Wordgames – Why ‘belief’ and ‘non-belief’ are not true opposites

I am always vaguely bothered by how religious people frame the argument of belief. In essence, they are ‘believers’ and I am a ‘non-believer’ or an ‘unbeliever’ or I ‘don’t believe’. They are ‘theist’, I am ‘atheist’. Except, I don’t see it that way. Why is the term that describes me the antithesis to the term that describes them? Now, I don’t go the route of some atheists and say that believers are ‘delusional’ and I am ‘rational’, but I see the point of re-framing the argument, of taking it back for us, the ‘non-believing’ community. It is partly because neither term fits: I do believe in things that aren’t real, like love and democracy, so I am not strictly speaking a non-believer. And it isn’t that I have moved away from god(s); there weren’t any to begin with.

Just so we are all clear on the issue, I want to underline my position. There is no god. There are no gods or divine motive forces. There are no angels, demons, miracles, fairies, or spirits, and there are certainly no leprechauns. There never were. They are fictions humans invented because they were scared of lightning and floods and the dark and death. We made up stories to comfort us in times of suffering and woe, to explain the (then) inexplicable, and we told these stories for so long they became part of the fabric of society. They were woven into our history, given pride of place in the systems of our lives, a position reinforced by blood and persecution, power and politics. But there is no god. There are no gods. There never were.

Let’s dig into a little bit of linguistics, shall we? ‘Belief’ comes from the Old English word belyfan, which means to have faith or confidence in something, in this case, the god of the Christians, commonly (are rather arrogantly) known as God. This word itself is derived from the hypothesised Proto-Germanic word *ga-laubjan, meaning ‘to believe, to love’ (the little asterisk means that we have no actual evidence for the use of this word, but it has been reconstructed from various sources by linguists). This, in turn, is derived from the Proto-Indo-European word *leubh-, meaning ‘to care, desire, love’ (you can see how we get the modern word ‘love’ from this root). The prefix ‘non-’ means ‘not, lack of’, and is ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European compound *ne (not) + *oi-no- (one). So, as a non-believer, I do not care for God, I do not desire Him, and I certainly do not love Him (let’s be frank, if ‘it’ is anything it is a ‘him’, because the patriarchy said so, it is described as a ‘father’ and with masculine terms).

Theist/atheist are from Greek roots, a + theos, ‘without’ + ‘god’. The origins of theos are a bit vague, but it has strong connotations of divinity, and was originally connected to the Greek pantheon (you can even see it in there, pan + theon, ‘all gods’). Early Christians themselves were accused of being atheist as they denounced all but one god. It is a pity they fell short at the last hurdle.

Now that we know what the words mean, I feel we are better situated to discuss what they mean. I often feel like believers understand ‘non-belief’ to mean a lack of belief in God, whereas I understand it to mean the other option: I do not believe in God (actually, it’s even stronger than that). There is a subtle but important distinction here. To lack something implies a void which ought to be full, an absence which should not exist. Believers inherently presume that they have something I am missing, some great Truth or Revelation, some greater understanding. Now, they tend to dress up this arrogant position as humility and claim that non-believers are the ones who are arrogantly casting aside God, but again, there is no god to cast aside, and we aren’t the ones claiming that an infinite power has deigned to listen to our every whim and desire, and that everyone else’s magical sky father is wrong. I do not lack. There is no absence. There is no void. And if there is, I have friends and family and comics and poetry and movies and the astonishing beauty of the universe to fill it. I don’t need fairy-tales to help me sleep at night. I do not lack belief; as I have said elsewhere, I do believe in non-real things: I prefer to live a life that believes in love and art, but I recognise these as subjective experiences. I do not believe in a divine force. But here again, I have fallen into the trap of describing myself using negation. There is no divine force for me not to believe in. Even the term ‘atheist’ presumes the position of a god-presence.

These terms are rooted in a position of privilege. Religion and faith hold an unfair and dominant position in most societies. Belief has been the accepted default position in most cultures for most of history. Non-believers have always been a minority, and have therefore been identified in terms defined by the majority: you am X, and I am not-X. This is pretty standard fare for all minority groups; they rarely get to self-designate. So, we who affirm that there are no supernatural forces at work in the universe are identified in contrast to those who do, and on their terms. We are the ones who see reality as it is, but we are named by those who adhere to an absurd and fantastical cosmogony.

