The Honesty of Atheism
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 arenít so very different from any other group
of people. While Iíve heard, and made, attempts to label us as
fiercely independent, in reality weíre pretty much like everybody
else. As in the religious community, there are atheists who
congregate with the like-minded and those who donít feel the need.
Like the religious with their labels, atheists disagree on exactly
what atheism is and who is and isnít 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.
Iíve yet to hear a Christian say he isnít oneóin 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 itís diseased.
A lot of atheists just donít 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, "Weíre 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
weíre 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 donít want to alarm the general public. While I can sympathize,
itís clear that the general public wouldnít be so outraged by the
word if weíd use it more freely. Unfortunately, many atheists will
outright claim they are not atheists when you try to pin them down.
While itís 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
The reality is that atheism is the only intellectually honest
position a person can takeóit is the only logical stance.
What is atheism? And why is it so misunderstood?
Letís be honest, right up front. People in the United States, for
the most part, donít 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 itís Satanic;
whateveróthey donít like it and people tend to revile and slander
what they donít like. For many, atheism is a steadfast refusal to
accept the reality of the Christian Godís 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 countryís least-trusted minority.
Americans rank atheists far below Muslims, homosexuals, and recent
immigrants when identifying those who share their vision for America
and those theyíd 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,
donít believe in any gods. There are only a few left, after
all, to not believe in.
In todayís 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 youíve 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 arenít 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 donít, 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 canít 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
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 doesnít, if he does not believe in gods, he is atheist.
An atheist could believe in astrology or alien abduction or
elves. He wouldnít be a rationalist atheist, but heíd 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 doesnít believe there is
one, heís 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
canít have religions; but their religions would be godlessóand 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 donít 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 itís not the same thing. To believe there is no god is just
as delusional as believing there is oneówhen 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 atheistís 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 godóno oneóand from that, to
refrain from the delusion of belief.
Many claim the position of not knowing is merely agnosticismóbut
theyíre wrong. Letís 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 labelsóa
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 didnít believe there was a god. When he said that
atheists and believers had "solved the problem of
existence"óatheists claiming knowledge that God did not exist,
theists that it did óhe 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 godsí existence. At
their origins, atheism admits a lack of belief, while agnosticism
admits a lack of knowledge. We are all without knowledge of godsóthe
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 Godís 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 Godís existence and believe one exists. One
would think there would be no gnostic atheistsóthose who claim they
have knowledge of the existence of one or more gods, but refrain
from belief in themóbut 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 didnít 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
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, weíll 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 donít need belief. I
donít have to believe that being hit by a car can kill you; Iíve got
lots of evidence of thatóenough to know itís true. I don=t
have to believe my spouse loves meóhe shows me by his actions that
he does. I donít need faith in the sunís shining to expect it to do
soóit 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 faithóacceptance 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 thatís what knowledge is. If he had the
knowledge he claims, he would not need the belief. We donít believe
knowledgeówe 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
Unfortunately, believers have managed to equate knowledge and
belief with impunityótheir 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 arenít
expected to believe in fairies. No one tells us that we must
open our hearts to the reality of fairies before weíll see that
fairies are very real. And more importantly, we arenít expected to
prove they donít exist if we say we donít believe in them.
We have no knowledge of fairiesóno evidence of their existence.
We have stories about fairies, but thatís all. When you donít have
knowledge about something, you either remain without an answer or
position regarding it, or you just believe what youíve 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 doesnít
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
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.
Itís 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 doesnít 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
wouldnít 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 Shermerís 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
incredulousnessóthe 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 canít imagine that life arose for no reason and without the
guidance of some greater beingóso they believe there was one.
People have a lot of emotion invested in life and they canít
conceive of it just ending. They canít tolerate the idea that this
is all there isóso they believe there is more after death.
There are so many questions people canít 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 donít know; people canít stand not knowing, so they
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 doesnít know. Thatís
enough for the atheist. Itís 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 doesnít mean that the various things people
believe about life and the universe have any basis in fact; they
donít. If they had strong basis in fact, no one would have to
believe in themóweíd 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 doesnít." 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 itóand 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
obviously doesnít exist.
atheists think you know everything.
Atheist: I don=t
have to know everything to assume your god doesnít exist. All I have
to do is listen to you tell me to believe in him. If I have to
believe in him, itís glaringly apparent he does not exist.
bashing me for my faith!
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 thatís 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 canít know is to
embrace the reality that can be knownóto 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, heíll 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 thereís someone else in their heads
doing your talking for you, so just forget it.
Atheists donít know that gods donít exist; weíre 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.
Thereís 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 itís 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 doesnít believe the stories are true.
Unfortunately, it rarely sticks because if theyíre all just
stories, then the atheist is right. If we donít 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
donít 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 doesnít 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.
Dianna Narciso is the author of
Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism. She
maintains the websites at
She is founder and [was] president of Space Coast Freethought
Association in Florida.
Narciso writes fiction under the pen names Dianna Dann, Dana
Trantham, and D.D. Charles and owns
Her published novels include:
Children of Path: The Kell Stone Prophecy Book One by Dana
The Wretched: The Kell Stone Prohecy Book Two by Dana
Zombie Revolution by D. D. Charles
by Dianna Dann (coming soon)
Runner by Dana Trantham (coming soon)
1. American Mosaic Project main page:
An article on the results published by American Atheists can be
2. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 1908; Edited by
James Hastings. Pertinent quotes can be found at:
4. The Harris Poll #59, October 15, 2003 can be found at: