Friday, 17 June 2016

Atheist Heaven


Atheist Heaven was what I should have renamed the internet bulletin board for which I served as administrator a few years ago. It was Carl's suggestion. We were speaking on the telephone and I could hear him struggling to breath as he rocked with silent laughter at the notion of Atheist Heaven. I liked it because it was funny and I knew it would annoy the more humourless members of the board. In the end they went for Thinking Universe, adopting a banner which showed an image of a spiral galaxy embellished with a thought bubble like you might see in a Popeye cartoon. It wasn't the worst name they could have come up with, but I thought the banner revealed a certain lack of imagination. Look, the universe is having a think!, which caused me to have a think about 1970s pub rock bands releasing albums with hopelessly literal artwork - the cover of Rockin' in the Jungle inevitably depicting band members going at their instruments in safari suits or else dressed as gorillas against a backdrop of plastic palm trees.

I'd resisted the internet for many years, but took the plunge around the beginning of 2006 after protracted nagging from my girlfriend. She didn't have internet access but wanted a relationship with someone who did - she explained testily - so as to save her the trouble of using the computers up at the library. She promised that my proposed internet access would give her a reason to visit me, which was of course very flattering.

At the time my principle interests were Mesoamerica and, to a lesser extent, science, so that's what I looked for when I first got myself plumbed into the world wide web. I discovered bulletin boards and found they served in part as a reasonable substitute for the social life I didn't quite have. There was Archaeologica, which touched upon several of my areas of interest. It was okay, but began to feel a little slow and dry after a while, and I found myself increasingly irritated by the received wisdom of mainstream archaeology as a secretive club which strives to keep the truth from the rest of us so as to save money on having to get all those archaeology textbooks rewritten and reprinted.

The Richard Dawkins board wasn't actually much better, but it was busier and they had an off-topic section where the more scatologically inclined users could discuss whatever they felt like discussing. Usually this was inconsequential shite of a puerile nature - what you had for breakfast, how much you hate Noel Edmonds, worse job you ever had, biggest poo you ever done did and so on. As with most inconsequential shite of a puerile nature, you probably had to be there. Richard Dawkins himself tended not to be there very much, apparently having assumed that most of those signed up to his bulletin board would spend their time politely discussing protons or how God is just like Father Christmas. Unfortunately, the one day upon which Richard Dawkins had some time off from splicing genomes, the one day when he happened to be there, was also the day when someone started a thread entitled Ass to Mouth or similar for discussion of a sexual act which seems more tailored to the composition of appalling jokes than to actual intimate pleasure as I would recognise it.

Richard Dawkins read Ass to Mouth, wisps of smoke trailing furiously from his ears, then deleted a whole load of similarly scatological threads and banned those responsible, not wanting his name in any way associated with the discussion of bums in a supposedly recreational capacity. I can't say this ever struck me as either surprising or even particularly unreasonable, but others using the bulletin board had much stronger feelings, having put a lot of work into Ass to Mouth and now suspecting that this virtual pogrom represented a violation of their freedom of speech, possibly even their basic human rights. About three-hundred members of the Richard Dawkins board therefore took their custom elsewhere, specifically to the Thinking Aloud forum as set up by Sid's Snake. The three-hundred included those who had been banned from Richard Dawkins' board; those who had left as a show of solidarity with those banned and who now didst go forth unto the wilderness seeking a bulletin board which wasn't quite so much like NAZI GERMANY; and persons such as myself who went along following the trail of chuckles, and who had never really been so fascinated by protons that we felt the need to argue about them with complete strangers.

Sid's Snake turned out to be some hairy metal guy from northern California, a couple of years younger than myself and who took photographs of the rock group Kiss for a living - or something like that. He was, in addition, a proclaimed atheist with an interest in science and all that good stuff, and he'd set up Thinking Aloud in anticipation of Richard Dawkins losing his rag and suddenly expelling a whole load of potty-mouthed angels from his virtual creation. In case it isn't obvious, I've substituted the names of those involved with those of characters from Whizzer & Chips comic because it's amusing to me, and I don't really feel like identifying any of the fuckers, having no desire to resume communications with them; so let us, for the sake of argument, work with the notion that Thinking Aloud was set up by Sid's Snake.

