Atheism as Click-bait: Playing into Media Sensationalism

Atheism as Click-bait: Playing into Media Sensationalism July 25, 2018
Photo Credit: M L Clark
Graffiti in Medellin honouring the role of women in their communities: one of many reminders here of our shared humanity. Photo by author, 2018.

I suspect it’s clear by now, to readers of this blog, that I am more interested in discussing proactive humanism than in waging war against persons of faith and their beliefs. I’m not naive, though: I know it’s neither as sexy nor as interesting to talk about how we can all strive to be better humans from our respective cosmological positions. How much more delicious the click-bait, when someone uses fighting words for or against religion on the internet!

But there are still arguments worth having, when we put aside the tired back-and-forth of Biblical semantics. And it’s because these arguments are so easily sidelined that I get especially cranky when I see the tedious atheist-theist divide dredged up in mainstream media.

Take, for instance, this recent, insightful article in The Atlantic. To read the title, “Artificial Intelligence Shows Why Atheism Is Unpopular,” you would assume the content pertains to social perceptions of atheism. And, well, a part of it kind of does? In particular, the section that reads:

Using a separate model, Future of Religion and Secular Transitions (forest), the team found that people tend to secularize when four factors are present: existential security (you have enough money and food), personal freedom (you’re free to choose whether to believe or not), pluralism (you have a welcoming attitude to diversity), and education (you’ve got some training in the sciences and humanities). If even one of these factors is absent, the whole secularization process slows down. This, they believe, is why the U.S. is secularizing at a slower rate than Western and Northern Europe.

“The U.S. has found ways to limit the effects of education by keeping it local, and in private schools, anything can happen,” said Shults’s collaborator, Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Boston University. “Lately, there’s been encouragement from the highest levels of government to take a less than welcoming cultural attitude to pluralism. These are forms of resistance to secularization.”

But… even just reading these paragraphs on their own, surely you can see that atheism is still just one part of this article’s striking discourse. Indeed, on whole, what we have here is an essay that wends and weaves through description of a number of AI modelling tools that can be used with uncanny accuracy to predict the rise and fall of various religious beliefs, as well as tension points between majority and minority spiritual communities, within various global demographics. This is haunting stuff, especially as the article highlights that what is being developed in part to help de-escalate such social conflict can just as easily be used to manipulate and oppress. As the author notes,

When you build a model, you can accidentally produce recommendations that you weren’t intending. Years ago, Wildman built a model to figure out what makes some extremist groups survive and thrive while others disintegrate. It turned out one of the most important factors is a highly charismatic leader who personally practices what he preaches. “This immediately implied an assassination criterion,” he said. “It’s basically, leave the groups alone when the leaders are less consistent, [but] kill the leaders of groups that have those specific qualities. It was a shock to discover this dropping out of the model. I feel deeply uncomfortable that one of my models accidentally produced a criterion for killing religious leaders.”

The results of that model have been published, so it may already have informed military action. “Is this type of thing being used to figure out criteria for drone killings? I don’t know, because there’s this giant wall between the secret research in the U.S. and the non-secret side,” Wildman said. “I’ve come to assume that on the secret side they’ve pretty much already thought of everything we’ve thought of, because they’ve got more money and are more focused on those issues. … But it could be that this model actually took them there. That’s a serious ethical conundrum.”

The other models raise similar concerns, he said. “The modrn model gives you a recipe for accelerating secularization—and it gives you a recipe for blocking it. You can use it to make everything revert to supernaturalism by messing with some of those key conditions—say, by triggering some ecological disaster. Then everything goes plunging back into pre-secularism. That keeps me up at night.”

Wonderful, meaty issues–from a tech perspective, from a public-policy perspective, and from a humanist perspective.

…So why, again, do we have such an inane headline? The answer to “Why Atheism Is Unpopular” in this article seems to amount to the observation that, yes, regions with less food and wealth security, less education, less diversity, and less personal freedom have fewer atheists. Shocker of the century. And yes, there is some imputation, too, that right-wing ideas about state education have a lot to do with the U.S.’s lesser secularization compared to other Western countries. Hardly a revelation.

But… it works as click-bait, doesn’t it? Because anything playing into the binary atheist-theist divide just makes for such good copy.

What we should really be asking, though, is why a publication like The Atlantic, which publishes such nuanced long-form essays–which published such an essay under this ridiculous headline!–felt it needed that click-bait to get our attention.

Does it? Does it really? Or are we ready to ask more of our social discourse–nonreligious and religious persons alike? Do we have it in us to make a conscious effort to remember our shared humanity? Can we turn aside from click-bait and choose, instead, to elevate our humanist practice in a world struggling mightily from issues like environmental change, attendant refugee crises, and the implications of new technology for the future of work, democracy, and personal freedom?

I want the answer to be yes.

For now, though, I’m still trying to find the catchy headline that, in our current media climate, might sell even one of these ideas to a wider base.

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