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The Appostates

Atheists are all over the internet, but they haven’t been too successful on the mobile web

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

The internet is a refuge for scorned groups, from furries to mommy bloggers, and atheists have found a home there as well. “Reddit Atheist” has become shorthand for a subculture with its own memes, slang, rivalries, and parodies. While the internet has been a source of comfort for the irreligious, it has also intensified a stereotype about atheists’ self-righteous arrogance.

Despite the dominance of digital atheism, the community hasn’t made the same impact on the mobile web. The online atheism community hasn’t produced many apps of its own. Many of them are mainly collections of Richard Dawkins quotes in horrible fonts; others, like the Atheist Pocket Debater, are explicitly designed to needle Christians. While there are atheist apps, most of them are terrible, or promote arguing.

“I think the faithful have been propagating a narrative of the angry atheist for so long, and I think that there’s some legitimacy to that,” said Peter Boghossian, who teaches at Portland State University and has worked with inmates in Oregon, teaching critical thinking and moral reasoning. Boghossian, with the Richard Dawkins Foundation, created an app called Atheos to help us atheists change our reputation for being condescending doctrinaires. “I wanted to give people a tool, so if they’re approached by somebody, and instead of saying ‘delusional maniac’ and then swearing, they can explore the reasons for their beliefs,” he said.

It’s markedly different from other atheist apps in that it explicitly emphasizes not being rude to religious people. “The larger problem in society is an increasing incivility among different people holding different beliefs. I think it’s really important to have civil, respectful dialogue with people, and we just haven’t been doing that,” he told me. “So that’s a main thrust of the app.”

“None of us want this to be Iraq, right? Sunni and Shia divisions, people shooting each other because of different metaphysical beliefs about the world,” he said.

Though Boghossian used an inappropriately extreme example of religious conflict to compare, it is true that atheists are not well liked in America. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that Americans rated atheism far lower than all major belief systems except Islam. It’s also simply not cool to be atheist. Justin Bieber worships in shredded Japanese denim alongside Kevin Durant at Hillsong. Kanye raps about God dreams. Who do atheists have? Penn Jillette, Arian Foster, and the late Christopher “Women Aren’t Funny but the Iraq War Is for Sure Good” Hitchens. It’s grim. I’m an atheist, and I am sorry to confirm that we are the pedantic neckbeards of American culture, skulking around the Sam Harris section at Barnes & Noble and telling anyone who’ll listen that Thomas Jefferson was actually a deist.

This is not helped by reports that some atheists repurpose religious apps to fight about belief; in 2013, for example, The Washington Post reported that a regular free Bible app had gained an unusual following among nonbelievers. Another atheist has made money off of a Bible app he sells to Spanish believers. One diabolical-sounding atheist said he used a Bible app every night to “engage believers in verse-on-verse debates via Twitter.”

Atheos is meant as a corrective to the apps that encourage dismissive behavior toward believers. It’s a multilevel, multiple-choice quiz game; players select canned retorts to statements like, “You atheists are evil.” There’s a section on how to engage door-to-door Mormon missionaries, and another on disabusing Scientologists of Scientology. “The believer is going to think you’re not taking them seriously if you compare their faith to gay-dar,” one tip intones. Players are advised to refrain from asking Scientologists if they are taking any medications.

If you are looking for the world’s most accurate simulator of an interminable, politely fractitious seminar debate between Epistemology 101 students, you are in tremendous luck. Playing Atheos feels like completing homework for an online course in Atheism Studies. The glossary, which provides short definitions for jargon like “Fragenblitzen,” reinforces the scholarly vibe. The levels are divided into “caves.” It’s free, but after the first level is completed, the rest of the content is accessible only with a $5 purchase. I guess you could say it’s like Westworld, in that it’s a game about the nature of reality. I also guess you could say it’s like Westworld, because it could inspire insufferable dorm-room conversations.

While Atheos has overtures toward civility, its endgame is to make interlocutors doubtful about their most deeply held beliefs, and there’s something inherently confrontational about that. I don’t see how an app that encourages atheists to practice rebuttals and argument-hole-poking will help relationships between believers and nonbelievers. Atheos might be more useful for atheists engaging in conversation with believers if the screen simply flashed the words Maybe switch the topic to prestige TV??? anytime its sensors picked up voices using the terms “God,” “religion,” or “Neil deGrasse Tyson.” Maybe the reason there are no good apps for atheists is you just can’t make one. Atheos certainly tries, but at the crux of all these apps is either engaging in fruitless argument or strategically avoiding discussion of the very thing you downloaded an app for.

“All this back-and-forth sniping serves to do is to make us feel a sense of superiority to the person making the claims and does nothing for them except leave them with a smugness about their assumption that ‘atheists are all mean,’” former atheist blogger Martin Pribble wrote in 2013. “Faith overrides knowledge and truth in any situation, so arguing with a theist is akin to banging your head against a brick wall: You will injure yourself and achieve little.”