Lecture: How online social media is changing the face of atheism

This is the video of a lecture I gave on October 13 at the Austin History Center. The video is embedded here, and the transcript of the talk, with references, is also included below (as much as I had written down, at least). Some of my slides are also copied here.


Let me give you two statistics that are not necessarily related, but very interesting to consider side by side. One year ago, there was a pew poll revealing that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing rapidly. Six years ago, 15% of America were religiously unaffiliated. Last year it grew to 20%. One fifth of adults are religiously unaffiliated, while it’s a third of adults under 30.

Here’s my other statistic: As of June 2012, 72% of households have broadband internet connections.

I’m sure that most people in this room aren’t terribly surprised by this information. Most of you probably know very well how big an impact the internet has on our day to day lives. I’ve felt for a long time that the rise of unbelief in America is tied to the growth of the internet and social media. In this talk I’m going to show you exactly how they relate to each other, and I’m also go to explain how you can leverage that knowledge to be more effective in your discussions of atheism.

Here’s how my talk will break down:

  1. Brief history of the internet

  2. The internet and religious discussions

  3. Web 2.0: Mass produced content and memes

  4. Effective social media use

  5. The dark side of online communication

Part 1: Brief history of the internet

I don’t think I could get away with giving a lecture on the Internet to a general audience like you, if this were twenty years ago. When I was a computer science undergraduate at UC San Diego, I used to listen to a morning radio show called “Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw.” I even did some of their original website content.

One morning I heard them discussing having to sit next to annoying talkative people on long plane rides. Dave said, I have a foolproof way to get some peace. Some guy asks me, “What do you do for a living?” I say, “Computers. That shuts them right up!”

But here we are now. How many of you own a home computer? How many of you have a home connection to the internet? Thank you. You see, my time has finally come! I EARNED my right to let my nerd flag fly. I want to give you a little bit of history, but I’m going to try very hard not to sound like Grandpa Simpson. “Back in those days, we used a browser called NCSA Mosaic, and it ran on Unix systems! With modems that download 14.4 kilobits per second!”

This is a map of the Internet the year I was born.

(Reference: http://som.csudh.edu/cis/lpress/history/arpamaps/)

I discovered this because I follow a Twitter account called @Amazing_Maps. As you can see on this map, in 1974, there were less than 50 locations in the entire United States where you could get on this network, which at the time was called ARPAnet. You’ll notice that many of them are identified by the name of a University, such as UC San Diego over here, where I eventually got my undergraduate degree in Computer Science. Back in 1974, you could log on to one of these terminals and read a handful of online papers, and exchange messages… and that was about it.

 In 1982, MIT published a handbook about network etiquette. Here’s a short excerpt:

(Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARPANET) (emphasis added)

“It is considered illegal to use the ARPANet for anything which is not in direct support of Government business … personal messages to other ARPANet subscribers (for example, to arrange a get-together or check and say a friendly hello) are generally not considered harmful … Sending electronic mail over the ARPANet for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal. By sending such messages, you can offend many people, and it is possible to get MIT in serious trouble with the Government agencies which manage the ARPANet.”

Think how much trouble the Barack Obama campaign would be in for sending out all their emails! Not to mention Amazon.com, they do a bit of commercial profit these days. So this was the state of the Internet in the early 80’s. It took more than ten years after that for the Pew Research Center to start taking surveys of how many households had Internet access.

(Reference: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Digital-differences/Main-Report/Internet-adoption-over-time.aspx)

I started college… here. (Left of the graph) You’ll notice that 1992 isn’t on this graph — almost nobody had heard of the internet yet. In 1992 I started at UC San Diego as a physics major, following in the footsteps of my dad, who was a computational physicist and researcher at the Los Alamos National Lab. In my sophomore year, some people in my dorm were writing DOS-based games, so I wrote one too. I was hooked; my roommate talked me into joining him for some computer science classes, I learned object oriented programming for the first time, and switched majors soon after that.

As a CS student, I had to spend a lot of time in the computer science lab. During my five undergraduate years, I saw a gradual shift that kind of caught me off guard. In 1994, most of the students there were hardcore nerds, like me. The lab was rarely full except late at night before major CS assignments were due. The walls were covered with dot matrix printouts showing the rules of the “Star Trek: Next Generation” drinking game, and jokes about Unix administrators. As web browsers became more popular, I gradually saw more and more students goofing around looking at entertainment pages… and yeah, even the occasional porn images out in public. Remember that there was no such thing as a high speed internet connection in any of the dorms yet.

