Josh Johnson is an Administrator of Atheism 411. Here we talk about his life and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Within personal and family history, was religion or atheism part of it?
Josh Johnson: A lot of my earlier memories take place on a theological seminary that my mother was attending, and then in and around churches and parsonages. While my mother’s brand of religion was always about as progressive as religion could get, she eventually left the church over their terrible treatment of the LGBTQ+ community – something that I’m still quite proud of.
I was lucky that my parents have always been about as progressive as their generation and upbringing allowed, as if that weren’t true, I’m sure I’d have turned into an entirely different person. Their liberal-slanting brand of worship was considered downright blasphemous by other members of my family, whose “Hellfire and Brimstone” style of theology was certainly trotted out for my benefit on more than one occasion.
Jacobsen: How have your views on religion and non-religion evolved over the years?
Johnson: It was part luck, and partially a genuine effort from my parents that allowed me to see such a wide spectrum of religious faiths as a child. I was a curious kid (on levels), and the more I compared and contrasted the beliefs, the more it became clear that even the seemingly similar denominations had deeply contrasting ideas on the same subjects. Multiple parties all speaking for what is supposedly the same all-powerful entity, each giving different sets of instructions… I don’t think the idea of being a believer ever really “took”.
I can remember trying to pray once as a kid, “testing God” if you will, and when the experience was as empty for me as it appeared for others, being pretty sure the whole thing was a ruse. I functionally gave up belief in any kind of god at about the point I gave up belief in Santa.
I was dragged to church for a few years more, until I started taking an active interest in getting a Sunday school teacher to quit in protest over my non-stop questions, at which point church became optional. I briefly opted to join the Unitarian Universalist church as a teenager, as an open atheist, in an effort to better socialize with folks my own age. While the “religion without a creed” was conceptually interesting, and I met a lot of good people, at the end of the day I still found it unfortunately rife with a more traditional style of church politicking.
Since then, my only interest in anything religious has been academic. It’s harder to talk people out of their baseless superstitions if you aren’t fairly well-versed in them.
Jacobsen: In an examination of the landscape for atheism, there has been a large increase in the numbers of nonbelievers in the advanced industrial economies. Why?
Johnson: For starters, have you ever tried to live your life according to the dictations of an ancient “holy” text? If we just look at the Bible, you’re given a poorly written and contradictory set of rules that discourages rational thought, and encourage every kind of bigotry you can think of.
No kind-hearted person can read any fair translation of the Bible from start to finish without finding it, as a complete work, to be a morally reprehensible tome. It’s pro-slavery, it’s proudly violent, and it calls on you to treat other human beings badly. While I’m far from the first to have noticed, the god of the Bible is a truly evil character that expects horrendous things of his followers.
In my observation, most “believers” don’t even believe most of the insane ramblings that their religions are based on. They just like belonging to a community, and in a great many cases their parents successfully implanted a fear of eternal torture in Hell, which keeps them from asking too many questions. If you think simply calling yourself a “Methodist” and paying lip-service to an invisible all-powerful man on holidays is all you need to protect yourself as you keep on living an otherwise “sin-filled” life, it’s easy enough to imagine how so many people can live “religious-lite” while running on auto-pilot.
Living in an age where practically everyone has some form of access to the internet, it’s become harder to call yourself religious and not feel embarrassed by large portions of what you’re meant to believe. To give a quick example, according to the Bible you’re not meant to go near a woman when she’s on her period. Simply touching a menstruating woman means you become unclean for a week, so says the source document for Christianity.
So why are there less and less religious people, in an increasingly digital age? Because the most ignorant person you know, knows that that’s an unacceptable stance. Sexism, racism, homophobia and more are required of a “good believer”, so says their texts. As self-education becomes as easy as picking up your phone, less and less people are willing to be associated with that kind of willful ignorance.
Jacobsen: However, alongside this increase in the atheist population within the nonbelievers, we have seen a collection of two reactions. Mostly male leaders, often white, in each case.
The one stream is more, stronger, and more literal forms of fundamentalist preaching, especially within North America and often tied to white ethnic nationalism.
Another stream is the attempts to reinterpret the purported holy texts by a collection of unqualified, hyperbolic, and humorless people to make the Bible – as it’s mostly Christian imagery – cool again, where this tends to have thinly veiled rightwing laissez-faire economics and social views built into them.
Do you notice these too? If so, why are these the streams of reactionary ‘movements’ in the religious and religious-curious camps?
Johnson: I have certainly noticed the unfortunate truth that many recognized “atheist leaders” (I don’t like the term, as atheists don’t have a central hierarchy or any kind of clergy analog, but I know what you mean) are white men, and I have certainly seen many white men – including atheists – push grossly unacceptable ideas into the public sphere as of late.
