Is atheism really that hard to understand?

Last Updated on 2022-07-08 by Joop Beris

As an atheist, I can understand that people are perhaps surprised that I don’t believe in a god. After all, the majority of people on this planet is religious to some degree and even here in the secular Netherlands, many people believe there “must be something”.
However, what will never cease to amaze me, is the fact that people do not understand what atheism means. Atheism is consistently misrepresented, mainly by religious people. They try to argue that atheism is somehow just another religion. Is atheism really that hard to understand? Well, apparently it is because today I picked up on a truly awful piece of writing by a Brad Emery, who published an “article” in the Australia edition of The Huffington Post, entitled: “Dear Atheists, I Truly Admire Your Faith“.

I put the word ‘article’ above in quotation marks for a reason. I feel that an article is supposed to have some kind of substance or argument behind it but this particular bit of writing feels much more like a rant. And not a very clever one at that. The title sums up most of the inane ranting that follows because there is the ‘faith’ word. Emery is trying to equate atheism with religion by saying that atheism requires faith or is a faith. By doing so, he’s trying to level the playing field, as if atheism and religion are both similar positions. In reality, they are complete opposites.

Atheism is not a religion

I don’t know how many more times this one needs explaining but let’s do so one more time for the benefit of Mr. Emery and people like him.
The word ‘atheism’ comes from the Greek atheos, consisting of the parts a and theos. The Greek a means without, the word theos means god. Translated into English, that yields “without god” or “godless”. That’s all it means and all it will ever mean.

Atheists therefore are people without a god. Atheists don’t believe in a god, they don’t worship a god and there are no services or divine commandments. The astute reader will note that this sounds remarkably dissimilar to a religion, which typically have these things. Atheism is therefore a position of disbelief. It doesn’t require faith to not believe in anything. In case this is still hard to understand, here’s a picture that sums it up very well.

This is atheism
This is atheism

So, is atheism really that hard to understand?

Fallacy salad

Predictably, the ‘article’ goes downhill from there. Emery continues to misrepresent atheism, either out of ignorance or to serve his own agenda. Let’s look at some of the things he has to say.

The reality is the ‘beliefs’ of atheists require as much, if not more, faith as people of religion. It’s the refusal to acknowledge this that makes hard-core atheists so aggressive and somewhat unpleasant to listen to.

As I have just demonstrated, atheism is a position of disbelief, which requires no faith at all. Not believing in a god is about as effortless as not believing in leprechauns or the tooth fairy. Explaining this to theists is what costs energy.

First is their assertion that there is no god.

There is actually only a small percentage of atheists who assert that there is no god, a position known as gnostic atheism. Most atheists are actually agnostic about the existence of god. Personally, I feel that the existence of a god is highly dubious but I am open to evidence. Hence, I would fall in the category of agnostic atheists.

True atheists are marked by their opinion of where that primordial atom came from, which is that it simply came into existence of its own will.


Something coming from nothing; the first molecule just ‘popped’ into existence. This mantra of true atheism seems far from the ‘rationalism’ they espouse. In fact, ‘fanciful’ would be a more appropriate word

Actually, atheism has nothing to say about where the “primordial atom” came from. Atheism is not cosmology, atheism is not physics. Atheism is a disbelief in god, period. This means that atheists are free to believe that the entire universe was farted into existence by the celestial dragon one rainy Tuesday afternoon.
Emery is simply raising an argument from incredulity here, nothing more. Just because he can’t believe that Lawrence Krauss might be right, doesn’t mean that what Krauss has to say is fanciful.

…these abhorrent acts of Christendom should not be confused with the person or the teachings of the Jesus we read about in the Bible. One has only to read the ‘sermon on the mount’ in the book of Matthew to see that evil acts done by those who purport to be Christ’s representatives are abhorrent to Him.

