I had an email interview with Grindstone Journal a couple weeks back. The interview material was used in the article “Atheists find challenges, notoriety and community on Youtube.”
Posted below is a transcript of the email interview in full:
Questions about YouTube
1. Why YouTube? What draws you to the vlog medium rather than other forms of communication?
I was mostly inspired by ZeFrank’s vlog. I saw it and thought, “I could do something like that.” At about that same time I was looking more into YouTube, and specifically videos discussing religion and atheism.
2. Do you gain anything from challenges by religious people on YouTube?
Not so far. My agenda for these videos was to get rid of many of the misconceptions of atheists, though my secret agenda was to convince others to become atheists or agnostics. But my secret secret agenda was to try to find theists who could point me to some convincing arguments for God that I haven’t heard of. So far all the messages and responses I’ve received have been the same old arguments. It isn’t just that their arguments are flawed, but so painfully, obviously flawed in ways that they would never accept if they were made for someone else’s religion. If there is anything I’ve gained, it’s that there really are people out there using those reasons to believe in God.
3. What do you hope to accomplish with your YouTube channel? Are you trying to “convert” religious people to atheism? Are you trying to show atheism in a positive light? Are you trying to provide intellectual and philosophical backing to other atheists? Or do you have some other criteria for success?
Yes, yes, and yes. I think one thing that many atheists need is the reassurance that there are other atheists out there.
Being an atheist is easier to hide than your race or being gay, so for the majority its easier to remain in the closet and just be silent on the issue. Some atheists become very outspoken after a long period of mistreatment or ostracism (I’ve usually found this to be the case with those who grew up in small towns or in very religious families), and so the people proclaiming their atheism are also seen as very bitter people.
But more than anything, I want a theist to show me coherent evidence for God.
4. Do you have any plans to branch out into other media?
Not at this time. These YouTube videos were always just a side project for me. At some point I would like to make some artsy animations with Flash or Blender, or perhaps even publish a book. But those are all in line behind dozens of my other projects.
5. Have you ever received excessive negative attention from any of your Youtube videos? (personal insults, threats, stalkers?)
Oh sure. But YouTube is infamous for having not quite intelligent conversations (on both sides of the aisle). I think the quote from the XKCD comic had it best, “The Internet has always had loud dumb people, but I’ve never seen anything quite as bad as the people who comment on YouTube videos.” http://xkcd.com/202/ So far, only one vague death threat which wasn’t serious at all.
6. Do you have any connections with other atheists on Youtube? Is there a coherent atheist community?
Not really, I’ve only exchanged a few emails. I never considered “being an atheist” as part of my core identity, so I’ve just passively watched others’ videos. I’m not so sure that there is much of an online community, though I haven’t been in search of it.
Questions about atheism
1. How did you come about your atheism? Were you religious at one time?
I’ve always been an atheist. My parents weren’t very religious, and so on my own I associated “God” and “gods” with mythology and legend along with closet monsters and Robin Hood. I recall when I was about five years old, I received a Mickey Mouse glass for Christmas that said “To Albert, From Santa” and I asked my mother why the tag was in her handwriting. I forget what her response was, but it was at that point that any slightest puddle of belief I might of had in Santa Claus evaporated.
About the age of eight or nine I learned about the word “atheist” and I thought, “Well that describes me.” I shortly learned to not tell people you’re an atheist if you wanted to avoid weird looks.
2. Do you publicly identify yourself as an atheist?
Yes and no. I don’t bring it up, and try to avoid the subject. It’s the result of growing up in Texas. It wasn’t until I joined the campus atheist and agnostic group in college that I actually became capable of identifying myself as an atheist to anyone. I adopted the “agnostic” label for some time, but that had just been protective coloration. Before college, I would either change the subject or just lie and say I was Christian but my family didn’t go to church, which seemed to satisfy most people.
Today it’s something I don’t bring up, but when it does I’m confident in my views. Putting out these videos completed “coming out of the closet”, and I like to start all my videos with, “I’m Al. I’m an atheist. I actively believe that God and gods do not exist.”
3. Do you have a philosophical framework for your atheism? If so, which philosophers or writers provide the greatest intellectual support for your atheism?
I’ve only skimmed the subject, and my knowledge of philosophy is limited to some books, Wikipedia articles, MP3 lectures, and random sites on the web. I’m interested in the Enlightenment thinkers and empiricists, and Voltaire has a lot catchy quotes. Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have very good modern books on the subject, and Christopher Hitchens edited a great collection called “The Portable Atheist”.
But I was an atheist before reading all these books, so it’s hard for me to say which provides the most convincing arguments. But at the base of my own philosophy is the idea that the universe is understandable. Everything that we did not understand before only required us to take a closer and more careful look. And those who want to wrap the universe up in mystery almost always have a opportunistic interest for doing so. If a question doesn’t have a known answer, it’s impossible to refute someone else’s confident explanation.
4. What was the greatest challenge you’ve ever had to your atheism? (Did anyone ever present a religious argument that you struggled to counter?)
The way most religious arguments are set up they can’t possibly be refuted. They are as non-falsifiable as Russell’s Teapot. It used to bother me that I didn’t have an answer to someone’s accusation that I “had presupposed logic and objective truth are valid.” I mean, how do you respond to that?
It’s not something anyone has ever presented to me, but consciousness is something that baffles me. Specifically, why is my perspective and awareness from my body, as opposed to anyone else’s? I can understand that neurology and living matter could create intelligence, but why did this body give me my own intelligent awareness? You could say it’s my soul, but that isn’t explaining anything. It’s just another label. Saying that consciousness is created by the brain is more concrete, because physical and chemical changes (or damage) to the brain results in changes of awareness and sensation. We can observe that. That can help explain where consciousness comes from, but what is the source of my own personal consciousness? I haven’t found any satisifying explanation for my own personal consciousness from any scientist or theologian, but it is fun to think about. I think this question in one form or another is one of the “deep” questions that religion purports to answer for most people.
5. What would be the most positive thing you see in religion (if anything)?
It certainly brings people together and provides comfort, but I have mixed feelings about that. Nationalism and patriotic fervor can bring a people together, but it also makes one value the lives of foreigners less. And I wonder if the reason we haven’t moved to a more inclusive human identity is because religion has erected these artificial in-groups and out-groups.
I’m not an atheist because of any positive merits of atheism or negative traits of religion. I think the one and only reason to be an atheist is because God or gods do not exist. It’s the truth of reality that matters. Religion might provide a comfort and answers (any answer, just to remove painful uncertainty) and you could argue that people sometimes need some white lies to make life a bit easier. On my cynical days I agree and on my courageous days I don’t. Either way, I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to lie to me “for my own good.”
6. What kind of evidence would be required to convince you of the existence of a deity?
A personal experience of some kind. The Bible has many of these Road to Damascus styled events, but today asking for something like that is considered poor faith at best and insulting at worst. What I’m advised to do is to seek and open myself up to (whichever) God, but this usually means “keep trying to convince yourself until you’ve convinced yourself.”
But really, it doesn’t even have to be that much. I don’t need miracles or the answer to the meaning of life. If I could pray for the answer to “what is the square root of 42 billion?” and receive something, anything even remotely close to a correct answer I would think that there might be something out there. It’s not much (anyone with a calculator could tell me) but it really would hit the nail on the head for me.
The only answers I get aren’t communicated from gods but from other people, and their answers are always vague platitudes or suspiciously convenient. No one ever says, “It has been revealed to me that God’s chosen people are… those guys on the other side of the world. Yeah, sorry. It’s not a bad thing, but we just didn’t make the cut.”
7. How do you feel about religious people?
It depends on the person. I don’t come into conflict with religious people so much as social conservatives. I’m liberal, and I could give you all the reasons in the world why I believe what I do. But when I come to debate religious people on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, divorce, women’s rights, stem cell research, vegetarianism, evolution, school prayer, separation of church and state, or almost any philosophical issue, I run into the brick wall of “the Bible says so”, which effectively ends the conversation. It’s frustrating to me that for many social conservatives, religion provides answers that can’t be questioned and don’t have to be explained.
But most religious people who are not socially conservative I run into are like most atheists; they’re just fine with agreeing to disagree.
Follow up questions:
Do you feel more free to discuss your thoughts about religion in San Francisco than in Texas?
Do you see parallels between the fundamentalist Christian worldview and the political ideology of conservatism?
I think of religion as far more influential for social conservatism today than any philosophy, if that’s what you mean. Embracing tradition over new changes, the reverence for authority, etc. But that’s a generalization. There are many exceptions that you could point out, but I think that political conservatism tends to emphasize religious tenets over their philosophical equivalents. There is more emphasis of being good because it is God’s will, rather than being good for the sake of society. And I’ve never seen a secular conservative argument against homosexuality that wasn’t flat-out brainless, you’re forced to rely on the “it’s God’s law” cop out.