Atheists, Social Media, and American Politics — The Revealer

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First published in 2012, Chris Stedman’s Faitheist was part of a wave of reactions to what came to be called the “New Atheist” movement of the mid-2000s. New Atheists offered a condescending, defiant, and triumphalist vision of atheism’s future—often drawing on new scientific developments that they giddily hauled on stage to “disprove” religion. But Stedman and others transformed atheism in not only substance, but style. This new wave of atheist authors (referred to as “soft atheists” by anthropologist Matthew Engelke) was younger, more diverse, and more interested in building bridges than arming the border between the religious and the secular.

Stedman’s contribution was to speak from the perspective not only of a new generation, but of a queer ex-evangelical who had spent several years in interfaith activism and humanist chaplaincy. And like many in our generation, much of Stedman’s personal and intellectual formation took place online. Both the lead-up and the explosive response to Faitheist were no exception. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this set the stage for Stedman’s increasing fascination with the prospect of developing a philosophy of the internet—a way of living online better. This became his follow-up book IRL, released in 2020, with a second edition—including new commentary on our digital lives during COVID—out now.

I interviewed Stedman about atheism in America, our extremely online lives, and the 10 years since Faitheist. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Connections between Faitheist and IRL

Donovan Schaefer: I’m consistently in awe of your voice when you’re writing, your gift for taking very ordinary things and making them intimate and insightful. When I think of books that are in the autobiographical genre, often they’re about exciting, rare experiences that people have. With your books it’s like I’m reading you talking about conversations that you’ve had with your friends.

One of the things that I’m interested in is the relationship between these two major books that you’ve written. Faitheist was a call for a new genre of atheist writing and movement-building, one that emphasized the ethical and community-forming aspects of atheism rather than its polemical dimensions. We’re at the ten-year anniversary of the publication of Faitheist and it seems to me when I run the numbers that there are about 7 years between the beginning of your writing Faitheist, and the beginning of you writing IRL. So, I wanted to ask you: what do you see as the relationship between these books? How do you see Faitheist leading into IRL? Or do you see a sharp break between them?

Chris Stedman: Faitheist had a complicated reception when it came out—there were some atheists who took issue with its arguments—but overall, it brought so many good things and people into my life, and I’m really grateful for that. Still, after a few years of the book being out, I found myself feeling like I could only be that guy—the queer atheist who advocates for atheist participation in interfaith dialogue. And, of course, you know, I’ve always been interested in more than just that.

About five years after Faitheist came out, I went through a lot of changes in my life, personally and professionally. But I wasn’t sure how much of that I could talk about online; I felt restricted in terms of what I could or should share, and pressure to be a good representative for the ideas that I was interested in. If I said something snarky, would it reflect poorly on my community or ideas? So I began to feel this tension between the full range of who I am, and this sense that I should just focus on this one area online. This led me to start reflecting on how we present and construct ourselves in virtual space, which ultimately led to IRL.

In other words, on a practical level there’s a bridge from Faitheist to IRL, because everything that followed Faitheist—the public image I had, and how it both connected me to others and made me feel boxed in—made me interested in exploring how the internet shapes our sense of who we are. But that’s sort of the simple answer. More centrally, I actually think Faitheist and IRL explore the same kinds of questions.

I’ve always been interested in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and in where our ideas about what matters to us come from. I can trace that interest all the way back to some of the stories I tell in Faitheist, about why I became a Christian as an adolescent and why I continued to wrestle with religion even after I left the faith. The questions that inspired my interest in religion—who am I? why do human beings do the things we do? what is my responsibility to the world around me?—are also some of the animating questions driving IRL. Questions like, how do we understand who we are, in light of our relationship to others? How are we shaped by the stories we inherit about who we’re supposed to be, as well as the ones we write for ourselves as we come to understand who we really are?

I believe you once wrote of Faitheist as a memoir of interconnected closets, LGBTQ and atheist. The story of coming out of a closet, while of course different in each case, is ultimately one of rejecting the narratives you’ve inherited about who you’re supposed to be, and forging your own story. My goal with both Faitheist and IRL has been to look at these big cultural narratives we inherit around religion and the internet, inspect them a little more closely from a number of angles, and invite people to consider that maybe we should tell a different story about them.

