Many readers may have noticed a commotion surrounding recent changes on Reddit’s atheism forum. Matt Guay contributes a guest post to discuss what implications this may have for atheist communities.

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I think it’s important to be upfront with my biases. Readers familiar with Reddit’s atheism community, r/atheism, may not be surprised to learn that I think it exemplifies many negative aspects of modern atheism—hatred, prejudice, and belief by cultural conformation rather than rational inquiry. Many might disagree, but I don’t wish to address those arguments here. Instead, I want to hold up r/atheism, or at least my version of r/atheism, as an instructive model of the challenges we’ll face as Western populations increasingly shed religious belief and look to new cultural identities.

For those of you who don’t know (and don’t worry, you haven’t missed much), r/atheism is one of the most popular forums on Reddit, with over two million subscribers. The subreddit is a content aggregator, where users can, in a democratic upvote and downvote system, submit and curate content pertaining to atheism, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and overbearing parents who just don’t understand.

Yesterday, r/atheism was engulfed in outrage over a new change in moderation policy. The crux of the controversy is that a new policy prevents direct image links from being posted, emulating several other Reddit communities in preventing low-content “memes” and image macros from dominating the forum.

The drama that unfolds was a juicy bit of schadenfreude for many observers, with popular outcry seemingly disproportionate (in my mind) to the new policies which have gained popularity within other subreddit communities. Popular threads, upvoted to the front of the r/atheism forum, included:

“There is something that made this sub “the first step into a larger world” for tens of thousands of people, and you have taken that away. Congratulations.”

“Just admit it. EACH and EVERY additional rule implemented is a creeping concession towards theists feelings on religion. We need to be clear about this.”

“I became an atheist through being mocked as a theist.”

So, yes, the largest atheist community on the internet is in an unprecedented outrage because content, such as these (all of which were found in r/atheism’s top-rated posts), will be two clicks away, instead of one. To quote one irate commenter: “If this subreddit is not open and free, then I honestly don’t see the point. Socrates died for this shit and we’re taking it too lightly.” Your opinion may vary.

Now, two things are true. First, I deliberately picked some of the more over-the-top and dramatic responses to share here. There were naturally many shades of opinion in such a large and diverse community, and certainly many redditors (mostly outside r/atheism itself) strongly approved of the changes. Second, r/atheism has more content than the vapid images that I have shared here, and browsing through that list of top-rated posts will reveal as much.

It remains true, however, that a significant portion of this rather large atheist forum exhibited responses in line with the sentiments I’ve highlighted. And substantive as the content might occasionally be, hollow content tends to gain popularity due to simplicity, humor, and mass appeal. As witnessed with the growth of television in previous decades, mass popularity, especially coupled with Reddit’s democratically dictated content, ends up favoring simple, easily parsed material that’s promoted at the expense of more in-depth discussion and analysis. Several of Reddit’s larger communities are struggling to tip the balance in the other direction, experimenting with new rules akin to the new r/atheism policies.

What is troubling for r/atheism in particular is that the tone of this content often reflects pervasive anger, self-righteousness, and a sense of inherent superiority over believers, reinforcing stereotypes already leveled against the broader atheist community. That so many r/atheism members fought to defend this content specifically is an unsettling indication of the values that many who wear the label “atheist” possess.

It is therefore valuable for us to take a look at what is happening here, not because any of this petty drama is intrinsically interesting, but because it highlights that atheist communities are not immune from the ugliest aspects of religious communities—r/atheism’s hatred, intolerance, dogma, and us-vs-them mentality with regards to religion as a whole seems to directly hinder the causes of effective social action and accessibility to group nonmembers.

This is a broader incrimination than this moderation spat calls for, but these have been common complaints for some time. One doesn’t need to look much further than what other atheists on Reddit have been saying about r/atheism to notice this. I recognize that atheists living in more fervently religious communities may feel more tangibly a sense of conflict with organized religion, and that being surrounded by nonbelievers has made it easier for me to make peace with my Christian upbringing. It is easy to forget how infuriating actual interaction with those who use their religion as a cudgel can be, and it may be reasonable that people use online communities to vent. Still, there is no denying that r/atheism is widely criticized, even by other atheists, for its overt hostility and alienation of outsiders.

For anyone interested in the future growth of a new secular or humanist culture, it’s a valuable observation that just shedding religion does not cause religion’s problems to go away. These problems seem related only to the scale and popular appeal of a community, not its underlying ideology (one could make a similar case for r/politics, and I don’t even want to begin wading into pinning down connections with real-life pop cultures).

