Sunday, May 16, 2010

Coming full circle

Atheism is an increasingly hot topic across the world, with bus campaigns, this year’s global convention and an influential presence on YouTube.

The last bit may sound a bit trite, especially to people who think YouTube is all about dramatic hamsters, lolcats and skateboarders doing face-plants for our amusement, but YouTube has provided a legitimate frontline in the conflict between skepticism and faith, particularly in the realm of science and creationism. It has enabled both laymen and professionals alike to engage on equal footing to a captive audience. The ‘video response’ feature has greatly facilitated the dialog and collateral drama, allowing users to more easily follow the continuing soap opera.

The result of the conflict as of now is that, on YouTube, creationism has been more or less smashed to a pulp. Scientific channels such as Thunderf00t, Aron Ra, cdk007, Don Exodus and others have gained massive popularity, mostly at the expense of cretionist channels: the most infamous of which was VenomFangX. The VFX saga was far too long and bizarre to go into any detail here but suffce to say that the closing of his channel was a mercy to the world. The runaway success of these channels (some run by professional scientists) has caused one to observe that “the internet is the place where religions come to die.” After consistent humiliation, the only card held by the creationists was the card of desperation, which they played heavily and aggressively for some time in the form of false (and illegal) DMCA (PDF) takedown notices, the use of scripts to massively downvote videos in order to bury their search rankings, and flagging campaigns to disingenuously mark videos as either spam or unsuitable for minors.

These concerted and organised censorship tactics were met by equally organised video mirroring, causing some targeted videos to go viral and receive many times more views than they otherwise would have.

So, a victory for rationality and free-thinking, right?

It’s lonely at the top

Well, not really. It turns out that even in the skeptics’ camp there is an undercurrent of the exact kind of herd mentality that theist footsoldiers are regularly criticised for. For instance, call out Pat Condell for hawking a racist and lunatic fringe party like Richard Coughlan did, and expect a torrent of brainless abuse and even death threats from the faithful. Not to mention false DMCAs as well. Every cowardly and dishonest tactic used against the atheist community in the past are now being used by elements within their ranks.

The irony is so staggering that it’s hard to find anything to say that isn’t completely redundant. At least theists generally only get this worked up in defense of the almighty creator of the universe; atheists meanwhile are every bit as vitriolic over a silly old man who makes essentially the same video 67 times.

Is it as simple as looking inwards for the ever-present need for conflict in the absence of traditional enemies?


No, that doesn’t add up. It may play a small part but it doesn’t explain the degree of hatred and hypocrisy. So then, is the atheist claim to superior critical thinking as vacuous as the theist pretense to moral superiority?

Perhaps this highlights the folly of associating virtues with something and then promoting it rather than the value itself. For instance, why promote atheism in the name of free thinking and rationality? Why not just promote free thinking and rationality directly? On the other side of the fence, why not promote selflessness, kindness and love without bundling them up into the worship of a deity as though one is not possible with the other?

As the backlash from criticising Condell shows, there is an element of drone mentality and irrationality that is not negligible, and can only serve to undermine the atheist image of intellect and reason. As atheism enjoys more acceptance and grows in number, a pattern is emerging where prominent celebrities (those such as Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, PZ Meyers and, no less it seems, online personalities like Thunderf00t and Condell) attract increasingly mindless flocks of followers who lash out at criticism directed at the object of their reverence as though it was directed at them personally.

Does this sound familiar?

Mountains or molehills?

Taken in isolation, I am probably reading too much into it. Commenting on YouTube videos brings out the worst in people, and reading them often causes one to die a little on the inside. However, I am pretty sure that this isn’t an isolated incident. Not by far. I don’t think that many would try to deny that there are idiotic atheists in the world, and if they did they would only be helping to prove the point I’m trying to make in this post.

A more interesting question is whether or not atheists in general are noticably less prone to this kind of fanatical behaviour than theists, because it goes right to the heart of their credibility when they dish out ridicule and condemnation towards theists. It’s also a timely reality check for a group that is perhaps a little drunk on recent success. Also worth considering is the mutual exclusivity of quality and quantity: as something grows in popularity, standards almost invariably lower simply because more people are likely to accept it uncritically.

