Some Off-the-Cuff Comments about Internet Atheists

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.

  1. How are you my friend? Great post.
    I wasn’t fundamentalist, I think I just believed but I have found it an intriguing thing reading and writing about religion.

    • fojap said:

      Very well, thank you. How are you?

      I know you weren’t a fundamentalist. I’m making some pretty broad generalizations. But I do think that people who choose to write about atheism, as opposed to simply being atheist, are inherently a self-selected group. Obviously, I’m in that group as well. Of course, you could say that about just about any subject, that the people who choose to go on the internet to write about it will probably, on average, have stronger feelings about it.

      Why do I care if I’m not isolated by it? Mainly I think it has to do with politics here in the U.S. I’ve recently moved to a more religious part of the country, by the way. It’s funny, because when I get too anxiety ridden about political issues I remind myself they have almost no effect on me directly. I do live in a reasonably privileged environment in that way.

      • Very well, my friend and glad you too are.

        What I find interesting is when you say you have move to a more religious part of the country, since, for me everywhere I turn, the next person is definitely religious of some kind.

  2. theirishatheist said:

    I’m one of those who lost his faith young (I was ten) but I’m only starting to blog about it now. So we’re not all ‘fresh off the boat,” per se.

    • fojap said:

      I just meant that people writing about it are disproportionately recently out of the closet, so to speak. I write about it myself and I was never even raised in a religion in the first place.

      Did you, too, grow up in a religiously and ethnically diverse, predominately secular environment, with no religious instruction and many neighbors and family members who didn’t hold any religious beliefs?

      • theirishatheist said:

        No, I grew up in a Catholic household in Ireland, which was overrun with Christian militant extremists at the time. I lost my faith after Christian terrorist nearly killed me when I was a ten year old boy.

  3. I only lasted 6 weeks as a fundamentalist Protestant.

    But the existence of God is so self-evident that I only lasted a couple of minutes as an atheist.

    • fojap said:

      Self-evident to you, not to me.

      • Self-evident means understandable through reason. Since all normal human beings possess the ability to reason, it is possible for you to reason out the existence of God also.

  4. Thomas Kelson said:

    When I said that I don’t identify as an Atheist, I wasn’t necessarily trying to redefine the word. To me atheist can be a loaded term. I grew up in the punk rock scene, which is chock full of angry youth rallying against all types of authority, religion included. Denying religion under the brand of Atheist always seemed like another religion to me, with its faithful trying desperately to convert the masses. As an adult the culture I’m surrounded by has shifted to the opposite. Thus I am constantly questioned and lumped in with “militant” Atheists if I identify my self as such. The truth is that I don’t much care what people choose to believe as long as it doesn’t impact my personal life. My blog is about the events in my life that lead me to think the way I do. That said I enjoyed your post, and your blog as a whole, and look forward to reading more.

    • fojap said:

      Thanks for stopping by. I spent a significant part of my early twenties hanging out in the East Village during the eighties. I’m not yet fifty, so I was too young to really be a punk. I can’t quite say I “grew up with it” since I was already an adult. Punk never quite made it to my suburban high school, so, outside of the Clash and a few bands that got on the radio, I wasn’t very familiar with it until I was a young adult. Funny you should bring that up because I was just writing a post about the woman with whom I used to go to clubs all the time. Fabulous woman – gorgeous and smart as hell. It was a scene that was heavily influenced by punk, but it wasn’t, strictly speaking, a punk scene.

      I still think the self-selecting aspect of who speaks out about atheism still holds. My sister is probably a more strident atheist in her actual beliefs than I am. However, by nature she’s very congenial. She hates conflict. Few people outside of her immediate family and close friends really know what she thinks about religious people. It’s just her character. She was popular in school. I was the artsy, intellectual, grumpy misfit. Which one of us is actually writing about atheism on the internet? In forty years nothing much has changed, I guess.

      I don’t remember there being a lot of outspoken atheists in the East Village in the eighties, but I think atheists don’t stand out to me the way the do to other people. It might be a bit like how some evangelical Christians feel when they realize the people with the most extreme positions are taken by the general populace to be representative.

      Saying that you were making up your own meaning for words was a harsh way of putting it. Sorry about that. When I write on the internet I find myself being a bigger asshole than I am in person. I want to say I don’t know why, but I guess when I think about it I do. I started the blog in order to say the things I normally keep to myself. Some of that’s because I bore my family and friends. My own mother told me I was boring shortly before I started the blog. (I don’t actually think I’m boring. It’s just that what interests me doesn’t interest her.) But also, some of it are things I don’t say because we keep quiet in order to get along socially. My ex-husband used to get mad at me and tell me I was opinionated.

      I found your post to be extremely moving.

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