The atheist community in most societies tends to be progressive in its ideology. Part of the reason atheists skew towards the progressive end of the political spectrum comes from the lack of divine rules and laws that often craft conservative ideologies, but much of the atheist progressive ideology comes from dissemination of ideas within the atheist community. Atheist communities take a much different form than religious ones, given that they have no churches, synagogues, temples or mosques. The atheist church has become the internet. While some groups offer Sunday assembly as a place for atheists to come together and build community, the internet has allowed for the overcoming of geographic distances and allowed an online atheist community to flourish. To learn more about this community I sat down, via Skype, with atheist podcaster Thomas Smith of the Serious Inquiries Only Podcast, among others. He has been podcasting since 2010 and is a frequent guest on many scepticism and atheist shows.
How did you get started in the atheist community and podcasting?
I had always been an atheist in some fashion. As a kid, I was made to go to church, but there were certain things that I thought were obviously so dumb about it, that I just assumed everybody knew and believed in their own version of God, like the idea of hell or the Noah story and anything like that. I just thought all the old folks in this church I was forced to go to knew that was bullshit, too. When I started to find out, “oh no, they really believe that stuff” I was like “oh, wow.” I think I really wanted it to be true, but I think I also just always knew it wasn’t true, and over time I would admit that to me more and more. I would argue with atheists, but I would also argue with believers. Eventually that went away when I started reading all of the “new atheist” authors – Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, that was when I fully embraced it.
So around 2010 I realised I had never read the bible but I was getting in these arguments with people about what was in it, and I don’t know why I thought it but I thought “if I’m going to read the whole thing and maybe I could make it funny or, worst case scenario, it would be an audiobook of the bible from an atheist” (laughs).
So that’s where your podcast Thomas and the bible came from?
Yeah, and that’s how I got into podcasting, and then later on I just got tired of being limited by the bible. There’s all these issues in atheism and different philosophies I wanted to talk about so that’s why I started Atheistically Speaking (now named Serious Inquiries Only), to be able to go down whatever road I wanted.
Before you started podcasting, did you have any interaction with the broader atheist community or were you just a singular atheist out on your own?
To be honest with you, I’m still kinda that. I’m trying to get more involved but I’m not a very social group type of person; I don’t have that need for community that a lot of people do. I’m not judging that but, for example, the people doing Sunday assembly, I think that’s awesome! I would just never go because I don’t need it, but there’s a ton of people who go to church because they need a social group, and I think we should be creating secular analogs to that.
Have you developed meaningful relationships through your podcasting and online interactions.
For me, they are incredibly meaningful. There are various levels because I talk to all kinds of people. It’s hard to maintain a deep friendship online, but with some I really value having their friendship. We text a lot and talk behind the scenes about a lot of things. I value it a ton. I consider the relationships to be really meaningful.
Do you think atheists congregate online because they feel uncomfortable in society, but the internet is a safe place with anonymity?
I don’t know how much the anonymity plays into that, maybe in some parts of the country (U.S.) that are deeply religious, or certainly in Middle Eastern countries where apostasy is punishable by death, but I think for most Americans they aren’t in that sort of situation. I think it’s more the nature of a minority group. When you have a minority group, something around 5% of people, being able to coalesce without the geographic barriers is something that’s going to happen with minority groups. In your town you may have five or ten people and you don’t know who they are because you don’t go to atheist church, or don’t have an atheist church, but online you’re able to open up to a bigger group of people. I think there’s also a correlation between the internet community already, I think it’s disproportionately atheist, disproportionately white and young, a group that skews atheism. I think that’s why the atheist subreddit was so big so fast, but I think the atheist community is fracturing a bit.
What splits do you see within the atheist community?
I think there’s lots of splits within the atheist community. I disagree with things prominent atheists say all the time, and that doesn’t seem to be too big of an issue for me but somehow there’s a group of people that can’t do that. There’s a group of people that will do backflips trying to make Sam Harris Or Hitchens or whoever correct. I don’t know how big a group that is, it’s a problem I get a lot in podcasting, I only hear from people who choose to get in contact with me. I don’t know what that is, I don’t know if that’s statistically meaningful, but there’s a whole silent majority that are still listening, so it’s very difficult to know where exactly the schism is. I think certainly social justice is the biggest fracture right now. There’s people like Dave Rubin and others who are selling a war that isn’t really there, almost a war on Christmas level battle against free speech, based on some examples. I mean, sur, there are bad examples of people stifling free speech, I would never argue there’s not. But, they’re selling it into this gigantic problem that it’s not and they’re willing to ditch scepticism completely. If somebody dis-invites a speaker and they shouldn’t have I’ll call it out, but, and I hate to use the term because it’s so loaded, but there’s a lot of fake news out there right now regarding the free speech wars and there’s people making a shitload of money off it and its really stirring up a bigger chasm than there should be.
What’s the most common type of interaction you have with your listeners?
Oh, the most common thing is “oh hey you’re wrong about this” I mean we are a community with very strong opinions. People tend to tweet at me, like I’m in the room, but I do get plenty of compliments on the show emails saying I enjoy the show, I wanted to give you my thoughts on this, providing more information, stuff like that.
You recently changed the name of your show from Atheistically Speaking to Serious Inquiries Only, did you think having atheist in the title turned some people away?
What happened was, my producer and I had gone for a few guests that I thought would be really cool, semi big names, scientists and such, just stuff that I thought would be really good show topics. We got a couple of people that turned us down just because of atheist in the name. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever been that atheist of a show. The goal has always been meta atheism, like what’s going on in the community. I’ve spent a little time arguing with theists here and there, which is something I kind of enjoy doing but it’s never been the focus of the show. So, for that reason, and because I never really liked the title Atheistically Speaking. it was something I came up with off the top of my head and the show took off into something bigger than I had ever thought it would be. Serious Inquiries only is a little bit of a mouthful, but I like the play on words. The goal was something neutral, where I could have anybody on and they wouldn’t pre-judge it. When I posted a video on Patreon about the name change I got 98% positive feedback. People were like, suddenly, “oh now I can share it with other people”. Everyone wanted to share it but didn’t want to out themselves as an atheist by sharing it.
Should the atheist community focus on conversion or trying to normalise atheism?
I don’t know. There are some shows that will get emails saying hey you changed my mind. But how many people is that? For me, I just want to have conversations, and it’s hard because Christians don’t. There’s a few who do, and I think that’s worthwhile, but if I knew how to fight it better we’d probably live in a different world. The one thing I can say that isn’t going to work is shutting up about it and carrying on as though it isn’t important. I think that attitude is ridiculous because, on the one hand, you have a scientific worldview that is beneficial for all kinds of manifestly obvious reasons like accepting climate change, versus a worldview based on myth and has a history of opposing the science of the day. How people want to engage is up to them, but I don’t think keeping your head down and pretending we’re all the same is the answer.
Thomas Smith is a podcaster based in Sacramento, California. In addition to many guest appearances, he currently does 3 shows: Serious Inquiries only, Opening Arguments with Andrew Torrez, and Comedy Shoeshine. All of his shows can be found on iTunes or most other podcast apps. He can also be followed on Twitter @seriouspod.