Another question is: should we even be surprised by this? Atheism is, afterall, the default position; theism of any kind is a learned behaviour. So why is there an expectation in the first place for atheists to exhibit any extra intellectual rigour? Or is the expectation for theism to be an impairment, and atheism wins by default?

Too many variables. Too many unanswerable questions. Only one thing is clear to me, and that is that the collective atheist ego needs a wake-up call lest this sort of behaviour become more commonplace.


  1. Wow, good post. You and I have "discussed" a bit on Matt's ilikeportello blog, but I could never quite tell your position. After reading this I still can't but I suspect you and I are coming at a similar point of view, if not on slightly different sides.
    The really important questions in this post are: "Why not just promote free thinking and rationality directly? On the other side of the fence, why not promote selflessness, kindness and love without bundling them up into the worship of a deity as though one is not possible with the other?"

    I think if both sides of this fence want credibility they should either address these questions, or stop playing in each others' back yards.

    I think maybe an issue with that is one of exposure. Without the controversy of conflict, messages don't get spread to "the other side". So if someone who was, incidentally, an atheist, put out something that simply promoted rational thinking, only the people that know and follow that person would read it. But if there's rational thinking = atheism, then suddenly everyone wants to join in.

    Maybe what we need is known atheists to positively discuss morality and compassion without once mentioning atheism or religion. Or theists to discuss rational thinking without likewise mentioning atheism or religion.

    Not sure who, on either side, you would get to do that though. Also I think people might see this as underhanded, or agenda laden.

    Interesting thoughts, anyways.

  2. * warning: generalisations may follow *

    I thought about this a bit more in the shower this morning. I wonder if it comes from the position that many of the "extreme" types that tend to get into these discussions don't often see that the other side CAN hold those views.
    Specifically, rationalist atheists don't believe that it is possible for a religious person to be rational and logical, as they believe that reason inherently leads to atheism. Likewise theists don't believe it is possible for atheists to be moral, as they have no moral compass to guide them.
    These views are both wrong (in my opinion), but are ones that I have certainly encountered in my meandering around the fringes of these arguments. So maybe it IS impossible for these people to separate them.

  3. Hi Joe,
    These are very interesting questions.

    I'm not particularly surprised by this kind of behaviour from some atheists. While I think that rational thinking leads to atheism, it definitely doesn't imply that all atheists are therefore rational.

    It seems clear that one can reach a position of atheism on (for example) anti-religious ideological grounds, without ever considering any rational arguments. I'm not surprised that emotive speakers like Pat Condell gather these types of personalities around them.

    Would atheists be less prone than believers to this kind of behaviour? Maybe. But not because of any virtue in this respect on the atheist side. But rather, because the "believer" side of the equation explicitly puts a premium on faith without evidence, which necessarily requires emotive arguments to defend.

    Promoting free thinking and rationality directly is definitely the way to go. That should deal with the nitwits on both sides.

  4. @Rob:

    "Not sure who, on either side, you would get to do that though. Also I think people might see this as underhanded, or agenda laden."

    Very true. This is a theme I have been exploring and struggling with in my blog. It's almost as if you lose the moment you open your mouth.

    The more I think about it, the more I think that trying to reach "the other side" is folly. I find it hard to see people in terms of sides, mainly because if I do I can never tell which side I'm on. Sometimes I like being a fence-sitter: you get the best view.

    "Specifically, rationalist atheists don't believe that it is possible for a religious person to be rational and logical, as they believe that reason inherently leads to atheism."

    I think you've just hit a nail on its head with that. It's also a big reason why dialog tends to be so difficult. The spokespeople from both sides tend to be of this mindset (otherwise they wouldn't be spokespeople; they'd just be going on with their lives like the rest of us). When the atheists believe their opponents incapable of reason, and theists believe atheists have no moral grounding and therefore cannot be trusted then it's over before it even begins.

  5. @ Matt:

    There are probably two kinds of atheist: those by default and the activists that run around promoting atheist ideals. It just strikes me when the latter succumb to this sort of behaviour. I expect more from them.