I really noticed the turning point coming when I was getting ready to graduate. In 1997 I had some extra time to fill before I could get my last major requirements out of the way, so I took some theater classes for fun. Now I was meeting younger theater majors, and we were getting assignments to rehearse together… and they gave me their email addresses. That just blew me away, because I didn’t think theater majors knew what email was. When I visited the computer lab again, it was packed with people at all hours.

Also as of June 2013, broadband adoption was at 72%.

(Reference: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/blog/2013/household-broadband-adoption-climbs-724-percent)

Obviously the internet has drastically changed the way that we think about things. Back in 1997, I attended a lecture by Bran Ferren, who at the time was the president of the company that designs Disney theme park rides. He said, “Some of you think that the Internet is just a passing fad, a craze like CB radio. You’re wrong. In terms of human history, the invention of the Internet is more like the invention of fire.”

Here’s what the internet has done for us. It has given us a giant repository for all of human knowledge. It has put information about millions of subjects just a few keystrokes away at all times. Wikipedia alone has 31 million articles. Among those articles, the top 5000 have been viewed around 20,000 times or more in just the last WEEK.

So when it comes to questions about pure factual information, I don’t have to argue with people anymore, ever. If somebody says “Who played the bad guy in Monsters Inc, and what else has he been in?” I can just pull this little gizmo in my pocket [show Android], and in a few seconds I’ve got my IMDB app telling me about every movie that he’s ever done — who’s got the answer already? — Steve Buscemi, that’s right.

If my son asks me why trucks need diesel fuel instead of regular, and I am not a car guy, all I have to do is type that question, using EXACTLY that language, and I know that somebody, somewhere, has written a popular and easy to follow explanation.

I cannot overstate how amazing that is. Douglas Adams invented an imaginary book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was meant to be the ultimate reference guide to every bit of civilization that people know about. But he fell short. If the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy were as good as the Internet, nobody would have edited the entry on the planet Earth down to “Mostly Harmless,” because obsessive aliens who were trivia geeks would have filled in every useless bit of information available about it.

But the Internet hasn’t just given us a static dumping ground for information. It’s also given us a kind of limited telepathy. Before the telegraph was invented, it could take months for a handwritten letter to reach someone across the country. Today you can dash off an email or send a text message and it will be received in a matter of seconds.

In 1970, there was a TV advertisement for a telephone company, bragging that you could make a long distance phone call for as little as 70 cents a minute. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s nearly four dollars.) Do you know how I know about this commercial? I watched it on YouTube, of course.

(Reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e601moNCA7Q)

Today, you can have live video calls over Skype or Google Hangouts, virtually free — it’s just built in to the cost of the high speed internet that 72% of households already have. I know we haven’t achieved everything in the Jetsons yet, and we don’t have flying cars or hoverboards. But come on… we have free video calls at any time! Isn’t anybody impressed by that?

AND… your messages aren’t just limited to one person at a time. By taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, message boards, blogs, the comment sections of popular articles… you can not only make a call to your friends and family, but you can also broadcast a message to hundreds, thousands, millions of people, with virtually no extra effort.

Part 2: The internet and religious discussions

This past July, The New York Times ran a story titled “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt.” I’d like to read an excerpts to you.

(Reference: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/us/some-mormons-search-the-web-and-find-doubt.html)

When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to [Mormon Elder Hans Mattsson] with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” the whisperings of Lucifer. He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mr. Mattsson began his own investigation.

But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.

Around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith, according to interviews with dozens of Mormons and those who study the church.

“I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,” said Mr. Mattsson, now an emeritus area authority. “Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance.”

Mr. Mattsson’s decision to go public with his disaffection, in a church whose top leaders commonly deliberate in private, is a sign that the church faces serious challenges not just from outside but also from skeptics inside.

It’s tough to live in a culture that doesn’t take your religion seriously. Side note, two days ago, Lynnea and I saw the musical Book of Mormon, which was incredibly funny, and won a Tony award last year. I would bet that it is also making a few Mormons run into ideas that they wouldn’t normally entertain about the underlying concepts of a revealed religion.

