Why Reddit Isn’t (Solely) to Blame for Ruining Atheism (2024)

REDDIT

At least in online discourse

9 min read

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Apr 19, 2022

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While on Facebook, I stumbled upon a comment that made me laugh and think at the same time. The topic was about the beliefs of the members of a group i was in, and one of the members replied:

I am an atheist, but I LARP as a Christian online because atheism is cringe.

It made me wonder. Not too long ago, atheism was the go-to ideology of the internet. Then I realized it had been a while since that was the case. It made me ponder how much the internet changed. How much the world changed too. Before I knew it, I was looking at graphs about religiosity and changes in internet culture over the last ten years. By the end of it all, I figured I could write about this piece of e-history.

The internet was a very different place over a decade ago. It wasn’t centralized. It wasn’t so corporate. It was still less popular than going outside, and its navigation was primarily done via PC. And there was only one ideology out there which was widely seen as cool, be it on 9GAG, Reddit or YouTube: atheism.

This, to me, was quite frustrating. Back then I was a Christian and I happily spent much of my time in pointless flamewars with atheists who were probably my age and ironically, just like me, had to go to church because their mom made them. My awareness that I was outnumbered online made me have a skewed perception of atheism in real life that would take years to dispell.

I digress. Atheism was popular. Very popular. You had figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Neil deGrasse Tyson suddenly becoming widely quoted by kids on the internet to dunk on the religious. Well, I say religious, though the truth is it was mostly Christians. Yeah, even back then, the internet was hypocritically focused mainly on the western world.

Remnants of this golden age of e-atheism can still be found online to this day. r/atheism is the subject of mockery all over the internet due to its teenage angst and general 14-year-old feel. YouTubers like TheAmazingAtheist, Thunderf00t and Armoured Skeptic are all vestigial remains of the influence atheism as an ideology used to have on the internet, having built much of their fanbases thanks to it.

There were many reasons for atheism to reach the heights it did. Most of them, ironically, came from outside the internet. I believe it fit to explain why atheism rose before I move on to its “downfall” and why, even if Reddit is embarrassing, it is really not to blame for it.

The War on Terror

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I am of the belief that the 21st century only began officially with 9/11. The impact of this event is still being felt. It is simply too early to fully talk about its consequences. That being said, there are some obvious ramifications that few would dispute.

The first would be the return of religion to large-scale geopolitics. Once again, in a very long time, the “other” was drawn from religion rather than race or ideology.

Christianity in the US has been in a slow decline ever since the start of the previous century, but that hasn’t stopped their presidents from being either moderate or overtly Christian. With a man as competent as Bush in charge, him identifying as such was bound to increase the pushback against his faith, especially among fiery young people. The data itself proves people with no religious affiliation grew in number steadily during the 2000s.

So, we have a Christian president who is not too sharp. We have an incident involving religious fundamentalism. Very soon after, we have an extremely unpopular war that is allegedly drawn across religious lines, and where the Christian side is clearly the invader.

These factors alone might have been enough to kickstart e-atheism and give it enough fuel to reach the heights it did. Given that young people were the likeliest to feel this way, and that those were the first to explore the web once it became more accessible, it is quite natural that such a view was the more popular one to discuss. There is, however, another reason why atheism became so widespread online.

America is (not) the world

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It’s quite obvious that few Christian nations match the United States’ zeal. I can perhaps name Poland and Hungary, and even those have only gained that reputation (and, I am inclined to believe, their fervor too) after the refugee crisis.

With a majority of internet users coming from the USA, they were bound to feel relieved that there was a shelter where they could vent about their very religious society. I am inclined to compare American atheists in the past with British Zionists in the present. The fact that their opinion is greatly outnumbered leads them to being more extreme and, in some cases, even insane.

Obviously, there are other instances of Christian zealotry in the West, but those seem to be the exception to America’s rule, and I’d struggle to find a western society as religious as the one across the Atlantic.

Hence, there wasn’t such a need for European atheists to take to the web to grumble about their religion. In many places, they might have even been the majority! What this meant was that American atheists, primarily, charted out what this movement was going to become.

The fire dwindles

I don’t think I need to speak much about the peak of e-atheism. There were many arguments about whether God should have a capitalized ‘g’, complaints about Christianity’s overall impact on the world and many, many videos of varying quality about why atheism would solve all or most of humanity’s problems.

Don’t be fooled. Even then, internet arguing never got anyone to change their minds. The power of e-atheism didn’t come out of persuasion, but popularity. It was a popular opinion to have, and to go against the tide would get you in an all-front comment war with multiple people at once (trust me, I had to do this).

Despite this, just as e-atheism was rising, it already had problems looming on the horizon. For starters, Bush’s days in the White House were long gone when atheism was at its peak. And despite Obama continuing much of what Bush started, all while identifying as a Christian, he generally did it with more dignity.

