I’m an atheist, but I had to get away from the toxic side of online atheism
It was December, so former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly tried to portray atheists as bitter anti-religious Grinches on a mission to take Christmas away. I backtracked, emphasizing the value of the separation of church and state as well as the contributions of atheists to the public debate on religion and ethics.
In an environment that rewards anger and soundbites, I have attempted to humanize my community – one of the most negatively perceived in the country. Afterwards, strangers from all over the country messaged me to say that the conversation helped them rethink their views on atheists.
But the online chatter took on a different, but sadly familiar, tone.
A number of prominent atheist bloggers criticized my interview, saying I was awful and suggesting I was allying myself with O’Reilly. The comments were worse. Anonymous posters ridiculed me, saying that I should decline future television invitations because I was too “effeminate”, my physical appearance made atheists look “like freaks”, and my “obvious homosexuality” made me an ineffective voice for atheists.
I started an atheist blog nearly ten years ago to explore the role of non-religious people in interreligious dialogue. I continued to write for bigger platforms and appear on CNN and MSNBC to defend atheists against our critics. But even as I stood up for atheists, a subset of the community attacked me and my work, including a book I wrote about atheism and interfaith activism. There were a few legitimate critics, and I’m grateful for how they challenged me and helped me rethink some of my ideas, but others were mean-spirited and vindictive.
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One of my most frequent online critics – who posted defamatory and false accusations about me – taunted me in a way that reminded me of playground bullies who attacked me because I was queer. He and his followers often called me weakling, weakling, weak and pearly, and called my work “Tinkerbell”. When we faced off in a debate sponsored by humanist groups in Australia, he (hilariously) told me that I was “stupid”.
Other bloggers went further, writing articles attacking my personal life; they went after my mother directly. (The author of this post later apologized, thankfully.) While most of the posts and comments were nothing but cruel insults, I was also threatened with violence and received threats of dead.
I was far from the only target. Much of the talk online can get vitriolic, but writing about atheism seems especially so. A study on Reddit found its atheist forum, possibly the largest collection of atheists on the internet, to be the third most toxic and bigoted on the entire site.
I have seen many of the activists and writers I respect most in atheism – especially women and people of color – leave the movement, each expressing (privately, if not publicly) that the state of discourse among atheists was one of the main reasons for their departure.
Beyond the nastiness directed at me, I was even more frustrated with how the atheist movement, especially online, resisted efforts to address racism, sexism, and xenophobia among our people. I’ve been researching the intersection of atheism and the “alt-right” this year, and things don’t seem to have improved much since I took a step back.
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I also felt a sense of smallness that gnawed at me during my years as an atheist writer, exhausted from having to represent a singular identity. When I appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor”, the chyron that appeared below me read “CHRIS STEDMAN, ATHEIST”. My friends and I had a good laugh about it, but it was a bigger problem: to be understood as an atheist, I was often asked to reduce myself to that.
It’s a huge problem. When members of misunderstood communities challenge the stigmas imposed on them, we are often symbolized and flattened. Our culture is uncomfortable with people with a complex mix of identities, so we try to narrow them down to the most digestible version of those identities. This feels especially true online.
This problem largely explains why I stopped writing about atheism a few years ago. Instead, I traveled the country speaking about atheism and interfaith engagement and worked as a full-time, non-religious community organizer. Now I work with humanist organizations and universities to research non-religious people and explore the creation of humanist centers to support them.
My experiences helping people better understand atheists have been deeply rewarding, as has my work supporting atheists struggling with life’s challenges or with families who don’t accept them. I can say without hesitation that my switch from blogging about atheism to community building was the right decision.
I’ve enjoyed it in the past, but I don’t expect to write as much online about atheism in the future. I lost a lot of my optimism about the power of online discourse to help religious and non-religious people understand each other better.
In the age of Trump, building safe communities for non-religious people and uniting people of all faiths and philosophies to advance the common good seems essential. But I find other ways to advocate for these things — ways that, for the most part, probably won’t involve going to Fox News or blogging about atheism regularly.
I’m still an atheist, but I’m not sure I believe in writing about it online anymore.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article attributed one to a debate sponsored and supported by multiple groups. This reference has been removed to avoid confusion.
Chris Stedman is the author of “Faitheist,” and his writing has appeared in The Guardian, CNN, MSNBC, and Salon. After serving as a humanist chaplain at Harvard University and director of the humanist community at Yale, he now lives in Minnesota, where he is a non-religious writer, speaker and community organizer. He is working on his second book and writing a column for INTO called “Exposed”.