Assuming there ever was a Jesus who ever held a sermon on the mount. Neither of these assertions are proven in any way. Just because they appear in your holy text, doesn’t mean they are actually true. Besides, Jesus also has some pretty awful things to say in the Bible. For instance, read Luke 12:47-48 NLT, where Jesus explains how to beat your slaves. Jesus also kills a fig tree for not bearing fruit (Mark 11:13). I’d be mighty careful take any advice from this guy…

Unfortunately, in pointing the bone at Christianity, atheist zealots such as Hitchens and Dawkins conveniently forget or completely ignore the 20th Century. It was during this period that some of the greatest atrocities were committed by regimes deeply rooted in atheism.

Emery asserts that the atrocities of the 20th century, committed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao are somehow the fault of these people being atheists, without demonstrating how this could be true. For an excellent refutation of this point, please see the blog of Michael Sherlock.
Besides, even if Stalin or Hitler had committed atrocities in the name of atheism, this in no way exonerates or absolves Christianity from the atrocities committed in its name. Emery is a committing a tu quoque fallacy here by saying that atheism is just as bad a religion which does nothing to prove that Hitchens and Dawkins are wrong about religion being a force for evil.

Possibly the hardest to swallow is the atheist use of the victim card, which runs along the lines of “I don’t have a problem if you’re religious, but don’t offend me by judging me for not being religious or by telling me what you believe”.

wpid-img_20151028_194419.jpgI am unaware of atheists saying these words but even if someone did say that to you, what is your problem in simply honouring that request? Does it cause you an inconvenience to not speak about the things you believe in?
I have no problems with people being religious. I don’t care what you believe in the privacy of your own home. However, if you are going to manifest your irrational beliefs in public, you should not be surprised if someone challenges those beliefs. If your particular religion is used to withhold rights or pass legislation, you deserve to be challenged. If you are going to insist that your particular brand of faith should be taught in schools, you need to be opposed. This is what most atheists do feel strongly about. That’s not playing the victim card, that’s standing up for freedom.

Personally, I have no problem with atheists, though it would be nice if they stopped pretending they are uniquely persecuted and acknowledge that their religion requires as much faith and has been as much abused by some of its disciples as any other religion on earth.

Mr. Emery, I am an atheist and I do not feel uniquely persecuted today, which I consider to be an improvement over several hundred years ago when people like me were burned at the stake by people of faith. What I will not acknowledge is that atheism is a religion because that quite simply is a false statement. Atheism is not a belief, it is a conclusion. I wish that people like you would finally understand and acknowledge that.

Stopped playing your game...
Stopped playing your game…
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[…] suspects such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and others. I’ve explored this list of sources in a discussion with Brad Emery here. In short, the passage in Josephus is widely regarded as a later addition to the text, Tacitus […]

Brad Emery
Brad Emery
2017-09-28 01:16

Another thought on the Luke Josephus (who copied who). I’ve checked out academic Steve Mason’s argument to which I assume you’re referring that Luke was ‘borrowing’ from Josephus and therefore couldn’t have written until after 100AD.

The problem is, if this were true, that Luke writes the entire book of Acts without a single mention of the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. That would be like us writing a history book and ignoring 9/11!

The fall of Jerusalem was a major prophecy of Jesus – one that leads to his trial and crucifixion. Luke would’ve written it down.

Luke even concludes Acts with Paul still being alive. Paul was eventually martyred during Nero’s persecution (67AD).

Now guess who’s living in Jerusalem circa 67AD? Who knows a thing or two about Jewish messianic prophecies? Was born in Jerusalem? And no doubt grew up hearing about Jesus? Josephus.

So let’s be real: Luke’s written along time before 75AD and 94AD.

Brad Emery
Brad Emery
2017-09-27 05:57

Hi again.

Great that we can have this dialogue. As you have done, I’ll respond to specific statements within your response:

“Why you insist a dis-belief is still a belief is something I find hard to understand.”

Your stated position is that you don’t believe there is a god. You have looked at the evidence, come to a conclusion and taken a position. Whether you like it or not, that is a ‘belief’. My point here is that atheists try to dodge around this key point, claiming ‘I’m not playing your game’ etc. The reality is, by its very nature, a conclusion based on evidence is a belief and since you cannot 100% with mathematical precision prove there is no god, your conclusion requires faith.

