The Pew Research Center estimates that roughly 16.4% of the world population is religiously unaffiliated. While many of these “nones” may be people who don’t follow any organised religion, a substantial portion of them, particularly in the West, are atheist or agnostic. In the U.S. and other parts of the developed West the growth of the religiously unaffiliated has been explosive. Part of this growth has come from the increasing willingness of younger generations to admit their lack of religion, a change that is puzzling given the persistent anti-atheist sentiment in most societies.
A recent study found that atheists in the U.S. continue to be reviled despite over a decade of secular organisations and the “new atheists” actively attempting to improve the public perception of nonreligious society. The overwhelming anti-atheist sentiment in society means most don’t feel comfortable outwardly proclaiming their lack of faith. So instead of congregating in a large building on Sunday, many atheists have found their own community online.
There are a multitude of websites aimed at an atheist audience. Many tend to follow the same lines, talking about problems of religion in society as well as attacking religious apologetics. These sites are tremendously popular, as many atheists were brought up in a religion and have some amount of animosity towards what they see as a repressive ideology that did them harm in the past. Atheists are by no means limited to religious talk, however. A number of sites are devoted to atheist political action, most of which promulgate a highly progressive political agenda.
Many atheists seek to do more online than read someone else’s arguments, advice, or calls to action though. As with almost all media endeavors in the modern world, consumers want lots of content and lots of interaction. One of the most popular places on the internet for users to interact is Reddit. While there are numerous subreddits for atheists, skeptics, agnostics, and the like, the top dog is the /r/atheism subreddit. Currently with about 2 million subscribers, it is in the top 100 subreddits (number 56 according to redditmetrics.com). It is a place for atheists to discuss news stories that affect nonbelievers, joke about religion, and discuss their own religious pasts. This discussion provides many the community they may not feel, whether because they are the lone atheist in a small town, or because they don’t feel comfortable or safe announcing their atheism to the world.
Some, who are willing to broadcast their atheism to the world, are able to reach hundreds of thousands. There are over 1,000 religious radio stations in the U.S. but I was able to find no atheist stations, and a very small number of broadcast atheist themed shows. That does not mean, of course, that there are no atheists in radio, but rather that a new niche has been created and populated very well, in online atheist radio and podcasts. Some of the most prominent atheists in the world, including Sam Harris, have a weekly podcast, but there are hundreds of others done on different aspects of atheism. Examples include Inkredulous and Skeptics with a K, by the Merseyside Skeptics Society. Noah Lugeons, Heath Enwright, and Eli Bosnick have built a small comedic empire with their podcasts The Scathing Atheist and God Awful Movies, and Thomas Smith provides insightful conversation into social issues, politics, American Law, and religion in his podcasts, Serious Inquiries Only and Opening Arguments.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Smith about his take on the online atheist community. Thomas told me that through his podcasting and online activity he has been able to develop meaningful relationships with others. He believes that the internet has provided a place where atheists can congregate without needing to physically go to any location, allowing the scattered atheist community to support each other. The internet is certainly a boon to any minority group, and atheist demographics, which skew young, white, and male, are also some of the biggest internet users. Thomas recently changed the name of his main podcast from Atheistically Speaking to Serious Inquiries Only, a step he said came in part from losing guests because of the societal stigma attached to the word atheist. He says that after the name change he had numerous people tell him they loved it, because now they could share the podcast with friends and family without outing themselves as atheists.
This societal stigma is certainly part of the reason atheists seem so drawn to internet interactions. Anonymity, or at least the safety of separation from those around you, provides the ability to truly speak one’s mind. For atheists that means declaring their atheism. For atheists in some parts of the world that anonymity could literally be a matter of life and death, as there are 13 countries where atheism is punishable by death. The need to hide one’s personal beliefs may also contribute to the vitriolic hatred of many atheists to any form of religion, much in the same way that driving racism underground may have contributed to the rise of the alt-right, another group that coalesced around internet interaction. Atheists exist in every part of the world, came from every religion, and have a far broader spectrum of ideologies than most assume they do, but their sphere of interaction is outside of the conventional public forum. This means that in order to find out what they believe and want for society, one often must travel beyond mainstream media, and take a look, or listen, to what is going on in your computer. I encourage you to do so.