I Love the Changes to Reddit Atheism

If you visited Reddit Atheism in the past year or two, you undoubtedly came across the following (in order from most to least common):

  • Memes
  • Screenshots of religious people saying silly things on Facebook
  • Images of famous atheists next to one of their best soundbytes
  • Link to articles dealing with atheism
  • Thread in which atheists ask everyone else how to handle some awkward situation

You either love the site or hate it. I’m not ashamed to say I love it… but I don’t take most of it very seriously, I understand its limitations, I ignore the trolls, and I skip over most of the images in favor of the more interesting articles.

There is, at least in my mind, a huge divide between people who are relatively new to atheism — where every contradiction in the Bible comes as a shock and where showing a religious person’s logic to be inconsistent is a badge of honor — and those of us who have been atheists for a while and are looking for articles with more substance to them. The divide isn’t strictly the result of age, but you can’t be blamed for thinking that younger, more rebellious readers make up the majority of readers of the site. (r/TrueAtheism began as a place to talk about more substantive topics, but the 45,000 subscribers pale in comparison to the 2,000,000+ subscribers to the general atheism subreddit.)

A few days ago, the head moderator of r/atheism was kicked out due to inactivity and the “assistant” mods took over, leading to an overhaul of the channel, much to the chagrin of many of its users (partly because they weren’t informed about the changes far in advance). It has gone from an almost-entirely-unmoderated forum to a very-heavily-moderated one.

The biggest change is that direct links to images are no longer allowed, so you don’t see many memes/Facebook screenshots/funny pictures on the channel now. (A more detailed answer: When you submit links on Reddit, you get “karma” points. Posting mindless images is an easy way to accumulate karma and that led to a whole bunch of people doing it all the time, leading to a dearth of substantive posts/discussions.)

It’s a huge change because the front page of r/atheism has almost always been filled with images and not articles of substance. They’re just more popular with more people — they’re easier to “upvote” — which means they often overwhelmed the front page.

By the way, this is not some irrelevant topic. I have made the point many times in my public talks that r/atheism is arguably the most important website for atheists on the Internet. It’s the place teenagers go when they first have doubts about religion and the most popular forum in the world for discussing atheism-related issues. What happens on the channel makes a big difference for new atheists.

More importantly, perhaps, anyone who subscribes to Reddit automatically gets subscribed to r/atheism because of its huge numbers — people have to manually unsubscribe themselves from the subreddit if they don’t want to read it. That gives r/atheism an opportunity to advertise our views to a massive audience of people who might not otherwise think critically about religion, far more than would see our billboards or blogs or lectures or interviews.

The question is: Should r/atheism be known as a place for serious discussion of atheism-related topics or as a clearinghouse for simple memes that, while popular, mock religious people, only take a moment to read, and require little thought?

What do you put front and center on the biggest atheism forum in the world? The new head moderators are betting that discussions with substance will be better than cheap mockery and circle-jerking.

(To be fair, those weren’t always mutually exclusive things… and the circle-jerking will go on regardless.)

The main argument for keeping the direct image links is that they’re funny and entertaining, a way for (mostly young) people to stick it to theists. But those who want to keep them around make it sound like they can’t be critical of religion if it doesn’t come in the form of a meme. They’re acting like their freedom has been taken away, when really, all the memes, Facebook screenshots, and rage comics are around, just in different places.

To paraphrase one commenter, r/atheism took candy away from babies.

There’s an argument to be made that those memes are helpful — I know I would’ve appreciated them in high school — and now they’re being pushed aside to make way for things that are not nearly as “fun.” (For what it’s worth, memes can still be posted, but only in a different format that doesn’t give users any karma points.)

I don’t buy any of that, though. Humor is important, but those memes were a pretty low form of humor, containing little nuance and never challenging your already-held views. I’d much rather have those in the background than the foreground. I’m thrilled about the change. If the number of subscribers to r/atheism goes down as a result, those who remain will be better off.

The only thing that gives me pause is the possibility that if enough people unsubscribe from r/atheism, the channel could get knocked off of Reddit’s “default” list. But I don’t think most Redditors are going to go through the trouble of unsubscribing from the channel because of this change, not even the critics. So no harm done.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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