The term irreligion refers to a spectrum of non-religious belief systems, including secular humanism, agnosticism, atheism, and antitheism. It covers beliefs that are simply indifferent to religion, that reject religion, and that are hostile to religion. Irreligion is partly defined by cultural context. Today, atheism is the most common understanding of irreligion. In 18th-century England, even deism would have been considered an irreligious point of view.
Irreligion is increasing in popularity worldwide. According to a global poll taken in 2017, 25% of people claim they are not religious and an additional 9% are convinced atheists, with percentages in these categories increasing every time a poll is taken. A survey conducted in 2012 showed that 36 percent of the world’s population are not religious. Interestingly, irreligion does not necessarily coincide with a rejection of the church. Some countries that have high irreligion rates, like Sweden and Albania (over 50 percent for both countries) also show a high percentage of the population affirming that they are part of a religious group—Lutheran and Muslim for those two countries, respectively. Another demographic shows that 47 percent of atheists living in Scandinavia are also members of the national churches. The conclusion is obvious: belief in God is not necessary to obtain or claim membership in the organized church.
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees classified the irreligious as “sinners” (Mark 2:16). That is, the Pharisees considered themselves separate from anyone who did not follow their prescribed rules. There was the world of their religion—which added the Pharisees’ own traditions and subsidiary laws to the Law of God—the world of paganism, and the world of irreligion. The world of religion had plenty of problems. During His ministry, Jesus repeatedly confronted the religious leaders of that time, telling them that they were too focused on the rules and the tenets of their religion, hoping to find salvation in doing good works and in keeping their traditions, rather than in God (John 5:39). Their religious system was unhealthy and ineffective not only for themselves but for those they proselytized (Matthew 23:15).
Irreligion is often a reaction against the oppressive nature of religion that attempts to appease God or the gods. Finding perfection too high a goal, or the law too heavy a burden, or the gods too capricious, or their ears deaf to prayer, people turn away from religion. Thankfully, the true God has already been appeased, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:25). He knows that the law is a burden to man, who cannot attain perfection (Romans 3:10–11, 20), and He therefore provides salvation by grace through faith (Romans 5:1; Philippians 3:9). Jesus says to those in bondage, “Come to me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28).