Monday, April 1, 2013

Online Atheism

Last week, I talked about the internet's role in social progress. I covered feminism, race relations, and LGBT rights, but I decided to save one movement for its own post: the secular movement.

What? It's only been a day since catholic Easter? I am the biggest jerk.

The secular community is unique in how dependent it's been on the internet. Unlike the civil rights movement, the waves of feminism, and LGBT's own beginnings with the Stonewall riots, there wasn't really a secular rallying call before the internet. Sure, secular organizations did exist as far back as the 19th century, but their effectiveness as community builders was far out-shined by the online.

Furthermore, the secular movement's role in society takes on a different form than other movements. On the one hand, the prevalence of religious superstition has universally affected our social dynamics; religion, after all, has been used to disenfranchise women, the LGBT community, and racial minorities. On the other hand, atheists have far fewer direct disadvantages than other minority groups. Women are fighting to reshape a culture that is geared towards dis-empowering them. People in the LGBT movement have a documented legal disadvantage. People in the secular movement (at least, in the Western world) are not legally disadvantaged - the 1st amendment of the United States Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights guarantee freedom of religion.

Consequently, the secular movement is primarily a cultural movement in the West. Atheists fight an attitude, not a legal system. That's not to say that legal battles don't exist - America is dominated by a Christian culture, and sometimes it takes legal action to remind the ignorant that, hey, church and state are separate. However, people active in the secular community can primarily be defined by their willingness to vocally question other people's beliefs.

As an atheist myself, I have a soft spot for other secular people. I've always been less of a participant and more of an observer of the secular community, but I can say that the fusion of secular intellectualism with the online platform has produced some interesting results.

Let's see where we've come from, and where we are going.

Even today, atheists aren't popular people, and are one of the most distrusted demographics in our society. Secular people are even less popular than homosexuals and Mormons in the public spotlight. The jury is out on whether or not we're a little more trusted than rapists. It's historically been wiser for atheists to be quiet about their atheism. And since they were probably quiet about it, they were probably generally isolated from one another.

Click to enlarge. With friends like these...

As we entered the '90s, people began interacting with one another on usenet groups, and later, AOL and Yahoo chats. The chances were better for finding other atheists, but the early Internet was still pretty small. The oldest online secular group, the Internet Infidels, have a website devoted to secularism that dates back to 1996. They reported about 8000 distinct hosts (or, unique hits) in 1997. At this point in time, there was a little under 76 million people using the internet worldwide. Internet Infidels' user base spoke for about 0.01% of the online population. These weren't great numbers.

Then, starting in 2004, the old secular arguments began to be repackaged under publishers with more mainstream appeal. First it was Sam Harris. Then, in 2006, it was Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Then, in 2007, it was Christopher Hitchens. The so-called "new atheism" movement, responsible for bringing secularism to an unprecedented level of public attention, was on the rise.

The mid-2000s Internet responded by becoming the pulpit of new atheism.

Alas, poor Hitch.

Online resources began to explode in the name of secularism. There were the sites by the "new atheism" authors themselves, promoting their literature and promoting discussion about faith. As more secular groups got the hang of this newfangled Internet thing, more secular resources popped up on the web. In 2005, Fundies Say the Darnedest Things was launched, assembling quotes from inane fundamentalists. In 2006, an Index to Creationist Claims emerged, compiling all the germane arguments against creationism.

As the Internet moved towards Web 2.0, we began to see the emergence of prominent secular bloggers, with PZ Myer's Pharyngula blog in 2005, and Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist blog starting in 2006. That year also saw the creation of YouTube accounts from thunderf00t and The Amazing Atheist, individuals who shared their irreligious thought through video. The Rational Response Squad, formed in 2006, issued a Blasphemy Challenge that called for atheists to publicly declare their atheism on YouTube.

A perfect storm was brewing. The New Atheists had initiated a country-wide conversation on faith. The Internet, being a domain where only the best arguments survive, clung to the better points of that conversation and spread them like wildfire.

This was a time period that served as a rallying call. Atheists could finally find other atheists. As more people were going online, more people were being exposed to secular arguments. You could find some trace of atheism anywhere you went online - among your forums and your chat rooms.

And then, along came Reddit.

But probably not on a teapot in space.

Reddit functioned differently from blogs or video content. It borrowed elements from forums and imageboards, but with an emphasis towards content aggregation. Users would post links to stories from around the web, much like a bulletin board. Each link would have a thread for Redditors to discuss the link's contents. People now had a central hub to share secular content with one another. And it exploded.

Even when you look at the front page of Reddit today, you'll notice on the top header that the "atheism" sub-forum is featured. It has been on the front page of Reddit since 2008, a testament to its popularity on the site.