Thinking Aloud was fun for a while, if possibly somewhat impenetrable to outsiders due to the rise of small cliques of users with their own inscrutable sets of in-jokes, which seemed to be reflected in favouritism on the part of the moderators - those granted administrative powers to police the forum so as to prevent anyone engaging in cunty behaviour. Inevitably, as with any environment in which a certain percentage of the population take themselves far too seriously, after about six months there was a schism. Odd Ball had been banned for being a bit of an argumentative tosspot. Protests were made suggesting that with the expulsion of Odd Ball, the forum had become too much like NAZI GERMANY and Sid's Snake was actually a lot like Adolf Hitler when you thought about it, so Sid's Snake banned those involved. This was apparently exactly what Hitler would have done. Luckily Sweet Tooth had anticipated Sid's Snake losing the plot and had spent the previous months setting up yet another forum called Rationalia, so everyone went there instead.

I posted on Rationalia for a little while, but never really took to the place. The repeated schisms seemed to have generated a more concentrated strain of self-important atheist - unless they had always been that way and I'd simply never noticed. The atmosphere of the forum was jovial but often with a suggestion of the passive-aggressive, a nastily Darwinian undercurrent, like hanging out with a hyaena-pack of public schoolboys all waiting for you to say something stupid or to reveal some hitherto unsuspected weakness, but for now biding their time with knob gags or by quoting Monty Python and Douglas fucking Adams zingers at one another. Minnie's Mixer quipped that Rationalia was like a cross between 4Chan and the Richard Dawkins forum, which was I suppose her version of you don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!, missing the point that 4Chan - a famously unmoderated image board - was at least occasionally funny, and Rationalia was mostly droning middle-class liberals with a pathological need to be right about something or other sat around agreeing what fine sport it was to scoff at Christians, to engage them in debate and make them cry. This was the point at which I no longer had any desire to call myself an atheist, specifically when it was asked how more chew toys might be drawn to the forum, chew toys being religious persons who might be induced to sign up and then bullied into either renouncing their faith or giving up and slinking off to general cries of victory, gloating, and congratulating ourselves on our magnificent rationality.

Additionally, possibly because God is dead with morality and even personal responsibility an illusion, the forum developed an unpleasantly sexualised undercurrent, allegedly expressed in an inner sanctum apparently modelled on back issues of Reader's Wives, driving at least some of the membership away. It was all very 1960s. Newly signed up and hypothetically female users - so far as it was possible to tell on the internet - were invited to post photos of their tits on at least a couple of occasions; but apparently that was just high spirits and anyway the hypothetical women hadn't minded so it was all okay. If anything, they had probably enjoyed the lively jocularity of the exchange. The suggestion that the forum had turned into a virtual knocking shop was deftly countered with arguments amounting to if you think the board has developed an overtly sexual tone then you're very wrong because the board hasn't developed an overtly sexual tone.

Brilliant.

I drifted back to Thinking Aloud which by this point was down to a regular membership of around three, excepting Rationalians nipping back to save HTML copies of ye olde precious threads which had been crafted by their own fair hands, the virtual artifacts which must be saved that future generations might benefit from the wisdom of Sexy or Salad Dodger? and its like. I had initially mistaken casual speculation about how one day someone might make a film about our little corner of the internet for sarcasm, but no, some of these people genuinely seemed to believe we were kind of important in the great scheme of things, if not the three-hundred, then we Atheists; or we friendly rabid atheists, as the Rationalia strapline had it.

Ha ha.

You don't have to be mad to work here... but it helps!