As the God issue is settled, we must be able to move past our anger with religion if we are to create a new, positive, constructive dialog with the population at large. We must begin to address the question of what to do in religion’s wake. Part of this challenge will be grappling with the sociological forces that seem to pervade large ideological communities, both religious and otherwise.

Of course, one cannot draw exact correspondences between the behavior of an online community and the more complex behavioral norms adopted over time by real-world cultures, but if we are to make any true societal progress and not lapse into a new dogmatic social institution, online communities provide ample data and simplified first steps into the complicated arena of understanding the forces which shape the emergence of these pathological social behaviors.

If emerging secular culture is to escape the pitfalls of scale and mass popularity, its members must be proactive in taking measures to prevent it. I can’t say how best to do this, and social theories have had little success so far in arriving at accurate prescriptive recommendations for such issues. But it must start by observing that we are not immune to the problems of the past, and it must continue with inquiry into what factors shape these sociological forces.

Moreover, we can hope to do better than the scholars of our past. Rationalism and empiricism have provided us deep insights into the workings of the world around us, and these tools are being extended past the physical sciences. Cognitive scientists such as Daniel Dennett, Jesse Prinz, and Jonathan Haidt, as well as evolutionary biologists such as David Sloan Wilson, have already begun explorations of theories of culture as complex adaptive systems, and I believe these tools will gain increasing prominence as research progresses and advances in cognitive neuroscience clarify theoretical underpinnings – I’m looking at you, memetics. We are in a unique position in history, for the first time developing the analytical tools to understand complex social systems and possessing far more data from those systems than at any time before. From this perspective, r/atheism is a canary in a cultural coal mine, and we should embrace the opportunity to study the illness if we ever wish to successfully grapple with the organizational challenges of a real-world movement.

 photoMatt Guay is a graduate student studying mathematics and neuroscience at University of Maryland, College Park. In addition to research in those areas, Matt enjoys learning more about evolutionary psychology and sociology, as they bring together modern theories of complex systems and the real-world problems they aim to tackle.

 

23 Responses to “The implosion of r/atheism: What Reddit can tell us about building community”

  1. Zack Lewis Says:

    As you have pointed out, what r/atheism does well is provide easily digested material to the masses. It is baby food for the possible deconvert; readily showing them in simple terms that other people don’t only disagree with religion, but find many religious ideas to be harmful or laughably absurd.

    There are many links on r/atheism’s side panel that can take people to more nuanced ideas and places to politely discuss those ideas. As people grow as critical thinkers, they crave more detail and nuance, leading them to other sources. The easily digestible content on r/atheism then becomes unpalatable; not because it is bad, but because a person has outgrown it.

    The kinds of posts on r/atheism are not welcoming, inclusive, or representative of atheists. I don’t really know why they are expected to be. I’ve seen some people want r/atheism to represent them and their nuanced worldview; possibly so that they can feel attached to something so popular, much like a church. When the unifying factor to the board is a similar answer to one question, I don’t see the heightened expectations being realistic.

    If it were r/humanism or r/secularism that was so popular and had the same kinds of posts, I would see a problem, as those are movements that, by definition, transcend the question of whether or not there is a god.

    As a fundamentally single issue sub-reddit, I think it’s previous form was not only fine, but effective and worth preserving.

  2. Miri Says:

    “The kinds of posts on r/atheism are not welcoming, inclusive, or representative of atheists. I don’t really know why they are expected to be.”

    Because it has a name as general as “r/atheism,” and is likely to be the first sub Redditors go to for information about atheism and to find other atheists.

    But to be honest, if I’d been active on Reddit when I first started adapting atheism and I’d gone on this sub, I would’ve been horrified. Why leave behind my ill-fitting but supportive Jewish community for one that seems so caustic, destructive, and MEAN?

    There are plenty of things you could call a subreddit like that one. r/antitheism. r/militantatheists. r/makingfunofreligion. Whatever. But since “atheism” is more than that, r/atheism should be more than that, too.

  3. Doug B. Says:

    If I am not better than a believer then what is the point of being an atheist? We are not all the same – they have come to the wrong conclusions and the data backs that up. I think you are confusing being human with our philosophy.

    Sure r/atheism wasn’t the best PR for atheism but changing the rules won’t force people to change their behavior they will just go underground. We have plenty of serious people writing and talking seriously about atheism and yet theism hasn’t gone away either.

    I just think it was a waste of time for something that was on the fringe at most.

  4. VladChituc Says:

    If I am not better than a believer then what is the point of being an atheist?

    Do you actually need to feel better than someone in order to believe what’s true? It’s this type of attitude that made r/atheism and atheists in general look bad.

