Those delightful internet Atheists

This article by Max Andrews is a must-read for anybody who wants to do any kind of ministry online that may, in any way, touch on the question of the truth of Christianity. People need to be ready for the internet Atheists. I want to highlight a few points from it and offer a clarification from some of my own observations.

First I want to highlight that Atheists are not the only people who behave like this. Andrews says as much, but he only covers it briefly and his comment to that effect is near the end. I want to draw greater attention to that point. Christians can act like this too and, though I have not directly dealt with them, I’m told a similar pattern exists in Muslim circles as well. Depravity is a universal human problem after all. I know I certainly used to operate a lot like what Andrews describes (minus the profanity) so I hope nobody reads the article – or my comments below – as though this were strictly an Atheist issue.

Having said that, though, the subculture of internet Atheists (and it’s not all the Atheists on the internet, of course) have turned this kind of behavior into a fine art. Do a search for “William Lane Craig” at youtube and find any video of his that has comments enabled (here’s one example). Skim through the comments. From my experience internet Atheists have more than earned this criticism. In fact, this tendency of certain Atheists toward unmitigated hostility, total lack of anything intelligent to add to the conversation, and a general lack of civility has been observed and bemoaned by… other Atheists! Here’s one example (mind the language / thematic elements). Michael Ruse (another Atheist) shares some similar comments with respect to Richard Dawkins whose tactics almost perfectly mirror those of the internet Atheists. In fact, as Max Andrews suggests, Dawkins seems to serve as an inspiration for many of them. More on this connection in a minute, but first another example.

As well as blogging here I am involved with another ministry that has a website and a blog (whyjesus.ca). We recently received a comment that was nothing more than a quote of one celebrity’s thoughts on the Judeo-Christian religion, followed by a few lines from the commenter which I have reproduced below (with all the **** profanities removed).

Religion is mind rot. And a bunch of deluded Stone Age bull****. It is candy for the weak minded.

And stupid as ****ing hell!!

Ironically, Max Andrews gets a string of comments (not quite as vulgar as this example) beneath his article that help settle his primary point. It’s like the old joke that if claim Islam is a religion of violence then you will start getting death threats from a certain sub-culture of Muslims (obviously not all of them). If you claim Atheism has a problem playing nicely with the other kids then you can expect some Atheists to start calling you “poo-poo head.”

Why do they talk like this? I don’t have a complete answer, but here is an insight that may shed some light. One Atheist I dialogue with somewhat regularly (nice guy; he seems to buck this trend) pointed out to me that Atheists make up a very small portion of the general population (well below 10%) but on the internet they can have a much larger cultural impact. Their attraction to the internet is no coincidence. In the real world they are isolated and outnumbered; on the internet they feel the strength of their collective numbers as they group together in discussion forums, chat rooms and youtube comment boxes. And when they feel empowered, well, this is apparently how many of them choose to express their power.

I would suggest the problem is growing larger than Andrews describes. He attributes it partly to the anonymity of the internet (I concur; this is a problem that I explore in Arguing with Friends) but I have noticed a disturbing trend in recent years; even without anonymity Atheists are starting to act like this. Andrews only touches on this fact, but I think it deserves more attention and consideration with respect to how the conversation will look in the years to come. One of the features of the New Atheism is the drive to “come out of the closet” so to speak. They are emboldened to behave like this in public, without any effort to hide their identity. At the recent “Reason Rally” Richard Dawkins very publicly encouraged his faithful flock to mock and ridicule those with religious convictions. With somebody as influential as Dawkins acting as a role model we can probably expect more Atheists to drop their facade and say what’s on their mind without making any effort to hide their true identity.

In other words, it will get worse before it gets better; be prepared. Read the article so you know what to be on the lookout for. My book covers some of the same concepts, but at more depth than a blog entry can, and I provide some guidance for how to deal with it when you face it. And face it you will. If you have any internet presence, and you take a stand for the faith, this phenomenon will eventually find you out. Max Andrews does a great job of describing what it looks like at the present time, but I want to suggest that we need to think ahead to what forms this may take as more internet Atheists drop their cowardice, step out from behind faux names and internet anonymity, and make their religion bashing all the more personal.

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5 thoughts on “Those delightful internet Atheists

  1. Some atheists have decided that communicating with those with faith regarding the existence of God is a complete waste of time, breath, and energy. We are moving on to other things; like activism and getting your religion off our bodies and out of our government. 😉

    • Well I am glad you took the time, breath and energy to let me know that you will not waste any time, breath and energy discussing these matters. As you have unequivocally closed the door on conversation I will not ask any questions, but I will let you know you are welcome back to the discussion at any time. Cheers.

  2. I think it is a little crass that you accuse atheists of cowardice for not using their real names. Atheists are routinely mocked by the religious, accused of every fault imaginable and hatred of atheists is literally part of religious dogma.
    “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good.”
    – Psalms 14:1
    The above is not just some spleen venting by a random theist online. It is apparently the revealed wisdom of God. As an atheist online, it is hard to go a single day without some theist cheerfully pronouncing ‘The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”’
    The world in which we live is absolutely saturated in God belief. Most countries have it enshrined in their constitutions. In the US, it is printed on the money. In US media atheists are regularly slated and there persists the disgusting idea that if one does not believe in God, one must be immoral or soulless to some extent. Thankfully I think this latter idea is slowing falling away. Theists have marinated in this kind of systemic disregard at best, hatred at worst for atheists. Atheists have lost jobs, faced bullying and even attempts to have them removed from public office specifically for their unbelief. I think it is deeply, powerfully unsurprising that some atheists will react with considerable aggression in an environment where they are not automatically at a disadvantage. Just out of curiosity; Do you unequivocally condemn the passage above from Psalms 14:1 for the hateful bigotry it is?
    You call it cowardice that people would seek to hide their identities when not doing so can have severe real world consequences. Personally, I think it is simply good practice to maintain a degree of anonymity online, especially if you engage with controversial subjects. There are a lot of damaged people online with lots of time on their hands, and nobody needs that kind of hassle.

