Artillery Row

Losing faith in atheism

How nonbelief lost its cool

Those of us who had too much spare time on our hands in 2007 will remember The Amazing Atheist, Pat Condell and Thunderf00t. For those who have a life, an explainer: the trio were bashers of religion online — the foremost among a collection of drop-outs, academics, and retirees who came to make a living producing videos “owning” religious advocates and their beliefs. 

This was a genre popularised by Christopher Hitchens who would tour US TV studios doling out “Hitchslaps”, and it was in his image that these online imitators were born. They believed that by discarding tired vestiges of religious tradition — prayer in school, In God We Trust on the dollar bill and so on — we would herald an enlightened age.

It all seems so absurd now, like an expression of dramatic irony to foreshadow the madness that would descend in the 2010s and thereafter. But like millions of others, I was one of those who tuned in and believed. Not least of all because these videos were entertaining. Popular targets included the dorky evangelist Ray Comfort, and his infamous declaration that the banana was the atheist’s worst nightmare. They’d debate with Christian YouTubers sporting handles like JesusFreak445 via back and forth videos, in epic clashes that would carry on for years. But the most intensely enjoyable lampooning was reserved for so-called super pastors, whose charlatanism could not survive online scrutiny. In short, their targets were too good not to mock, the subject matter too rich to be left alone.

These internet atheists didn’t kill religion, they were merely narrating its death throes. They weren’t going toe to toe with Thomas Aquinas, or Kierkegaard — they were laughing about JesusFreak from the comfort of their bedrooms. There was a necrologic informing the whole enterprise. Most of their targets were literally dead – from Mother Theresa to Jesus Christ – or spiritually dead, like the super pastors who were afforded private jets by the naive goodwill of their flock.

Many of these content creators, and much of their audience, were apostates. They had been brought up on God, and were now launching a crusade against him. These viral rants were expressions of rebellion against a particular cultural form that was historically dominant in the US. It was a rejection of the flawed wisdom of parents – but it was an especially good one because it could be proved true by empirical means. Take that, fogeys! Viewers enjoyed delegating the job of intellectualising kneejerk rejection to self-appointed thought leaders.

My forms were different. I was never christened, and do not and have never believed in the existence of God. But I still enjoyed validation of my uninformed and reflexive unbelief. Here I was, smarter than all these philistines, and by default no less. It wasn’t hard to take that view, as repulsive as some may find it, given the nature of the headlines produced by religion. The Lord’s Resistance Army was on the march across Africa, the Catholic church was embroiled in abuse scandals, and the memory of the 7/7 bombings was still keen. Religion, and its leaders, could be judged by their deeds — and found wanting.  

The YouTubers were united by their opposition to Christianity

The YouTubers were united by their opposition to Christianity, and thrown into disharmony by a schism when elements of their community ventured to criticise Islam. Some considered it an illiberal and racist transgression to extend their attacks on the Christian faith to the Islamic faith — Muslims being a minority group. Out of this divide — as well as arguments about feminism and the prevalence of sexist attitudes and behaviour in atheist circles —  Atheism Plus was born, which transcended simple non-belief to encompass values such as social justice, feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT equality.

The search for meaning led the creators and their audiences down diverging roads. Thunderf00t, a chemist who cut his teeth debunking young earth creationists was taken ill with Brexit derangement syndrome. Since the Leave vote he has published dozens of delusional videos, including: Scotland to veto #Brexit POPCORN ON STANDBY!, ALL Brexit leaders FLEE the sinking ship! and, Brexit: the Disaster Movie! When checking his social media for this article, he was still banging on about it: tweeting sarcastically about sewage overflow as “the smell of FREEDOOOOOOMMMMM!!! #BrexitReality”. 

Neuroscientist Sam Harris is an atheist who straddles the online and the mainstream — evidenced by the fact that Wikipedia describes him as a podcast host ahead of scientist. He is of the New Atheism sect, and has been dubbed one of the Four Horsemen of the movement, with Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett making up the other three. Like his contemporaries though, once he had made rote stuff of upending southern Baptist eccentricities, he had to find new personal meaning in politics. His recent appearance on the Triggernometry podcast served as a great example, where he said that “Hunter Biden could have literally had the corpses of children in his basement and I would not have cared” and that the suppression of the New York Post’s story regarding Hunter’s laptop was an “absolutely warranted” conspiracy. When pushed by co-host Konstantin Kisin, if he was content with a conspiracy to prevent a President from being democratically elected, he replied: “If there was an asteroid hurtling toward earth and we got in a room together with all of our friends and had a conversation about how to deflect its course, is that a conspiracy?”.

Where is the enlightened world that was promised? Non-belief in God has enabled corrosive cynicism and unmoored idealists. Absent a moral framework, many of these atheists are malfunctioning – and devoid of that great Satan of religion to attack they tilt at every windmill. Although God is dead, the sacraments are not – they live on as perverted taxidermies. We still kneel, but rather than for Jesus Christ, it’s for #BLM. In a crisis we pray — yet not to the Almighty but into the void. And while you can burn a Bible in public, the police will come knocking if you torch an LGBT flag. The seven deadly sins are now the ultimate virtues, from gluttonous free spirits to lustful Tinder swipers. Valuable aspects of religion have been stripped out — the community spirit, the shared ideals, and the belief in something beyond the self — leaving behind a skeletal carcass on which progressives feast.  

I’d sooner give up a quid for that old church roof, than for a grifting activist’s fifth Cali mansion. I’d rather be preached to about the Garden of Eden than about gender identity — even though I don’t believe in either. Given the choice I’d kneel before the Alpha and the Omega than bow down to BLM. If the choice is this religion, or theirs, then I say — better the Devil you know.

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