Atheists find a community on YouTube — and in person
(RNS) – One day in March this year, Owen Morgan walked into a Walmart in Kentucky for a quick stop at the store’s newspaper rack. Wearing a face mask and balaclava so as not to be spotted by anyone who might recognize him, he leafed through the newspapers to see if his name had made headlines.
A few days earlier, Morgan, known as Telltale on YouTube, uploaded a video to his channel titled “My Daughter’s Health Teacher Tried to Indoctrinate the Class.” The video featured a recording of her 12-year-old daughter’s health teacher discussing religious beliefs in class. Since then, Morgan had been receiving hate messages online and offline.
Morgan objected to the teacher telling her sixth graders not only that it was wrong to be sexually active, but that she linked her warnings about sex to the Bible and to God.
“If you grew up with morals and values, then God will be there to help you make better decisions,” the teacher says on the recording.
When Morgan posted his video saying involving the Bible in education is against the law, many of his West Virginia neighbors threatened him and his daughter, he said, and started posting hateful comments about him on social media and repeatedly driving past his house and honking his horn. In a later video, Morgan said he couldn’t leave his house, open his doors or even take out the trash for fear of abuse or retaliation.
Coming from a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Morgan came to believe that his family’s beliefs were destructive. At the age of 18, he was kicked out for smoking a cigarette and shunned by most of his relatives and friends. He continued to believe in the religion until the age of 22 before changing course.
“I wanted to understand how this happens to people. How did they get to the point where they believe in this extremist ideology. Not Jehovah’s Witnesses, but even non-religious – QAnon and Scientology and things like that. So I started researching and trying to figure it out and started a YouTube channel,” he said.
Morgan’s channel, which has attracted around 290,000 subscribers and 54 million views since its launch in 2016, focuses on sects and religions he deems oppressive, with clips of religious leaders trying to convert others, viral Christian TikTok theories suggesting Beyonce is a demon and cult psychology reviews.
But when he focused on his hometown, he suddenly found himself not only ostracized, but also attacked. Morgan and her daughter had previously planned to move to New York, where they now live, after school ended last summer. The incident forced them to speed up their plans. In the middle of the night that week in March, they packed up and fled.
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Morgan’s experience only underscored the need for non-believers to find communities such as the Faithless Forum, which Morgan helped found with fellow YouTubers Thomas Westbrook and Jeremiah Jennings in 2018. group is to encourage atheist content creators and build a secular community over time. It states on its website that it aims to “build community, promote collaboration, and combat pseudoscience with scientific skepticism and critical thinking.”
The group held its third Faithless Forum conference in Austin, Texas, in late November, before what its organizers call a reduced crowd of 170 people. The three-day event offered workshops to support those who have left their religion, discussions on how religion fosters anti-science culture and how to raise atheist children, as well as YouTube marketing techniques.
“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response,” Westbrook said. “A lot of people have told us that they’ve been isolated and that in their community atheists are often viewed with, you know, hostility. And so being in a community where they’re in a group setting like this where they can be open and freely discuss issues like this (is important).
Westbrook, who was raised in an evangelical missionary religious family, said his doubts about faith came from reading as he grew older.
“I read a lot of books by physicists. I read a lot of books on evolution and on biology. I took online courses just out of curiosity. And I started to realize that a lot of the stories I was being taught weren’t literal to say the least. At the very least, they could not physically occur in the way they are literally described,” he said.
He gradually shifted to liberal Christianity and later to atheism after discovering “logical errors” in religious teachings about the creation of the earth and evolution.
“When I became an atheist, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out right away. I was a closed atheist for a while. I didn’t really tell my family or friends about it, and I didn’t really tell my colleagues about it because I didn’t want it to affect my job or my chances of getting promotions or raises. . I just acted like a liberal Christian who believed in evolution,” he said.
But Westbrook’s sense of being lied to prompted him to create awareness about atheism. His channel, Holy Koolaid, a reference to the mass suicide of cult members in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978, now has over 216,000 subscribers and over 23 million views.
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On Jeremiah Jennings’ YouTube channel, Prophet of Zod, Jennings appears with a signature look: a gray jacket and a static-filled oval covering his face. A Pentecostal in Alaska, he left his family’s faith in his thirties and began his YouTube career writing material for his brother’s channel, TheFaithCheck, before launching Prophet of Zod in 2016. He uses his channel to advise non-believers to talk about atheism with the believers they know and love.
“I get messages from people talking about some of the difficulties they’ve had understanding what it means to them to disbelieve, and communicating with family members and other things,” he said. -he declares.
Although they left Christianity behind, these creators are missionaries in their own right, those who primarily use social media to spread their message. But not all social media platforms are the same. TikTok is great for new exposure, but it doesn’t have the same audience retention, Westbrook said. But “with YouTube, you can have a lot more depth. You can have longer conversations. You can really focus on things and flesh out a topic.
And while TikTok is trending, Twitter attracts a very diverse crowd, including those who may disagree with its messaging. Morgan said he also likes YouTube because he receives less hate on his channel, in part because of how its algorithm is structured to attract viewers with similar interests.
He noted that TikTok’s lively conversation was slightly different. “If you are a Christian, you go to the Christian TikTok hashtag. If you’re an atheist, you go to the Christian TikTok hashtag because you want to see people say really weird things,” he said.