Politics and the Internet

DS: Both Faitheist and IRL are really about the transformation of our political and personal lives through our increasing immersion in the world the internet built. What do you see as the relationship between the internet and the current political climate?

CS: There’s a lot of alarmism about the internet right now. Much of it is justified, or at least well-placed, but I also think we actually have a lot more power in our online lives than it sometimes feels like we do.

There was, for example, this eight-year longitudinal study out of Brigham Young University that tracked people’s online experiences, which found that two people can spend the same amount of time online and have fundamentally different experiences. It came down to whether or not someone was being intentional about the needs they were trying to meet when they logged on.

Still, while we can become more intentional about what we’re using the internet for, we’re swimming upstream for the time being, because what feels like public space is actually private space. Our social internet is run by private corporations that ultimately operate in a way that’s designed to maximize profit. As a result, their algorithms boost whatever drives the most engagement. They don’t care if it’s positive or negative. So, if it’s easier to capture attention and keep people online by elevating content that polarizes and angers, that preys on our fears and insecurities and human vulnerabilities, then that’s the stuff that will rise to the top. A lot of misinformation and polarization balloons as a result of how these platforms operate.

One of the things that I focused on quite a bit while writing IRL is that many of us have walked away from various kinds of institutions—like religious institutions, obviously, as my main interest, but I think this is true in terms of many of our political institutions and others as well—or were never a part of them in the first place. We are now trying to meet the needs those institutions have often met for people on our own. We see ourselves, in a way, as rejecting the scripts of institutions altogether—maybe even rejecting scripts, period—and finding our own way. But really most of us are actually just sort of replacing those scripts with other ones. And online, that script is driven by capital.

Still, while I think that there’s much to be rightfully concerned about, I also don’t think the fate of the internet is set.

In our networks of relationships, we have strong ties—the people you’re closest to, often our best friends or family, if you have that kind of relationship with family. These are people with whom we will keep in touch no matter what technology is available to us. But most of our relationships aren’t like that. Most are weak ties, or people who we encounter at one point in our lives and then go our separate ways. Without the internet, you might not have kept in touch with most of these people. But because of social media, they can stay in our orbits now. And it turns out weak ties often have different views than our close ties, who are much more likely to see the world the way we do. So weak ties can put perspectives we might not otherwise come across—horizon-expanding perspectives—on our radar in a way close ties often can’t.

There’s a lot of talk about how we silo ourselves online, about the polarizing effects of these platforms, and those are really important conversations. But the internet also can help us encounter perspectives and develop relationships with people who have experiences that are different from our own, who we otherwise might not encounter—which was a big part of what I argued for in Faitheist when explaining why I think atheists should participate in interfaith dialogue. That horizon-expanding potential certainly has been a big part of my experience online. But again, I do think we’re swimming upstream with the platforms as they exist right now.

DS: To follow up on that, in IRL you talk about social media platforms as corporate entities. You make the argument that profit motive produces an overall toxic environment on social media because toxic politics drive clicks. I was getting a split screen effect in my head when I read that, and part of my brain was nodding along enthusiastically, while another part was skeptical. So I wanted to push back on that. An example that comes to mind, and that we’re seeing in more media discussions today, is the history of fascist movements. Fascist movements are incredibly effective at taking public space and using those public spaces as amplifiers for fascist political projects. Mussolini, who invented fascism, had an office overlooking the Piazza Venezia in central Rome—a massive public square. And he had a balcony installed on his office in front of this colossal nationalist monument. His addresses to the Italian people in this public space from that balcony were an incredibly important part of the story of how fascism rules. But he wasn’t using private space for that; he was using public space.