How popular is Reddit? Really popular - as of 2012, it was hitting over a billion page views monthly with hundreds of thousands of people actively participating in r/atheism. A running tally at the end of 2012 reports 400 million unique visitors over the span of the website's lifetime. Considering that about 2.5 billion people use the Internet worldwide, reddit - and therefore, its front page atheism sub-forum - has penetrated into the lives of 16% of the total online population. That's quite a step up from the '90s atheists.

Reddit and atheism form a virtuous cycle. Atheists gather on reddit to discuss secular topics. Reddit's atheism community (known as r/atheism) gains momentum and popularity, gathering attention from new people. Some of these newcomers become less religious as a result, with some going further into full atheism. These new atheists propel r/atheism to even greater notoriety, and start creating secular content on their own.  This is something that we've seen with blogs and YouTube videos, but reddit has the virtue of being a central hub.

And so, atheism finally penetrates into mainstream consciousness. Nowadays, secular student alliances are more common than ever on universities. Secular conventions like Skepticon have risen to prominence. Demonstrations and protests are more commonplace from the secular community than ever before. Secular charities and philanthropic movements are alive and well. And as this internet generation continues to grow up, the potency of the secular movement can only continue to skyrocket.

Most importantly, the number of people proclaiming no religious affiliation is on the rise.

Approximately 1 in 5 Americans are not affiliated with any sort of religion. We cannot make any claims on causation, but it's certainly interesting that, in an age where so much information on religion is online, more people are cutting ties with religious affiliation.

So goes the Internet, so goes the rest of the world?

Such success, however, is not without its controversy.

Even before atheism's rise to recent prominence, religion was already taboo in public circles. When atheism found its voice in the mid-2000s, it started rubbing against a pre-existing social rule: keep your religious thoughts to yourself. Perhaps in past context, this rule worked against the obnoxious evangelicals among us, but it has now become an obstacle for secular discourse as well.

One could argue that atheists aren't really breaking any social rules. For religious proselytizers, the basis of argument is faith, a topic that is practically inseparable from religion and therefore rightfully avoided. For a secular enthusiast, the basis of argument is often science, technology, and logical deduction. These concepts are completely appropriate in common discourse, but people take issue when those concepts naturally lead to statements about religion.

Is this inconsistent? Perhaps, but discussions are not always just about the arguments being made - especially when they're being made offline.

Social dynamics are complicated determinants of our behavior. There may not be clear justification for people's emotional reactions, but the lack of clear justification doesn't make the reaction go away. New atheism - in all its advice on argumentative points - does not emphasize how to work around those emotional reactions. This has given new atheism mixed receptions from people, religious and secular alike.

This naturally leads us to the issue of who is representing secularism.

Reddit is a mixed blessing - although it has united many common-minded atheists, it still suffers from the shortcomings of most online communities. There is very little quality control in participation and contribution. There's a very negative overlap between the undesirable internet denizens of reddit and the secular movement.

Stolen from okcgoldmine. People like this are on my side? How embarrassing.

This leads us to an important issue. There are lots of people who consider themselves irreligious. There are a lot more irreligious people than there were ten years ago, especially online. This means that the personal experiences of any two given atheists are not going to be as similar as they might have been ten years ago. If personal experiences are different enough, and if it matters that they're different, then there are going to be problems.

This issue reared its ugly head in mid-2011, in an incident known among online atheists as 'elevatorgate'. Rebecca Watson, an atheist blogger, was asked by a man to grab a cup of coffee in his hotel room. He chose to ask this question while they were alone in the hotel elevator at 4 in the morning. She later mentions the incident in her blog, about how it was an awkward situation, and about how guys shouldn't do that.

You know. Because of the implication.

This sparked a surprisingly angry backlash from denizens of the internet, culminating in Richard Dawkins telling her that she needs to grow a thicker skin. So began the arguments among those in the blogosphere. People were picking sides over who is right, who is wrong, if both were right in some ways, if both were wrong in different ways, ad nauseum. Rebecca Watson is still a polarizing figure among the atheist community, to this day.

Then there was the emergence of the atheism plus movement. In 2010, an Iranian cleric made the hilarious claim that natural disasters were caused by the immodesty of modern women. Atheist blogger Jen McCreight staged a demonstration now known as Boobquake, where women showed off some extra cleavage for a day. This sparked a lot of unwelcome discussion about Jen's cleavage, appearance, and sexuality in her blog comments, which persisted through to 2012.

Getting fed up with how the online collective couldn't get over her one day of extra cleavage, McCreight finally spoke about the topic of gender and atheism. She concluded that the atheist movement had to shift towards a greater emphasis on social justice, which she dubbed Atheism+.

On paper, the atheism+ mantra was not much different from secular humanism. In practice, it's led to further division among atheist bloggers. The people around atheism+ push social justice in a way that parallels tumblr's social justice warriors. And if you recall last week's blog, some of those tumblrs get a little out there. Reactions have ranged from bloggers levying attempts at reasonable criticism, to the creation of the Slymepit, a reactionary forum meant to counter atheism plus' own forum community.