“Atheism alone doesn’t lead to violence, tyranny or genocide….”

This is the tired atheist defence…. ‘there is no connection between atheism and the acts of violence of the 20th Century.’

Dawkins uses this regularly in his debates – to quote him “What a person does not believe in cannot harm anyone can it?”

Well, yes it can when not believing in one thing entails a corresponding set of beliefs in something else that has the potential to inspire harm. I.e. Karl Marx “The abolition of religion as the illusionary happiness of the people is required for their real happiness” clearly influenced Comrade Nikita Krushchev who claimed he would show the world the ‘last remaining Russian Christian’.

Pulitzer Prizewinning writer Marilynne Robinson answered Dawkins (and your) defence that there is no link between atheism and violence:

“It is a peculiarity of our language that by war we generally mean a conflict between nations, or at least one in which both sides are armed. There has been persistent violence against religion – in the French Revolution, in the Spanish Civil War, in the Soviet Union, in China. In three of these instances the extirpation of religion was part of a program to reshape society by excluding certain forms of thought by creating an absence of belief. Neither sanity nor happiness appears to have been served by these efforts. The kindest conclusion one can draw is that Dawkins has not acquainted himself with the history of modern authoritarianism.”

As for quoting good ol’ Sam Harris, this was his comment during The Four Horsemen event at which he appeared with Dawkins, Dennet and Hitchens
“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Yes, there is a link between atheism and violence.

“The reason I don’t want to discuss how to read or interpret this particular quote (re Jesus and slaves)….”

With respect, that’s a cop-out. You deliberately slagged off the person of Jesus as not being someone to follow by misleadingly claiming he ‘teaches you how to beat your slaves’ and now you refuse to defend your writing or acknowledge it was a bit of a ill-aimed cheap shot.

“Your general argument about the lack of secondary historical evidence of the actual existence of Jesus Christ.”

Thanks for acknowledging Tacitus writings accurately mention Christ and his execution by Pilate.

Yes, there is conjecture over the writings of Josephus and even most respected Christian theologians like John Dickson acknowledge that there was some tom-foolery with the manuscripts. That being acknowledged, there is still general consensus that Josephus mention of Jesus were part of his original writings.
There are however, Professors from secular institutions who can outline this better than I.

Firstly, self-confessed agnostic, Ed Sanders of Duke University a leading historian on the study of Jesus:

“There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing he did during his public activity…”

Christopher Tuckett, University of Oxford, author of the Cambridge University textbook on the historical Jesus:

“All this does at least render highly implausible any far-fetched theories that even Jesus’ very existence was a Christian invention. The fact that Jesus existed, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate (for whatever reason) and that he had a band of followers who continued to support his cause, seems to be part of the bedrock of historical tradition. If nothing else, the non-Christian evidence can provide us with certainty on that score.”

Leading German New Testament historian, Gerd Thiessen stated this:

“The mentions of Jesus in ancient historians allay doubt about his historicity. The notices about Jesus in Jewish and pagan writers… especially those in Josephus, the letter of Sarapion and Tacitus – indicate that in antiquity the historicity of Jesus was taken for granted… All three know of the execution of Jesus, but in different ways: Tacitus puts the responsibility on Pontius Pilate, Mara bar Sarapion on the Jewish people and the Testimonium Flavianum (probably) on co-operation between the Jewish aristocracy and the Roman governor. The execution was offensive for any worship of Jesus. As a ‘scandal’ it cannot have been invented.”

The idea also brings into sharp relief the question of ‘why keep the conspiracy going?’. In the centuries before the rise and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, (thankfully challenged during the reformation), Christians watched their homes burned and more often than not were slaughtered along with their families.

Most conspiracies have a purpose i.e. to provide the conspirators with some form of compensation or advantage – power, money etc.

If Jesus was indeed a Christian conspiracy, his followers did an amazing job of keeping up the pretence during centuries of privation and slaughter from 30AD to 325AD when Constantine embraced it as the religion of Rome.