This particular story happened to be about Mormons. Here’s another one, from Slate.com in 2012:

(Reference: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/08/hasidic_jews_and_the_internet_a_bad_combination_.html)

Once upon a time, a Hasidic Jew looking for escape might have gone to the library. But F. Vizel … discovered her public library existed at around the same time [that she also discovered] the Internet…

Vizel started going online at 19 on her husband’s laptop. Within two years, she began exploring blogs by people who had left Hasidism, and had a huge realization: She wasn’t the only Hasidic Jew questioning what she now calls a “lifetime of indoctrination and being taught not to think.” When she set up an anonymous Facebook account, her profile picture was a painting of Eve in the Garden of Eden, implying that the Internet had become her tree of knowledge.

In time, Vizel became so rebellious—she asked to stop shaving the hair she covered with a scarf, flouting the standards for married women in her community—that she says she was asked by community leaders to hand over the laptop. By then, though, it was too late.

So there’s Mormons and Jews; and you’ll hear similar stories about Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Catholics, Baptists, fundamentalists, you name it. The problem is so bad that it’s regularly acknowledged by professional Evangelicals like Josh McDowell, author of Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

(Reference: http://www.christianpost.com/news/apologist-josh-mcdowell-internet-the-greatest-threat-to-christians-52382/)

“The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have, whether you like it or not. …This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field.”

Here’s the bottom line. Evangelists are eager to share their view of the world with everyone who will listen. But on some level, shoring up the troops in religion often relies on maintaining ignorance, either intentionally through secrecy, or by never having your views challenged.

I’m going to come back and justify this claim in a minute. I certainly don’t mean to say that all religious people are ignorant; I know some very smart ones. For now I’ll just say that there are dozens of major religions, and hundreds of thousands of subgroups within those religions, and many of them make claims that are mutually contradictory. As Austin Cline from atheism.about.com puts it, religions can’t all be true, but they can all be false.

Because there are so many sets of ideas that are accepted with minimal or no evidence, religious people are often pretty adept at tuning out competing information. Here’s a typical conversation I’ve had with Christians. They say, “You can’t expect God to be subject to human logic. You just have to have faith, like me.” I say, “If I decided to put faith in something, why would it be your flavor of Christianity? Why wouldn’t I start believing in Allah instead?” Sometimes it’s the reverse: I’ve argued with Muslims, and I get a perverse pleasure from asking them if they’ve considered accepting Jesus Christ as their saviour.

The thing is, their respect for “faith” seems to evaporate, the moment you bring up any competing religion. Suddenly, logic and evidence becomes really important in justifying competing points of view. Last weekend, my wife Lynnea informed a caller that she had traveled back in time and created the universe herself. When she pressed him to explain why he couldn’t believe it, he said, “…I guess I need some kind of proof to know that I should take your word for it.” Exactly!

I’ve found that I can get the very best arguments for debunking non-mainstream religions like Wicca, Mormonism, and scientology, by listening to mainstream Christian evangelists. They have incredible critical thinking skills. It’s just that they go on hold when the faith claims are their own.

This is what atheist author John Loftus has named as the Outsider Test for Faith.

(Reference: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2006/02/outsider-test.html)

In Loftus’ words, “Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating.

However, a lot of religious people never have a reason to consider the outsider test, because they never run into many competing religions. If you are born into a religious family, in a religious community, going to church with like minded people, it might be a very rare event to come into contact with competing viewpoints in your life.

And that’s where the Internet comes into play. Remember that number I mentioned before? 72% of all households have broadband internet? The internet is a fact of life now. To not have access to the internet anywhere in your life is unthinkable for most of us. It would be like not having a phone line or a television set 20 years ago; it’s just something we all take for granted now, and that’s happen in a very short timeframe.

