Note – This is part two of a three part series on youtube atheism and my own minor involvement in it. Read the first part here .
When I absentmindedly clicked on a Thunderf00t video I had no idea it would change my life, but I was an already receptive audience. I was a lover of science and denouncer of theism. I didn’t need to be convinced by any of his arguments about God. I already agreed with him and wanted to deepen my own beliefs through understanding his. What I heard in Thunderf00t’s wispy English voice was an intelligent person who was angry at the same things as me, and to the same extent that I was. This experience engendered in me a strange feeling; one that sits somewhere between the thrill of making friends and the indulgent satisfaction of intellectual masturbation. It is a potent combination.
I was hooked. Through the doors of video mirroring and hosting (two practices that, once ubiquitous, seem to have now died out), Thunderf00t led me to a whole subculture’s worth of articulate atheists. DPR Jones, Aronra, LiberalViewer, James Randi, C0nc0rdance, the channels were numerous and their strengths distinct from one another. Liberal viewer and DPR Jones seemed aware of the outside world and its politics. C0nc0rdance and Aronra brought academic and research credentials; a big deal in a community of science-y nerds. James Randi was an amusing and insightful ex-magician who sidelined in debunking the paranormal. Thunderf00t’s prodigious output and audible rage made him an easy figure to identify with as a teenager.
I shared common inspiration with the video makers. We were all offspring of the New Atheist movement of the late noughties. The New Atheist vanguard consisted of public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris et al. Video clips of these men were pored over with the reverence of scholars discovering a new bundle of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The videos produced by their admirers were not imitation, but often contained explicit reference to and admiration of the ‘Four Horsemen’ and others.
These men, and their burgeoning following, were responding to an odd confluence of social and political forces in the last decade. Anti-American feeling was higher than at any time post-Vietnam thanks to President Bush’s imperialist wars. Bush himself talked often and loudly about his religious belief and his electoral success was owed in no small part to America’s powerful evangelical Christian community. The fear of the religious right in the west was mixed in with the then-common bogeyman of ‘global jihad’; that fear of Islamic terrorism and immigration (combined into the still potent Islamophobia of today), that together motivated so many of the follies of that decade.
YouTube atheists looked towards America. Many of the creators were Americans, but even those who weren’t had their gaze fixed on it. It was American preachers and creationists who were the primary targets of attack. Bush and his theological views were the ultimate bad evils, the vector through which our worst fears might be realized. Common topics included events on Texas school boards, or Alabama federal courts, or congressional elections. The ‘Four Horsemen’, who were so venerated by us, either lived in the states or found fame with American audiences.
This made events five thousand miles away from me seem more real and vital to me than the confusing and depressing politics of my own home country. I remember waking up at three a.m to watch the results of the 2008 election. I was petrified at the prospect of McCain winning as it would place Sarah Palin second in line to the presidency. Katie Couric’s interview with the governor of Alaska had gone viral, and clips of it were shared widely among us atheists. It induced horror and fascination in equal measure. Many videos tried to make sense of Palin’s popularity and proximity to power.
These videos, and indeed internet atheist videos in general, were quite often poorly produced. Many were barely edited slideshows or lightly altered windows movie maker templates. Those few individuals who employed basic editing techniques or video clips were achieving David Fincher-esque levels of technical assurance. The sound quality was bad with voices obscured behind cheap microphones. These re-purposed gaming headsets or built-in mics produced an oddly listenable aural effect. Some channels had a crackly quality, somewhere between dial-up latency and the popping noise of oil on a grill. Others sounded more rustling and soft, as if you were being spoken to softly through a thick beard.
Much time was spent attacking and responding to attacks from a strange cast of villains. Religious preachers, particularly those who attacked the validity of evolutionary science and promoted creationism, were the primary targets. Most of these figures have retreated back into obscurity, often due to personal or financial misconduct; Kent Hovind, Ted Haggard, Answers in genesis, Peter Poppoff.
These distant enemies were reinforced by a more personal rogue’s gallery. A religious YouTube existed in conflict with the atheists. These were mostly young believers who made videos that responded to, denounced, or condemned to hell the smug atheists. These YouTubers lived at a tangent to the separate world of religious vloggers, obsessed as they were with a sort of angry webcam apologetics. I will avoid naming any of these creators, as many of them were clearly isolated and troubled people. A number experienced public mental breakdowns. I regret being a part of the atheists who attacked and ridiculed this fringe figures. While they often espoused obscene hatreds, they were themselves vulnerable members of society.
The producers of athetist videos were nearly all men. I don’t remember thinking this was strange. Women’s rights were often spoken as under attack from religion, but in a quite distended way. I was loudly against pro-life movements before I really knew what an abortion was. I am still opposed to restrictions on a women’s right to choose now that I understand what this means, but remembering my past ignorance reminds me that for many of us among the internet atheists, women existed as an abstraction.
It seems strange to say so now, but politics came up very infrequently. All fields of human endeavour outside of the natural sciences were mocked as a matter of course. A special place of hatred was reserved for philosophy, regarded by some as a place that those unable to cut it in ‘real’ subjects retreated to. I suppose politics was just another of these meaningless side-shows.
There were occasional rows between the libertarians and those who did not regard the state as a secular Antichrist. People often said that science needed to be respected and understood more by politicians and decision makers, and lead the design of policy more generally. There was a strange attitude towards the masses; sometimes they were characterized as willing dupes of religious demagogues, and at yet other moments ‘the people’ were venerated as potential sources of resistance who only needed enlightenment by those of us who had rejected the false idols.
That this mentality, would one day slide so easily into today’s alt-right insanities, does not seem far-fetched. Next week, I will consider the devolution and disgrace of YouTube atheism, and my own break with internet anger about God.
 Poppoff has experienced a revival, hocking ‘miracle spring water’ on religious television. While it is tempting to ridicule the credulity of people who fall for the transparent lies of a convicted fraudster, it is worth remembering that many of Poppoff’s customers are people in desperate personal situations. It is those who enable this vermin (by printing his leaflets, giving him airtime and offering him un-earnt clemency) who deserve to be tarred by association.