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?

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When I Was A Christian Teenager Renting Out Pornography
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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.


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