And because the internet is such an integrated part of all our lives, we don’t just have the opportunity to meet lots of people with different opinions. We’re more or less forced to. Sooner or later, if you are dealing with any kind of mix of people, you’re going to run into somebody who doesn’t agree with you. Now for an atheist, meeting people with different opinions isn’t a particularly new thing. Right? Even if you have the good fortune to be raised by atheist parents, like I was, there’s really no chance that you’re living in an all-atheist city and going to an all atheist school. We atheists start running into conflict from the first moment we know how to express ourselves. Here’s some email we received just this week, and trust me when I say that I could find something similar from almost any week:

I’m 17 years old and I’m an atheist. I became an atheist about a year ago. Before I was an atheist I was a fundamentalist Christian and my entire family belongs to this religion. My father is an elder in my church and my mom is head of the education ministry. As you can imagine, this is causing strong tensions in my life. I often get singled out and ever since I came out as being atheist everyone around me who is a Christian has been treating me like I’m some sort of trouble maker and my sole purpose in life is to make people mad.

In America, if you grow up in a Christian household, you run into Christianity. If you stop being a Christian, you run into Christianity. If you grow up in an atheist household, you still run into Christianity.

Part 3: Web 2.0, Mass produced content and memes

But… for ideas that are true, running into competing ideas is an advantage, not a drawback. Earlier, I claimed that religious beliefs tend to rely on sustained ignorance  to some extent. Let me go back and try to justify that now, by introducing the concept of memes.

The word “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Ordinarily at this point I’d have to stop and explain Dawkins’ idea of a meme and how he made a case for some ideas surviving better than others. But today, we’re talking about the internet, so I thought it would be more fitting to illustrate it with this.

A meme, in Internet lingo, is a discrete chunk of information. Most often it is a picture paired with some text, and it gets spread from account to account by being passed along and shared. passed around and shared. Some memes “live” a long life by getting replicated often over a long period of time.

This is our friend Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, and recent Austin bat cruise attendee. In 2011, Dave famously went on Bill O’Reilly’s show and asked Bill O’Reilly if there was any proof of God. O’Reilly said, “Tide goes in, tide goes out, never a miscommunication. YOU can’t explain that.” Dave gave Bill this face. Shortly afterwards, somebody took a still shot, transformed it to art, and a meme was born.

The great thing about this meme is that it says something we all express from time to time — when somebody says something so impossibly stupid, you just have to say, “Are you serious?”

Some memes survive for other reasons.


Stupid Ned Stark is an in-joke that Game of Thrones fans love. It says something in a humorous way that a lot of people think.

Some memes might be a little less context specific.


This is one of a series of memes showing something crazy and incomprehensible, and ending with “…therefore your argument is invalid.” Really good for illustrating what presuppositional apologetics are like. You’ll also notice that it features a cat, which is cute, and it’s a sure way to remain popular on the internet. In fact, if you have a cat you don’t even need very clever text.


This is grumpy cat. It’s one of Martin Wagner’s favorites.

 Some pictures express a general emotion so well that they can be fitted with all kinds of text. Here, for example, is Condescending Wonka.

This is Gene Wilder in the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In this scene he was just bragging about how good his candy was, but he looks so condescending that this image keeps being reused to illustrate extreme sarcasm like this.

And finally, some memes just make fun of pop culture.

Giorgio Tsoukalos, consulting producer of the “History” Channel’s show Ancient Aliens.

Richard Dawkins was interview by Wired Magazine, where they asked,

(Reference: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-06/20/richard-dawkins-memes/viewgallery/305430)

 Q: How do you feel about your word meme being reappropriated by the internet?

A: “The meaning is not that far away from the original. It’s anything that goes viral. In the original introduction to the word meme in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, I did actually use the metaphor of a virus. So when anybody talks about something going viral on the internet, that is exactly what a meme is and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that.”


More broadly, the word “meme” is meant to be analogous to a gene, to imply that ideas have a life of their own. They “live” by being replicated to a lot of minds. Or Facebook walls, I guess. As we’ve seen, internet memes can be well adapted for survival if they are funny, or meaningful, or express some kind of outrage that a lot of people already feel. In the broader sense, an idea could survive as a meme because it’s been demonstrated to be true and useful, and it confers an obvious benefit to the believer in that way. Alternatively, memes could survive because they’re interesting or compelling, even if they’re not true. For instance: “You will never really die. When you seem to be dying, you really just go to a place where you’ll be happy forever.” Come on, that’s awesome! If I believed that, it would make me feel good, no matter how true it was!

