence. What sort of evidence?

If we were talking about “what is the nature of the universe”, then we should demand scientific evidence. But we are talking here about coexistence and conflict-resolution within society, and a different type of evidence is appropriate. Courts of law are a conflict-resolution mechanism used by societies. Using the UK as an example, the conflict may be between the state and individuals (or groups), as in criminal cases, or between different individuals (or groups), as in civil cases. Therefore, court evidence is appropriate here. So if a religion demands privileges compared with other religious religions, there are two hurdles: evidence that their god exists, and evidence that their god supports their claim. Even after centuries, no religion could assemble evidence of suitable quality to be accepted in court. And a court’s normal way of discovering whether “someone” supports a particular claim is to interrogate them under oath, and no religion could bring their god to court.

My previous view about religion

My own moral code is based on a simple injunction: “Avoid harm to innocent people, otherwise let people do what they want“. Over perhaps 20 years I have analysed every single word and combination of words of that injunction in novel situations, and I have mentally built a “moral toolkit” that appears to work for me. (This toolkit includes “be intolerant only towards causes of harm and towards intolerance“).

Years ago I adopted an attitude that “religions are OK when practised by consenting adults in private“. This assigns to religions a well-established principle of tolerance, and it is largely compatible with my moral injunction above. But it is inadequate, especially where children are concerned, and without qualification it is unlikely to be taken seriously by most people. I can’t justify it in that form as a realistic policy.

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