I'm personally waiting for Diet Atheism, caffiene-free.

This brings us to the common theme with both Elevatorgate and Atheism+ - once upon a time, two demographics thought that the shared label of "atheist" was enough for them to understand one another. There was an under-appreciation for the different life experiences that are caused by differences in pedigree.

In these examples, the schisms were caused over the day-to-day different experiences of gender. But ultimately, these sort of schisms could have just as easily happened over racial or LGBT lines as it did over gender lines. Having secular belief as a common thread among people is not enough to bridge all gaps in experience. That is something that any semblance of a secular community must reconcile with itself. This is a monumental task, as it requires lots of empathy on the advantaged side, and lots of patience on the disadvantaged side.

This also means that the redditor neckbeard category of person and the tumblr hugbox category of person are going to have to try to understand each other. Knowing how the internet population works, that's probably even harder than your typical social justice campaign.

But the complexity of life experience, like the complexity of life's origins, is not irreducible. We simply need an enhanced effort in studying the differences between us, and what those differences mean in the context of society's human network.

And if it really is a matter of analyzing the human network, then perhaps the Internet, with its far-reaching insights on that network, truly is the best place to hash out this analysis.

Speaking of networks...what is the online atheist network like, anyway?

Maybe like this, but with more memes?

Reddit is the de facto hub of online atheism, but we've demonstrated how reddit cannot speak for all atheists. Plus, reddit's existence didn't invalidate the blog networks, the YouTube networks, the atheist forums, or the secular foundations. Obviously, they're still around.

The side-effect of the Internet being a vehicle for atheism is that there are many spheres of atheist activity online that may or may not interact with one another.  It may be too broad to be aptly dubbed a community. Some of these spheres of atheist activity are intensely isolated - Internet Infidels still chugs along with less than three hundred thousand visitors a month, a number dwarfed by the size of the general internet population. Freethoughtblogs registers at around 7000 in Alexa's US traffic rankings, and far lower than that in worldwide traffic rankings. How many atheists outside of the blog community actually care about the elevatorgate drama? We know lots of atheists go on Reddit, but what proportion of redditors go on the the blogs, or the channels, or the other corners of the secular web?

Maybe these questions about our human network are worth formal analysis. We have a vague sense that we're all connected to one another online, but how much do we know about the specifics of our information exchange? Could we model it? Could we optimize it?

Maybe there's no more an atheist community than there is, say, a feminist community. Just as feminism has many schools, and just as some feminists may find themselves embarrassed by other schools of feminism (how 'bout them trans-exclusionary radical feminists, huh?), some atheists may find themselves embarrassed by those who also share their label. In these moments, it's important to remember that there is not one kind of atheist, just as there is not one kind of feminist, not one kind of LGBT activist, and so on and so forth.

At what point does bridging the communications gap stop being a problem for the secular movement, and begin being a problem for people in general? There's something remarkably non-unique about the internal schisms in the secular movement. These kind of internal conflicts have popped up in virtually every faction or ideology ever, and it's resulted in many different kinds of outcomes. The best that a secular movement can do is avoid the circumstances that have resulted in the collapse of previous movements.

I am the kind of atheist that minds the current social context whenever I speak. There have been moments where I have argued passionately - and aggressively - about what I believe. There have also been moments where I have kept silent about my thoughts, out of fear or out of awareness that I did not have the social position to raise objection. Sometimes I admire the courage of those who speak out more readily than I do. Sometimes I wonder if those same people could pursue a more productive means of communication to achieve the same point. Sometimes I get angry and don't care how it's said, I'm just glad it's being said. Sometimes I am more lucid and think more about what battles are worth picking.

So I continue to be a passive observer of the secular movement. Like a lot of other things online, I've learned a lot from it. I think a lot of others can say the same. Maybe the best we can do is to never let ourselves stop learning, and we'll turn out alright.

Still...reddit is pretty gross. I'll do my learning in other places.


  1. After reading what you wrote about the schisms in beliefs internally by Atheists, it led me to think about another group that has had the same sort of problems ironically enough: Christianity. What I found interesting about this though is the time frame that these schisms took place in. Just looking back we could see the split between Catholicism and Protestantism, and then the many more fractions that those brought about took centuries to form. If we look at the time frame that Atheism took to become mainstream then fraction, it took more along the lines of maybe between twenty to thirty years conservatively. I just found it interesting how quickly that the social mediums of today allowed the dissemination and categorization of beliefs, and while we may say that it is an internal rupture of a group, I say it's really more of a phenomenon of society. Well anyways, just a thought, combined with sort of a point at the end. Keep up the great writing!

  2. You bring up a good point! That's an interesting parallel, and definitely a testament to the power of fast information flow. Definitely something worth thinking on further, to see how deep those implications go.

    Thanks for reading!