    And if the behavior goes underground, then great. It won’t be associated with mainstream atheism. I don’t see what the problem is.

  5. Doug B. Says:

    You have it all wrong. I feel better than someone else because I have the truth based on facts and data. I don’t need to feel good to believe what’s true. I don’t know why some people have a thing about feeling bad for being correct.

    The behavior isn’t going to change if it goes underground. I just think it was a bad way to deal with the “problem” and this post proves it.

  6. Dead Hand Says:

    Readers familiar with Reddit’s atheism community, r/atheism, may not be surprised to learn that I think it exemplifies many negative aspects of modern atheism—hatred, prejudice, and belief by cultural conformation rather than rational inquiry.

    The brand of atheism pushed on NonProphet Status is also heavy on “belief by cultural conformation”. The only arguable advantage over what you are criticizing here is that you are not overtly hateful. If the warm ‘n’ fuzzy atheist crowd had their way, utterly uncritical ideas like “children are born scientists” would be in wide circulation.

    ps as someone familar with the work of people like Joshua Epstein, has used Netlogo, etc. I have no idea what complex systems has to do with a post against the neckbeards on r/atheism

  7. VladChituc Says:

    The brand of atheism pushed on NonProphet Status is also heavy on “belief by cultural conformation”

    Is it? You don’t just get a statement like that for free. Unless you want your comment to be little more than blind accusation, you need to actually do something to support this point. Or any point you made in your comment, because it seems like you actually didn’t make an argument at all.

    Considering our posts here are more or less consistently article length supporting certain positions, with the occasional highlighting of a powerful narrative, I’m not sure where you get that we’re heavy on “belief by cultural conformation.” Particularly since the common refrain on r/atheism right now is basically that memes and Facebook screencaps are valuable because they apply peer pressure to believers. How is what happens here at all similar?

    If the warm ‘n’ fuzzy atheist crowd had their way, utterly uncritical ideas like “children are born scientists” would be in wide circulation.

    Man, what? First, that’s a fairly well-supported idea in developmental psychology, right? Not necessarily in the literal sense, but a lot of work shows that babies are more or less intuitive Bayesians who can make interventions to form causal explanations. You can see Alison Gopnik for a popular proponent of this view. I’m at a loss for why you somehow connect it to the “warm ‘n’ fuzzy crowd” of atheism.

  8. Matt Guay Says:

    “I have no idea what complex systems has to do with a post against the neckbeards on r/atheism.”

    Well, I don’t think there is any way to introduce, from scratch, the ideas of culture as complex adaptive systems in a single blog post. So to some extent, that part of the message here is just lost if you’re not already familiar, it’s unfortunately unavoidable. Or at least, I don’t know how to do it so briefly.

    Suffice it to say however, you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a connection just because you don’t see it. If you’re really interested, “Breaking the Spell” by Dennett is a good pop-sci introduction to evolutionary ideas in sociology. It’s not perfect and doubtless not 100% correct, but it should give you a feeling for the basics of these ideas.

  9. Matt Guay Says:

    My apologies, I see you’re familiar with those ideas by way of Epstein. In which case, i’m not sure what is unclear in my post. The trends of collective behavior in the r/atheism community parallel historical behavioral trends in real-world religious groups, that is the point being made.

  10. Dead Hand Says:

    In which case, i’m not sure what is unclear in my post.

    You just sort of blurted out “complex systems!” at the end of the post without connecting it to the theme of how these redditors behave.

    I mean am I going to go onto the OpenABM site and find a model of the development of facial hair on the necks of r/atheism users?

    The trends of collective behavior in the r/atheism community parallel historical behavioral trends in real-world religious groups, that is the point being made.

    Well I wouldn’t argue against that. Is that where complex adaptive systems comes in? I don’t think you need CAS to make that point. Max Stirner said “our atheists are pious people” in the 19th century, and he came well before the information age.

    If on the other hand you think that knowledge of CAS will be useful for undermining tendencies in human behavior that have continued uninterrupted for thousands of years and—as you probably already know—are probably sociobiological in origin, well, good luck.

    (protip: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism )

  11. Dead Hand Says:

    First, that’s a fairly well-supported idea in developmental psychology, right?

    No.

    Not necessarily in the literal sense, but a lot of work shows that babies are more or less intuitive Bayesians who can make interventions to form causal explanations.

    Yeah, because that’s sufficient for being “born scientists”. The research on what makes a scientist bears witness to comparatively rare and not necessarily pleasant attributes:

    http://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Science-Origins-Scientific-Mind/dp/0300143273

    High intelligence, a personality of independence and perhaps a little (or more than a little) derangement are needed—for more on that see Hans Eysenck. And not everyone has that.

