[Research] Atheism on YouTube for the last ten years

Looking at the spread and negotiation of a particular controversy between atheists andstaff-photo-1 Christians, Stephen Pihlaja examines how YouTube users negotiate tensions in a particular social space and how the collapse of a recognisable context for these negotiations affect the ways in which they put forth their beliefs. Pihlaja shows how close analysis of interaction on social media can provide insights about the religious arguments and discussions develop over time.

For the last ten years, my research (Pihlaja, 2013; 2014a; 2014b; 2011) has followed atheists and Christians on social media and YouTube. As a social media site, YouTube particularly has played an important role in the visibility of atheism, providing a platform for atheists to challenge religious dogma. This has been particularly true for the American context, where many of the YouTube atheists I have research are located. In America, atheism is still viewed with suspicion, and consistently one of the most distrusted minorities. Particularly in places like the deep southern states, identifying as an atheist remains problematic. YouTube, however, has facilitated ‘coming out’ as an atheist, a topic that has been of interest to researchers in the sociology of religion (Cimino and Smith, 2011, Smith and Cimino, 2012). The interaction of the dominant culture offline, and the emerging, bullish atheist culture on YouTube has created a kind of tension, where Christians would essentially come onto the site to ‘preach the gospel’.

Initially, my assumption about talk around religion on YouTube would focus on issues of theology and religious dogma. Unexpectedly, however, fewer of the disagreements were about the proof of God’s existence, and more were about who had insulted whom. The boundaries between religious and non-religious, as Hutchings suggests in his recent blog post, are not always simple to delineate, particularly when looking at real discourse. My book, Antagonism on YouTube, (Pihlaja, 2014a) looks at how these arguments, that seemed markedly small and petty in comparison to points of doctrine and theology, developed in one particular community of users. Adapting a discourse-centred online ethnographic approach (Androutsopoulos, 2008), I analysed the development of one particular argument, an instance where one Christian user called an atheist ‘human garbage’, after the atheist had insulted the Christian user’s wife.

The argument spread when the Christian user defended calling the atheist ‘human garbage’, using a Bible passage from the gospel of John. This action resulted in several kinds of responses: first, users (both Christians and atheists) who rejected the premise entirely, saying that it was never okay to call someone ‘human garbage’, regardless of the circumstances. Second, there were users who accepted this reading of the Bible (namely Christians) and said that although it was harsh, it was better to warn people about the truth than for them to end up being judged in hell. A third response, however, was the most interesting. These users argued not that it was wrong to call others ‘human garbage’, but that the Bible passage being used to condone it was being misread. The arguments focused on the use of metaphor and how users interpreted the parables of Jesus (Pihlaja, 2013).

While the Christians in my study argued over whether or not the Bible condoned calling other people ‘human garbage’, the atheists ridiculed the arguments and made the case that even the possibility that the language could be justified using the Bible showed how corrupting religion could be. However, like the arguments among the Christians about the reading of the Bible, an argument arose among the atheists about the extent to which the example of ‘human garbage’ could be used to condemn Christianity more generally, or if indeed, this was just an example of one person misreading the Bible. The atheists then argued back and forth about whether there were ‘good Christians’ and ‘bad Christians’ (Pihlaja, 2014b). These arguments as well were instructive in showing how discussions about religion and ideology can fall into very small, interpersonal discussions.

My research has shown that religious discussions and arguments cannot be divorced from the social context in which they take place. This has grown increasingly more complicated with the development of new mobile technology and the integration of offline and online lives. My research now (Pihlaja, forthcoming, 2017) looks at the ways in which ‘context collapse’ (or the diverse audiences watching users on social media from a variety of different, disparate backgrounds) has affected how users present themselves and their beliefs or lack of beliefs online. In 2006, many users couldn’t say they were atheists in offline settings, but could do so on YouTube; now, it’s potentially much easier to declare a lack of faith, but users have a growing awareness of all the different people watching them. There is an increased awareness of the multitude of online and offline audiences and the effect of this integration on how people of faith and no faith interact with one another is an important area of research going forward.


ANDROUTSOPOULOS, J. 2008. Potentials and Limitations of Discourse-Centred Online Ethnography. Language@Internet [Online], 5. Available: http://www.languageatinternet.org/articles/2008/1610 [Accessed June 6, 2016].

CIMINO, R. & SMITH, C. 2011. The New Atheism and the Formation of the Imagined Secularist Community. Journal of Media and Religion, 10, 24-38.

PIHLAJA, S. 2011. Cops, popes, kings, and garbage collectors: Metaphor and antagonism in an atheist/Christian YouTube video thread. Language@Internet [Online], 8. Available: http://www.languageatinternet.org/articles/2011/Pihlaja/ [Accessed 6 June 2013].

PIHLAJA, S. 2013. ‘It’s all red ink’: The interpretation of biblical metaphor among Evangelical Christian YouTube users. Language and Literature, 22, 103-117.

PIHLAJA, S. 2014a. Antagonism on YouTube: Metaphor in Online Discourse, London, Bloomsbury.

PIHLAJA, S. 2014b. ‘Christians’ and ‘bad Christians’: Categorization in atheist user talk on YouTube. Text & Talk, 34, 623-639.

PIHLAJA, S. forthcoming, 2017. Religious talk online: the online evangelical language of Muslims, Christians, and atheists, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

SMITH, C. & CIMINO, R. 2012. Atheisms unbound: The role of the new media in the formation of a secularist identity. Secularism and Nonreligion, 1, 17-31.

Stephen is an applied linguist, discourse analyst, and stylistician researching and teaching at Newman University in Birmingham UK. His research focuses on the discourse dynamics of talk on the Internet, particularly in online video around religious issues. His book Antagonism on YouTube: Metaphor in Online Discourse (Bloomsbury, 2014) focuses on the ways in which Christians and atheists argue online. He is currently completing a second monograph entitled Religious Talk Online: Muslim, Christian, and Atheist Discourse on Social Media, forthcoming on Cambridge University Press.


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