    As to mockery of religion: I think this has been a necessary first step. I don’t know how old you are but if you are even in your 40s you will remember a time when you literarily couldn’t mock religion. People are still being jailed and killed throughout the world for doing so. It is necessary to shake loose the perception that religion is good and right and to say otherwise is a terrible thing. I agree that this mockery too often becomes far too personal. I would say it is necessary to mock religion but unnecessary to mock any particular person who is religious, with some notable exceptions. Pat Robertson for example; He is essentially a televised hatemonger who can only get away with being such an unapologetic bigot because of the very insulation against criticism that religion has traditionally enjoyed. I think this immunity has been considerably weakened in recent years and I think this is due in large part to people criticising religion is completely irreverent tones. Particularly encouraging to see theists criticising the more hateful voices in their own ranks. I would hope that in the coming years, in some places at least, there won’t really be a need to mock religion any more. Then the discussion can start in earnest, where neither side is automatically considered a monster or deviant and both sides can state their case without insult. There are some barriers to this. If theists are sincere about wanting to treat all people with a degree of dignity and respect, they will have to repudiate the likes of Psalms 14:1 and the biblical passages on homosexuality. I think the majority of theists are enlightened enough these days to understand that being gay or an atheists is not inherently morally wrong but despite this they are still reluctant to acknowledge that the bible has some noxious content on these subjects. This is one of the reasons atheists get riled up with religious faith. Otherwise decent people who don’t truck with hate or discrimination will bend over backwards to excuse or defend clear bigotry and hatred exclusively because it appears in their holy book which they don’t want to criticise.

    There is a section of the atheist community online that has taken the idea of mockery way beyond anything reasonable. There are some prominent figures in the atheist online community that are little more than hateful bigots themselves. I remember an incident where a gelato store owner who decided to check out a sceptics convention and was thoroughly offended by some skit at Christianities expense. He went back to his store and put up a sign briefly stating that convention goes where not welcome in his store or something to that effect. A short time later he decided that he was wrong to do so and he issued what most reasonable atheists took to be a very sincere apology. He even offered some kind of discount or something the next time. I don’t remember the details exactly. It seemed to many atheists that this was a sign that things were getting better. It was entirely understandable that he was offended as something very important to him was being mocked. Who could blame him for taking some manner of umbrage. He realised though that making fun of Christianity was not some great unforgivable trespass and that refusing to serve people because of how they felt about this thing or that was not the right thing to do. Many atheists thanked him for his apology and commended him for it. There were of course a few nasty voices at work too. Most notably PZ Myers who seem committed to making a career out of vilifying anyone who crosses his path. His response to the events and the apology were so skewed, disproportionate and downright nasty that most decent atheists recoiled from it. He has a reasonably large and sycophantically loyal group of followers who now represent perfectly what you are complaining about in this article. Unfortunately, it tends to be the case that the crazy fringe is always the loudest in any community.

    In short, I don’t think that your criticisms of atheists online is entirely unfair though you do seem determined to find the worst reasons for it. Similarly, there are a very large body of theists online who act in a similar way. Though you did not suggest it openly, you seemed to hint that one distinction is that big names in atheism like Dawkins are pushing for this ridicule while the nasty religious people online are just individuals. I would say this is not solely a one-sided phenomenon. If you did not mean to imply this, please ignore this remark.

    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing your perspectives. I’m glad to see there is so much overlap between your assessment of the situation and my own regarding the propensity of Atheists to push conversations down to the level of schoolyard bullying, and the fact that some Christians shamefully follow suit.

      I suppose we could have a conversation about Pat Robertson (I hear Atheists talk him far more than I ever hear Christians even mention his name), that passage in Psalms that you are so familiar with, or even about the Bible’s stance on homosexuality. Indeed, we could probably have a number of conversations based on what you submitted, but I am not inclined to go down any of those roads with you. You have openly stated that mockery and ridicule are justified from a tactical perspective; they are a “necessary first step.” Well if you consider that a justifiable approach to engaging in conversation with somebody you disagree with then I hope you will understand when I politely decline to engage in conversation with you on any controversial subject.

      I denounce Theists who mock or ridicule Atheists but I equally denounce any Atheist who thinks that is an appropriate tactical strategy to use in return. When the conversation takes that flavour then count me out.

      • It was good of you to ignore entirely the reasons why mockery was deemed necessary. Well done also for migrating my support of mockery of an idea or doctrine in general to
        “Well if you consider that a justifiable approach to engaging in conversation with somebody you disagree with then I hope you will understand when I politely decline to engage in conversation with you on any controversial subject.”
        This seems to be directly ignoring my statement
        “I would say it is necessary to mock religion but unnecessary to mock any particular person who is religious, with some notable exceptions.”
        not to mention you also phrase it as “somebody you disagree with” as though it is some blanket approach at any point of disagreement. To say the least, yours was an extremely uncharitable interpretation of what I was saying.
        Mockery has long been a valuable tool in the effort to remove the taboos or even threat of criticising powerful institutions, especially those that see themselves as entirely above reproach or criticism.
        So yes; I endorse mocking and making fun of institution that say hateful or bigoted things, or organisations who makes outrageous claims and expect special treatment on account of them, especially when they attempt to foist these things on everyone. If you do not wish to engage with a nasty meany like me, so be it. Chalk me up as another “internet atheist”.

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