    And while we’re on the subject:

    http://pss.sagepub.com/content/15/5/295.abstract

    ^ Hahaha

    I’m at a loss for why you somehow connect it to the “warm ‘n’ fuzzy crowd” of atheism.

    Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan were both proponents of this viewpoint and now NDT is pushing it.

    They are perfectly good examples of warm ‘n’ fuzzy atheists. They are indeed in a sense founders of this wing of atheism, along with the Cannabis species indica and sativa.

  12. Dead Hand Says:

    Is it? You don’t just get a statement like that for free.

    Sure but fortunately you guys already paid for it, by writing things like this:

    http://nonprophetstatus.com/2012/12/18/the-misanthropic-humanist/

    Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in God means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers. [emphasis mine]

    And this:

    http://nonprophetstatus.com/2013/02/04/is-tribalism-and-group-think-always-a-bad-thing/

    There is indeed plenty of groupthink going on in this community and others like it.

    Considering our posts here are more or less consistently article length supporting certain positions, with the occasional highlighting of a powerful narrative, I’m not sure where you get that we’re heavy on “belief by cultural conformation.” Particularly since the common refrain on r/atheism right now is basically that memes and Facebook screencaps are valuable because they apply peer pressure to believers. How is what happens here at all similar?

    You people apply peer pressure as well. Just not with unfunny memes and screencaps like reddit atheists. Deviation from a worldview which one of your co-authors openly admits is faith-based is met with disapproval and disdain. That the reaction is relatively “soft” does not mean “cultural conformation” is not going on. And a lot of that is going on here.

  13. VladChituc Says:

    I’ll go ahead and respond to both of your comments here because they’re fairly light on substance.

    First, neither of those quotes or articles support what you say. Neither argue for conformity and peer pressure, and neither aim to persuade through conformity and peer pressure. I’ve never known chelsea to ever meet anyone with disapproval and disdain, and if that’s the crux of your argument you’ll need to provide some kind of support or citation. You don’t just get to link to two of many posts on this blog, then make fairly drastic claims completely unsupported by either of those posts, then pretend you’ve made a supported point.

    And again, the babies-as-scientists thing is a metaphor. No one says they are literally scientists making scientific discoveries. The point is they learn about the world in a scientific way. As for Deborah Kelemen’s work (which is great), how is that relevant? Babies use scientific processes to learn about causal structures and also reason teleologically. How are those at all incompatible? Again, the substance of your post seems to be little more than pointing at disparate things, making large claims and acting as if you’ve said something relevant.

    And I think most of our detractors would strongly object to you putting Carl Sagan or Bertrand Russell in our camp, but whatever suits you.

  14. Dead Hand Says:

    I’ve never known chelsea to ever meet anyone with disapproval and disdain

    Chelsea, maybe not. Staking your worldview on “we are the true believers” is absolutely risible though.

    and if that’s the crux of your argument you’ll need to provide some kind of support or citation.

    My evidence is admittedly personal experience. I do not subscribe to humanism—a faith-based worldview—and believe that the human species should be phased out in favor of something better. This view has been met with considerable disapproval.

    And again, the babies-as-scientists thing is a metaphor. No one says
    they are literally scientists making scientific discoveries.

    They do say things like this, which are highly debatable:

    “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”

    Babies use scientific processes to learn about causal structures and also reason teleologically.

    “Learning about causal structures” isn’t the same thing as “children are born scientists”.

    You might as well tell me monkeys are economists because they can compute expected utilities.

    Science is “how” reasoning, teleology is “why” reasoning. How are those at all incompatible?

    How are those at all incompatible? When it fosters intelligent design ideas, that’s how.

    And I think most of our detractors would strongly object to you putting Carl Sagan or Bertrand Russell in our camp.

    I’m not most of your detractors.

    ps “Be My Valentine, Carl Sagan”

  15. Dead Hand Says:

    Again, the substance of your post seems to be little more than pointing at disparate things, making large claims and acting as if you’ve said something relevant.

    That’s actually a very good description of the OP.

  16. VladChituc Says:

    Staking your worldview on “we are the true believers” is absolutely risible though.

    Weird how we’ve never done that and you didn’t do anything to support the accusation.

    This view has been met with considerable disapproval.

    Well what can you expect when yr such an ~edgy contrarian~

    I’m not seeing the point in continuing this, since you seem to be unable to read anything in a less-than-strictly-literal sense. You can continue pushing your bizarre and idiosyncratic pet peeves and projects, but if it’s going to consist of little more than unsupported accusations, feel free to do it somewhere else.

