Monday, October 31, 2011

Do Atheists Own the Internet?

A certain YouTube atheist, CultofDusty, has staked the claim that "atheists own the Internet." I won’t link to his video here, because Dusty takes a George Carlin persona and has all the associated linguistic traits (and to be fair, he has in turn shown himself to be courteous in comments to me). He's a bit of a performer, so one may perhaps excuse him for some hyperbole. However, allowing for that, his reasons given for making this statement aren't particularly compelling:

Atheists are defeating Christians in debates on social media websites. Maybe so. I don’t hang around those at all. But they’re not winning on sites like TheologyWeb where serious discussion takes place, and social media sites aren’t exactly havens for people with a high interest in scholarship. At the same time, I’m not inclined to assume that this is any more than a case of .150 batters doing better than .125 batters. We collect screwy statements from atheists and Christians alike, and social media havens like Facebook are prime breeding grounds for silly statements from all sides -- mostly Christians.

Atheist videos get more views on YouTube than Christian videos. Statistically this doesn’t mean anything by itself. There are also crackpot videos on YouTube about things like the moon landings being faked that get more views than either atheist or Christian videos. Also, this could easily be a function of there being proportionately more options for Christians in terms of their viewing selections, whereas being that there are fewer atheists, there are also fewer channels for them to choose from, which means their views tend to get clustered. Finally, what about repeat views? In any event, this is a stat that would need to be looked into more deeply before any meaning could be assigned to it (and I’d also like to verify it with more detailed research).

Still and all, I think in one sense Dusty's right. I don't think atheists "own" the Internet, but I do think that as a whole, they've been more effective and proactive in using it as a popular tool to spread their message. I also think that's not necessarily something for them to be proud of. Dusty says that atheists are winning on the Internet because religious arguments are stupid and easy to defeat, and an open marketplace of ideas like the Internet makes that clear. I think a more likely explanation – based on my research presented in a Christian Research Journal article, “The Mesmerizing Misinformation Maelstrom,” and as affirmed by various experts in the area of technology, education, and brain research (summed up well in Carr's excellent book, The Shallows) -- is that the Internet is an environment that by its very nature discourages deep thinking and encourages quick, shallow answers to complex questions. That in turn means that Internet users can easily get the impression that they’ve done a “winning” job on some issue when they have not.

As an indication of this, Dusty says that a “five second Google search” makes it easy to find out that religious people are lying. Really? Allowing for hyperbole again, who really thinks that five seconds or even five minutes is enough to satisfy a burden of serious research? What about evaluating the sources critically? What about scholarly journals and commentaries? As I told one of his fans, even if atheists own the Internet, Christians (and theists) still own scholarly print resources like books and journals – and which of those would be better sources for accurate information?

Because of what the Internet can do to discourage deep thinking, I’d say that laying claim to "owning" the Internet is akin to boasting that one owns a garbage truck in a contest where having the most dignified vehicle is the standard. In this light, please note as well that Dusty argues for some rather fringe positions, such as one I answered in a recent video of mine, that the works of Tacitus, and so his reference to Jesus as well, are late forgeries. This is a view that serious scholars of Tacitus and Greco-Roman history would find appalling. It’s also the kind of view one gets by spending only five seconds doing research.

By the same token, atheists have certainly rushed faster to take the advantage of YouTube; but as shown in a series on the Forge blog - which offers but a sample of what can be found there - this, too, is nothing to be proud of. Many of these atheists promote radical, insensible ideas like the Christ myth, and YouTube is a place where video presentations favoring "9/11 truther" scenarios can garner as much applause as a skilled opera singer in Vienna. Of course, we might also suggest that that's a case of better players not showing up -- or falling down on the job.

So we can grant that the atheists have often done better than Christians in the Internet medium; the question then turns to why. The "whys" are likely many: Much more aggressive evangelistic zeal by atheists (Dusty himself expresses a strong desire to oppose Christians based on things like their political choices); too much concern with devotional and entertainment matters by Christians (who knows of that many atheist rock groups that sing about their atheism and nothing else?); the fact that some atheist arguments, because they tend to merely consist of denials and negations, have much less content to argue and so lend themselves much better to a rapid-fire medium; lack of education in the churches (what else?), and -- this is one that hits home with me particularly -- a serious deficiency in creativity.

Part of this is understandable: How does one present information about, e.g., the authorship of 2 Thessalonians in a way that is entertaining and interesting? It's not easy, but it can be done; my own YouTube video on this featured the Apostle Paul confronting Bart Ehrman in his own classroom – and the two of them exchanging points in Dr. Seuss rhyme-verse. Creativity can be a challenge when the topics are so obscure and complex, but I take it as a challenge to be met.

Our apologetics also tend to have to be longer and more involved, because they require a deeper and more comprehensive understanding; as I say in the CRJ article, you can sum up the problem of evil just by pointing to any number of daily headlines and asking where God was, but a theodicy requires much more effort and much more understanding -- two things antithetical to the Internet medium.

I also think that far too many Christians don't have enough of a creative "edge" in what they do present. By this I don't simply mean they are boring (though many are); I also don't mean simply that their production values are poor (though many are). I'm also not condemning any who are doing the best they can with what they have; I think very little of "talking head" videos (no matter who makes them), but if that is all someone can do, with the resources they have at hand, so be it. I do mean, however, that there is often very little sense of risk in production; that presentation is often stiflingly conservative. Turn on camera; talk politely; turn off camera. In contrast, it appears that many YT atheists have put some extra interest in making their presentations unusual or entertaining -- like Dusty, whose "schtick," as noted, is adapting a George Carlin style persona.

Clearly Christians need to break some creative ground here. My own contribution has been the use of basic hand-drawn animation and edgy humor. Not many others are taking such steps, but some are. One of my fellow YouTube apologists, for example (under the handle "CRoadWarrior"), has taken the brilliant step of adopting the persona of a professional wrestler in his videos. This is the sort of creative risk we need to be more in tune with taking, but unfortunately, it seems that many Christians are stuck in straightforward didactic mode (which has often been said to be the case for our entertainment as well).

We may not "own" the Internet – I really don’t think anyone does -- but if we're concerned to redeem others for Christ, and present our arguments, we need to be much wiser and proactive in staking a claim in it.


  1. Slightly OT, but, JP, you ought to put links to your YT page, your other blogs and Tektonics in the sidebars of both blogs. Not sure if Blogger has this capability; I know Wordpress and others do.

  2. Cool! Saves a step looking for your vids from here.

    Uh oh... The Tektonics site now has the big fat blue "f" symbol. You have been assimilated, JP. Resistance is futile.

  3. Don't get too much of an idea that I got Borgified. The Tekton Facebook page is being run by Nick Peters...and I don't plan to participate.