Death of an Atheist Forum; the lessons of history

Following the bizarre collapse of the Richard Dawkins forum, I posted this on the excellent Rationalia and  Thinking Aloud Forums. It will be my last blog entry on atheist forum politics 😦  I am after all not actually an atheist!

OK, I think I’m giving up on the whole atheist  forum thing. I’ll tell you why, then move on to other topics tomorrow…

Firstly, I am still shocked, saddened and miserable about the demise of the wonderful The problem is I have seen it ALL before, and not so long ago.  If I thought this was Josh Timonen’s fault, or Dawkins, I could just laugh and move on, and help fight. The thing is I can’t any more. It’s something fundamental and deeper.

Years ago I knew a wonderful cryptographer, medium, and cynic, who I will call James. James joined a psychic research group I belonged to, and noted that every group tends to do the same thing: the leadership cock it up, it fragments, and two new groups appear.  A few years later the pattern occurs again. James was an atheist spiritualist (there are a LOT of them, and one often sees their stuff cited by other atheist who are unaware of their rather strange ideas to modern atheists minds) and in a thoughtful moment he confided in me that exactly the same was true of every atheist group he had belonged to. I guess it’s true of gardening clubs, poetry societies, fan clubs and stamp collectors as well. As he noted, there must be something wrong with human nature. (In fact one sees it less in religious groups – because they can appeal to external authorities and impose their will by divine mandate, which makes them even nastier when it all goes tits up). Of course many groups do survive and prosper, but one thing ghostthunting groups (not parapsychological organisations) and atheist forums have in common is this incredible failure rate.

Now in fact Old Soul posted on my blog entry, and reminded me of something. We have seen this all before, just two years ago. Here is the Encylopedia Dramatica version of events back then on IIDB – The interwebs are serious business. 🙂

Many of the IIDB exiles fled to, and discussed what was happening there: and in fact the response was largely one of disinterest, mild sadness, and modding to stop the fight spilling over on to our forum. In fact it is much like the very ambivalent if not positively unsympathetic responses one sees from the JREF today – (There are of course many deeply  sympathetic JREF members, including tsig and Darat, and exiles should seriously consider registering there>)

Let’s face it, its the internet. No one will die of this. 🙂 Still we can learn a lot from it, maybe…

Now Internet Infidels and Secular Web had a history going back to 1995, and were absolutely huge. I think it is fair to say that IIDB was in its day the largest Atheist site on the web – and it’s collapse left a vacuum that quickly filled, along with the Rational Response Squad. The RRS had its own problems in 2008/2009 including a highly publicised (physical, literal) punch up and a falling out with Richard Dawkins over allegations of his having an affair (even if true, who gives a f*ck, and it wasn’t anyway…) However the IIDB melt down,mass deletions, sacking of mods and general shittiness gave birth ot a number of forums, including Rants n Raves, a splendidly irreverent place which is sort of 4chan meets Atheism —

All of this may seem by the by, but in fact you probably really need to look at this whole mess on IIDB, that we all chose to ignore.There are threads on – maybe someone with access to the database can find them? However the same things happened – admins sacked, mods dimsissed, members expelled, complete meltdown.

Hey there must be people here who lived through all this, and know first hand what happened? Old Soul wrote on my blog

In 2007, the Internet Infidels Inc, a nonprofit educational group, shut down their extremely popular “IIDB” Internet Infidels Discussion Board, driving away thousands of people, many of whom had donated money to the group for both its regular operations and the upkeep of the forums. When the II, Inc. began banning and silencing its forum users, it lost very little real revenue, as the major donors who supported the organization did not care one bit about the teeming masses on the message board. The II, Inc. did not lose any real income or its reputation amongst the atheist elite. It sold the IIDB to a woman from New Zealand, who changed the forum name and continued to silence all dissidents. The II, Inc. did not suffer any loss or long-term damage after divesting itself of its forum. No problem there, either.

Yep, that was my understanding.He also has a very long term perspective —

Decades ago, Madalyn Murray O’Hair shut down every chapter of American Atheists, alienating thousands of people, but doing no long-term harm to herself or the group. No problem there.

I suspect the young and British influenced RD’ers may not all know about the tragic and bizarre story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair — Some of the links like the Time article are REALLY good reads.  Anyone spot similarities with how AA was run and the current situation? OK, we don’t have claims of fraud and dodgy accounting, or blatant theft. Yet we have exactly the same  pattern of self-proclaimed atheist leaders fleecing members, f*cking over the organisation and so called rationalist acting like compete arseholes.

Even after the great October Purge, when many of us left, I eventually drifted back to TAF and Rationalia split: I can’t help but being reminded of the South Park episode Go God, Go! where the United Atheist Alliance (UAA) fight the United Atheist League (UAL) and the Allied Atheist Allegiance (AAA) –sure it was a shit episode by South Park standards, but there was more than a grain of truth in it.

Old Soul really hit the nail on the head though when he wrote

This is just business as usual for atheist organizations, why are you all so surprised? This is how it is done. Richard Dawkins will not lose any face. He will not suffer a publicity backlash. As far as his staff is concerned, you are all ungrateful for complaining about not being able to use the forums any more. Guess what? They do not care. They will make new websites, write new books, and speak at new conventions. Where thousands of you dare not tread, thousands more unsuspecting atheists will fill the seats you won’t occupy, and buy the books you won’t read, and visit the websites you won’t support. No problems.