Back at Thinking Aloud, Sid's Snake had recruited a couple of his real life stoner buddies to make the place look busy, but you could tell they didn't really give a shit about atheism, science, the internet, or saying anything funny. Still, Sid's Snake had an idea. He was going to buy an existing atheist bulletin board and merge it with Thinking Aloud. I suppose having put some amount of work into the forum, he just couldn't let it go. He seemed to have a vision where the place was concerned. It sounded like a reasonable idea at the time. For all of its faults, I'd still enjoyed Thinking Aloud significantly more than any other internet forum of which I'd been a member, and I hadn't yet quite seen the appeal of facebook, so that was my virtual social life, or as good as. We had a look at a few other thematically-similar boards, mostly populated with humourless bores and thus entirely unsuitable for assimilation. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own, we suggested helpfully. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile, but they weren't having it, so the search continued, at least until we discovered Atheist Nation.

Atheist Nation had been set up by some guy called Robert a few years before, but Robert had become a born again Christian and had understandably lost interest in the board, which would therefore cease to exist when his last payment to the host or the server or however it worked ran out. Sid's Snake made him an offer, and Robert said yes.

Where the three-hundred seemed predominantly English Grauniad reading middle-class with just a soup├žon of debate conducted by means of hilarious references to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - as an admittedly broad generalisation - Atheist Nation was comprised of generally younger members, mostly American and working class or at least blue collar, many of whom significantly regarded Richard Dawkins as a bit of a dick. If the Rationalia branch of atheism was a chance for a jolly interesting debate with the pleasure of getting to be right about something, over and over, for Atheist Nation it seemed more like a means of staying sane, particularly for those poor fuckers representing the lone voice not asking Jesus for a new car, job, or pair of tits in some terrifying Baptist backwater. Additionally, Atheist Nation had a few severely ornery types - as we say in Texas - as part of the equation, persons virtually incapable of turning on the computer without upsetting somebody, but it made for a less predictable and slightly more dynamic virtual environment than Rationalia's evolving festival of self-congratulation and cosily, familiar jokes.

The merging of one temporarily vacant bulletin board with the populace of another was a success in some respects, although not everyone was happy about it, this being the internet. Fuss Pot, possibly one of the most boring women ever to set people straight on social media, had been a moderator at Atheist Nation when it first started and had since found herself amongst the three-hundred. Now she returned to Thinking Aloud to protest the violation of basic human rights of Atheist Nation members. Wait until Robert hears about this, she raged righteously, unaware of Robert having found Jesus due to the fact of her not having given two shits about Atheist Nation for the previous five years. Sid's Snake was exactly like Adolf Hitler, she bravely protested in the spirit of Che Guevara, John Lennon, and one of those monks who sets himself on fire.

I could really do without this, I suggested to her, pointing out that Atheist Nation had been a sinking ship at the time of its assimilation, and that she was talking bollocks as usual.

If you don't like the drama, you should have thought about that before you became an admin, she typed righteously, ignoring my actual point, possibly simultaneously shouting at the computer screen; so that was me told.

The new improved Thinking Aloud began to settle. Those for whom the merge had been a step in the wrong direction drifted away, and a core group of regular posters established itself, remaining  stable for a year or two in so much as any form of social media ever remains stable. We had about five or six moderators, and the key to the board's success, if any of it can be termed successful, seems to have been that Sid's Snake had apparently learned his lesson and had taken a back seat in terms of running the place. He posted from time to time and he made suggestions, but he spent most of his day concentrating on some other related project, something he wasn't telling us about.

Months passed and it dawned on me that I'd never really wanted to serve as admin on an atheist bulletin board, having originally stepped in on the understanding of it being a temporary thing; and part of the problem was that I don't like atheists, or at least I tend to dislike people with a strong need to identify as atheist.

It comes down to basic manners. I myself have never had any strongly religious belief and could therefore most likely be considered atheist by some definition, but I don't see an absence of belief in something as a defining, interesting, or even useful characteristic any more than I would my promote my lifelong hatred of kedgeree as indicative of culinary credentials. That which drew me to atheist bulletin boards in the first place was mostly science and knob gags rather than a desire to discuss my not believing in something; and this has been particularly so since Atheism has become a cause in its own right and, in terms of social media, a stick with which to beat others over the head.