So we often hear this claim that it’s the profit motive of Facebook and Twitter as private corporations that leads to their capture by the politics of division and violence. But I’m not sure that holds weight historically. Social media elevates things that are getting a lot of reactions, but they would do just as well if the things that were getting reactions were just pictures of kittens and Live Laugh Love memes. The platforms are neutral. It’s the user base that is driving polarization. That’s coming from those of us who are circulating polarizing digital content. So, is it possible that the problem isn’t the corporations? Isn’t it really us?

CS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think if there’s a core argument to IRL—and, you know, I really tried while writing it to not accidentally create a polemic with a really strong stance on the internet, because I think the internet is so incredibly complex—but I think if there is a central argument, it’s that I’m pushing back on this idea that online life isn’t real life, an idea that I think is very pernicious and subtle. And one of the big consequences of this way of thinking—that online life isn’t real, or is less real; that it “doesn’t count”—is that it creates a way for us to disassociate ourselves from the things that we say and do online. You hear a lot of people say, “Oh, I would never do that in real life, it’s just the internet.” And I think one of the consequences of that has been that the way people think about the internet gives them the sense they don’t have to be as responsible for the things they say or do online. I suspect one of the reasons that line of thinking has caught on is because, you know, if we see things that make us uncomfortable about ourselves in our online actions, then holding this mindset can be a way to disown those things and say, “Well, that’s not really me.” And I think there’s a sort of escalating effect to that—this is like when we talk about online radicalization and the pathways into more radical online spaces. It often starts with making jokes in this one forum, and then that leads you to this other forum, and before you know it, you’re suddenly involved in this community you would never have imagined yourself joining a few years earlier.

All of this is to say, the internet is something that we as human beings created. Anything that exists online is something that we’ve brought to the internet. So there is nothing online that isn’t real. Everything that we say or do online is a reflection of who we are. And if we see things online that are ugly or horrifying, those are reflections of who we are as human beings. In some ways, pinning everything on the platforms that we created can be a way of dodging blame.

(Image source: Alex Reyes)

I think it’s important to talk about the role of the platforms preying on and exacerbating some of our human vulnerabilities, which is an argument I build toward at the end of IRL, but putting all the blame on our technology—which, again, is something that we created—can be a kind of evasion from looking at what it is in human nature that technology simply shines a light on.

It actually reminds me of a line of thinking I would see in online New Atheist spaces, in conversations about religion. A lot of people would argue that without religion we wouldn’t have this problem or that problem—as if religion isn’t an expression of human thinking, human impulses. One of the things that has felt very bizarre to watch over the last few years is career atheists who would wield arguments like that against religion—who would focus a lot on homophobia in religious spaces, for example, using it as this sort of weapon against religion, to say, “Look at what religion does”—move from using those things as a kind of cudgel against religion to engaging in homophobia themselves as atheists, and changing their target from religion to “social justice warriors.” It’s been fascinating, because it shows that their understanding of religion was a really flawed one. It wasn’t rooted in a true curiosity about how religion operates, nor a true sense of empathy for folks who have been hurt by homophobia, sexism, or racism in religion. They just wanted to use it as a device to argue against religion.

Atheism on the Internet

DOS: That sets up the next question I want to ask you. One of the things I found really fascinating about IRL was your point that the rise in “nones,” or people with no religious affiliation—whether they are atheists, agnostics, or nothing-in-particulars—didn’t start with the rise of the New Atheist movement in the 2000s, but actually began in the early nineties. And you make the suggestion that the internet itself is one of the factors that has shaped the landscape of unbelief in the US. Could you say more about that?

CS: I remember when I was more involved in organized movement atheism, there was a lot of talk about the rise of the “nones,” and it was almost always referenced as a kind of victory for atheism. “Look, religion is declining! Nonreligion is on the rise!” There were a lot of people looking to take credit for that—to say it was because of the rise of New Atheism and these atheist polemics. But what I think is so interesting is that if you look at the data, you actually see that, yes, there’s been this explosion in terms of the number of people who don’t claim a religious affiliation. But the growth of people who say they are atheists has been comparatively quite small. Meanwhile, rates of self-reported belief in God or a higher power, or engagement in what we might consider to be religious practices, like prayer, have remained really high among the nonreligious. So it seems pretty obvious on its face that it really hasn’t been this rise of non-belief. Obviously, belief is a part of it, but that’s not the central story.