While the “alt-right” infestation currently plaguing the United States has certainly been felt in atheist communities, we (the collective crew at Atheism 411) count ourselves among their staunch opposition. I’ve seen some semi-famous atheist YouTubers and bloggers becoming unapologetically bad people. We’ve even had to throw out a contributor on at least two occasions in the last 6 years for seemingly out of no where throwing out some kind of bigotry – including bigotry against believers in religion themselves.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify my stance on religious people: I love them. Religious people are my family, my friends, my neighbors. Atheism 411 is a humanist group, and the reason I oppose religion is because it hurts people. Tangibly and regularly, religion harms innocent human beings all over the globe… and I oppose that. But humans are awesome, so we have a zero-tolerance policy (both in our public groups, and for our page contributors) for any kind of bigotry. You can disagree with someone without dehumanizing them, and anyone incapable of meeting that reasonable mandate is not welcome among us.
Which unfortunately brings us back to the question: Since atheists are human beings, and a human being can be any kind of person – including a bad one – we have dealt with our share of bigots. While I have seen racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic atheists pop up in our online communities, the response of myself and my admin team is always to remove them from the community ASAP, and usually to address the issue publicly if it affected more people than can be spoken to individually.
This of course opens us up to cries of being a “progressive echo-chamber”… which, to be honest, doesn’t bother me as much as some think it should. Don’t get me wrong; we welcome every kind of atheist into our community, political beliefs aside, as long as they follow a simple set of rules. But those rules include respectfully talking out your differences, and NOT being an openly bigoted bully. Which means that people who believe other human beings are somehow worth less, or entitled to less of a fulfilling life than they are, simply aren’t allowed in the club.
Funny thing about a club for humanists… You have to care about humans, to join. Even the ones who don’t look, love, or even think the way you do. Seems fair enough, to me.
As for people trying to make the Bible “cool”… I’ve not seen any successful attempts, let’s say that.
Jacobsen: How did you become involved in Atheism 411?
Johnson: I’m a marketing consultant by trade, and what finally got me to sign-up for Facebook was a specific client insisting that I start writing their FB ads for them, too.
I was a hold-out on social media as I’ve been creating websites myself since the late 90s, and the appeal/reach of social networking on other people’s websites hadn’t yet bashed me over the head.
I’ve always been an opinionated lad, but around 6 years ago I decided I wanted to start writing on atheistic topics. I found a Facebook page called “Atheism for Beginners” – founded by Matthew Happle – that had a modest following of around 7,000 people, and applied for a spot making content with a rather narcissistic image of myself juggling knives (I do that), with text imposed over it decrying the terrible bigotry that religion has a unique hand in perpetuating around the world.
I got that spot, and over time the page changed. For one, the name got swapped out for “Atheism 411” – which means “Atheist Information”, for those of you who have never experienced U.S. phone codes – and it grew in size considerably (around 46,500, at time of writing).
For a lot of its growth-period, my essays and other original content made up a large percentage of what the page put out, so I eventually took on a partnership with Matthew and became co-owner of A411 and its related Facebook pages and groups.
While Mattie is still my partner and co-owner, I’ve largely taken over the day-to-day “business”, in so much as it exists. Or I should say, the technical responsibility for said; Truth be told, I’d be incapable of keeping it in any kind of order if it weren’t for the small team of admins that selflessly and awesomely dedicate a lot of their spare time to making sure our pages and communities are friendly and entertaining places to visit. They’re my brothers and sisters, I love them, and I can’t thank them enough.
Jacobsen: What is the mission and mandate of Atheism 411?
Johnson: We seek to peacefully talk people out of their dangerous superstitions.
We see copious evidence of religion uniquely influencing the world in a negative way. The holy texts for JUST the Abrahamic religions are still used all around the world to justify slavery, the oppression and subjugation and murders of women and members of the LQBTQ+ community…
True story; because of my position with Atheism 411, people send me videos sometimes of terrible acts perpetrated in the name of gods. This is how I saw my first literal “witch burning”.
Obviously there’s no such thing as magic, so they weren’t real “witches”… but I’ve had the sickening displeasure of watching in confusion a video where people beat frightened men and women unconscious with tree branches, then cover them in branches and light it ablaze.
I probably wouldn’t have chosen to view the video, had I known what it was when I clicked. What it featured wasn’t at all clear to me, even after it started.
It wasn’t until the images were effectively seared into my brain that I realized what it was I was even watching… the violent and terrifying deaths of innocent people, because “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18 KJV)
It is my mission to peacefully talk people out of the ignorant and baseless superstitions that lead to that kind of depravity. Because the people who did that weren’t “twisting the Bible”… they were reading it literally, and applying it to reality. And that’s the same book you’ll find on the back of pews in churches around the world.
To pretend religion hasn’t earned rebuke is intellectually dishonest, to say the very least. And we have always aimed to be one of many good sources you can come to for said rebuke.
Jacobsen: Also, what is its niche? Where can people find it?
Johnson: We aim to be a reasonable voice, even though we know what we’re saying is conceptually offensive to a lot of people. Open dialog is important, sometimes especially when it’s uncomfortable. Religion is definitely one of those times.
You can find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Atheism411/
You can also find the videos I’ve made for our channel discussing atheist topics here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLArlD5f-q46EAEyVNvWpCKefTI6AEg_L-
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Josh.