This essay was original published in Russ Kick’s anthology, Everything You Know about God is Wrong (2007) and is included in the second edition of Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism (2014)
Some time ago, after American Atheists president Ellen Johnson made an appearance on a national news program, an acquaintance of mine opened conversation saying, “I saw your leader on television last night.” I was duly confused. Her statement was not much different from telling a Catholic the same thing after seeing Pat Robertson on television. The difference being that few, if any, atheists look to any particular person or organization as representative of their “beliefs.”
But, then, atheists aren’t so very different from any other group of people. While I’ve heard, and made, attempts to label us as fiercely independent, in reality we’re pretty much like everybody else. As in the religious community, there are atheists who congregate with the like-minded and those who don’t feel the need. Like the religious with their labels, atheists disagree on exactly what atheism is and who is and isn’t an atheist. One thing that sets atheists apart, I suppose, is that, while the religious may claim other people of their faith are not truly a part of the flock, it is often atheists themselves who claim not to be atheists. I’ve yet to hear a Christian say he isn’t one—in fact, they all seem to be clamoring for defining rights to the word. On the other hand, many atheists run from their label as if it’s diseased.
A lot of atheists just don’t like the word. They use various other labels to get around it: Humanist, freethinker, agnostic, nonreligious, secularist, materialist, and rationalist, to name a few. When put on the spot during the early stages of my atheism, I once told a woman, “We’re not church people” in a polite attempt to turn down an invitation. Sometimes polite is an excuse for gutless.
Often we use one of our other labels as a “polite” way of saying we’re atheist. For some reason, using the word that best describes our position with regard to the existence of gods is considered in-your-face…rude. Some atheists use these other terms because they don’t want to alarm the general public. While I can sympathize, it’s clear that the general public wouldn’t be so outraged by the word if we’d use it more freely. Unfortunately, many atheists will outright claim they are not atheists when you try to pin them down.
While it’s frustrating to have atheism misunderstood and mischaracterized by the religious, to hear it maligned by fellow atheists is disheartening. Much of the trouble in which atheists find themselves can be laid at their own feet, it would seem. Too many insist that atheism requires an absolute certainty or belief that gods do not exist. They prefer the word agnostic, mistakenly thinking it describes a skeptic, a doubter, or a person who just doesn’t know.
The reality is that atheism is the only intellectually honest position a person can take—it is the only logical stance.
What is atheism? And why is it so misunderstood?
Let’s be honest, right up front. People in the United States, for the most part, don’t like atheism. We could debate the various reasons why: it casts light on their own doubts; they believe it threatens the moral fabric of our nation; they think it’s Satanic; whatever—they don’t like it and people tend to revile and slander what they don’t like. For many, atheism is a steadfast refusal to accept the reality of the Christian God’s existence. And that is, apparently, unforgivable and worthy of contempt.
According to the 2004 American Mosaic Project, a survey of U.S. households conducted by the University of Minnesota Department of Sociology, atheists are this country’s least-trusted minority. Americans rank atheists far below Muslims, homosexuals, and recent immigrants when identifying those who share their vision for America and those they’d like their children to marry.  These results should not surprise atheists.
Atheism has a long history as the term used for anyone refusing to fall in line and worship whatever gods are in vogue at the time. The poly-theists called monotheists atheists for not worshiping local gods; their behavior was considered, at best, rude. The Romans, for instance, called the Christians atheists. With the growth of monotheism, atheism and paganism were seen as one and the same and reviled as evil.
Historically, the word was not intended to describe a person who “believed in no gods.” No, the word atheist was generally used to describe a person who “does not believe in” one or more particular gods. Atheists of today, by virtue of living in a world in which the vast majority of god characters are no longer proposed as real, don’t believe in any gods. There are only a few left, after all, to not believe in.
In today’s America, there is a line not to be crossed in religion. Believe what you will about God or gods and you will be, at the very least, tolerated; but abandon belief in deity altogether, and you’ve committed an unforgivable act of reason. You have dared to suggest that the natural world is all there is. This will not do.
The agnostics are better tolerated because they seem to be saying they aren’t sure. It is preferred that you be certain there is a god. To be unsure is at least admitting you are open to the possibility; but to be certain there is no god is to be unreachable. Adamancy in belief is good; adamancy in unbelief is evil.
This is a strange hypocrisy of belief. With it, you can claim you have knowledge when you don’t, and call it reality. But you can then say someone who lacks your belief is making a claim of knowledge, and call such certainty delusion.
One reason that atheism is so misunderstood by religionists is because it must be. They can’t fight its logic and honesty when properly defined so they make it mean what they feel comfortable attacking. The meaning of atheism is confused by atheists as a result of living in a society in which the term has been so maligned.
