Partly inspired by Greta Christina’s thorough and beautiful takedown of some of the common misunderstandings of atheism, I would like to address another one. It goes like this:

Atheism is a belief-system, just as Christianity is. Christians believe God exists; atheists believe He does not.

This is deeply wrong, as has been explained at length by scores of atheists over the last couple centuries. I am going to rebut it with a method of my own devising, which I have not seen elsewhere.

Take just this part:

Christians believe God exists; atheists believe He does not.

The word ‘belief’ is used with two different meanings in this one sentence.

Let’s take the atheist clause first. My belief that there are no gods is of the same type as my belief that the closest coffee shop to my house is called Peet’s, that coffee beans turn black when roasted, and that when heating coffee in the microwave, you’d best remove that metal spoon. I have acquired these beliefs from personal experiences in the world. I believe that there are no gods because I have looked mighty hard for them, and have found not the tiniest hint of evidence.

I could add that people I trust have done the same kind of work and had the same result; in fact, there are several other categories of reasons that bear on this question. All support the same conclusion, and for now, I leave them all aside. Based solely on my experiences of the world around me, I reckon that no deities of any significance exist on this planet or anywhere nearby.

Now, the Christian clause in that sentence uses the word ‘belief’ in a different way. “I believe in God” does not mean anything like “My experiences of the world suggest that there is a deity nearby.” Preachers and theologians the world over will tell you that you don’t learn about God from looking at the physical world, and in this case I totally agree with them. You cannot tell by looking around that God is in there, or out there, or whatever. That’s why, as everyone knows, you have to take it on faith.

(There are people who say they can “prove” that God exists. But the mainstream view is that God is invisible. In general people don’t tell atheists “I can prove there’s a God”; instead they say, “You can’t prove there’s no God.” The consistent message of Christianity over 20 centuries has been that you have to have faith that God is there, even when it seems pretty fucking obvious that He’s not.)

So when someone says, “I believe in God,” they are not using the word ‘believe’ the way they would be if they were saying, “I believe there’s a post office on J Street.” When they tell you about the post office, they are relying on some sort of empirical support; either they have seen the place themselves, or someone told them about it, or they saw it on the web, or something. Aside from practical jokes and so on, no one would tell you about a post office on J Street unless they had some reason to believe it was there.

And that’s how I mean it when I say that I ‘believe’ that there are no gods. I have a reason. Lots of reasons. But no one has reasons of comparable kinds for saying that they ‘believe’ in God. The two usages are completely different — almost opposite, in fact. One implies reliance on evidence; the other, rejection of evidence. They’re spelled the same, but they’re different words. Look at it again.

Christians believe God exists; atheists believe He does not.

See? It’s sneaky. They look parallel, but they’re not parallel at all. The truth is more like this:

Christians have a belief that God exists; atheists do not.

Not quite right, but it’s a lot better than what we started with. The reason it’s not quite right is that Christians don’t actually have a belief that God exists.