“It saddens me when Christians know so little about their Holy book….. add to that deliberate forgeries and copying mistakes, the New Testament is an utterly unreliable document.”

Nice back-hander. It saddens me when atheists ignore the fact that the majority of reputable historians and archaeologists acknowledge that the New Testament is the best attested document from the ancient world.

For example, you rightly point out that the oldest copy of any New Testament text is from around 125AD and is a fragment of John’s gospel. That’s the famous John Rylands Fragment which was copied during the reign of Emperor Hadrian.

Considering Jesus was executed in 30 AD, that’s a gap of about 95 years. So whatever it was copied from would have been very close to the original.

The next ancient secular work with the most documentary support is Homers Illiad with 643 manuscript copies, the earliest dating from the 2nd Century. That’s 1000 years between original and copy.

You mentioned only one of the old texts which I don’t think gives a fair representation of the sheer number of ancient copies of the New Testament.

There are 5,664 partial or complete manuscripts of the New Testament in the original Greek language that have been catalogued; and over 9,000 in early translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic and others. Added to this there are 38,289 quotations from the New Testament by the early church fathers, who wrote between the second and fourth centuries AD.

In terms of copying mistakes and ‘forgeries’ no two manuscripts contain exactly the same errors. Therefore, by comparing all these manuscripts with each other, it is possible to reconstruct the original text to a point where majority expert opinion agrees that what we currently have is accurate to the original text with only 2 percent in question.

Your reference that the first four books of the bible are ‘anonymous’ and that we don’t know who wrote them is pretty far-fetch, but it’s the first time I’ve heard that one, so hearing something new is always good.

Again, the weight of evidence is what provides us with the convincing assertion that the gospels were written by exactly who the Bible attributes them to.

Also the idea that Luke an eyewitness to Jesus, would lift anything from a writer who hated Christians and their leader is again far-fetched. Moreover, the idea that Tacitus was writing about ‘some other’ Messianic figure, lost to history, who lived and breathed at the same time and was also executed by Pontius Pilate is also a huge stretch.

And again, your obvious leaning toward the idea that there really wasn’t a Jesus of the Bible, still leaves the question unanswered – why maintain the charade if it only brought 200 years of persecution to early Christians and many more since.

I’ll finish this section with a comment from Sir Frederick Kenyon who was Director of the British Museum and a leading authority on ancient manuscripts.

He puts paid to your idea that the New Testament is ‘utterly unreliable’.

“The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.”

“Just because you get published doesn’t mean you write anything of quality.”

You’re right. Dawkins continues to prove that. I still think there’s something to be said for having the guts to submit a piece to public scrutiny and have it assessed by those with a slightly different view, such as your good self.


Brad Emery
Brad Emery
2017-09-25 04:00

Just read this – glad you took the time to outline your beliefs.

And you obviously place a lot of faith in those beliefs.

With respect, I think your argument that you have reached a ‘conclusion’ but that this does not constitute a ‘belief’ is really shaky. It actually makes very little sense. ‘I have concluded that a+b = x ….. but I don’t believe it’ would be a ridiculous proposition. I would argue that what you have concluded, you must also believe.

More to the point, it seems strange that you have come to a ‘conclusion’ and still regard yourself as an agnostic. Seems like you’re trying to walk both sides of the street on that one.

I do agree that most people who call themselves ‘atheists’ are actually agnatheists. However, Kraus, Dawkins, Hitchens etc do not fall into the category and my preface was that I was discussing those who follow their logic to the letter.

Your misrepresentation of my arguments regarding Christianity versus Atheism when it comes to acts of violence are palpable. My arguments were, firstly, that the acts of Christendom in the 12th Century were incongruous with Jesus and his teaching and therefore not representative of Christianity. Secondly, my direct response to Dawkins charge was not that there were no acts of horror undertaken by those claiming to be Christian (and by their actions so proving they weren’t actually Christian), but that a simple analysis of the 20th Century shows that those who followed the belief that ‘there is no god’ wiped out infinitely more people than ‘religious zealots’ during the same period. I was not trying to ‘exonerate’ the acts of Christendom. I was highlighting that in the last hundred years, the evidence for Dawkins assertion that religion is the pre-eminent cause of conflict around the world just doesn’t stack up.

