A Personal History of Internet Atheism – Part One – A Miniature Skeptic
Note – This is the first of a three part essay about my time as being angry about God on the internet, I hope you enjoy.
I was once an angry internet atheist. I would get home from school and log onto the still-crude youtube.com. I would perform a circuit of searches, hoping to find that an atheist vlogger had uploaded a new video (I hadn’t figured out how subscriptions worked). I watched all of Thunderf00t’s series, ‘Why do people laugh at creationists?’. I attempted to more or less memorise Aaronra’s ‘The Foundational Falsehoods of creationism’. I watched dvd rips of badly produced cable access shows and documentaries that promoted atheism. I read through endless comment section debates on the lack of evidence for God and the inherent immorality of religion and the stunting effect that religious belief has on human capabilities and imagination. During all this, I felt a potent mixture of anger, vindication, excitement, frustration, haughtiness and loneliness. This was a balm for me, as I was a sensitive and isolated early teen, and had an inflated sense of my own intellect.
Internet skepticism about God was a personal liberation. I grew up in Northern Ireland and the six counties are a very religious place. Nearly all schools have daily bible readings and prayers. At primary school we had sermons preached to us twice a week. Nearly all extra-curricular youth events took place on church grounds. Religion dominated the mental and physical geography of my East Belfast childhood. Walk down any street in the east for long enough and you’ll pass several churches of competing denominations.
I haven’t been an atheist my whole life, least of all currently, but I did always feel uneasy with the assumed piousness of my education. One tiny act of rebellion stands out in my memory. Me and my classmates had to attend daily school assemblies, sit cross legged on the wooden floor of the hall and listen to prayers. From around the age of six onwards, I made an interior break with this. While the other couple hundred kids bowed their heads and closed their eyes when asked, I would keep my head raised and eyes opened. I would look around the room and watch the expression of my peers. Occasionally I would catch the angry glance of a teacher who had noticed my mild dissent. Despite being a nervous and pliant kid it never occurred to me to bow my head and follow along. I’m still proud of this miniature skeptic, who I can claim some loose relation to.
Daily prayers were not some obscure anachronism that simply hadn’t been removed; religion was omnipresent through education. When I and my class were around ten years old, we had to attend a rambling pastor’s powerpoint exposition of creationism. He began with a short debunking of scientific theories on the origin of matter. He explained that the Big Bang was a self-refuting concept as ‘explosions destroy things’. Therefore the big bang could not be the ultimate act of creation. QED. As an alternative to the follies of secularism, he then gave a literalist account of the first books of the Old Testament. By the time that we were allowed to leave for lunch he gotten to the rule of Judges in ancient Israel, and taught us a little rhyme to help us remember the kings of the line of David.
I had always preferred the scientific story. In my free time I would devour popular science books. I looked forward to days off as I could spend hours watching TV shows on cosmology, getting to learn about the expansion of the universe, the life-cycle of stars and the formation of galaxies. I was thrilled when, during a school trip to Scotland, we visited the science museum Dynamic Earth. I remember seeing its explanation of abiogenesis. Upon our returning to N.I, my teacher took some time to explain why the earth couldn’t be more than 4000 years old. I argued with her for what must have been an half an hour, only stopping when a friend of mine began to loudly sing. I remain sorry to have bored him, and annoyed that he contributed to our reverse Scopes trial moment.
By the time I got to secondary school, I was a convinced atheist. I had been awed and moved by reading His Dark Materials. While watching a TV programme about the Rwandan genocide, I had realised the reality and inevitability of my own death. I had eventually allowed myself to accept that I did not believe in the literalist versions of bible stories we were told. This felt less like a revelation and more like remembering something I had forgotten a long time before.
Theses feelings, specifically my atheism, put me in a definite minority. I was a troubled and somewhat conceited young man, and so being part of a shunned subset of society was something I welcomed. The feeling of persecution was mostly imagined, but I did encounter tensions that my more religious (or less opinionated) classmates did not. I would interrupt R.E lessons to argue about the bible and the existence of God with my teacher. I was dismissive, and not infrequently rude, to the cast of old believers and young converts who taught me religion. I was rude too when talking to my many faithful friends. This was one, not insignificant, reason I failed to make close connections in my early teens.
All of this is to say that when I absentmindedly clicked on a Thunderf00t video I may have had no idea it would change my life, but I was an already receptive audience. – Continued next week