[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.


NSRN Recruiting Website Editor

As part of our ongoing development of the NSRN and our online presence, we are seeking a new member of our online team. This individual will take on the role of Managing Editor, and will be responsible for the general overseeing and maintenance of website, co-ordinating of the NSRN Online team, and undertaking a refurbishment/redevelopment of the existing website.

The successful applicant should:

  • Be involved – whether as a student (of any level), a professional academic, or independent researcher – within the academic study of nonreligion and secularity (broadly conceived)
  • Have a working knowledge of WordPress, in addition to general computing and social media skills.
  • Be a reliable and independent worker, able to both delegate tasks and work as part of a team.

All roles within the NSRN are unpaid; however, we hope that the chance to be involved in a major international hub for the study of nonreligion, secularity and related concepts, the opportunities which accompany this, and the chance to creatively make their mark on our web presence will be acceptable compensation for the efforts of the successful applicant.

If you are interested in this position, please send an academic CV accompanied by a brief note of interest of no more than 500 words detailing your suitability for the role, relevant experience, and any suggestions you may have for further developments of the NSRN’s website and online presence and how you might implement these. These materials, and any questions relating to the position, should be directed to NSRN Co-Director Christopher R. Cotter at c.cotter@lancaster.ac.uk by 6 November 2015.

Please feel free to circulate this advert to relevant colleagues and networks. A PDF can be downloaded below.

NSRN Managing Editor Advert (PDF)

Event: Crossroads of Civilizations: Media, Religion and Culture July 8-12, 2012

The secularisation thesis posited that disenchantment would follow modernity, much research has now proved that not only has this reality failed to emerge, but that the vehicle of modernity – technology – has also been a tool for enchantment and religious revival. The conference below explores this relationship, of media and religion and should provide interesting discussions for those interested in media landscapes from both religious and secular perspectives. The event is organised by the The International Society for Media, Religion, and Culture (ISMRC) and follows a series of events which they have run biennially, this being their 8th conference.

The International Conference

Crossroads of Civilizations: Media, Religion and Culture

July 8-12, 2012

Anadolu University

Eskisehir, TURKEY

(in between Istanbul and Ankara)

The International Conference on Media, Religion, and Culture, organized every two years by the International Society for Media, Religion, and Culture, invites papers for its July 8-12, 2012 conference to be held in Eskisehir, Turkey (outside of Istanbul), at Anadolu University.

In contemporary societies, electronic media such as smart mobile phones, satellite television, radio, and laptop computers have become ubiquitous. Although historians point out that world religions have always been mediated by culture in some way, people have incorporated these electronic media into everyday practices, and industries and state organizations have arisen to profit from those practices, in ways that are unprecedented. Today’s media can connect people and ideas with one another, but they also foster misunderstandings and reinforce societal divisions. They may provide the means for the centralization of religious authority, or the means to undermine it. Scholars of religion, as well as scholars of media and of culture, must consider how these various societal institutions of the media interact with one another and with systems of religion, governance, and cultural practices, as our societies demand better means by which to understand emergent concerns in an increasingly interconnected, globalized context.

The contemporary location of Turkey has long been the meeting place between Eastern and Western culture, religion, trade, and communication. This conference provides a crossroads for scholars, doctoral students, media professionals, and religious leaders from a variety of religious and secular traditions to meet and exchange ideas. Interdisciplinary scholarship is welcome, as is comparative work, theoretical development, and in-depth ethnographic studies that shed light on contemporary phenomena at the intersection of media, religion, and culture.

Papers, panels, workshops, and roundtable proposals could address, but should not be limited to:

* Global and Glocal Media and Religion(s)

* Mediation and Mediatization of Religion

* Media and The Boundaries of the Religious and the Secular

* Media, Power, Religion and Democracy

* Religion and Visual Expression

* Crossroads of Old/New Media and Religion

* Religion, Gender and Media

* Dialogue/Conflict: Media and Religion

* Islam and Media/ Islamic Media

* Social Media, Religion and Cultures

Presentation Formats

This year we will be accepting proposals in four formats: papers, panels, workshops and roundtables.

Panels bring together in discussion four participants or presentations representing a range of ideas and projects. Roundtables may include more individuals who comment on a common theme in briefer formats.

Panels and roundtables are scheduled for 90 minutes and should include a mix of individuals working in areas of research, theory, and practice. We also encourage the use of discussants.

Workshops provide an opportunity for hands-on exploration and/or project development. They can be organized around a core challenge that participants come together to work on or around a tool, platform, or concept. Workshops are scheduled for 90 minutes and should be highly participatory.