26/07/2013 13:37 BST | Updated 25/09/2013 06:12 BST

The Reddit Delusion


This week marked a watershed moment in cyber secularism, as the much maligned Atheism section of the social entertainment and news site Reddit was unceremoniously dumped from its default subreddit position. For those unacquainted with the wonders of Reddit, this simply means that unregistered users will no longer see content submitted to the category, whilst active members will have to actively subscribe in order to stay updated. Whilst some users were quick to claim that the decision was one of pragmatism - no other religion-based discussions were forced upon casual visitors, so it made sense - others shot them down by citing the officially stated reason - they were "not up to snuff".

As many r/atheism veterans conceded, it's been coming. As Reddit's popularity has grown, driven by teen-oriented media such as memes and "rage comics", the more discussion-focussed areas have seen their quality diluted (r/politics was the other casualty of the update, having become little more than sensationalism and conspiracy theories, culminating in a catastrophically botched attempt to beat the police in the race to unmask the identities of the Boston bombers). r/atheism began life as an area of thoughtful theological debate. Now it is the embodiment of everything wrong with the mindset of so-called "Militant Atheists". Towards the end of its ill-fated tenure as a default, many who had unsubscribed posited the theory that the only reason it was featured alongside favourites such as r/todayIlearned and r/aww was to encourage people to sign up in order to then unsubscribe and avoid it.

r/atheism has become the frontline of the aforementioned militancy. Users come baring battle scars in the form of Facebook screenshots showcasing their God-fearing "friends" or indignant stories of how their day has been ruined by religion in some way or another. It should be noted at this point that by far and away Reddit's largest demographic is males aged up to 29 and living in the US - hardly the poster boys for oppression and persecution. Admittedly, once in a while someone comes along with genuine grievances, but these submissions are the needles in a haystack of pseudo-intellectual smugness and self-entitlement.

The rise of Militant Atheism has been one of speed and virality not dissimilar to that often associated with the cults and religious subsets that the group are aimed squarely at combatting. The movement in its current form started in earnest in the mid-90s, following the publication of Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which along with perennial figurehead Richard Dawkins' desire to "mobilise" became a call to arms for the burgeoning internet community with its sizeable proportion of disaffected Generation Xers. Statements like "[T]hose of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity" struck a tone that's continue to reverberate to the current day.

The rapid increase in those who associate themselves with the likes of Dawkins and his contemporaries, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson (both of whom are worshipped, without a trace of irony, as the fountains of all knowledge and the source of all that is righteous in the world), isn't the only similarity between the militants and their supposed opponents. r/atheism now functions as pseudo-cathedral for those dedicated to spreading the gospel of non-believing. And dedicated is the right word. For every tit-for-tat screengrab of an atheist locking horns with someone whose religious beliefs are causing them to be offensive or insensitive, there are dozens of submissions which amount to little more than bullying, where mentioning a love of a higher power in a status or a Tweet is to open oneself up to a sometimes unbelievable torrent of abuse and ridicule.

If the theory of why r/atheism was allowed to remain a subreddit for so long, despite catering for a relatively niche group of users (in the two years it's been a default, subscriptions increased tenfold from roughly 200,000 to over 2,000,000), is to be believed, it's little surprise that it has once again been consigned to those actively searching for it. In recent months, the exasperation by Reddit at large reached fever pitch, as the section became dominated by cruel and lazy memes and unintentional self-parody ran riot. One particularly infamous quote that was quickly disseminated across the site (on subreddits such as r/cringepics, dedicated to making subscribers wince at various examples of socially baffling behaviour) was a user declaring "In this moment, I am euphoric. Not because of any phony God's blessing. But because, I am enlightened by my intelligence." Whatever benefits the Reddit upper echelons saw in having r/atheism as a subreddit were being outweighed by sheer embarrassment.

It's unfair to tar all r/atheism subscribers with the same brush. Perhaps now, with less visibility, the section will start the long road of rehabilitation toward becoming a welcoming, discussion of atheism for atheists. In truth, many of the noisiest members - much like in religion - are the ones that get the most attention, and the ones that least represent the majority of the community. These valiant crusaders could as easily be described as anti-theists as they could Militant Atheists, in that they don't just not believe in a God, but they actively and dogmatically believe in no God.

It's not surprising that the movement has proved so seductive for so many. At once vindicating its members and automatically elevating them above their religious peers, it gives them free rein to "educate" others, to inform those that do subscribe to the idea of an almighty and an afterlife that, in Dawkins' words, "It could be that the world, the universe, is a totally hopeless place." Right or wrong, and regardless of your personal opinion when it comes to this most contentious of subjects, you can't blame people for not wanting to be berated with such a bleak world view. Reddit and the internet as a whole would be better off without them.