The Uncertain Legacy of Internet Atheism

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Content Notice – Features discussion of sexual violence

This essay is the conclusion of a three-part personal history of the internet atheism of the last decade. Find part one here and part two here.

When I think about my history as an angry internet atheist, I find myself thinking of a polished hardwood floor. My primary school had assemblies in a wood-floored hall that doubled as a sort of gym. I think about my six year old self during mandatory prayers, who I mentioned in the first part of this essay, sitting cross-legged, wide-eyed and skeptical on that smooth floor, while his friends were playing along with the religious shadow play of our childhood.

I realise now that many of them must have been skeptical too, must have used the prayer time to think about other things. I wonder if my open-eyed protest was as much about achieving visible distinction as it was making a point about metaphysics, about setting myself apart from others. I suppose I am doing the same thing now, to an extent. I’m embarrassed at how vociferously anti-God I was, and at having idolised content creators whom I now find objectionable. So I hope that the reader will forgive any special pleading or spurious distinctions on my part. Apparently it is something I am well-practiced in.


Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan is a role model in so many ways

I did not break with internet atheism quite so much as I drifted from it. There was no counter-Damascene moment. At first I simply started to watch more gaming videos than anti-religious ones. I would come home and check BlameTruth and Hutch instead of Thunderf00t and DPR Jones. My concerns gradually shifted. I didn’t need to disprove the existence of god in every class and have a social life in between rants. Instead of checking for new anti-god material every day, it became once a week, then a couple times a month, and finally six months would pass and I wouldn’t think about trying to find anti-religion material on a video sharing platform.

The decay of the YouTube atheist community into right wing farce mostly passed me by. I was focused on other issues and attempting to be more than an angry young man. The fate of the online community that defined my adolescence became clear to me when, feeling a pique of nostalgia, I searched for Thunderf00t’s YouTube channel. I was greeted by a wall of videos vitriolically attacking feminism. As I watched a couple of these misogynistic screeds, I heard the same cadence, tone, and anger that I had admired so much in his anti-creationist series.

It was an embarrassing and  shaming process, to discover that this type of Alt-Right nonsense was the new focus of the creators I had venerated. Hours of videos were dedicated to proving that Feminism was unscientific, to attacking and demeaning individual women like Anita Sarkeesian, to applying the same intolerance and anger to the issue of women’s equality that had once been directed at biblical preachers. In the obsessive and obscure quality of their arguments one can hear the echo of many comment section debates, still dividing and sub dividing into ever more obscure issues of passionate disagreement. Both the tone and content of the arguments owe much to the incubation of internet atheism. I can say confidently that I had left the community long before this stuff became explicit. I cannot deny that there had been very clear warning signs.


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Natalie Wynn, Contrapoints, who represents the best of internet atheism 

While I am embarrassed by what many of these creators became, I must admit I have been influenced by them, and much of this was positive. I gained a much deeper understanding of what science was and how it was practiced. I learnt how to debate, mostly by seeing examples of how not to debate. I had my first exposure to many important ideas watching the YouTube atheists; the separation of church and state, the Anthropocene, the nature of evolution.

In retrospect, it was the non-religion videos produced by the YouTube atheists that were to have the most lasting impact upon me. DPR Jones released a video entitled, ‘Asking for it’, where he attacked victim-blaming accounts of sexual violence. This video was the first time I had heard that most victims of sexual violence knew their attackers intimately. It was the first time I’d heard rape be characterized as a primarily violent, as opposed to sexual, act. It was probably the first time I had heard a discussion of sexual violence that did not retreat into the prudish euphemisms I encountered when I heard when the topic was broached during my childhood.

This video, and the debate it was part of, was my first exposure to the ideas and dialogues of the renewed women’s movement of the late noughties. Re-watching it today, DPR Jones’ words remain well chosen and sensitive. While it came from the mouth of a man, I am glad to have the words of that video introduce me  to adult discussions of women’s rights. This issue would, in time, become much more important to me than arguing online with creationists, and lead me decide to study women’s history.

It would, furthermore, be wrong to imagine that all (or even a plurality) of the internet atheists turned reactionary. Some of the online lefts best writers and speakers were too formed in the internet atheist years. The clearest example is Contrapoints, Natalie Wynn, whose earliest videos address the devolution of online anti-god content. She has taken the deep research and sardonic humour of the youtube atheists and made three crucial improvements. Firstly, her videos are actually well produced. Secondly, she is aware of the humanities beyond a childish dismissal. And thirdly, she is motivated by a conception of the political that corresponds to reality. Internet atheism has given the world of online media some positive freethinkers as well as some reactionary bigots.

 


 

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I keep thinking about them wood floors (and stretching metaphors)

I find it very hard to summarise the impact of internet atheism on my life. Because it was so central to my conception of myself for so long, it’s difficult to totally repudiate online anger about God. This is despite the fact that I now hate many of the features of online atheism. I am also no longer an atheist, but rather a sort of extreme agnostic.

My self-description as an agnostic would come with many well-rehearsed objections. Indeed I used to be one of the people who rehearsed them, arguing on internet forums that agnosticism was a halfway house, and could not be considered mutually exclusive with atheism, as an agnostic can be an atheist and vice versa. I now think that this is philosophically and emotionally unsound reasoning. I no longer care to have that argument, perhaps because I have had it so many times before, albeit on a different side.

I have no desire to be part of any group, tribe, or affiliation with regards to my metaphysical belief. What I want instead is a kind of hyper individualism. I want to be very specific in my own unknowingness and ignorance. I want it to matter that I have my own experiences of what people would call spirituality. I feel that my particular agnosticism is completely unique to me, even if the historian and sociologist in me feels that this cannot possibly be right. I want my own brand of unshared agnosticism. I do not particularly care to share my objections and doubts with any public audience.

A useful legacy of my time of metaphysical certainties is that I can figure out what I believe and what I don’t. What I mean by this is that if I sit around and sort of vaguely turn over a thought for long enough, I can come to some conclusion on how I feel about it. I could be unjustified, or wrongheaded or just plain ignorant about the topic, but I can find out what I think and what I feel about something if I wait for long enough. If I hadn’t spent so much of my adolescence reflecting upon what it was I believed, I don’t think I’d currently have this valuable life skill.

So I don’t know what I believe, or necessarily what I want to believe, about god. But I know that I have a strong sense of loyalty to my past selves, and that I think that fidelity towards the best of who you used to be is a moral good.

All of this is to say I feel a duty of care towards that tiny, awkward atheist sitting cross legged and open-eyed, while his classmates bowed their heads in the school hall. I do not share his doubts or his certainties, but I am proud of his inquisitiveness and his unknowing courage. I am glad that he found like-minded people in the strange world of online atheism and therefore felt less alone. I find I am happy that he became an internet atheist, and just as happy that he stopped being one.

 

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