A Trip Through Time
Imagine for a moment that you had inadvertently recorded an audio diary of your life on a weekly basis, for almost a full decade. How would you react if you were suddenly forced to confront every detail of it? This is my life now, at least for the next few months as I finish uploading all the old podcasts to youtube. I’ve finally posted 100 episodes as of this article, as part of my effort to remaster the backlog of shows for the 10 year anniversary. (which suffered from tons of copyright content that I had simply locked away to avoid having to edit them out). As a result, I’ve been accidentally teleported to a past I had largely forgotten, and perhaps even hoped to avoid. So far, it’s been interesting.
From what I’ve heard, in the early days it seemed that I was quite awkward, but admittedly far more open to new ideas, and very enthusiastic about the future of atheism. I was 27 then, had a job I was fully in control of, a full head of hair, and felt like quite the little master of my domain. I was working on two web projects that seemed to be growing, all while living with my best friend and working partner at the time: Ryan. I can see why all of this must have felt quite intoxicating to a man filled to the brim with testosterone. I was regularly working out in those days, and the podcast even detailed Ryan and I’s attempt to get in good shape. I was also in a series of relationships, and even after breaking up with one of them, I didn’t seem particularly troubled, though I did laugh at the idea that it might take me a while to get laid again (it didn’t).
This was probably one of the reasons the show grew so rapidly at first. Even I was taken in a few times by my own enthusiasm. These were the heady days of atheism, when it seemed as though we had finally broken through to the mainstream. Blogs and podcasts were popping up on an almost weekly basis, as everyone was getting caught up in the excitement. We started to see conferences pop up, and it was around this time that the “Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse” were making waves for so thoroughly dismantling their religious counterparts. I think back then, we all started to grow in confidence, bolstered by these intellectuals who provided such powerful ammunition to fight the faithful that we were all a little intoxicated by it.
But while things seemed to be going well, I remember that even though traffic was growing on the site, there was still no financial model to actually make any money once the advertising market had collapsed in 2008. Most bloggers and podcasters were too passionate to worry about this little detail, but I had already quit my super sweet job and left the reigns to my cohost Jeff, and I wasn’t about to go back to the 9-5 grind without a fight. That’s why we started to experiment with patronage back as early as April of 2009. Back then, the concept was so new that there were no platforms to accommodate this, so Ryan and I had spent over 3,000 dollars on a social media platform that we hoped would become our main revenue source. We couldn’t have known that facebook would swallow up every similar attempt to create small communities, and after a while, maintaining such a huge complicated system proved too much for us, and we eventually abandoned it.
I guess all of this editing gave me a little perspective as to why Atheism may be experiencing a “slump”. For a while, we were a little like New England during the early 19th century, in areas known as the “burned over districts”. These places had experienced great religious revivals that had all fizzled out, and the people living there were said to have been so thoroughly evangelized by fiery sermons that a Presbyterian minister named Charles Grandison Finney gave it’s famous nomenclature to highlight the lack of sufficient emotional capital to attract new converts. In a sense, they were over-saturated, and needed a break.
I think the same thing happened with the atheism movement. We were a victim of our own early successes, and we all assumed that the wave would never crest. We had no way of knowing, for instance, that much of the early audience would eventually lose interest, and that much of the appeal of this early atheism movement was how new it all felt. But once we had attended the conferences, gone to the Reason Rally, and joined a few non-profit groups, the movement as a whole began to lose focus, and interest began to wane. Where once we would hold conferences to engage and debate our opponents in open forums, and began to close ourselves off, choosing to monologue to our comfortable audiences and becoming increasingly sanctimonious.
What atheism really needs is new blood. It’s why in the coming weeks, I’m going to be focusing on trying to interview new atheists who are using new media to spread their message. While most of us old school atheists were too busy bashing our old heroes, this new generation of atheists are taking to Youtube and Facebook, using live video to reach young, engaged audiences that are hungry for real debate. One person in particular, Ex Pastor Kevin Wesley, is currently exploding, and I’m sure a majority of us has never even heard of him. The diversity we’ve been so desperate for in the atheism community is happening before our eyes, but not everyone is out there looking. That’s one of the reason I felt I needed to make a comeback. If anything, perhaps I can dig deep and find that same enthusiasm I had in the old days.
Like any wave, it experiences its crests and troughs, and though it may feel like we are at a low point, it’s just a normal reaction to being over-saturated. I think my fellow bloggers and podcasters should take some responsibility in all of this. We were so preoccupied with creating “content”, reaching bigger audiences, and generally growing that we forgot that there is a bigger goal in mind than having a successful website. I know the relentless content grind eventually turned me cynical, which is why taking all that time off was so helpful in gaining some perspective. I know I have a role to play in all of this, even if it isn’t a crucial one. But in the end, I think we all have to find our place in this whole affair. After all, I doubt you would be reading this post if you didn’t give a shit about the future of atheism.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Why do you think atheism is experiencing a slump?