How Atheist Reddit Doesn't Get It

Recently, a 15 year old atheist girl received a Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World from her religious mother. She thought this was neat and something that Reddit’s atheist community would appreciate, so she posted a picture of herself with the book. Before too long the conversation turned to the fact that she was pretty, which was fine. But soon the posts started not interacting with her as a person but devolved into treating her like a sex object, one about which it was perfectly fine to make rape jokes. Not only were such jokes about this teenager not moderated in any way, but they received sizable upvotes from the Reddit readers. Rebecca Watson called all of this to the attention of the broader atheist blogosophere and furious debate ensued.

When another teenage atheist, this one from Australia, wrote me calling attention to a post he made on Reddit arguing for stronger moderation, the reception he got was cold. Reddit atheists insist that they are not to blame for the behavior of a few and they insist that in addition to the awful comments Watson drew attention to there were other comments condemning them and that she should not have judged the whole community based on the actions of a few. But she was responding not just to the comments of the few but to the massive net upvote totals those comments received.

But even were those comments not given so much troubling community support in the form of upvotes, the problem is that the same Redditors who don’t want to be held accountable for the nasty and hostile environment caused by “a few” refuse to get behind calls for moderation of those few. They insist on tolerating those comments’ presence but then don’t want to be morally blamed for their presence. They shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways.

Now their arguments are typically that it’s a matter of free speech. So, theoretically what they are only endorsing is free speech when they insist that sexually harassing comments stay up with no formal moderation. They are not endorsing the comments themselves.

And when the young Australian I linked to above complained about this, he was sent to this portion of Reddit Atheism’s FAQ which itself is problematic. I’ll address this document as it is the community’s formal position and so not merely the views of any one random user:

Shouldn’t we be more A and less B?

“I think we’re being too aggressive/passive as a community. Can’t we tone it down/up?”

Simply put, we can’t tell people what to do, and they wouldn’t care.

No, you could tell people what to do simply by having more moderators and having them delete comments that were physically threatening or involved unequivocal hate speech with no substantive ideas in them and which were directed at vulnerable groups or which created an explicitly hostile, sexually aggressive environment.

Atheism is not a religion, no one holds the authority to tell others how they should behave.

This floors me. Only religions could possibly hold the authority to tell others how to behave? There are no moral authorities whatsoever outside of religious ones? So much for all that “good without God” stuff!

This is not a neutral position, Reddit Atheism. This is a values stance. You have decided that atheists, as atheists should be afforded no protections against abusive behavior by your space on one of the most frequented websites on the internet by atheists. You have decided in favor of a particular interpretation of free speech which gives priority to freedoms of bullies and sociopaths who recognize no norms of interpersonal respect over all the groups that might find them abusively threatening to their ability to participate in your community.

Free speech is seriously important. But even legally there are constraints on it and morally there should be some more that private groups should consider even though the law shouldn’t. The kinds of constraints on free speech should only be those which allow for greater overall speech. Environments in which marginalized groups feel threatened in practice are silencing. An environment in which a teenage girl who started a thread can be cavalierly discussed like a worthless rapable toy as though she is not even there reading how she is being degraded is demeaning. It does not even matter if she rolled with the punches or not, she should not have to deal with that sort of treatment in the first place. You are a public forum, you’re not a group of intimate friends who can tease each other in off-color ways within a circle of implicit trust. You should not be sending a message that you prioritize the explicit lack of censorship of recklessly dehumanizing commenters over the implicit censorship of the countless women who are afraid to reveal they are women online for risk of receiving misogynistic assaults.

This is a values choice. Hiding behind atheism’s broad inclusiveness as including everyone from the most loving to the most psychopathically hateful is a cowardly abdication of responsibility.

The very frequent alleged atheists that create posts to suggest changing our behavior as a group are usually dismissed as concern trolls, or reminded that atheism is not a religion and that suggested strategies are doomed to be ignored, especially since the majority is usually both reasonable and silent.

Furthermore, the general atmosphere of r/atheism will be influenced by reddit’s demographics. The behavior of some may seem too “aggressive” (or dogmatic) or too “soft” (since believers make laws) for people from other countries. There is no way around this, and even the most popular posts do not reflect the opinion of *all* subscribers. Thus, it’s not useful to take any post or perceived tendency personally, although discussion is always encouraged.

This isn’t to say that no group effort is ever encouraged. Local events often make it to the front page. However, broad “advice” on how we ought to behave are generally discarded even if they do make it to the top.

If Reddit Atheism wants to give greater latitude to hostile expressions towards religions than others would that is understandable. But I wonder if this policy would consider complaints about abusive treatment towards religious people who show up in the comments threads to be “concern trolling”.

Dismissing all concern for civility and for public speech areas which are conducive to constructive and mutually rewarding debate and comraderie as “concern trolling” is, simply, immoral. And being an atheist and/or being irreligious does not exempt you from the requirement that you take moral positions.

Your Thoughts?

Excellent coverage of this event and of spin-off debates related to it can be found all around Freethought Blogs. Here are some of the relevant posts:

Why “Yes, But” Is the Wrong Response to Misogyny

Yes, “Hate *Atheists*”

In Defense of Rebecca Watson

Reddit Makes Me Hate Men

Free inquiry v commitment to equality

The uses of commitment

Mallorie Nasrallah says “I like it when #mencallmethings”

Jumping on the sexism train. Again.

Why do women have trouble being taken seriously in science?

We are not an atheist community

Why is Rebecca Watson so damned polarizing?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Bret

    Environments in which marginalized groups feel threatened in practice are silencing.

    How do you cope with people who feel threatened by any attempt to stifle the words of others? Do they not matter, because it’s more important to guide discussions the way some particular person or group sees fit?