Your misrepresentation of Jesus parable in Luke was typical and awkward. If you read the chapter and even the verse in context, you would see that Jesus was in no way ‘…teaching you how to beat your slaves’, as you put it. With respect, that’s actually a pretty juvenile reading of the text.

Jesus was using a cultural example to which those to whom he was speaking could relate. The men he was talking to at that place and time, lived in a world where captured enemies of Rome were made slaves, and where those with great debt could sell themselves into indentured servitude until their debt was paid. And yes, in those days the reality was that servants and slaves who disobeyed their masters did not have their pay docked or leave cancelled – they were beaten. Not a justification. It’s just what happened.

So you see Jesus wasn’t advocating the practice, he was using a cultural reality as an allegory. In this case, he was saying ‘at the time when I come again, make sure you’re ready (i.e. a believer), because if you’re not, it’ll be bad for you personally, really bad – yes he’s talking about going to heaven or hell. The only aspect of this allegory that Theologians often discuss is his reference to those whose non-belief stems from ignorance and the consequences being somewhat lighter – it’s a peripheral discussion for another time.

As to this one… ‘Assuming there was a Jesus…. neither of these assertions have been proved in any way.’ I’m happy help you with that one since you say you’re ‘open to evidence’.

Considering there wer no go-pros or tape recorders the first century AD, we have to rely on evidence and make a judgement call. Historians have done this for every figure from Julius Caesar to Marco Polo.

If the Bible were the only ancient texts that referenced Jesus or the rise of Christianity then perhaps the evidence of the New Testament alone might seem a lot less relied upon. However, there are multiple mentions of Jesus, the movement he started and his crucifixion, including the Roman politician and author Tacitus and the Jewish scholar Josephus (who was not writing favourable things about JC). In fact, there is more secondary evidence for the existence of Jesus than any other ancient figure, such as ol’ Julius Caesar himself. Funny the existence of that particular figure is rarely questioned.

Next take the accounts of Jesus from Gospels… Luke for example. Luke was a doctor and a historian – from his opening words he tells his original recipient, a Roman official, that he has decided to write an investigative piece on Jesus. “It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honourable Theophilus…”

He then goes on to place the events in a chronological context i.e. he doesn’t his account with ‘once upon a time, in a land far away’, but with a date and time.

He is giving authenticity to his account – ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus[a] that the whole empire[b] should be registered. 2 This first registration took place while[c] Quirinius was governing Syria.’ Other ancient texts and archaeological finds have corroborated that both these characters existed and held the positions as proscribed by Luke.

In fact the eminent historian and archaeologist Sir William Ramsey who spent 20 years researching the areas Luke was writing about in his gospel, has stated that of the thirty two countries, fifty four cities and nine islands Luke mentions in his gospel, he was mistaken about ZERO.

Former Director of the British Museum and authority on ancient manuscripts, Sir Frederic Kenyon, once stated that there is no more accurate ancient text that the New Testament. One of the reasons is because the very first copies we have were made from the original accounts and letters while many of those whom the accounts were about were still living i.e. the disciples, were actually still alive. Any falsities would not survive long.

In fact, we have so many ancient copies of the New Testament, experts in ancient texts have been able to check, cross reference and authenticate the book in such detail that for the entire book, it is believed that only 2% is in question. Again, these discrepancies are listed as being linguistic nuances that have no bearing on the meaning.

I hope this snapshot of the swag of evidence that exists about the existence and accounts of Jesus helps you reach a ‘conclusion’ on this matter too.

I do apologise that I only found your response to my blog now and that it has taken me so long to reply.

As for my work being ‘a truly awful piece of writing’, well, I will endeavour to hone my skills. Perhaps you should submit some of your writing to the editors of an international news service and expose it to public scrutiny. Just a thought.


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