I understand why, as a rallying cry to those disaffected, declared atheism might seem a necessary means of combating the rise of extremist and fundamentalist religions, but is it really? When was the last time hitting anyone over the head with an essay and calling them a fucking idiot made any difference other than cementing them more firmly to whatever screwy convictions you were hoping to dissolve? So if it's all just pissing into the wind, what are we left with if not net-dwelling antisocials who are only able to elevate themselves by pushing down on someone else? It's not so much that atheists are inherently dull as that there's not much joy to be had from anyone who is able to discuss only one thing, particularly when that one thing is how they don't believe in something with such vigour that they're prepared to regard even the slightest variance of opinion as essentially cunty. Additionally, as Lewis Black has pointed out, you can usually tell a fanatic by their lack of a sense of humour, a definition I would expand to encompass the same old show us your tits jokes and Python quotes year after year after year on the grounds that simple repetition should never be confused with actual wit.

So specifically Atheist opinion expressed on social media has, in my experience, tended to fall into one of a fairly limited number of categories. Whilst whistles blown upon religious idiocy such as - for one example - Charles Darwin nudged out of the biology textbooks by educational systems which feel somehow bound to respect the views of drooling morons, are certainly to be commended, I've never felt it useful to start screaming about irrationality when dealing with inherently irrational people; and the problem is surely not so much their idiocy as the existence of a system in which their idiocy is granted currency. So most campaigning against religiously-inspired tomfoolery tends to take the form of don't you think this is terrible?! and serves mainly to consolidate a consensus view of yes, this is terrible without making the slightest difference to anyone but those nodding their heads and patting each other on the back over how much more enlightened they are than hilarious yokels from rural Arkansas or wherever. Nothing progressive is achieved, least of all communication, and most likely because it can be quite difficult to communicate with a person once you've likened them to a drooling thirteenth-century serf whilst channelling Terry Thomas.

Come to think of it, most specifically Atheist opinion that I've seen expressed on social media has amounted to don't you think this is terrible?! The aforementioned Fuss Pot had very little else to say, whether it was her suspiciously anti-Semitic campaign to have some hundred year-old carved image of a menora removed from a public building - because yeah, that one was a real violation of human rights - or her bravely facebooking of statistics demonstrating that gun ownership is most prevalent in areas of the United States with a high incidence of religious fundamentalism, because wow - who would have fucking thunk it, eh?

A survey conducted by somebody or other inspired a thread on Thinking Aloud seriously suggesting that Atheists are now the most persecuted minority in the United States. Whether true or not, the survey struck me as more to do with the adopted victim mentality of persons such as Fuss Pot who, like all good vessels of middle class guilt, tend to need to distract from their own privilege by expressing either solidarity with, or suffering parallel to that of those actually getting their front doors kicked in at two in the morning by angry retards. I tried to point this out on the forum, but the response was something along the lines of oh - so you think it's a good thing that children as young as six months are being raped by priests? You think that's a good thing, do you? You think that's fine?

This is about as much sense as I've ever had from persons who feel the need to introduce themselves as Atheist, those for whom not doing something is a defining quality. Of course, I can understand it up to a point, and I agree with a fair amount of what is written in Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, and I'm keen on the separation of church and state guaranteed by the constitution of my recently adopted homeland; but I don't believe anything reduced to black and white arguments of good and evil is ever helpful; and I don't believe that calling people delusional is ever conducive to meaningful dialogue, no matter how crazy they may be; because, in case no-one noticed, that's what the other lot have been doing all along and that's why we don't really like them. There are plenty of problems in the world without inventing new ones such as Atheists as a persecuted minority, and none of those problems will be addressed by don't you think this is terrible?!, or by further disenfranchising the opposition with divisions bearing a suspicious resemblance to lines once defined by class; and on a more personal note - or at least one more directly pertinent to my own private obsessions - there's probably not much point taking any kind of interest in human history, art, or even science if you're driven by some pathological need to divide everything up into rational and irrational whilst presuming the latter to comprise essentially useless information. If, for example, your understanding of mythology can be reduced to it's all superstitious innit, then what you have isn't really an understanding.

