Anti-religion agenda among social media users
Andrew Barker embodies the average Digg user: a white male in his 20s, tech savvy, with a sense of humor that often pushes boundaries into the taboo. You can find him browsing the social news website a couple times a day, but you won't see him at a church, synagogue or mosque.
The 27-year-old from Mishawaka, Ind., abandoned organized religion long ago and now describes himself as agnostic. For him, time spent in the house of Digg is not unlike a Sunday church gathering. Groups of like-minded individuals share gossip and stories, and they discuss such topics as politics, sports and, yes, even religion.
But you won't find many links to Bible studies on the front page of Digg -- unless it's about the absurdity of taking Scripture literally. A 2-year-old survey of Digg users showed a significant concentration of atheists and agnostics. Because Digg's content is submitted and voted on by the users, the stories promoted to the website's homepage reflect the audience.
Although Barker reads Digg regularly, he doesn't submit links very often. But he had a big hit with a picture he posted of a child's coloring book showing Jesus riding a dinosaur. "I found it, and thought, 'God, that's such a hilarious image,'" Barker said. "Digg takes everything religious so lightheartedly."
Poking fun at evangelical Christians, Catholics, creationists, the image of Jesus Christ and, well, anything remotely associated with religion is ...
... commonplace on the website. An image, titled "The Incredible Jesuc Car: I'm Afraid Of Americans," was voted to the Digg homepage a few days ago. The photo shows a Toyota, with the license plate "Jesuc," blanketed in bumper stickers promoting Christianity, the Republican presidential ticket and anti-gay marriage propositions.
Another image, a clipping from an Alaskan newspaper's Letters to the Editor section that's criticizing atheists, hit the Digg homepage the same day as "Jesuc Car." (A previous version of this post said the newspaper was from Arkansas.) It's already in the top 10 most popular stories of the week -- an impressive feat when considering the other nine stories revolve around the presidential election.
And Tuesday night, a popular item on Digg was news that Elizabeth Dole, whom Digg users criticized for calling her opponent "godless," was defeated by Kay Hagan for the North Carolina Senate seat. Users celebrated in the story's comments section, and one user wrote, "Score one for the Godless Americans!"
Digg isn't exactly religion-friendly, so it naturally doesn't attract a very spiritual crowd. "If you were into religion and you went to that site, and you thought that you weren't connecting with anyone, then you wouldn't spend a lot of time there," said Diane Winston, professor of media and religion at the University of Southern California.
Zak Madden, a 16-year-old atheist from Battle Ground, Wash., submitted a picture to Digg last week of a Blu-Ray box for a film called "Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter." It got more than 1,000 votes, called "diggs," from users. "Most Diggers aren't very religious and love comedy so it seemed natural that they would enjoy this," Madden said in an e-mail.
Madden figures that more than half of the site's users don't actively practice religion, but says that number could be skewed by a vocal minority. "There may be more religious diggers than I am guessing, but those who are religious usually aren't very open about it," he wrote.
Madden says he found the "Vampire Hunter" graphic on a similar website called Reddit. The audience is much the same, and content critical of religion regularly makes it to Reddit's homepage as well.
YouTube also has its atheist niche. A search for "atheist" yields 124,000 results, and several of those videos have been watched hundreds of thousands of times. Granted, a search for "Christianity" returns 862,000, but many of those contain content critical of the religion.
Micki Krimmel, a.k.a. Mickipedia, a popular Twitter personality, says she attributes a part of her Internet fame to her YouTube videos about atheism. "I made a series of videos that got really popular on YouTube and that generated recognition [among] a different group -- apparently there is a big atheist community on YouTube," she said in an instant message conversation.
Although atheist material and content critical of religion might have a large following on these mainstream websites, just as many websites exist on the Web for religious discussions, said Winston, the USC professor. ShoutLife is one Christian social network with about 140,000 registered users. Christian.com, Xianz, Your Christian Space and Holypal are a few popular alternatives. There's one for every major religion -- and atheism.
"Just as religious people want to convert people to their perspective, atheist people want to convert people to their point of view," Winston said. "The irony here is that atheism is a form of religion. You're still in something."
The Internet isn't killing religion. In fact, Winston says more Americans attend church today -- about 60% -- than in the past. "People have a mistaken notion of history that people used to be more religious," she said.
The Web merely acts as the megaphone for any message, whether that be for or against religion, to help it reach the masses. "The Internet has democratized media to a form almost unprecedented," Winston said. "So, of course you're going to see things that you never saw before -- like Jesus riding on a dinosaur."
-- Mark Milian
Photo: Religion Meets Technology. Credit: RinzeWind via Flickr