Future Tense

Leaving the Tribe

Why I’m no longer part of the online atheism community.

Atheist man on computer.
You don’t change the world by yelling at people on the Internet.

Photo by Creatas Images/Thinkstock

This article is adapted from an essay that originally appeared on Martin Pribble’s personal blog.

For the last five years I have considered myself an “activist atheist.” I trolled Facebook and Twitter for theists and told them why they are wrong. I made fun of them for their unreasonable beliefs. I would analyze and nitpick their statements, show examples of just where they went wrong and why, and even at times ridicule them when there seemed to be no option left, all in the vain hope that I might be able to sway them to a more rational way of viewing the world and the universe. This could be extremely satisfying, and sometimes I found I could even come to a level of agreement with a believer about the realities of life. I even have friends among my Twitter following who are priests and strong Christians.

But I’m through with it, and I no longer want to be part of the online atheist “community.” What I was once a proud member of, a group who fought against the evils of deliberate misinformation coming from religious groups and people, has become, at least on the surface, a parade of contradiction and caterwauling against theists who have no clue that there could be an alternate viewpoint or understanding of the universe than their own. The times of satisfaction are outweighed by feelings of frustration and hopelessness.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m still an atheist. But I will no longer be dragged into debates with theists who make a ludicrous claim, then base their evidence on the very book from which their ludicrous claim originates. There is no point in it. All this back-and-forth sniping serves to do is to make us feel a sense of superiority to the person making the claims and does nothing for them except leave them with a smugness about their assumption that “atheists are all mean.” Faith overrides knowledge and truth in any situation, so arguing with a theist is akin to banging your head against a brick wall: You will injure yourself and achieve little.

This will not change an awful lot in what I do online. But I think I’ve come to a point where I am only injuring myself if I were to continue engaging in theistic debating about things like the efficacy of the Noah’s Ark story. If someone is espousing beliefs that are actively harmful—i.e., promoting intolerance based on belief systems—expect me to be the first to stand up and say something. I can’t allow this kind of thinking, and if I can help it, I will move to sway the believer into rethinking their position. But this will be done with reason and rational discourse, not with contradicting the finer points of the religious texts.

It all comes down to a simple fact, which I think applies to Internet communities—so frequently home to us-vs.-them thinking—in general: People will be more easily swayed if you don’t attack them personally. Others in the atheist community might say that an attack on religion is not a personal attack, but to many believers it is, because that is what they base their lives upon. If you mock or criticize the believer’s convictions, it is as though you are attacking them personally, and they will shut down the conversation right there. Even worse, they’ll GO INTO ALL-CAPS MODE, as if that makes the defense of belief more substantial.

An argument can be much more convincing if it gives context and information instead of just derision. Discussing the mathematical or physical impossibilities of Noah’s Ark is much more likely to sway the believer than just saying, “That’s a fairy tale, and you’re a moron for believing it.”

Atheists and nonbelievers make up such a small part of the world’s population that we can never hope to change the world by ourselves—certainly not, if our primary weapon is yelling at people we don’t agree with. Most theists in the world are not completely delusional. Many see their faith as being primarily about an afterlife and dismiss the more ridiculous stories—about the apocalypse, for instance—as parables used to illustrate a point. The problem is, the people we hear most from are not the rational ones. It’s the fanatics with the largest and loudest voices.

I have decided to define myself by what I stand for in life rather than what I don’t believe in. I call this “methodological humanism.” In essence, methodological humanism is a standpoint by which everyone, theist, agnostic, and atheist alike, can agree on as a platform from which we can all benefit: the need for food, water, and sanitation; the protection of our natural environment; and the preservation of the world as a whole. Without these things, we, as a species, cease to exist.

So much of Internet discourse is based upon the disagreements we have with one another, and sometimes it feels like sport, about scoring points and relishing your opponent’s missteps. But if we can first find a space where we agree, a bottom-line for the well-being of all people, then the arguments about belief begin to look like petty squabbling over childhood toys. This is not to say that I think people should stop arguing—quite the opposite. Argument helps us suss out the finer points of what we believe to be our rights and needs, and what are simply comforts that we are so used to having that we can’t imagine life with out them.

I’m not calling for a cease-fire altogether between atheists and believers online. In fact, I think that we still need those who will relentlessly chase down believers for their ludicrous ideas, especially when they cause harm in the world. But I will not be the one doing it—and those who are in the trenches should think harder about their own tactics.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and SlateFuture Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.