Thinking Aloud seemed to work better in its Atheist Nation phase, at least from where I was stood, and specifically because there was no unifying cause behind which we were all expected to rally, and no-one who gave a shit about Douglas fucking Adams. Occasionally a new member would sign up and make the increasingly familiar introductory post about Jesus being non-rational nonsense that is not rational and has no reason and is nonsense and is logically irrational, apparently expecting a virtual round of applause; or a patently crazy individual identified as Dennis Markuze would post bizarre and lengthy attacks promising all you little atheists are gonna get your heads cut off which we immediately deleted; but mostly the board ambled along and looked after itself.

Unfortunately this wasn't quite enough for Sid's Snake. He had a vision of something bigger, and he was never entirely happy about the way things were, the posting habits of the forum membership or our general lack of manners - which admittedly also pissed me off from time to time. Sid's Snake had vowed to maintain a strictly advisory role, suggesting rather than intervening because he'd learned his lesson and you guys are doing an amazing job without me. This didn't quite work as promised because every time he advisoried something which the rest of us failed to implement on the grounds of it being a terrible idea, he just went ahead and did it anyway.

He seemed to be getting more and more involved, despite promises to the contrary, because it turned out he had been working on a much larger project, a social media site called Evolving Hub, or at least that was one of a number of fairly uninspiring names. The most ludicrous was probably Symbiant Minds, whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. It was going to be bigger than facebook, and Thinking Aloud would be just one small part of it; and I presume this must have been back before the advent of some new piece of shit social media crap which will be bigger than facebook was a more or less daily occurrence. Evolving Hub would be for like-minded people who don't like Jesus, and possibly even for some who don't mind him that much. We could blog on Evolving Hub, post pictures, have a network of friends, and keep all of our different bulletin boards open in different windows, and there would be something called the Pink Pages if we wanted to organise orgies of like-minded consenting rationalists, and Thinking Aloud would be somewhere in there too but Jesus, you guys really need to get the place under control. The problem was that Sid's Snake saw himself as some kind of benevolent social media Buddha smiling benignly down upon his grateful minions as we sat around politely discussing rational shit or arguing over which Judas Priest album was the most awesome, but it was never going to happen because Sid's Snake didn't actually seem to like people, and he never understood when they failed to behave according to his vision.

Becoming increasingly frustrated with us, and with threads which failed to resemble transcripts of discussion at the Oxford University Debating Society, Sid's Snake started up a new forum and began to invite us over to take a look around. There were a lot more rules and it mostly seemed to comprise sections he'd proposed for Thinking Aloud which we'd either rejected as too lame or had tried and then rejected when no-one took the slightest bit of interest. It began to feel as though we were dealing with a stoner version of Captain Mainwaring.

I spoke to him on the phone a couple of times, transatlantic calls made at his request so we could discuss the future of the place. There was a lot of hey in there, also man and dude and the rest, and I suspect there were a couple of times when he was actually calling from inside a bong; but he never really made much sense, and I could never tell what the point of the call had been.

He paid me a few hundred dollars to revise and rewrite the text of facebook's terms of use so as to avoid copyright problems when he added it to the Evolving Hub small print, this sort of shite:

Like most websites, we maintain an access log which includes IP address information. This is done for our security and yours. These logs are deleted from the server periodically, but we make no specific guarantees about their longevity. We reserve the right to log IPs at any time. To prevent your IP address from being logged you must access the site through a proxy server. The site's functionality may be impaired when using a proxy.

I came close to slipping into a coma on a couple of occasions whilst undertaking this task. There seemed to be pages and pages of it, and he was paying me because hey, you're the writer guy - you have the way with words and shit. Evolving Hub was going to make all of us rich, so what the hell, I thought, why not? That said, I had a hunch that Evolving Hub probably wasn't going to make all of us rich, and probably wasn't even going to happen given Sid's Snake's track record of periodically pissing off everyone around him, but it wasn't like I had anything better to do.

