Christians go to church; atheists go to the internet.
Seriously though. A Christian podcaster once vented to me that he couldn’t believe how inundated he got with feedback the day he dared to take on an atheist author. He saw a huge spike in traffic and commenters kept him busy for the next three days. I had to work to convince him that the author himself didn’t intentionally orchestrate the social media blitz that ensued. “That’s just how atheists are,” I told him. They stay very aware of what’s going on around the interwebs. In fact, around here, most atheists don’t have IRL (“in real life”) communities like Christians do. They live online. That’s their best shot at connecting with others, particularly if they live in one of the many highly religious sectors of the country. Naturally you would expect those folks to be the most passionate about their atheism.
People are also surprised to learn that among the many “channels” on Patheos, it is the atheist channel that stays the busiest. Some months the atheist channel attracts as much traffic as the next three most popular channels combined. Rather ironic, I think, for a website that currently holds the #1 spot among religious websites in the world. It’s certainly not that atheists make up that large a share of the English speaking global population. It’s just that atheists congregate online to an extent which other faith traditions wouldn’t even understand.
Which is why learning how to manage groups of atheists online matters so much to me. This is our “church,” more often than not. We depend on social media in ways that other traditions don’t. That’s also why it can be devastating when secularists/agnostics/freethinkers build their social and intellectual lives around their preferred network only to see it implode and collapse under the weight of…well…humanity.
Groups of Humans Need Rules
See, contrary to what evangelicals and fundamentalists always say, humanists don’t think humans are more essentially good than they are bad. I think while most of us aspire for the highest human good, we also appreciate the human capacity to be mean and selfish. No one who has tried to manage groups of people can hold on to the illusion that people are intrinsically angels. We can be wonderfully benevolent and kind, but we can also be backbiting and cruel. We all have to fight our own kinds of demons, metaphorically speaking. We just use different tools than our religious counterparts use to combat them.
Experience has convinced me that groups of humans need rules, and they need people to faithfully enforce them as consistently as possible. If you don’t have rules, the worst elements of humanity will run off all the best ones. In the absence of structure, people hungry for power and attention will take over and dominate the group, making everyone else’s experience that much more miserable. Given the importance of online communities for skeptical outliers like myself, that’s a real tragedy, and one which could largely be avoided if only people would learn to take some responsibility for what happens in their virtual spaces.
To my mind, the goal is to hit a certain sweet spot, finding that elusive balance between freedom and safety. That can be very difficult to achieve, but striving to find it occupies a great deal of my time. For many people I know, these virtual groups are a lifeline. Connecting to other freethinkers online helps them cope because many of them have no one else to talk to when processing their daily stuff. If the environment in these spaces becomes hostile or unsupportive, something really important is lost which for them cannot be replaced.
In the interest of keeping those spaces “safe,” I would like to offer for public consumption a very well-crafted and thorough set of online group rules stolen from my home Facebook group of atheists in Mississippi. I didn’t write these guidelines myself, but I can vouch for the amount of thought and care (and experience!) that went into covering all of the problems these rules cover. Each issue mentioned herein represents some conflict or another which was eventually resolved to our general satisfaction after many long, heated conversations within a modestly diverse group of people.
Four Common Objections and Considerations
1) Free speech! Whenever someone suggests that groups need rules, someone inevitably charges that his or her free speech is being violated, as if Facebook groups operate like government sponsored spaces requiring that every idea and opinion be given the same weight as all others. That’s a lovely ideal, I suppose, and it makes sense in a democratically governed public space. But protected social media enclaves are a completely different animal. Many of us in these groups encounter significant emotional damage making our way out of our previous religious traditions. Given that reality, it simply won’t do to have an “everything goes” attitude, even if our freethinking orientation predisposes us to lean heavily in that direction. Which reminds me…
3) Some people still need to be able to find you. While suggestion #2 creates a safer space for atheists to congregate away from the prying judgmental glare of their devout friends, family, and neighbors, this makes the group so invisible to outsiders that even friendly parties (i.e. prospective members) cannot locate the group to make initial contact. Each group will have to devise its own practical solutions to this problem, but the most common remedy is to start a group via Meetup.com. There is a small fee to start a group, but once it’s up, you have a handy and highly visible way to connect new people to your group without actually disclosing the identities of anyone inside the group (except for perhaps the main contact person). Incidentally if you would like specific help starting a group for recovering religionists, I’ve recently taken on a leadership role with Recovering from Religion as their Director of Group Development. Shoot me a note and I’ll make sure you have access to the resources you need either to get a local group started in your location or else to get a group started online.
4) Nip the trolls in the bud. Just do it, okay? In the event that you’ve been living under a rock the past ten years, a “troll” is someone whose primary function in any online group is to stir up trouble just to see everyone get worked up about it. On the surface this may sound like a legitimate form of entertainment, but in groups serving as a lifeline for closeted nonbelievers, it’s a morale killer, and doesn’t need to be tolerated. And yeah, I know, that sounds like no fun at all. But trust me, you can have a kicka** group that gets as rowdy and as entertaining as the best of ’em without allowing disingenuous instigators of strife free rein within the group. And incidentally, it’s rare that a troll would even own up to being so because lacking self-awareness happens to go along with the identity. It’s almost a key trait. So don’t expect them to ever own it, or even be aware of it.
Often it’s someone wanting to start a political debate. Other times it’s about some controversial social topic which triggers strong feelings among members of the group (perhaps involving personal trauma). Whatever the obsession, there comes a point at which it becomes obvious that this person isn’t happy unless he or she is making people fight. When you notice this pattern among members of your group (it never takes long after they join), refer them back to the rules posted on the next page and if they won’t comply, give them the boot. Life is too short to spend countless late nights of your life arbitrating between people who should be friends but who fight like enemies. You could be sleeping. But if you ignore them, they will take over the group. Don’t let them do it. Rein them in or kick them to the curb. You’ll all be better off in the end.
Now that I’ve got those caveats out of the way, I would like to share with you our home group’s rules document so that you can use it any way that you like. Copy it, adapt it, or read it and then disagree with it. Whatever. But please take a moment to see how our group handles contentious issues that recur among groups of atheists online where we live. The full text will be on the next page…
[Jump to the rules by clicking here or by clicking on “Page 2”]