All our troubles with the word boil down to the difference between belief and knowledge. Atheism is nothing more, nor less, than a lack of belief in deity. Theism is “belief in deity.” Atheism is without that belief. Regardless of whatever else a person believes or doesn’t, if he does not believe in gods, he is atheist.
An atheist could believe in astrology or alien abduction or elves. He wouldn’t be a rationalist atheist, but he’d be atheist just the same. A person could admit he has no idea whether or not there is a god; but as long as he doesn’t believe there is one, he’s an atheist.
Atheism is not a religion. Atheists like to say, “If atheism is a religion, baldness is a hair color,” or “If atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby.” This does not mean that atheists can’t have religions; but their religions would be godless—and they would be individual choices, not something all atheists share.
Some atheists distinguish between strong and weak atheism: strong atheists claim no gods exist, weak atheists just don’t believe in any. There is no real difference between these types of people. Either way, neither believes in gods.
Some say that strong atheists “believe” there is no god. I would hope they mean to use the word “believe” as a synonym for “think,” though it’s not the same thing. To believe there is no god is just as delusional as believing there is one—when we properly define the word believe. Note the subtle difference between believing there is no god, and not believing there is a god.
The strong atheist is not one who “believes” there is no god. Instead, unlike the believer, the strong atheist bases his claim on evidence. In that respect, the basic difference between the strong and weak atheist is the weak atheist’s hesitation to either state the obvious, or examine it. That is where the honesty of atheism lies. There is no evidence for the existence of gods, and some good evidence that they do not exist. The honest position is to admit that. All atheism asks of a person is the honesty to admit that no one knows whether or not there is a god—no one—and from that, to refrain from the delusion of belief.
Many claim the position of not knowing is merely agnosticism—but they’re wrong. Let’s take a moment here to realize that people use labels the way they want to use them. The other reason atheism is so misunderstood is that language is a fluid thing. We are all the time hashing out just what it means to wear a certain label, and unfortunately that process results in the invention of more labels—a few interestingly perfect, others completely useless, and some creating more havoc in an already confusing topic.
Agnosticism, for instance, in the public mind is doubt, being on the fence, not sure if there is a god or not. In the true sense of the word, as Huxley coined it, agnosticism is a claim of lack of knowledge about the existence of gods. The Gnostics of history claimed direct knowledge of God; Huxley, believing atheists claimed knowledge that there was no god, decided to call himself agnostic: he claimed to have no knowledge of the existence of any god. 
But Huxley was an atheist, whether he understood the word or not, because he didn’t believe there was a god. When he said that atheists and believers had “solved the problem of existence”—atheists claiming knowledge that God did not exist, theists that it did —he was wrong.
It is only by demanding that atheism requires certainty, or knowledge, that gods do not exist, that a person would find need for a word that describes a lack of knowledge of gods’ existence. At their origins, atheism admits a lack of belief, while agnosticism admits a lack of knowledge. We are all without knowledge of gods—the agnostics are just the ones who admit it.
Defining gnosticism as “declaring knowledge of the existence of god or gods,” there are agnostic theists who admit they have no knowledge of God’s existence, but still believe it exists. There are agnostic atheists who admit they have no such knowledge, and logically refrain from belief. Naturally there are gnostic theists who claim knowledge of God’s existence and believe one exists. One would think there would be no gnostic atheists—those who claim they have knowledge of the existence of one or more gods, but refrain from belief in them—but no doubt, they=re out there rationalizing their disconnect daily.
In a 2003 Harris Poll, four percent of those calling themselves atheist/agnostic claimed to be absolutely certain there is a god.  I have conversed with a few former “Christians in rebellion.” They claimed they knew all along that God existed, but they were either angry with him or just didn’t want to live by his rules and so refused to worship him. They called this “atheism,” now that they were back in the flock. [This attitude would explain why so many claim atheists know God exists and are only angry at him or want to lead licentious lives, as people often project their own failings onto others.]
Whether or not that unexpected four percent in the Harris poll was due to rebellious believers, functionally neurotic atheists, people using a strange definition of agnosticism, or people accidentally giving the wrong answer, we’ll never know.
Of the four choices in the gnostic/agnostic theist/atheist range, gnostic theism is the more perplexing proposition. Belief is an active acceptance of something without evidence, or despite it. If you have enough evidence for a position, you don’t need belief. I don’t have to believe that being hit by a car can kill you; I’ve got lots of evidence of that—enough to know it’s true. I don=t have to believe my spouse loves me—he shows me by his actions that he does. I don’t need faith in the sun’s shining to expect it to do so—it has done so every day of my life. I have confidence in these areas, not belief. Confidence in something is only warranted when there is evidence to support it. Evidence is based on observation and repeatability. Belief is faith—acceptance without evidence.