The sadly inevitable end came when Tiny Tycoon was banned. One evening he'd been there, posting away on Thinking Aloud as usual and the next morning he was gone, and Sid's Snake had filled up my private messages inbox with requests stating that I needed to get in touch and to back him up on this one. We had to present a united front.

First it was claimed that Tiny Tycoon had been redecorating our precious forum with the kind of pornography which Gary Glitter had on his computer. Then he'd actually just been providing links to a popular kiddy-fiddling site on our precious forum. Then he'd been providing links to 4Chan on our precious forum, which Sid's Snake insisted was a popular kiddy-fiddling site. When after half a morning of this I finally got to the truth, and it turned out that Tiny Tycoon had simply mentioned 4Chan in some thread or other, and had mentioned it because he'd recently looked at the place, decided it was horrible, and was telling the rest of us to avoid it like the plague. He hadn't provided a link and it wasn't the sort of site Sid's Snake had claimed it to be through a haze of weed smoke.

I gave Sid's Snake a call. He was raving. He sounded as though he was channelling William Shatner's acting. I explained that I had lifted the ban on Tiny Tycoon because the guy hadn't done anything wrong, and he certainly hadn't been attempting to promote  pornography of any description, and we probably owed him an apology. Sid's Snake went into a rant predicated on the understanding that I'd never heard of 4Chan, had no idea what it was, and hadn't actually said any of the things I had just said to him.

I set him straight. 'Yes, I've seen 4Chan, thank you. It's an image board without much in the way of moderation, and I'm not a big fan of the place either. Sometimes that sort of thing gets posted there and it might be up for ten minutes or so before somebody removes it and the person responsible is blocked, so what you're worried about is down to members rather than the site itself. It's no more pornographic than Thinking Aloud or any other forum. Somebody could post that stuff at our place, and we'd remove it and ban them. That doesn't make us Gary Glitter. Do you see what I'm saying here?'

He didn't. 'I've seen a picture on 4Chan where a fifty year-old dude has his [description of something you don't really need to think about], so do you think that's okay? Is that the sort of thing you think we should be linking on Thinking Aloud? Do you think that's cool? Would you like to see that on our forum? Would you? Would you? Would you like to see that? That stuff is okay by you, is it?'

I pointed out that no-one had provided links to anything of the sort, but I was wasting my time. I listened to another ten minutes of the same shit over and over and then put the phone down on him. Never trust a hippie, I reminded myself. I should never have let myself forget that one.

Sid's Snake engaged us in the staff room - a private area of the forum visible only to moderators - us being myself and the seven or eight other members of Thinking Aloud staff at the time. He stuck to his story regardless of the suspicious deletion of the supposedly offending material, the terrible thread in which Tiny Tycoon had posted the kind of pornography which Gary Glitter had on his computer, or provided a link to a source of the same, or not actually done any of these things. No agreement was reached, no admission of error or possible misinterpretation on the part of Sid's Snake, not even an acknowledgment of how many times he'd changed his story;  and at last I understood why most of the three-hundred had ended up hating the cunt.

He vanished from the forum and from our lives. Thinking Aloud continued with a few murmurs about buying the place from our drug-addled mentor, but it never came to anything and then without a word he pulled the plugs. A few of the others got to work on what became known as Thinking Universe, yet another breakaway bulletin board, and the Evolving Hub empire never happened; and I came to realise that on reflection I don't really like bulletin boards, or the sort of people who habitually hang around on them, or people who need to be right, or who need to belong to an exclusive club or a cult of any kind. It turned out that I already had friends, at least as many as I could possibly need, people who had been there all along even if it wasn't always obvious. Some of them even have views on religious or other matters which differ quite significantly from my own, because that's how the world works, despite the opinions of anyone who might wish it were otherwise.

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