Wheaton’s Law

Some­time in the past year or two, I was added to a Face­book group called The Black Sheep. I did­n’t think much of it, nor have I inter­act­ed much there­in because I pre­fer inter­act­ing more in the pub­lic realm than with­in groups online for some rea­son. It seemed a peace­ful place, though, and the con­ver­sa­tions there­from which Face­book’s algo­rithm decid­ed I should see seemed inter­est­ing enough, so I intro­duced myself to the group and solicit­ed friend requests to spice up my news feed.

The influx of new friends lead to what you’d expect: I saw new polit­i­cal per­spec­tives, new hob­bies, and so on, and I con­sid­ered that lit­tle exper­i­ment to be a suc­cess. My next step in spic­ing things up was to look at Face­book’s “sug­gest­ed friends” fea­ture every day for a few days. If I had more than ten friends in com­mon with a per­son, I added the person.

With­in a week or two, I had over 700 friends on Face­book, and my news feed was unrec­og­niz­able. I’m not say­ing that as a bad thing! How­ev­er, I noticed some­thing almost right away from many of the athe­ists added in this way: If I did­n’t know bet­ter, I’d almost say that athe­ism had become a reli­gion to them. 

You may be famil­iar with the “A” sym­bol used for athe­ism. It was every­where for many of these peo­ple: they tat­tooed vari­a­tions of it on them­selves, they wore clothes with it cou­pled with (most­ly not) clever say­ings, and they plas­tered it all over their Face­book accounts.

Now, to be fair, I did that last one when I was a new athe­ist; why? Because imme­di­ate­ly pri­or to becom­ing an athe­ist, I was fair­ly reli­gious. Reli­gious prac­tices were what I knew — Jesus was every­where for me, so to speak, and I made sure peo­ple knew it. When I became an athe­ist, I did the same. I doo­dled the “A,” I plas­tered it on my pro­file image, and so on, but I “grew out of it.” To what end must athe­ism be evan­ge­lized in this way?

In addi­tion to splash­ing the “A” all over the place, the more reli­gious athe­ists among them were tox­ic. There was no civil­i­ty, no stan­dard of dis­course for how reli­gious folk were spo­ken of.

Did I sound the same way? Was I, too, show­ing to be cor­rect all of the old stereo­types I held about athe­ism from when I was a Christian?


Athe­ism is a tough thing. We’re already dis­trust­ed more than most oth­er groups sim­ply by virtue of our unbe­lief, why enable that dis­trust by pre­sent­ing our­selves as ass­holes?

I get it. It’s fun to be an ass­hole. Sar­casm, jokes, the rib­bing, the bullying…

A few years ago, one of my best friends was an old­er Chris­t­ian woman. Our friend­ship sur­vived me reject­ing Chris­tian­i­ty, but it even­tu­al­ly end­ed abrupt­ly in the after­math of an off-col­or joke I made about a Chris­t­ian tract I had found at work. I chose to be an ass­hole in that cir­cum­stance, and it cost me a dear friend.


I’ve gone on to unfriend a lot of the indis­crim­i­nate­ly added athe­ist folk because they came across as lit­tle else than reli­gious (albeit athe­ist) ass­holes, and I gave up on fol­low­ing sev­er­al athe­ists on YouTube because their chan­nels tend­ed to rely more on shock val­ue and out­rage than on any­thing which would actu­al­ly progress issues or raise the lev­el of discourse.

I’m sure I could prune my Twit­ter list by quite a bit for the same rea­sons, but hon­est­ly, that would require a lev­el of atten­tion paid to Twit­ter that I haven’t had any desire to pay for years.

I want to be a voice. For change. For admon­ish­ment. For learning.

That isn’t the easy path. It isn’t the atten­tion-get­ting path. But it’s a path which I feel com­pelled to try to follow.

Is it a path you fol­low? How do you han­dle dis­agree­ments on a world­view-lev­el? How do you avoid being a jerk when the sub­ject of reli­gion (or pol­i­tics or what­ev­er) comes up?






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Rick Beckman