If the gnostic truly had the knowledge he claims to have, he could share it with others; it would be factual, testable, and reliable because that’s what knowledge is. If he had the knowledge he claims, he would not need the belief. We don’t believe knowledge—we know it. And we know it because it is repeatable and based on observable evidence. Yes, much knowledge is probabilistic. There is no absolute certainty in matters other than logic or definition, for example; there are degrees toward certainty. Knowledge is what you have when you come very close to certainty.
Unfortunately, believers have managed to equate knowledge and belief with impunity—their belief is considered knowledge. But let the atheist claim that gods do not exist due to lack of evidence, and he is pounced upon with demands for proof there is no god. “You can=t know everything,” they say; “But you must think you know everything to say there are no gods.” This is twisted logic.
Often atheists do make the claim that there is no god. We base this position on observation and evidence. There is just as much evidence for fairies as there is for gods, and yet, we aren’t expected to believe in fairies. No one tells us that we must open our hearts to the reality of fairies before we’ll see that fairies are very real. And more importantly, we aren’t expected to prove they don’t exist if we say we don’t believe in them.
We have no knowledge of fairies—no evidence of their existence. We have stories about fairies, but that’s all. When you don’t have knowledge about something, you either remain without an answer or position regarding it, or you just believe what you’ve been taught or told or dreamt up. Only when you have knowledge, can you honestly take a position or claim to have an answer.
That is why belief in gods is disingenuous, and atheism is honest. There is no evidence for the existence of gods, despite the claims of believers. To believe is to dissuade oneself from seeking the truth.
Belief in God has become so ingrained in our society that it is the accepted norm. Claimants are rarely asked to show any evidence for their belief, or to even describe what they mean when they use the word “god.” But when forced to confront skeptics, theists are adamant that there is ample evidence that a god exists. And in their endeavor to elaborate, we come to realize that the word “evidence” can be just as maligned as “atheist.”
The “evidence” given for the existence of gods in our culture comes from Christian apologists, but can easily be transferred to other religious notions of god:
Everything has a cause, so there is a God, who doesn’t have a cause
Life exists, so God exists
Miracles happen, so God made them happen
The Bible is so fabulous God must have written it
Biblical prophecy can only be explained by the existence of God
Answered prayer proves God exists
Subjective Experience proves God exists
The effects of belief prove the belief is true
The spread of Christianity proves God is the one, true God, and Jesus was his son
These arguments are taken very seriously by very serious people. Volumes are written on them. Syllogisms are presented and debated. It’s all good fun for some, but these arguments can be dismissed very easily. They all require a leap of faith from what is unknown to an answer that has no evidentiary support.
For example, if everything has a cause, God must have one also. If God doesn’t have to have a cause, some things are obviously exempt. To say that only God is exempt is cheating. To say that only things that “begin” to exist have a cause and God never “began” is cheating. Saying everything has to have a cause proves nothing except that you are assuming what you think will further your argument. If it has been shown that the universe had a beginning, it tells us absolutely nothing about whether or not there is a god. In other words, even if everything did require a cause, we still wouldn’t know what that cause is.
Michael Shermer, in his book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (WH Freeman, 1997), outlines twenty-five fallacies that lead to errors in thought and allow people to accept invalid ideas as truth. Among these fallacies are the belief that bold and forceful statements and the use of scientific language make a claim true; problems with placement of the burden proof; reasoning after the fact; rationalization of failures; and an inability to distinguish truth from false analogies, coincidence, and appeals to ignorance.
Belief in the veracity of the aforementioned “evidence” for gods is nothing more than Shermer’s fallacies at work. We have no evidence for the existence of gods. What people have is lack of knowledge, and lots of faith. People react credulously to their incredulousness—the unknown is a vacuum that for millions of people must be filled with something to banish the gnawing discomfort of not knowing.
Millions either refuse to accept the factual evidence of evolutionary theory, for example, or are unable to understand it. They can’t imagine that life arose for no reason and without the guidance of some greater being—so they believe there was one. People have a lot of emotion invested in life and they can’t conceive of it just ending. They can’t tolerate the idea that this is all there is—so they believe there is more after death. There are so many questions people can’t answer, so they believe the answers given them by their cultural religions. The universe is so big and weird. How did it get here, anyway, and why is anything here at all? We don’t know; people can’t stand not knowing, so they believe.