In a lot of ways, Obama’s years spelt the death of e-atheism. The GOP’s rabid reaction to his presidency shifted the focus of hostility and othering back to race rather than faith, a rhetorical field the DNC was more than happy to fight on (which it still does, to this day). As people became more involved (read: obsessed) with politics, identity, rather than opinion, became the battlegrounds. And don’t worry; we’ll get to politics in a moment.

More importantly, Obama’s involvement in politics wasn’t scandalous enough to draw criticism that could immediately be traced towards Christianity. Young atheists, mostly progressive, had to either resort to debating religious nobodies or just make broad, sweeping statements about why religion was bad. Either way, the flair of being a resistance of sorts died down over time.

A changing battlefield

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Internet atheism was mostly united against creationists and Christianity. True, occasionally they bashed “religion”, but that was as far as they’d tend to stray from the two main targets.

Things definitely changed when the European migrant crisis shook the world in 2015. Suddenly, there was a new religion in the western world that warranted attention. Islam! Not too different in its beliefs, but certainly very different in its practices from Christianity.

It took little to no time for this to create rifts in the online atheist communities. Again, many of these atheists were progressive, and progressives haven’t had the easiest relationship with Islam this century. The hardliner atheists, among which Richard Dawkins still is, quickly treated Islam just as harshly as Christianity, if not more. Other, more progressive atheists, took a more forgiving stance towards Islam, which was seen as glaring hypocrisy from both other atheists and Christians who’d been online long enough to pay attention (myself included).

This does bring me back to Christians. Remember how young people were the majority of the internet users back in the day? Well, this was now changing by 2015. Older people, Christians, non-westerners, the internet was now luring in a lot more users than just American teenagers. This is not to mention that the atheists that had once populated these cool, online spaces, were also in the process of growing up themselves and, many of them, making their peace with the existence of organized religion in general.

So you now have a fractured movement that is steadily losing its majority online and focused on internal divisions. You have memes quickly springing up to belittle the atheists with superiority complexes, my favorite being the following copypasta reaped directly from r/atheism:

“Just to be clear, I’m not a professional ‘quote maker’. I’m just an atheist teenager who greatly values his intelligence and scientific fact over any silly fiction book written 3,500 years ago. This being said, I am open to any and all criticism.

‘In this moment, I am euphoric. Not because of any phony god’s blessing. But because, I am enlightened by my intelligence.’”

Truly, a classic that embodies the subreddit perfectly. But I digress. My point is that the image of atheism was under attack by multiple fronts, ironically because of the pluralist nature of the internet itself. It would take one more event for atheism to truly be pushed out of the mainstream as far as the internet goes, though.

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The end of a “movement”

The 2010s saw a huge rise in identity politics. Mediatic attention to identity rose exponentially ever since Occupy Wall Street crumbled thanks to those same issues. This never made itself more felt than, again in 2016, when the world officially went to sh*t.

Nationalism in the West was rekindled for the first time in almost a hundred years. People around the globe became superficially involved in American politics. The idpol articles that had once been ignored during Obama’s reign were now generating anger and division and much of it can be pointed at one man: Donald Trump.

I won’t give a deeper analysis on nationalist populism here, since it deviates too much from the topic at hand. What we must instead understand is that, by 2016, the topic everyone was discussing was whether you were a social justice warrior or against them, and this rhetoric cast a long shadow all over the internet.

Online atheists, already embroiled in greater and greater struggles with each other, now found themselves forced to pick a side. The three YouTube channels I mentioned above all took an anti-social justice stance to varying degrees, for example. As anyone might be able to guess, this was a blow that an already disjointed “movement” wasn’t able to withstand.

Richard Dawkins himself has been caught in clashes with modern feminists, while Christopher Hitchens waged an ideological war on the term “Islamophobia”. The rise of identity politics has truly had more of a lasting impact than we might be led to conceive, both online and offline.

By the time Donald Trump took office and the wave of nationalism was at its peak, no atheist, no matter which side they were on, cared half as much about their lack of faith than they did about the color of their skin, their sexuality or their gender identity.

Conclusion

These events and changes didn’t destroy atheism as a belief system, but they dwindled its influence too much for it to ever be as popular online as it once was. It makes for an amusing narrative to say kids on Reddit ruined atheism for everyone, but it simply ignores the greater global changes that made it rise in the first place, let alone fall.

Though, if I am being honest, perhaps it was for the best. Atheism, especially in the West, is a stroke that is too broad to really let you connect with people. There is simply no guaranteed uniting factor between me and any other atheist, apart from our lack of faith. Still, it is interesting to consider what might have been, had the internet and the world changed in different ways.

Why Reddit Isn’t (Solely) to Blame for Ruining Atheism (2024)
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