Preaching to the choir: The cult of online atheism

Christ, but it’s getting ever more embarrassing to identify as an atheist these days. To admit to my atheism means that, Zarquon forbid, I could potentially be mistaken for someone who subscribes to the rhetoric of any one of a number of vitriol-driven online nu-atheists including, in particular, the modestly monikered The Amazing Atheist.

The Amazing Atheist, real name Thomas James (TJ) Kirk [1], has a subscriber base for his YouTube channel approaching 1 million viewers. I didn’t know about Kirk’s channel, however, until my recent spat with another nu-atheist, Philip Mason, aka thunderf00t [1] (The “00” isn’t a typo or a screw-up with the text formatting, by the way. Mason prefers “00” to “oo”. Branding is of course very important for any online business, so let’s humour him.)

One result of the exchange with Mason, and the subsequent online discussion, is that I became aware of a variety of new YouTubers. (New to me, that is). Some of these I was really pleased to have found (see below); others, like The Amazing Atheist and the odious Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad [1], I was somewhat less delighted to have encountered.

One channel that very kindly mirrored the video I made to accompany the “Faith and Fables of Thunderfoot” blog post was chrisiousity. (This video is a great introduction to what Chris(iousity) is all about). Chris also contributed many intelligent and perceptive comments under the “Faith and Fables…” video. So I’m at a little bit of a loss to understand why it took me until the end of last week to subscribe to her channel. I’m extremely pleased I did, however, not least because I might otherwise have missed the insightful video below which she uploaded about The Amazing Atheist (TAA)’s recent diatribe (this time targeted at Steve Shives, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as follows: “Guy on YouTube. Liberal. Progressive atheist. Supporter of feminism and social justice. Weirdo with weird friends. Tries to do good.”)

It’s worth taking 45 minutes of your time to watch, or, as I did, listen to, Chris’ video. Her calm, measured tones contrast starkly with TAA’s overblown playing to the gallery. More importantly, Chris highlights fascinating parallels between the treatment of heretics over the ages and the opprobrium meted out to Shives and others like him who dare question the orthodoxy of TAA and his close-to-one-million-strong following.

There’s a PhD thesis — indeed, a series of PhD theses — to be written on the question of heresy in this context, but I want to focus here on just one aspect of TAA’s approach to criticising Shives (and, by extension, ‘SJW’s like him [2]). The last couple of minutes of Chris’ video, starting at about the 42:00 mark, are flat-out astounding. Chris includes a clip where TAA launches into a tirade which can be accurately summarised as follows: “I’ve got nearly 1 M subscribers. My message resonates with all those people. How great am I? I win. I win.

As textbook examples of argumentum ad populum go, it doesn’t get much worse than this. Someone who, let’s not forget, has the temerity to call themselves The Amazing Atheist, is crowing that the size of their audience has a key bearing on the validity of their position. Mr. Kirk, please stop identifying as an atheist, amazing or otherwise, if these are the depths to which you’re going to stoop; it’s deeply embarrassing for the rest of us. We attempt to argue that atheism is a rational choice, as compared to the myths and fables of religious faith, and then “The Amazing Atheist” acts like the worst type of self-aggrandizing televangelist, validating his message by pointing to the size of his flock. (I’ve got to thank TAA, however, for putting me in mind of this classic Suicidal Tendencies track. It’s been too long since I dusted that one down and gave it a play).

As of 2014, 3% of the US population identified as atheists, and 5% as agnostics. Look at those subscription numbers, as compared to the percentages of those who have faith in some sort of a divine being. We must be in the wrong, right? [3] We lose.

TAA’s tribalism, and the associated cult of ‘personality’, does atheism a deep disservice. But, and it pains me to have to say this, I cannot condone, on the basis of similar ‘tribe-centric’ arguments, Steve Shives’ auto-blocking of those he suspects might disagree with him (much as I agree with Shives on many other issues). TAA bangs on about this in his own, inimitable, high decibel manner in his video. If we cut through the hyperbole and drama, however, he’s got a point.

I am well aware of the type of abuse that is doled out by members of the Tribe of The ‘Foot, Akaad, TAA, et al. (Very many of these followers, of course, follow the example of their favoured iconoclasts [1] and are wrapped up in the cosy warm blanket of anonymity). I have only experienced an infinitesimal fraction of the vacuous name-calling that Shives and very many others have to experience, and even I can understand entirely the appeal of attempting to preemptively block those whose allegiance lies with #TeamAmazing, #TeamFoot, #TeamAkkad etc. But blocking only cedes the high ground of the debate to those who so often can’t begin to construct any semblance of a coherent argument. Once blocked, they’ll make a big song and dance of it. (Look no further than the video above for good evidence of this). Even if they didn’t have any type of credible argument to begin with, as is so often the case, by being blocked they gain an entirely undeserved credibility (especially within their tribe; they wear the block as a badge of honour).

When I had a Twitter account I didn’t block for precisely this reason (nor do I moderate/censor/delete/edit comments at this blog (other than removing obvious spam) [4])). And, yes, it was sometimes very time-consuming to address entirely vacuous tweets. But blocking is entirely counter-productive. I’ll reiterate: it cedes too much ground to those who are entirely incapable of constructing an argument. We should ignore the abuse and counter evidence-free arguments when they are put forward. (Moreover, I am firmly of the opinion that while Twitter has its upsides, it’s hardly the most appropriate platform for reasoned, credible debate. The 140 character + hashtag format is almost custom-designed to entrench tribal behaviour. So, for reasons I detailed at the time, I killed my Twitter account. (In any case, and as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m Irish. Communication limited to 140 characters fundamentally goes against the grain.))

To close, let’s return to the heresy theme that Chris(iousity) so aptly identified. This is a classic from Nine Inch Nails…


[1] Many of those who rant at length about “delicate flowers”, “safe spaces”, “professional victims”, and what they see as the over-sensitivity of those who have to face torrents of online abuse, have delicately hidden behind a pseudonym for some, or all, of their online ‘career’. As I’ve noted previously (with, I’m afraid, tedious regularity), those who feel the need to hide within the safe space of anonymity are in no place to complain about what they see as the sensitivity of others. (And, no, it’s not an “ad hom” to point this out. Please see footnote #1 at the bottom of “The natural order of things?“)

[2] I realise that there are those out there who are easily upset by the merest mention of social justice. My apologies. I should really have included a link to the ‘trigger’ warning at the start of “When Atheists Ape Creationists…” before now.

[3] Alternatively, consider this chilling factoid: One Direction has outsold The Beatles (at least in the US and, for all I know, worldwide. If this is indeed a worldwide phenomenon, please don’t feel the need to tell me. I really don’t want to know). Clearly this must mean that the former are more artistically and culturally relevant than the latter.

[4] …even when those who are vociferous supporters of freedom of speech ask me to censor a thread.