But there is another mechanism that memes have available, which I alluded to earlier. It’s the suppression of doubt, and the suppression of competing memes. Sustained ignorance. Here’s a quote from Romans chapter 14, verses 22 and 23, to show you what I mean:

22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

Let me say that again: “whoever has doubts is condemned… everything that does not come from faith is sin.” You notice that this particular verse doesn’t directly address the potential doubts, and make extraordinary claims seem more plausible. This passage says that doubt itself is bad. And it’s a brilliant scheme, if you think about it in the framework of memes. Not only are you supposed to believe that Jesus rose from the dead to wash away our sins, so that you will not die but experience eternal life, but also… you have to work really hard on your own to keep believing that. Because if you stop believing it, then it won’t happen.

So I think you can see why people with a scientific mindset should naturally have the edge in internet conversations. The whole of the scientific method is about coming into contact with competing ideas and beating them, not just by being interesting and exciting and sexy, but also by being true and verifiable.

The main thing that has changed about the internet in the last decade or so is that creating content on the web has constantly gotten easier, thanks to services that provide an easy way to generate your own content. Let me show you: this is what it looked like when I was editing the first personal home page I ever wrote.

(Slide showing what HTML looks like)

This is hypertext markup language, or HTML for short. Most of us web developers in the 90’s had to write our own HTML code in text editors. And you still have to be able to do that in order to generate code that involves some kind of business logic, which is why I have job security. But this is a very specialized skill that a lot of people don’t have. That’s why tools started to spring up like Blogger, in 1999, which allowed you to use a simple online editor to create and publish articles very easily on a regular basis, without having any technical expertise.

Here’s an example of the interface for the Atheist Experience blog at Freethoughtblogs.com, which is based on WordPress software.

(Slide showing the FTB blog editor)

This is much easier. It’s still a little intimidating, but it’s got a “what you see is what you get” interface, so it doesn’t require as much specialized knowledge. Just enter your posts, drag pictures in, caption them, and hit “Publish.”

This and lots of other web software has changed the game, because now we have a lot of people who don’t have to specialize in computer languages, but they may be experts in lots of other areas, and it is easy for them to contribute information. Returning to the earlier point, this is good for scientific knowledge, and bad for religion. False information is far easier to correct.

On the other hand, I don’t want to make you overconfident about the power of the internet to give your arguments superpowers. Just because something is true, does not mean that people will have an easy time accepting it. In fact, a lot of the time, the Internet actually has the opposite effect. Here’s some food for thought by Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You.

By now, we’re familiar with ads that follow us around online based on our recent clicks on commercial Web sites. But increasingly, and nearly invisibly, our searches for information are being personalized too. Two people who each search on Google for “Egypt” may get significantly different results, based on their past clicks. Both Yahoo News and Google News make adjustments to their home pages for each individual visitor. And just last month, this technology began making inroads on the Web sites of newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

All of this is fairly harmless when information about consumer products is filtered into and out of your personal universe. But when personalization affects not just what you buy but how you think, different issues arise. Democracy depends on the citizen’s ability to engage with multiple viewpoints; the Internet limits such engagement when it offers up only information that reflects your already established point of view. While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t.

The practical effect of this is that often the Internet enables you to seek out new information, but it also allows you to pick and choose what slant your information takes on. If you want to believe that global warming doesn’t exist, or creationism is a popular theory among scientists, you simply have to seek out a community of like minded people, and only listen to them.

This may seem a bit contradictory. On the one hand, the internet pushes people to come in contact with other people who have radically different views. On the other hand, the internet inundates us with so much information all the time, that we’re forced to come up with some kind of filtering mechanism, and there are all kinds of filters that wind up blocking out anything we don’t want to hear.

On some level it seems like that puts us back where we started — but not exactly. Prior to the internet, the typical situation was very much a case of “majority rules.” If you’re a lone atheist in a Christian community, the majority could effectively shame, silence, and isolate you. You could wind up thinking that you’re the only dissenter in the world. Add in access to the internet, and suddenly you’ve got the ability to connect with alternate opinions you want to hear, and weigh them against the input you’re getting from your family and your peers.

The internet can’t force people to change their way of thinking; but it can at least make them aware that there are alternative ideas out there, and sometimes that might be all it takes.

Part 4: Effective social media use

[I ad libbed this section, so you’ll have to watch the video to hear the details.]