    • anfractuous

      Sorry, guess it’s been a long day, but I’m not sure I understand your question.

    • julian

      What about it i making them feel threatened? There’s no stifling of free speech. Bullying and harassment is being removed and chastised. I do not understand how you can find that threatening.

  • julian

    Hiding behind atheism’s broad inclusiveness as including everyone from the most loving to the most psychopathically hateful is a cowardly abdication of responsibility.


    And this isn’t even about misogyny. The atheist reddit community tacitly endorses any level of bullying or harassment within their group. They not only condone it, they are more hostile to those who would like it to stop then they are to the bullying itself.

  • karmakin

    Unfortunately that attitude would result in a situation where forums like this one are blasted off the internet, unfortunately. Such things are generally used in favor of bad outcomes long before they’re used in favor of good outcomes (if ever).

    The lack of willingness to “downvote” or the idea that everybody should have their say (which is really the same thing) combined with an unwillingness to move towards confrontation is the real problem. I asked my cousin who is heavily involved in that community, and downvoting is something that “outsiders” do. It’s just not socially accepted.

    I mentioned on Greta’s post on a sub-issue on this topic, I think a large part of the problem is we do not take the moralistic force that we try to wield seriously. It’s something that’s often dismissed and downplayed, and that’s a mistake, because of that our perspective of the other side is skewed. We’re just making observations, and slight criticisms and rebukes.

    Well no.

    We’re actually saying that there are bad terrible awful people out there who need to be marginalized, removed from their positions and excised from the community. Now I don’t think it’s always wrong (it’s not always right either. I happen to think it was overplayed in this particular case*)

    There’s a lot of people, especially younger, out-groupish (like make up the majority of a group like Reddit) people are highly uncomfortable with the concept of moral force, mainly because it’s usually used against us. That’s the long and the short of it. I know I understand it and agreed that it should be used, but at the same time, I’m a bit uncomfortable when it’s not acknowledged as such.

    That’s the whole problem in a nutshell. Oh. And as for the *? The way it was explained to me is that a troll group basically jumped into the thread and riled it up. Which is usually what happens apparently. Not that it changes the ACTUAL problem, but it changes the nature of the perceived problem

    • karmakin

      Just to explain my last part. Take the title of this post for example. If it said “How Reddit doesn’t get it”, I’d have no problem with it, but “How atheist Reddit doesn’t get it” just rings a bit hollow for me.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I was addressing their specific “we’re not a religion so we can’t tell anyone what to do” policy. Like I said in the post, blaming the bad apples doesn’t cut it when if you click on the link to the Australian teenager’s suggestion that they should moderate more, pure r/atheism regulars on an obscure thread were simply dismissive of even considering adding such controls.

    • fredbloggs

      From what you posted regarding their policy, it seemed addressed SPECIFICALLY around the issue of aggressive or non-aggressive atheism and how you should behave when discussing issues related to atheism (and presumably religion).

      I wasn’t left with the impression that their policy was “you can behave any way you like on any subject towards any person”

    • julian

      The policy may have been brought about because of nice vs mean arguments regarding how to approach religion. (Because of the language used, I’m inclined to agree with you that they were specifically referring to those discussion.) But they say ‘no one holds the authority to tell others how they should behave.’ That’s a blanket statement that doesn’t only apply arguments about how religion should be treated or talked about.

    • anfractuous

      Just a little troll problem? Over 1700 upvotes on many of the vilest comments is a little ol” troll group? So … nuthin’ to see here. It’s not “socially accepted”to express disapproval of gleeful threats to kidnap and violently sodomize a 15 year old girl for no reason other than that she had the gall to appear on r/atheism. That would be bad form.

      And your major prob is whether the title of this post mentioned that it was on an atheist site instead of just Reddit in general?

      I’m sure the little girl was well aware of all those fine and worthy distinctions. no prob.

    • karmakin

      Who said it was a small troll group? r/circlejerk (the group in question) is a fairly large group. Reddit is also known to have a fairly large MRA community (as well as a fairly large feminist community).

      I’m wondering if you’re assuming that the only people who could actually see the post would be active participants in r/atheism. That’s not the way it works. About..3 months ago? r/atheism was promoted to front page status, as such, instead of being an opt-in community it’s now an opt-out community. Apparently there’s been a lot of uproar since then, with people being offended by the often “Gnu” stances and rathering a more accommodating tone, from what they see coming across their home page.

      And yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. The fear of moral force, even for good reasons, goes that deep and that strong. The whole thing is a horrible thing that happened to that girl. I’m not downplaying at all. What I’m saying is that the problem goes a lot DEEPER than most people are aware of. How is being aware of the problem a bad thing?

      We’re uncomfortable with wielding moral force. Why do we expect other communities to feel any better about it than we do?

  • Eusebia Gravat

    I’d have to test with you here. Which isn’t one thing I often do! I take pleasure in reading a submit that can make folks think. Additionally, thanks for permitting me to comment!

  •,i,sport/sale,weselne,wroclaw,s,195 sale weselne wroclaw

    There are some interesting cut-off dates on this article but I don’t know if I see all of them heart to heart. There’s some validity however I will take maintain opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish more! Added to FeedBurner as well

  • Frank

    I wonder if Reddit would be as open about pro-religious comments in their very-open-minded atheist community as they are about disgusting and close to illegal comments? Let us try making fun of atheists for a try and see what happens?

  • Frank

    Looks like reddit is a subsudiary of Richard Dawkins and co. Freedom of speech is safe at Reddit. Reminds me of: “let´s agree to this: when we disagree I´ll decide and when we agree you can decide”. But no, seriously, what gets on Reddit´s first page is reproduced on thousands of other websites, and Reddit clearly has its own agenda, just like any other Fox News. Freedom to shut up.