The difference between a believer and an atheist is that the believer will believe a story that helps him deal with his lack of knowledge. The atheist will admit he doesn’t know. That’s enough for the atheist. It’s not enough for most people probably because they are taught from a very early age that believing is a good thing. Believing is fun; believing makes you feel safe and happy. But that doesn’t mean that the various things people believe about life and the universe have any basis in fact; they don’t. If they had strong basis in fact, no one would have to believe in them—we’d all be able to know.
It is somewhat understandable that atheism would be equated with a certainty that no gods exist. The atheist says “I see no evidence that a god exists, so it probably doesn’t.” The important difference between that stance, and one of belief or certainty, is that the atheist awaits facts before accepting the existence of gods, while the theist believes. The atheist is open to evidence; the theist has already decided the question.
Belief is delusion. Belief is based on your feelings and ignorance, not on any factual evidence. If you had factual evidence for what you believe, you would not have to believe it…you would know it—and we could all share in that knowledge; we would all come to the same conclusion, the same god, the same story.
We can see now, the error of the theist promoting his god:
Theist: Believe in him.
Atheist: He obviously doesn’t exist.
Theist: You atheists think you know everything.
Atheist: I don’t have to know everything to assume your god doesn’t exist. All I have to do is listen to you tell me to believe in him. If I have to believe in him, it’s glaringly apparent he does not exist.
Theist: Stop bashing me for my faith!
Atheist: Yeah, yeah, whatever.
There is no evidence that a god exists. If there were, we would all know that a god exists. Sure, there would still be deniers, just like those who refuse to accept the evidence of evolutionary theories. And that’s what many believers would like to make of atheists: deniers. The difference is that we have a great deal of evidence for evolution; it can be found in the museums of natural history, in magnificent and scholarly tomes and journals, and more importantly, in the fossil record. There is no such evidence offered for their belief, only assertions.
We must always remain open to new evidence that would enhance our knowledge. But until such evidence arrives, the intellectually honest position is to refrain from believing in propositions for which it is lacking. To lack belief in what you can’t know is to embrace the reality that can be known—to revel in the vastness of the unknown, to wonder, to muse, to imagine…and then return to what we know, to live as best we can in the face of it.
But this is unacceptable for the believer, who insists we all share his delusion. If you refuse, he’ll claim you have your own. You will occasionally run into the senseless individual who will, with a straight face, tell you that there is no difference between lacking a belief and having one. Do not talk to such people. They can see your lips move, but there’s someone else in their heads doing your talking for you, so just forget it.
Atheists don’t know that gods don’t exist; we’re just fairly certain of it based on a severe lack of evidence for them. Believers try hard to paint the atheist into a position of absolute certainty so they can better attack him. Believers figure that atheism is a belief just like theirs, only opposite. “After all,” they claim, “everyone believes something.” Delusion needs company to survive. In company, it can hide and spread in the shadows of ignorance. We must bring it out into the light.
There’s a trigger, somewhere in the human brain, I=m sure, that people just miss. Their thinking dances around it, avoiding logic by every means possible. One day though, for some of us, something hits it. Someone says something like, “I don=t know how we got here and neither do you” and the trigger fires and they suddenly, though too often only briefly, understand lack of knowledge, lack of certainty, lack of belief. They get that it’s all just different stories: the Jewish story, the Christian story, the Muslim story, the Hindu story, the Wicca story; and they get that the atheist just doesn’t believe the stories are true.
Unfortunately, it rarely sticks because if they’re all just stories, then the atheist is right. If we don’t really know, then the atheist is the only one looking at the situation honestly. If no one knows, belief is just delusion, a salve for the mind, a bedtime story to soothe us into sleep.
And if no one knows, maybe the material world really is all there is. Maybe we really do cease to exist when we take our final breaths. Fear creeps in and sets the blocks of belief back in their places and the dishonesty begins anew. We can not honestly admit we don’t know because we can not accept that we are a part of this earth and we will die.
“What a sad state of affairs,” the believers lament. Perhaps. But sad doesn’t mean false anymore than comforting means true.
And so, we come to the truth at hand. As there is no evidence for gods (admitted by the theists who tell us we must believe in it before it will seem real to us; and as having to believe in anything is verification that it has no evidence for it and is therefore delusional), the only intellectually honest position one can take is that of atheism.
I myself do not believe in belief.
1. American Mosaic Project main page: http://www.soc.umn.edu/amp/
2. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 1908; Edited by James Hastings. Pertinent quotes can be found at: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/sn-huxley.html
4. The Harris Poll #59, October 15, 2003 can no longer be found.