So what is it? I think it’s the move away from institutions.

People who leave religion or were never part of it still need community and meaning. But instead of looking to institutions for these things, they’re doing them in a DIY fashion, which I think is why we’ve seen a rise in interest in things like astrology, or an increasing number of people who consider themselves to be religiously-hybrid and drawing from multiple wisdom sources. That is much more what’s going on than a rejection of religious belief, which was a big part of the New Atheist line for years.

And, again, I think the internet has something to do with this. When I was younger and the internet wasn’t as much a part of my life, I wanted a space where I could explore big existential questions, and I found it in a church. But there were all kinds of negative things that came along with that, and I think a lot of people are now able to use the internet to explore those same things that brought me into church without having to navigate some of the negative stuff that can come with being a part of an institution like that.

That being said, I do think those institutions can lock us into uncomfortable conversations sometimes in ways that can be really powerful or constructive. Whereas online we do have the freedom to just click away—which again, I think, especially for marginalized people can be really important, but also, I think there is something lost there.

All of this is to say that I think the New Atheist story got it wrong.

A lot of those folks have moved on in their targets—religion is still in the mix for them, but for many it doesn’t even seem to be the main focus anymore. You see someone like Richard Dawkins, who really made a name for himself as this anti-religious stalwart, who has really shifted. I saw a tweet from him a couple years ago, I think, where he was basically making fun of people who were offended by others saying “Merry Christmas.” He was mocking efforts to be, as he saw it, overly inclusive around the holidays. Which is very much a Fox News kind of line. And it’s been so interesting to see someone like Dawkins start with being so anti-Christianity and moving to defending it, out of what feels like nothing more than a desire to be contrarian.

Really, I think if you look at the motivations underneath the surface, New Atheism wasn’t actually about religion at all—it was more about wanting to feel morally superior to religious people. That’s partly why I wrote this piece for VICE back in 2018, inspired by white supremacist Richard Spencer opening up about being an atheist, and the atheist movement not pushing back on that or really saying anything about it at all. I wanted to highlight some of the troubling trends in organized atheism. Not just the demographic overlap—a higher percentage of people involved in alt right and white supremacist movements are atheist or agnostic—but the cultural one, too. There’s this culture in movement atheism that sees atheism as the ultimate transgression, and atheists as being the last true defenders of free thought and irreverence. The ultimate truth-tellers and contrarians, for whom shattering taboos is the most important thing. So it’s not surprising to me that their contrarianism has shifted its focus from religion to “liberal norms” concerning sexuality, race, and gender.

Atheism and the Alt-Right

DOS: One of the things I find so powerful about Faitheist is how prescient it is. You saw the writing on the wall, that tendencies within New Atheism—Islamophobia, culture war conservatism, a kind of gleeful moral combat—were festering, and could potentially lead to sympathy with fascist movements, including, paradoxically, white Christian nationalism itself.

I don’t want to bundle all New Atheism together, since there’s already a lot of internal division within the group we now associate with that term, but there was a clear tendency to, as Enlightenment liberalism always does, present itself as progressive while also nurturing a dark, even violent edge. I think what you foresaw, the entanglement of New Atheism and white nationalism in the subsequent decade, has been borne out. What’s even more interesting is that we’re now seeing a coalescence between secular nationalism, including secular white nationalism, and white Christian nationalism—alliances that are being forged between people who identify as atheists but are building political coalitions with believers. What do you make of all that?

CS: I remember when Faitheist came out, there was a lot of intense pushback on my proposal that atheists partner with religious believers around shared values. Fast forward to today: a lot of those same critics are allying themselves with white Christian nationalists.

When I was first getting involved in movement atheism, one of the things that I resisted most—and one of the things that I found myself writing and speaking about most—was the presence of Islamophobia within the atheist movement. One of the first atheist conferences I attended was an American Atheists national convention, and at one point a group performed a song called “Back in their Burkas Again.” I think it was, on the surface, intended to be a critique of when women are forced to wear burqas against their will. But really the song ended up making those women the butt of the joke. And the jeers from the audience just made me ill. It did not feel like an expression of solidarity with people who experience repression in the name of religion. It felt like a way for everyone in the room, the majority of whom were white, to feel superior. Like they were too smart to fall for such stupid ideas.