You might be wondering, so what? Think of it this way. I am a non-smoker. I think it is weird that I am defined in opposition to what was once a popular pastime which involves inhaling carcinogens. The negation of the term implies that the person who is ‘not’ is the aberrant party, that the negative particle transfers a negative connotation to the individual. Indeed, there is an opposition of terms which conveys this: moral and amoral. There is a pejorative sense to being a non-believer or an atheist that is embedded in the term. You can see this if you flip the concept and think of a term that is socially understood to be a negative: I am not a non-sexist or a non-racist because we all agree (or we ought to!) that sexism and racism are moral wrongs. We don’t really need a non-X construction for these ideas, we just have to not be arseholes. One might argue that this isn’t entirely accurate, that we do have a term that has come to mean the opposite of sexist: feminist. On the contrary, my understanding of the word ‘feminist’ is that it is a very broad, all-encompassing idea of treating everyone equally, so it far exceeds a mere opposition to ‘sexist’. (But, I hate to break it to you, if you aren’t a feminist, then you are a sexist).

Indeed non-belief and atheism can be understood include those who believe in the wrong god(s). They are very ambiguous and unhelpful terms. You too (he said, speaking to a hypothetical religious reader) may seen as a non-believer, an atheist, by another faith. Maybe you don’t believe in Allah or Vishnu or some other divine force. For whatever faith or religion you adhere to, you are a non-believing atheist in all others. So, even you as a believer, have something in common with me: we are non-believing atheists. What divides us is that I and others like me just take this non-belief in all-but-one divine force to its logical conclusion.

What then, you may ask, ought ‘non-believers’ be called? Nothing. We shouldn’t be called anything. It’s like the word racist. I don’t have to describe myself as a non-racist. I am just not racist (as best as I can be within the confines of my own privilege). I don’t need to be described as a non-racist because I do not adhere to the racial prejudices of racists. I’m just not an ignorant arsehole. Except racism is real, and it is really stupid. Like, really stupid. So, it is more like believing in unicorns and Big Foot. I can’t be a-unicornist or a non-Big Foot-er; they aren’t real. Now, while you may be able to believe in unicorns, I cannot believe in unicorns. And equally, I cannot not believe in them – there is nothing for me to believe or not-believe in. A unicorn is a fictional animal, it is something humans invented in our wonderful imaginations, but there is no target at which one can direct belief. There are no unicorns (unless you are child, in which case, why are you reading this, and unicorns are totally real and awesome, like the Ninja Turtles and Jake the Dog). The simple fact of the matter is I don’t believe in fairy tales and other unhelpful and outdated ideas.

Except, of course, that won’t do. I have to be described as something. I have to use words to outline my ideological position. And when I state my position, people will immediately leap to the most common terms: atheist, non-believer. And, frustratingly, I can’t think of a better word. I can’t use ‘secularist’ because that doesn’t encompass the same sense; indeed, I have secular friends who believe religion ought to be an exclusively private matter (I agree). ‘Humanist’ has a similar difficulty. I know some otherwise very rational believers, so ‘rationalist’ won’t do. Objectivist is too abstract, and it has been appropriated by idiots…

I have it. I know what I am.


I am free of the tyranny of faith, I am free of the burden of belief. I am not beholden to Iron Age concepts of the universe and humanity’s place within it. I am not bound by primitive blood-rites and gross misunderstandings of human biology. I am not tortured by the fear of being punished for eternity by a god laughably described as ‘loving’. I do not have to adhere to a system designed to exclude women, a system often used to oppress and denigrate others. But I am not truly free as these vulgar codes are bonded like a parasite to our modern laws. We do not have to look too far or dig too deep to find the religious underpinnings of sexism, racism, sexual violence, persecution of minorities, and the general abrogation of natural human rights. But I am free in my mind at least, and, slowly, in reality. But until we are all truly free, I suppose ‘atheist’ will have to do.

I assert that we are all equal and have the right to be treated fairly, irrespective of sex, gender, race, belief, or non-belief. The fact that I do not coddle myself with belief in a divine force does not impact on my personal morality or my understanding of ethics – it does, I would argue, improve it, as I am free of the prejudices of faith. I do believe in freedom, which means I believe you are free to believe in divine forces (which definitely do not exist) and that I am free to not, and I look forward to the day when this freedom is paramount. I encourage you to read everything. Read other religious texts, read philosophy, read history and politics. See how faith and belief have shaped the world, and not always for the better. Learn how much of our social ills are rooted in faith and belief in unhelpful and outmoded concepts.

I affirm that there is no god, there are no gods, there never were. We made them up.

I look forward to the day that we are all free.


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