  17. Dead Hand Says:

    Weird how we’ve never done that

    Well, maybe not “we”. One of you did though. Chelsea asked:

    So how am I supposed to go on talking about how humanity will be its own salvation? How can I keep babbling about fixing all our problems with reason and compassion? Why should I keep living out my values when it doesn’t seem to do any good?

    Good questions. My answers, respectively: don’t bother, don’t bother, don’t bother.

    Well what can you expect when yr such an ~edgy contrarian~

    http://www.amazon.com/Too-Smart-our-Own-Good/dp/B007MXBNGS

    “We are destroying our natural environment at a constantly increasing pace, and in so doing undermining the preconditions of our own existence. Why is this so? This book reveals that our ecologically disruptive behavior is in fact rooted in our very nature as a species.”

    “Contrarian.”

    I’m not seeing the point in continuing this, since you seem to be unable to read anything in a less-than-strictly-literal sense.

    Listen, Vlad. Why do you think Carl Sagan cared so much about whether people are or aren’t born scientists?

    “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

    It is safe to suppose that the endowment of reason most people have from birth is not good enough to rise to this challenge. Humanity will continue down the path of dangerous ignorance and in particular the nightmare outlined in Too Smart for Our Own Good—which includes a chapter called “…and Too Dumb to Change”—will proceed unchecked. In which case “theory-theory” and all that will be immaterial.

    The viewpoint Sagan and others pushed, that children are “born scientists”—now accepted uncritically by many—is a load of rubbish. That is why I am not a humanist and that is why I say that “cultural conformation” is more important than “rational inquiry” throughout the atheist community.

    unsupported accusations

    Hahaha

  18. aleksanderwolff Says:

    Wow that was a really boring read. Let’s sit and expound upon the fact that religion is a sham. That takes about 2 seconds but you have managed to stretch it out quite a bit here. Maybe people liked the old r/atheism because they didn’t feel the need to wax philosophically on something that seems intrinsically obvious. Maybe what they really wanted was some where to blow off steam when they see their freedom being infringed on every single day by an overtly religious government and populace. You are damn right it was a hot point of anger towards religion. It was a place where that anger could be vented instead of at work when religion is shoved in your face. A place where the anger can be abated that is created when someone starts proselytizing to your children and you have to explain to them what people offering them games, gifts and fairy tales are really after. Maybe they really just wanted a place to counter the mental warfare that is enacted upon them daily.

  19. Aleksanderwolff Says:

    What information do you really need about atheism, honestly? There is no god or gods. Bam. That’s it. It is not a hard concept to grasp. There is absolutely no need to go on and on and like religious people do when trying to justify their religions.

  20. Miri Says:

    That comment shows a lack of understanding of the challenges people face when deconverting. For many people, religion is the source of all of their social support networks. It’s how they get childcare. It’s how they get assistance if they’re poor. It’s how they figure out what there is to live for. It’s how they celebrate births and marriages and observe deaths. So for a person like that who’s starting to lose faith, it would be comforting to know that becoming an atheist wouldn’t leave them cut off from a community and a support system that they need. It would also be comforting to see how atheists do things like marriages and funerals, what sorts of collective responses they use instead of prayer, and so on. Unfortunately, seeing the vitriol that many atheists display online would probably discourage many of them from abandoning their religious communities.

  21. glennco Says:

    All I see is another person pushing their opinion to be nice. You don’t get it, there is a large part of the religious population that will not listen to reason and logic. Ridicule can be a powerful weapon, a perfectly justified against the ridiculous. /r/atheism served this purpose by getting through to the indoctrinated youth, a demographic IMO that is the most important in the fight against the bullshit that is religion.

    It is religion that has created the bad name for atheists. It is their game you are playing right now. I don’t give a shit what atheists get labelled because it has always been this way. We will not be silenced any longer and the acts done on a daily basis around the world in the name of religion is infuriating. If you support religion, you support the bullshit that goes along with it (which is all of it anyway).

    Everything about religion is actually the opposite, why should we even include these people in reality, why should we suffer because they can’t accept the truth. We know religion is wrong on so many levels… ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

  22. Dead Hand Says:

    We know religion is wrong on so many levels… ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

    In principle, yes, but in practice the atheist community has demonstrably taken up new forms of non-thinking, including thinly veiled magical thinking.

  23. Eman LLuf Says:

    And the only way to do that is to bitch in front of your computer and not use that vessel that were once called “bodies”. This is the new masculinity

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