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.