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Who's in the Video
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs  at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public[…]

Atheists honed their online chops earlier than most religious bloggers, but church-goers have the advantage of large non-virtual communities that can be leveraged on the Internet.

Question: How has the Internet contributed to the growth of the atheist movement?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I have somewhat of a personal perspective on this.  Right after finishing college in the early 1990s I worked at a place in my hometown of Buffalo, New York called the Center for Inquiry.  They published two magazines that readers might be familiar with and that is Free Inquiry and Skeptical Enquirer magazines and for a long time the Center for Inquiry founded by philosopher Paul Kurtz who was a philosopher of… a leading thinker in the area of secular humanism about secular values they used a traditional model of… a traditional media model to disseminate information and to grow the secular humanist movement through traditional magazines, through a book publishing company that Paul Kurtz founded and through a lot of appearances in traditional media. 

I left the organization in the late 1990s.  I went to graduate school and one of the things that I observed over the last decade was that this traditional secular humanist movement, the Center for Inquiry, was slow to adapt to the online world.  They were slow to have a state-of-the-art Web site.  They were slow to launch blogs.  They were slow to have access to their magazine content online.  

Around that time authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, they were propelled into the public spotlight by traditional publishers finally deciding to publish hard-hitting critiques of religion, of prominent… in this case a prominent journalist and a prominent scientist and those books were taken up by the emerging atheist blogosphere and their impact was amplified and around several different leading bloggers—in particular PZ Myers—whole communities of discussion of likeminded atheists and agnostics and critics of religion grew up.

And what they did is they challenged, they started to challenge the authority of sort of the traditional atheist movement, the traditional secular humanist movement that was headquartered in longstanding organizations like the Center for Inquiry, and was really most of the communication took place in magazines and maybe in books from smaller publishers. And they started to set the agenda of what it meant to be an atheist, so that was very good for attracting more attention to atheism, to raising questions about the role of religion in society, but it also had a lot of negative consequences.  These negative consequences to the atheist blogosphere are not unique.  They are some of the same negative consequences that are sort of endemic to the political blogosphere and that is a lot of self-selection.  That is a lot of echo chambers of kind of ever-escalating critiques—in some cases outright denigrating and stereotyping the religious public. And on issues such as the teaching of evolution in schools or how the public thinks about science the atheist movement has become sometimes synonymous with the position of the scientific community and I think in that process they might be doing more harm than good.  They might actually… might be engaging in a lot of self-inflicted wounds, leaving the impression that you can’t value science, that you can’t have a scientific world and also be a person of faith and certainly that is a point that is open for debate.

Do atheists make better use of the Internet than the religious?  

Matthew Nisbet: I’m not sure.  In part the new atheist movement is almost a social movement within the larger scientific community.  Many of the people that are attracted to new atheist movement identify with science or are scientists themselves and certainly scientists have been online for a long time.  In fact, many of the most prominent bloggers, new atheist bloggers, they came about… they came up and they kind of honed their skills in internet discussion groups, mostly around the debates about evolution. So they have that natural consistency and that natural… the pre-existing experience with using online organizing and reaching people online that maybe some of the religious organizations do not.  The advantage that the religious organizations have though is they have real world communities.  They have networks of interaction through mega-churches, through traditional churches and one of the things that I’ll be blogging and writing about and taking a look at, at the Age of Engagement is how are traditional religious organizations and movements now using the online world to foster the communities, to build their communities or is the online world actually taking away some of their followers and distracting people who otherwise might commit to that particular religious faith or even attend church on a weekly basis. 

Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman