Every once in a while, I poke around blogs written by or about atheists. I go in and out of being interested in the subject. One theme that comes up again and again is that atheists are a contentious lot. Just last night, I read a very moving post entitled “My Childhood Had No Place for God.” In the last paragraph, the writer says, “As an adult, I don’t identify as an atheist. To me atheism is the religion of denying religion, and many of them have waged some kind of anti-holy war against believers.” If he doesn’t believe in the existence of any gods, then the writer is an atheist whether he chooses to identify as that or not. He follows that with his own private definition of an atheist. Needless to say, although language does change and there are regional variations, language is only functional if we have some broad agreement about the meaning of words and the structure of grammar. What interests me is not the reduction in the ability to communicate that might result from making up one’s own private meaning for common English words, but why he might have this particular image of non-believers, that we are, indeed, a rather unpleasant lot.
When I poke around the internet, I see a world that bears only a superficial resemblance to the one I see in real life. As I’ve said elsewhere, I grew up in a suburb of a big city. The town in which we lived had people of all different ethnic backgrounds and a large number of religions, Catholic, Protestants of various sects, Episcopalian, Judaism, Greek Orthodox, Taoist and Buddhist, and probably a few others. My own parents were atheists as was my maternal grandfather. This was not the colorful inner city of recent immigrants clinging to old world traditions. This was the melting pot, not the beautiful mosaic. When questioned about my ethnic “identity” my own list of ancestral origins contains at least eight. Now, I’m middle-aged, so this mixed-up melting pot existed forty years ago. This is not some kind of new development.
So, when I hear people talk about having grown up in a “fundamentalist” atmosphere in which every one believed in the same fire and brimstone version of evangelical Christianity and appears to be exclusively of English ancestry, I feel like I should rouse Harry Smith from the dead so we can head down into the holler and do some folkloric research. And yet, when I look at atheist message boards, the number of “former fundamentalists” is astounding – and they’re young!
Which brings me to another characteristic of atheists that I encounter on the internet as opposed to those I encounter in my off-line life. On the internet, self-identified atheists disproportionately have recently lost their faith. By internet atheists I don’t simply mean atheists who use the internet, but people who frequently identify themselves as atheists, who blog about being atheist or spend a lot of time on atheist message boards or writing comments about atheism.
When you stop and think about it, it makes sense. People who have recently lost their faith have more to talk about on the subject of atheism. People who are living in highly religious environments or in families with many devout members need to reach out to strangers on the internet more often. Beyond that, you wind up with people like me who are mainly roused by the intersection of politics and religion. Another post I read recently asked why atheists are fascinated by creationism. First, the writer makes the mistake of equating angry people on the internet with all atheists. The answer is very simple, creationists want their version of reality to be taught in schools. People who feel insulated from the fundamentalists because of their socioeconomic class or the region in which they live tend to not run to the barricades. Internet atheists are a self-selecting lot and not in any way an appropriate survey sample.