I experienced something like this personally, too. A lot of the criticism I got from other atheists was couched in language that felt emasculating or even homophobic. Like when I went on Fox News, I saw a lot of atheists bemoaning that appearance because I made atheists look like “freaks,” essentially because they thought I look and sound gay. I would hear atheists in one breath say “look at all the harm religion does to LGBTQ people” and then call me “wimpy” or “weak” in the other. It just made their concerns about homophobia in religion feel empty. Especially when I knew so many religious people fighting against the anti-LGBTQ biases both within and outside of their own communities.

Just like my friends who belong to religious communities that perpetuate homophobia, who feel a sense of responsibility to speak out against it and to refuse to be complicit, I have felt a sense of responsibility as an atheist to speak out against problems I’ve seen in my community. Obviously, the racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and sexism that have been major issues within organized atheist communities aren’t inherent to atheism. But they do undermine the New Atheist argument that they’re inherent to religion.

One of the biggest problems that New Atheist attitudes have created among people involved in movement atheism is this idea that they’re somehow inoculated from the sorts of problems they associate religion as being responsible for—things like homophobia and sexism. “I can’t possibly be homophobic because I’m not religious. That’s a religious thing.” It hampers their ability to be self-critical, to be curious about how cultural forces may have influenced their own biases. This was, I think, the biggest irony I encountered in movement atheism—that there seemed to be so much resistance to the idea of turning the skepticism that so many people in the movement championed inward and being skeptical of ourselves, of our own ways of thinking, of our own ideas.

I think that resistance to being self-skeptical—which again is not an atheist problem, but a human one—is part of why white nationalism has taken root in movement atheism. Obviously, it was always there, but this may be part of why it was allowed to go un-interrogated by a wide range of people for so long, with the exception of activists who have been speaking out about it for years only to be marginalized.

Another thing I’ve thought about regularly is that, in the wake of New Atheism’s rise, there was this effort to erase some of the boundaries between atheism and secular humanism, a nontheistic ethical perspective on how to live one’s life. The American Humanist Association, which I’m a member of and have worked with for years, gave Richard Dawkins the Humanist of the Year award, for example—though they actually rescinded it recently, to some controversy, over his remarks on trans people. Richard Dawkins identifies as a humanist, but do some of his words and actions align with humanism? I don’t think so.

I remember going to humanist conferences and seeing the same slate of speakers I would see at an American Atheists conference. People like David Silverman, who was at the time the head of American Atheists, were really pushing for everyone—including humanists—to just use the word atheist instead, as if they were synonyms. And all of these organizations seemed to be much more focused on critiquing religious ideas than on promoting humanist ones.

One of the things I argued in Faitheist was that the atheist movement was spending way too much time focusing on where it disagrees with religious ideas, and not nearly enough time offering an alternative. And I think the watering down of humanism played a role in this dynamic. Take Richard Spencer. I can look at Richard Spencer’s interview where he talks about atheism and humanism, and compare those claims against the racist ideas he promotes and the violent way he moves through the world. I can compare his worldview against humanism and say “this doesn’t line up.” But I can’t say he’s not an atheist. Reaffirming the ethical side of humanism will help to make sure that nontheism stays firmly on the side of antiracist politics.


Donovan Schaefer is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, most recently, of Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin (Duke University Press, 2022).

Chris Stedman is writer, activist, and professor who teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the author of IRL: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World and Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, as well as the writer and host of Unread, named one of the best podcasts of 2021 by the Guardian, Vulture, HuffPost, Mashable, and the CBC, and honored by the 2022 Webby Awards. Previously the founding director of the Yale Humanist Community, he also served as a humanist chaplain at Harvard University.


Interested in more on this topic? Check out episode 30 of the Revealer Podcast: “Atheists in America.”

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