Quote of the Day: The Ugly Side of the Online Atheist Community by Chris Stedman

chris stedman

When I was invited to discuss atheism on “The O’Reilly Factor” four years ago, I initially wanted to turn it down. However, I ultimately realized it was a chance to show Fox News viewers a different side of atheism on a network where atheists are usually talked about rather than with.

It was December, so former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly attempted to paint atheists as bitter anti-religion Grinches on a mission to take Christmas away. I pushed back, emphasizing the value of the separation of church and state as well as atheists’ contributions to the public conversation on religion and ethics.

In an environment that rewards anger and sound bites, I attempted to humanize my community — one of the most negatively viewed in the country. Afterward, strangers from around the country messaged me to say the conversation helped them rethink their views on atheists.

But the chatter online took a different, but sadly familiar, tone.

A number of prominent atheist bloggers criticized my interview, saying I was awful and suggesting I was allying with O’Reilly. The comments were worse. Anonymous posters ridiculed me, saying I should decline future television invitations because I was too “effeminate,” my physical appearance made atheists seem “like freaks” and my “obvious homosexuality” made me an ineffectual voice for atheists.

I had started an atheist blog almost a decade ago to explore the role of the nonreligious in interfaith dialogue. I went on to write for bigger platforms and appear on CNN and MSNBC to defend atheists against our detractors. But even as I spoke up for atheists, a subset of the community attacked me and my work, including a book I wrote about atheism and interfaith activism. There were some legitimate critiques, and I’m grateful for how they challenged me and helped me rethink some of my ideas, but others were petty and vindictive.

One of my most frequent online critics — who posted defamatory and false accusations about me — taunted me in ways that reminded me of the playground bullies who attacked me for being queer. He and his supporters frequently called me wimpy, weak, feeble and pearl-clutching, and characterized my work as “tinkerbellism.” When we faced off in a debate sponsored by humanist groups in Australia, he (hilariously) told me that I “sucked.”

Other bloggers went further, writing posts attacking my personal life; one went after my mother directly. (The author of that post later apologized, thankfully.) While most posts and comments were merely cruel insults, I was also threatened with violence and received death threats.

I was far from the only one targeted. A lot of online discourse can turn vitriolic, but writing on atheism seems particularly so. A study on Reddit found that its atheist forum, probably the largest collection of atheists on the Internet, was the third most toxic and bigoted on the entire site.

I’ve watched as many of the activists and writers I respect most in atheism — especially women and people of color — have left the movement, each expressing (privately, if not publicly) that the state of the discourse among atheists was one of the primary reasons they were leaving.

Beyond the nastiness directed at me, I was even more frustrated with the ways the atheist movement, especially online, has resisted efforts to address racism, sexism and xenophobia among our own.

….

I also felt a gnawing sense of smallness during my years as an atheist writer, exhausted with having to represent a singular identity. When I appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor,” the chyron that appeared below me read, “CHRIS STEDMAN, ATHEIST.” My friends and I had a good laugh about it, but it represented a bigger problem: to be understood as an atheist, I was often asked to reduce myself to just that.

This is a broad problem. When members of misunderstood communities challenge the stigmas placed upon them, we’re often tokenized and flattened out. Our culture is uncomfortable with people possessing a complex mix of identities, so we try to reduce them to the most digestible version of those identities. This feels especially true online.

….

— Chris Stedman, The Washington Post, I’m an Atheist, but I Had to Walk Away From the Toxic Side of Online Atheism, November 7, 2017

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8 Comments

  1. Zoe

    Back in the day when my blog was open to search engines, one of my regular readers commented and congratulated me on one of my blog posts getting picked up and linked to on Reddit. Apparently a big deal to be recognized. I had never heard of it.

    Before I knew it, countless people showed up on my blog commenting. Atheists supposedly. And it wasn’t all pretty. It wasn’t that they were attacking me but just so umm, how do I put it . . . crude, rude and just a tad bit different from me in my approach. It was shortly after that that I made the decision to change my settings so that search engines would not pick up my blog.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Yep. When I first started blogging, the ex-christian site reposted my Letter to Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. I was subjected to horrific treatment by a handful of atheists (and I met a number of kind, compassionate atheists too). My life was quite raw from my recent decoupling from Christianity, so I wasn’t prepared to be savaged by atheists. Needless to say, their treatment of me retarded my deconversion. I thought, if this is how atheists act, I don’t want anything to do with them.

      I tend to be a lone wolf atheist. I support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and American Humanists, but I don’t hang out in those circles. My blog keeps me busy, and the friends I have made through it are enough for me.

