A Change Is Gonna Come (To the Channel)

A Change Is Gonna Come (To the Channel) December 14, 2016

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If you’re a reader of this blog or any of the various blogs that cater to primarily secular audiences here at Patheos, you’ve probably noticed that we’re hanging out at the Atheist Channel.

For now.

Screenshot taken 12/14/16 at 12:20AM CST
What fresh hell is this?

Yes, it’s true: In a few days, Patheos Atheist will be getting a new name, Patheos Nonreligious. (I have it on good authority that, despite my protests, this is to be unhyphenated, screenshot above notwithstanding.)

I’m not speaking for Patheos in this regard, naturally, so take the following as my thoughts alone. I have somewhat mixed feelings about the change — seriously, that lack of a hyphen is going to haunt me — but I think it’s important to understand why this change is being made.

The first thing to note is that this is not a change that was made by Patheos without seeking input and comment. And if you know anything about the various bloggers who make their homes here, you should know that we are not a bunch that is particularly shy about giving our opinions.

When I first heard the proposal, before it became a matter of private discussion amongst bloggers, I didn’t really have much of a reaction. The label “atheist” is important to me as a sense of my personal identity, but I am not so beloved of it that I can’t bear to see it stripped from the channel name. What I really expected is that a lot of people would be upset about the change, as though there’s a concerted effort to wipe clean the scarlet A from the channel.

Obviously, all of the conversations so far have basically been internal ones, but the amount of resistance was significantly less than I expected. With some clear exceptions, the collective response seemed to be, “Meh.”

That’s in part, I think, because no one has any expectation that the content or style of blogs around here will change. Hemant Mehta will not be changing the name of his blog to Friendly Non-Religious Guy, nor Adam Lee’s to Daylight Irreligion. And for crying out loud, our channel editor literally wrote the book on atheism. There’s no shyness about the use of the term.

But let’s be honest about one thing: Atheist is, for both good and ill, a polarizing term. It’s pretty firebrand-y in that way. And the fire that it starts can either attract attention or scare away otherwise interested audiences.

One of those groups is the Nones, a group we (as atheists) often tend to treat as roughly synonymous with “atheists.” Of course, that’s not true. There are theistic Nones, and there are plenty of Nones for whom the label “atheist” is anathema, not because of a resistance to secular ideas but because of the stigma to the term.

The former group isn’t likely to be drawn to the unabashedly atheist (or sometimes even explicitly anti-religious) content that often graces our blogs here, and Patheos basically already has them represented. That leaves with a number of people who would be a relatively natural readership, provided we could get past the stigma of “atheist.”

(Aside: When I was teaching high school, I once had a student who inadvertently ended up on the Friendly Atheist blog while doing some research in a computer lab. The reaction from other students was a lot of awkward laughter, as though they weren’t sure what to think about an atheist blog. That has stuck with me.)

That includes, it should be noted, a growing proportion of people of color who have become skeptical of religion but bristle at the perceived stridency of “atheist.” I will agree with anyone who argues that it’s good to be open about identifying as atheists for the purpose of normalizing and demystifying atheism, but there’s also something to be said for using a more neutral label for the channel name and then letting the content be the focus of readers’ attention.

I do think there are reasonable criticisms of this label as well (hyphenation aside), such as the fact that we do have religious atheists on the channel whose contributions make sense here.¹ Trust me when I say that there were a number of criticisms that were aired before this decision was made and there will likely be more criticisms aired by bloggers here (at least, if earlier discussions are any indicator). But it has been made, and a change is gonna come.

To reiterate: You should anticipate that only the name is going to change. There’s no expressed desire to bring woo or spiritualism into the channel (again, there’s already a channel for that), nor is there any expectation for any of us to alter our content to be less atheistic or less strident or whatever. The idea is that the word “non-religious” is at least to some degree more inclusive. It removes a potential barrier for some people, and that removal shouldn’t be anything that should drive anyone away unless they demand that this be an atheist-only zone — and if so, I’m not going to shed any tears over their departure. We can have a space that respects a diversity of non-religious positions without pandering to nonsense or diluting the great content that the channel currently has.

Regardless of how I feel about the change having been made, I’m confident that it isn’t the death knell of the channel. I won’t stop using the word “atheist” in my posts, and I doubt anyone else will if they’ve already been using it. At worst, we can expect basically the status quo; at best, we have the potential to reach more people. I am hopeful that it will be more the latter than the former.

Note on comments: I am not going to be stringent in moderating comments that take strong positions on this change. If you want to vent, go ahead. Just remember that 1) I am not the one responsible for the change (so don’t aim your criticism at me personally) and 2) I still expect you not to be abusive. Behave yourselves and I’ll happily let you have this outlet. (Just don’t push your luck.)

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¹ As a counterpoint, at least one of our current bloggers doesn’t expressly label herself an atheist, and her content also makes good sense on the channel. ^

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