  1. Research stuff, because that’s really easy.
  2. Make sure to read things you disagree with
  3. Use your megaphone efficiently.
  4. Help cultural drift happen

Part 5: The dark side of social media

By now you might be thinking that more communication is always better, and that we should embrace the ethos of listening to all sides of an argument, and letting the truth win out. Before I wrap up my talk, I’m going to give you a few words of caution about this approach.

First of all: Enabling more open input a domain that relies on expert opinion, doesn’t necessarily improve the sum total of information available in that realm. Case in point: A study published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication last February was called “The Nasty Effect: Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies.” This is a description of some of their findings, as outlined in a New York Times editorial the researchers contributed:

(Reference: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/opinion/sunday/this-story-stinks.html?_r=0)

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

In other words, when you’re dealing with a subject like scientific knowledge, open communication can actually be detrimental to readers understanding the subject at hand. If you have an article by an informed expert on a subject, and you follow it up with a bunch of people shouting that the article sucks or the technology is dangerous, without basing it on research, people tend to be swayed at least somewhat by this extra content.

 That’s part of the reason why the publication “Popular Science” shut down the comments section of their articles, a month after the study was published. Citing this study, they said:

(Reference: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/why-were-shutting-our-comments)

If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

A lot of people online claim that their right to comment directly on every article is an issue of free speech rights. [Ad libbed comments about free speech.]

This isn’t just an issue that professional publication have to worry about either.

(Reference: http://www.policymic.com/articles/61023/6-insidious-ways-social-media-can-be-used-to-silence-women and some related links)

A girl named Hannah Smith from Leicestershire, England, killed herself this past August. In her suicide note, she wrote: “As I sit here day by day I wonder if it’s going to get better. I want to die, I want to be free. I can’t live like this any more. I’m not happy.” It seems like a big contributor to her suicidal feelings came from bullying messages she received on the social media site ask.fm. Kids from her school called her fat (c-word), and said she should kill herself. And she did.

Her mother said, “They were telling her to cut herself and to ‘do it properly so that it counts’. They also said she should hang herself.” In Hannah’s diary she said that she wanted to die because she felt worthless.

I think we can all agree that having a teenager commit suicide over a bunch of stupid comments by an angry mob is not an optimal outcome for online communications. Unfortunately this kind of bullying isn’t that uncommon, and it’s not restricted to kids. A female video logger named Anita Sarkeesian does a regular web series called “Feminist Frequency.”

Last year, Anita launched a Kickstarter campaign to research and discuss how women are portrayed in video games. Her kickstarter was fully funded, and she’s produced three half hour videos so far. I’m reading from a post on policymic.com called “6 Insidious Ways Social Media Can Be Used to Silence Women”:

After the campaign, she found herself targeted by thousands of commenters threatening violence, rape, and even murder. Her Wikipedia entry was vandalized by people with dozens of different IP addresses. Attempts were made to hack into her email and other online accounts. DDoS (distributed denial of service attacks) were launched to knock her website offline for days at at a time. She was harassed by pornographic renderings depicting her being raped by video game characters. A particularly dedicated harasser created a video game where people were invited to “beat the bitch,” which caused a virtual Sarkeesian to become bloody and bruised.

Cyber bullying is real, and it’s not a joke. It happens on social media regularly, even within the atheist community. Major atheist conventions use hashtags — easily identifiable keywords that you can use in Twitter posts about the convention which can be used to facilitate discussion between convention attendees. There are a number of people on Twitter who seem to have made it their life’s mission to post constantly during a convention, using that hashtag and writing abusive posts about individual speakers.

Which brings me to my final point:

[Ad libbed discussion: 1. It’s okay to block people on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, etc. 2. You are not personally responsible to provide a platform where everyone has a say. 3. The internet still is an open platform without you, those people will find other ways to express themselves.]


  • “A lie can travel halfway around the world” – Mark Twain
  • “The Internet has leveled the playing field” – Josh McDowell


  1. A Hermit says

    OK, what I mostly got out of this is that a guy almost as bald as me was born after the internet arrived.

    Man I feel old…

  2. Russell Glasser says

    I am bald by CHOICE. Without grooming, I’m just thinning. 🙂

    And I maybe have been born after the internet, but I was born way before most people had heard of the internet.