      Reply
      1. Zoe

        My therapist thinks of me as a grassroots person. No stage. I wouldn’t mind a stage though. 😉 LOL! Just kidding. I think. 😀

        I remember that ex-christian site thing. 🙁

        Reply
  2. violet

    Interesting post, Bruce, and one that is very relevant to me right now. When I first deconverted three years ago I found the atheist community very welcoming for the most part. I was thankful for that because my deconversion was dramatic and traumatic and I ended up shunned by everyone I loved. By now I’ve healed a lot, but I still battle toxic christians on a daily basis and my wounds still get reopened. Unfortunately I’m now finding much of the atheist community has also gotten toxic (deconverts are considered “stupid”), which has been painful to me since they were my only source of support. I simply don’t have the strength to fight two sides of the same coin, as both devout theists and lifelong atheists try to steal my narrative and twist it to suit themselves. I totally get why you prefer to be a “lone wolf”…this is the path I will also take.

    I’ve read your blog for three years now, and while I’ve only commented a few times, please know your posts and words have been a tremendous help to me during all the upheaval. I feel lucky to know you and will always consider you one of the “good” guys. 🙂

    Reply
  3. Scott

    We’re quite thrilled to have Chris move to the Twin Cities area. He’s going to be working on humanist community work. He’s already starting things. I’m working on getting him on the Minnesota Atheist Radio program, like I interviewed Bruce a few years ago, I’ll let you guys know.

    Reply
  4. JR

    Very sad. But highlights an interesting point about atheism – it merely defines what you are not as opposed to what you are. Both Pol Pot and my hero Captain Picard are atheists, but they are very different characters with very different values.

    I don’t know the guy who wrote this post but he sounds like a good guy – probably has nothing in common with those other atheists he mentions .

    Reply
  5. dale mcinnes

    Interesting. I for one have been “shunned” by the atheist community at large. Lots of great people in the community but too damn focused on that somewhat stupid notion that there is no GOD(S) nor an AFTERLIFE. These concepts are considered religious concepts in the atheist community. I get that BUT, I could very easily imagine civilizations that have achieved these concepts using basic science and technology. I have often said that if there is no god, 50 generations from now, our super-great grandchildren will fill that niche. If they do, they will certainly have the power to manipulate all the forces of Nature, recombining some to create new laws of Nature. So, if there is no AFTERLIFE, they will simply create it WITHOUT all the religious baggage. This is anathema to both religion and atheism. It is a huge threat to both sides. Atheism gives religion the loophole it needs by stating that science will never achieve these concepts.

    FAITH is another subject that is also anathema to atheism. Atheism is just too one-dimensional. It is entirely reactive. FAITH in religion is ironclad and unchangeable. FAITH in the sciences is different. You have to be willing to change your FAITH on a dime when the evidence demands it. This is why religion cannot go forward. It is trapped in the past. Atheism cannot go beyond what the scientific evidence demands. It too is trapped BUT, in the present.

    This is not science. Science pushes boundaries, re-examines the evidence, sometimes turning it over and is made up mostly of the unknown, rather than the known. Rehashing what is known is not science. This is why there is an enormous amount of FAITH leading science where the evidence is weak but the mathematical possibilities are powerful. 50 years of STRING THEORY, the OMNIVERSE, multiple dimensions, LIFE on other WORLDS …. all hypotheses that have survived the test of time without any solid evidence to back them up. This is why scientific FAITH always leads. So stop ringing your hands over atheism and see it for what it truly is. It is not science. It is not pro-active. It cannot lead.

    If you are looking for someone with your type of philosophy, look no further than CHARLES DARWIN. His confrontation with the nasties in atheism culminated in his showdown when Karl Marx sent Gaeling (President of London’s atheist community) and his two lackeys to put Darwin in his place. In that short confrontation, Gaeling turned his nose up at Darwin’s “individualistic agnosticism”, accusing the great man of cowardice by being a closet atheist. Darwin’s reply is famous. He stood in front of Gaeling and told him that as a man of science, he preferred to keep all his options open. It was a thrust back at the closed mindset of Gaeling.

    Me personally. I don’t give a shit about who shuns who. I call it as I see it. You should too.

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      I’m sorry dale mcinnes, but I have no idea what you are talking about.

      Science is how we understand reality based on observation and reason, nothing more. Atheism is the realisation that there is no evidence for any form of deity.

      Neither require any kind of faith. Indeed both are utterly alien to the very concept.

      Reply

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