Downvoting god – atheist discourse and anonymity on social recommendation platforms

On: October 5, 2011
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About Daniel Luiz dos Santos
Coming all the way from the beautifully chaotic São Paulo (after a brief upbringing in France), this Brazilian graduated in Social Communication (with a minor in advertising), while working in the online communication industry for the past 5 years, focusing in strategic planning, mobile initiatives and social media. Also collaborated with the research lab Digital Culture Observatory of the School of the Future - University of São Paulo. A geek by profession, and by nature (since before it became cool to be one). Related interests: - Social Recommendation - Information Architecture - Augmented Reality - Digitization of culture - Video gaming Random interests: Cooking / Modern literature / Martial arts / Zombie apocalypse / TV series / Basketball / Atheism



We are all witnessing, in the last few years, a new wave of secular thought permeating different spheres of society. As the mediatic discussion of religious fundamentalism is on the rise, its dialectic opposite also gains momentum, as corroborated by a never before seen torrent of atheist/agnostic rhetoric in moviesTV shows, best-selling books, and even musicals.

Some time has passed since we killed god, but now it seems there is an active public discourse claiming for its burial.

However, there is still a clear and powerful social pressure on the public display of pro-atheist behavior, still a “fringe” quality surrounding this topic when it is publicly discussed (one must only look at any modern presidential debates or campaigns to see how often heavy handed religious rhetoric is exploited to score approval points). The under-representation of secular interests in north-american politics is a very good example of one of the causes/consequences of the atheist “closet” – an active public discourse is well on its way, but there still much to be done on an individual level.

Nevertheless, there is a growing number of forums and online communities dedicated to that very subject: away from the prying eyes of mainstream media (and in a large number of cases, their own families), grouped together with similarly-minded individuals, users are discussing their thoughts on secularism, venting their frustrations at organized religion and even promoting events and sharing links, videos, and other forms of content centralized around that philosophical prerogative. They find in those communities a safe haven to discuss such topics that would normally by “forbidden”, or at least frowned upon, in a great deal of regular social interactions.

Most of them masked behind fictitious usernames, there is no sociological cost to those interactions. The mostly free flow of what sometimes can configure in inflamed anti-religious rhetoric is protected from outside judgment, at least regarding the anonymous users real identities. They come out of the atheist closet, sort of speak, to other strangers.

Important issues must be accounted for when dealing with such a topic. Even though it has substantial and historically relevant influence on most social and cultural practices, religion is still mostly perceived as a personal experience, and hence “protected” from scrutiny usually allocated to, say, political ideology – an active inquiry about its discussion (as it invariably arises on adversarial debates) can create enough diversions to reroute any analysis to the topic of religion itself (or the validity of any of its practices or dogmas). This is not the objective of this research.


What I propose here, is the study of open and anonymous forums partially or fully dedicated to the discussion of atheist / secular and agnostic content, to investigate the role of anonymity in the active participation of its user base. How users initially discover this environments? How are they organized? How committed are they to its cause(s)? Is it a “cause”, or merely a philosophical standpoint? A detailed topological analysis of the internal networks of these groups can help to identify different user profiles, and help them re-think the structures of their discussion environments to more efficiently gain attention/participation from other potential users.

More importantly, how many of those users are openly atheist in non-anonymous environments? In non-digital environments? What pushes them “come-out” to their families, friends, and peers?


Focus: english-speaking users from (170,910 users as of october 2nd, 2011)

– Quantitative analysis (user base, number of contributions, levels of activity)

– Qualitative analysis of questionnaires applied to a percentage of the user base.


– Scarcity of research publications dealing with new media perspectives on religion.

– Recent rise of the socio-cultural relevancy of atheism


Anti-religion agenda among social media users – Mark Milian – Los Angeles Times

The atheist in the closet  – Matthew Chapman – Huffington Post

Project Reason

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