  3. says

    I liked the part about how objective and honest views about religion and science are almost always suppressed by others who have just a biased view and how the internet is bringing out the truth and leveling the playing field.

  4. Paul Wright says

    Thanks for the upload Russell.

    Regarding one of the audience questions at the end about atheism in Europe v’s atheism in America. As a UK citizen I can speak a little about this regarding England and the UK, but not so much the rest of Europe. I’m just going to skim and provide salient points as I see them, otherwise I’d be here all day. 🙂

    England was a deeply Catholic nation until the reformation in the 16th Century. Afterwards, Protestantism became widespread. Protestantism has become a much more benign form of belief in the UK compared to Catholicism. The Church Of England does not proselytise or promote it’s self in any meaningful way. Combine this with the following Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, England ( and the UK ) quickly became a lot more secular in it’s world view regarding religion. The hammer blow was no doubt Charles Darwin publishing his Origin Of Species. This really pushed religion to one side over time. By the 20th Century, religion in the UK was on the decline in a big way. By the 1960’s many free thinkers thought it would be dead and buried by the end of the century, but this was not to be the case.

    The rise of ‘New Atheism’ in the UK, a deliberate push back to a recrudescent rise in faith, has been quite profound. People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have done a huge amount in pushing forward the importance of science into the public mind and at the same time, revealing how religion is stultifying learning and scepticism in our children.

    There are no motorway billboards in the UK advertising religion or churches. Our media is almost entirely secular. Being an atheist in the UK does not hinder you from being elected Prime Minister. If anything, it probably helps. I think these things are where we in the UK differ most from the USA. You guys have the separation of Church and State, which is very noble, but the hypocrisy of this is that atheists cannot be elected to office. Never understood that paradox. Maybe I’m missing something ?!?

    Religion seems to be more of a business in America. A tax free enterprise aimed at separating the credulous from their wallets. For you guys to catch up to Europe and the UK, I feel only education can change things and that’s going to take time. This is where your video was spot in my opinion. The internet provides vast sources of knowledge at every ones fingertips nowadays, and like you rightly alluded too, people who are sceptical and have questions about faith and religion, no longer have any excuses for not finding the answers they seek.

    I’ve been saying for a long time to my friends and family that the internet is the final coffin nail for organised religion. It won’t erase religion, but it will negate it.

  5. kestra says

    Regarding the religiosity of the US vs the UK (and the rest of Europe), I think a lot of it can be put down to the fact that many of the 13 colonies were founded by fanatic religious dissidents fleeing persecution in Europe, or seeking a place where they could set up and run a state based on their peculiar religion the way they wanted. (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are the best examples of this.) The fanatical settlements that resulted lead to all sorts of charming behavior like witch trials and exiling anyone who wasn’t of the predominant sect.

    Combine this with a huge influx of immigrants who were for the most part uneducated laborers and farmers, and its not surprising that they became fertile ground for the preaching of fanatics that were already here. There are actually at least three, possibly four, distinct historical periods called “The Great Awakenings” that lasted *decades* and spawned numerous new churches and religions. Also, US religions, being mostly Protestant Christian, didn’t come with a baked-in religious hierarchy to abuse their power and be resented. Becoming a pastor or preacher in the US has always been a more personal-charisma-and-divine-inspiration exercise than a vocational course of academic study, as was more common in Europe, even in modern times. And most of those charismatic preachers went on to found their own personal brand of Christianity.

    Founding new flavors of religion is as much of an American pasttime as baseball. We can take credit (?) for Mormonism, Christian Science, Black Hebrews, Pentecostalism, Theosophy, Scientology, Seventh-Day Adventists AND Jehovah’s Witnesses (YOU’RE WELCOME.) And that’s not to mention all the fringe cults and sects that began elsewhere, but found the US to be a hospitable climate, like the Amish, the Mennonites, the Quakers, the Baptists, and the Puritans (at least we managed to kill THEM off, speaking as a Puritan descendent.)

    I also personally think that the lack of a state-based religion made it more of a subversive, and thus attractive, activity than in many European countries where Church and State march hand-in-hand. I mean, those states that had a state religion, like Pennsylvania, have seen their native religion of Quakerism loose a lot of ground in the modern era, while those religions that are separate, like Baptists, enjoy considerably more success. Utah could be a counter example of this, which is essentially a religious state despite not having an official establishment clause.

  6. JT Rager says

    I don’t know how old Martin and Russel are, but I love how they both have totally embraced internet culture. Love them!

  7. Tawn says

    Ill add to the Atheism / Science in the UK..

    No idea how things are in America, but there is a recent rise in the number of scientific programmes being broadcast over the last few years. Scientists like Brian Cox are tv celebrities in their own right and is able to openly mock psudo science. When mentioning astrology in an astronomy programme, Brian Cox cays to the camera “In the interests of not showing any bias on the BBC, I can inform you that Astrology is utter rubbish” (not verbatim). This is a weekday evening programme presented by two open atheists.

    Whilst 68% of the population call themselves religious (according to census data 2011), the reality is far from this. Many call themselves ‘Christian’, but act and behave as if religion didn’t exist. I’ve found that most people are unconcerned with religion and an expression of views to either side is met with a frown. i.e. If you are openly religious, what are you telling me about it for? and any expression of Atheism is met with equal disdain. What are you getting upset over? Discussing religion is a bit like discussing politics. It’s not always considered polite and best avoided.

    For entirely different reasons to living in America, the internet is a place where you can find people willing to discuss religion and atheism. That’s my experience anyway.

  8. SeKara says

    Weird, Paul. Your comment reads very similar to an email I sent to the aetv team. In it I asked if they thought that maybe the american founding father’s unintentionally caused a lot of the current problems America faces by removing religion from the state and accidentally monetizing it – making it a business opportunity. Would America have an easier time becoming secular if religion had been kept state sponsored and allowed to atrophy as it has here in the UK?

  9. SeKara says

    Russell’s age is like the location of the Simpsons Springfield. The clues are all there. He’s the same age as me, if that helps.

  10. Russell Glasser says

    How much detective work would that take, given that the very first slide says “The Internet circa 1974” and I say out loud “This is the year I was born…”?

  11. Tawn says

    Maybe, but also consider the isolation that could be achieved in America. It is primarily the least densely populated areas that are generally more religious, or am I wrong? As the internet makes the world ‘a smaller place’ by speeding up communication, it essentially does the opposite of isolation and segregation. It makes it harder to keep people ignorant of alternative viewpoints.

  12. Paul Wright says

    I think the Founding Fathers did a pretty good job drafting The Constitution. The separation of church and state is vital in my opinion as it prevents the US from sliding into a theocracy and history tells us that theocracy’s don’t work out very well for the people they dominate.

    The whole, church/business thing that seems to afflict America is in part in my view a symptom of how that society constantly chases the dollar bill. Just look at Scientology. How anyone can call that a religion and keep a straight face is beyond me. It’s clearly a pyramid scheme for making money.

    Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham etc., utterly contemptible people, who didn’t actually believe a lot of what they were preaching, but were/are there for the money. We have never had these kind of charlatans in the UK (Thank God :p ) .

  13. Jim Ramsay says

    I’ve always assumed that the quantity (prolific!) and “quality” of internet trolling is largely due to the anonymity inherent in internet communication. 

    While sometimes this factor can actually be beneficial to discussion (for example, political activists in an operative regime), it also lets those who would otherwise justifiably be held accountable for wrong actions (hate speech, threats of violence or death) a carte blanche to rant with impunity.

    Furthermore, I think the fact that you post facing a screen and not a physical person makes it that much easier to dehumanize the recipient.  This could be the lack of biological cues that may otherwise inspire empathy, or (coming back to anonymity) the fact of long-distance communication I like to call the “they-can’t-punch-me effect”.

    If the internet has leveled the playing field, I’m afraid it has lowered it as well.

  14. JT Rager says

    Well played, Russel. I guess interwebz culture owes it to your type anyway who were there from the early days. Cheers!

  15. Henrique says

    I understand that this lecture was presented to an atheist audience, but still I believe you need to double-check your Bible concepts. When talking about Romans 15, you portrait the idea that Christians are instructed to take decisions based only on faith, but that is not the case in the text. It clearly states that one should not do something if there is a risk that it would end in evil. That’s the idea behind “whatever you do, do it to please the Lord”. Nonetheless, the idea of connecting minorities across the globe and sharing information was very well put. Cheers!