So, I’m pasty as fuck. I’m a dude. I’m straight. My parents are pretty well off. I guess, at this point, it’s kind of a cliché to say that I’ve been playing life on easy mode. Doesn’t make it any less true. I’ve never had the experience of being discriminated against or dismissed simply because of who I am. I’m not trying to be smug here, I’m just stating a very basic fact of my existence. To use another cliché (it’s ok be cliché if you acknowledge it, right? Right?) my life has been shaped by privelege in ways that are insidious and though I’m always trying to as aware of it as possible, it repeatedly manages to catch me by surprise when I find out about the reality of people who aren’t me. So here’s something I’m not proud of. There was a period in my life when I, despite the aforementioned privelege, really saw myself as part of a persecuted minority. I didn’t really act on my conviction and I grew out of it fairly quickly, but I thought I’d put it out there as a kind of cautionary tale.
It was around the time I turned 20, and really, what kicked it off was a site called Stumbleupon. This was back in 2010 and Stumbleupon was kind of a big deal. Essentially it was a kind of curated version of the internet, tailored specifically for you. You plugged in your interests and it would take you to sites tagged in those categories. You could upvote or downvote a site and as you kept going, Stumbleupon would take your preferences into account, getting better and better at predicting the kind of sites you like to go to. It never occurred to me that it was also getting better and better at screening out anything that would change my mind.
It started kind of as an accident. When I first entered my interest, I cast a fairly wide net. I selected post-modernism, even though I barely know anything about post-modernism, and post-punk even though I barely listen to current-punk. And one of those interests happened to be atheism. Now I don’t have any religious beliefs, but its not something I consider to be a core part of my existence. And neither did I at the time, it was just something that had always been there, sort of in the background. I had always been very pro-science, but I hadn’t necessarily been anti-religion. That was about to change.
As I stumbled around (as we called it) something happened. A certain kind of story kept popping up. In newspaper articles, or blogs or what have you. The story had various permutations, but the core was often the same. It was the story of the well-meaning atheist and the oppressing religious nut. Sometimes it was a student being brow-beaten by a teacher, sometimes it was a teacher facing off against the school, sometimes it had nothing to do with schools (though, for some reason, it usually did). It probably started very innocuously. A news story about creationism taught in science, a kid being bullied for what he believed. But I clicked the “like” button, and somewhere, the algorithm powering the machinery took note. It started feeding me more and more of these kinds of stories and I kept liking them.
Soon, without my realizing it, my worldview started shifting. I wasn’t just me, boring Erik, I was parter of a larger group, atheists, and we were under siege. On all fronts, the masses of barbarism and blind dogma were fighting the forces of progress and it was up to people like me to keep them from winning. Our champions were people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and James Randi. I was fired up, I really was. I mean, I didn’t just believe religious extremism was bad, I believed all religion was bad. It stopped people from thinking, from questioning and it was my duty as an atheist to spread enlightenment wherever I could. It felt really right and, more importantly, it felt really good. I was part of a group and we had a goal, we had a narrative, and we had an enemy. It was addictive.
But I was wrong, obviously. I think in a world where atheists are overrepresented among the highly educated and the rich, it’s very hard to seriously argue that we constitute some kind of oppressed minority. Outside some parts of America, and repressive regimes, I think I think it’s fair to say you don’t really see any kind of discrimination of atheists whatsoever. This is especially true in Sweden, where the the religious party (the Christian democrats) is one of the smallest, and also kind of a joke.
And not only was I wrong, I was finding myself in some pretty uncomfortable camps. There is a kind of European secularism that holds that religious ideas are incompatible with the principles of democracy. And when they talk about religious ideas they mean Islamic religious ideas. Even Richard Dawkins has been known to say things like Christianity can be useful as a shield to protect against the dangerous Muslims. To these people, any concession to religion (only Islam) was a starting point to the death of free speech. Showing respect was the same as giving up on the European cultural identity. The people who were the most hardcore secularist were also the people who were voting for the far-right parties and saying they weren’t against immigration, just mass immigration. This is what did it for me in the end, finding that a person who was a racist and kind of a fascist had alarmingly similar views on religion.
In the end, I like to think I was fairly harmless. Like google, I try to live by a “don’t be a dick” policy (though, like google, I’m sometimes a dick) and together with my natural timidity and the fact that you don’t really meet a lot of religious people anymore this meant that I didn’t really get the chance to spread my anti-gospel. Even though Stumbleuopn isn’t really a thing anymore, that kind of closed loop information system is still very much a part of how the internet functions. I know first hand how easy it is to get sucked into it and how good it feels to be part of it.
What I’m trying to say is, it’s very easy to look at someone who’s a gamergater or a men’s right activist or whatever and think “wow, that’s an awful person” and I guess, in a way, you’re not wrong, but at the same time, it’s important to remember that at the same time there is a person behind those hateful screeds. I’m not trying to defend these kind of people, or suggest we should feel sympathy, I’m just saying we should remember that the internet is a place where it’s easy to get radicalized. If we respond to hate with hate, that’s not going to solve anything.