It gets bleaker

There are millions and millions of atheists worldwide and no major atheist group has ever lost any money by not accommodating all of them. For every hundred of you who leave in disgust, two hundred more will take your place. For every post that is deleted… the same. The outcry of atheists who are offended by being silenced is not a problem in the grand scheme of organized atheist groups.

These groups operate in a realm that none of you occupy. It is a world in which *you* do not exist, and none of them (on the national or international level) are focused on “atheist community” or “the needs of nonbelievers.” They are money-making operations supporting authors, lecturers, philosophers, and publicity hounds, all in the name of atheism, and all for naught.

If you are operating a large atheist organization, shutting the internet out of your atheist group will not hurt you in the long run. This is demonstrably true, and the RDF staff certainly knows it. Now you all know it too. Visit this page again in 2 years, when Dawkins’ books are selling like hotcakes, his lectures are standing-room-only, and his new website discussion area is busy and bustling with passionate atheist activity. All of this complaining is not going to change anything.

There will be no problem for the RDF. Atheist herd migration will not disrupt the activities of any major atheist group, certainly not the biggest moneymaker of them all.[

He is indeed a wise old soul. 😦

This has seemed I am sure to many of you yet another betrayal, but really, I am deadly serious. If we can’t get it together, are we (and I guess  it’s not really we is it, I’m a Christian, but I count myself as one of you lot in that I remain a loyal member of the internet community) any better than the religious groups etc?  Sorry, it seems that the loss of the forum is irrlevant to most atheists, and will remain so, based on the examples of history. We will be a footnote ina  wiki article, and spawn threads on a few secular websites, but no one is listening, and the RDF will laugh all the way to the bank. If you think people really care, look again at the JREF thread, or look at the Skeptics Guide to the Universe one – Think about how much you heard, or cared, about the demise of IIDB – now sucessfully running as a series of small forums from what I can see, with new names, and a new identity.

People don’t just not care, THEY DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT. It’s just like us at when IIDB went down – some one lese politics, proof the rationalist dream crashed when it meets the reality of messsed up humans. Good people will carry on and have a laugh, but the majority of the atheist population will just say “shut up and stop whining”. Bleak I know, but do a Google search and you will find its true…

In fact even the blogosphere only returns Darkchilde, myself and Peter Harrison’s blogs.  This is not going to hurt the RDF, or makke any difference; We lost, people got treated like shit, and no one will care outside of TAF and Rationalia.

I have had enough. I’ll find better things to do with my time 🙂
j x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in atheism, Debunking myths, Religion, Science, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Death of an Atheist Forum; the lessons of history

  1. J.A.Poisson says:

    Years ago, hosting a discussion board was costly, and needed expertise. So people gathered at large places run under some banner or name or cause. The board was more important than the community, as they were in shorter supply. Now a monkey with a laptop could run a board. The community has become the scarce resource, and a pissed off community is very likely to move. Social skills have replaced computer skills as the biggest asset for someone running a board and it’s rare for someone to have both. Big, old discussion boards tend to be run by people with computer skills. I don’t think it’s a fundamental and deep flaw in human nature, I think it’s the evolution of internet fora.

  2. Moochie says:

    Hello. In one of the latest messages posted at RDF the writer says that RDF wasn’t “looking to be a social network.” I think this is key. Many visitors to these boards develop an attachment and invest emotionally in what is, after all, little more than a public noticeboard where opinions may be disseminated. This displays a salient lack of maturity in my opinion.

    Hopefully, the majority of the disaffected will come to see it (the reorganization or transformation of their favored place) as an opportunity for personal growth and develop a more mature attitude and sharpen their debating skills at the same time. In any case, there are (and will be) plenty of places on the internet where one’s voice can be heard; however, none of them will last forever.


    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      I have some sympathy Moochie, I agree no internet fora last forever. However if the Richard Dawkins forum was NOT a social network or a community, perhaps he should have been a little clearer than when he wrote on the forum about the forum: “It is a community, and that is a valuable part of it. Many of our forum threads have an atmosphere of friends going out for a drink and chatting. I think that is valuable, and I don’t think we should insist on sticking to serious topics. That would be a good way to stifle the sense of community, and that would be a real shame.” He wrote a great deal more in exactly the same vein – you can to the fprum and read his own words. Sure he might have changed hi smind, but that is hardly immature forumites acting up, given it was Dawkins words which led to their expectations? Perhaps you are unaware of the existence of this as well? “Join the Richard Dawkins Social Network” which was on the font page: the network was hosted at

      So if the RDF was not trying to run a Social network, perhaps they might have considered not having Richard Dawkins say publically on said forum that they were, and setting up a social network? Sometimes Moochie you need to know a little more to see the true absurdity of things!

      I think on the whole the maturity of the 85,000 will see it as them being f*cked over by Dawkins and his website actually 🙂 That certainly appears ot be the general feeling…

      j x

  3. Moochie says:

    All you say may be so, but I recommend people take what they read anywhere on the internet with a large grain of salt, for the sake of their own sanity, if not for other, more mundane reasons. How long ago did Prof. Dawkins say/write those “heartland” words?

    That said, I disagree with your last statement about the “85,000.” The number of the disaffected appears to be for smaller than that.


  4. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    Sure there were only about 6000 regular posters, and most of those will find something better to do: my plan as well. Dawkins wrote that four months ago I think, following the October removal of a load of non-science non-history stuff, much of which in questionable taste (ie forum members joking around). The Social Network has only just disappeared: I have no idea if it was ever big.

    The forum mods are extraordinarily angry because they were repeatedly lied to: a former admin (RP) has now revealed that this was apparently planned as far back as August causing his leaving then: the mods however were misled up until minutes before the closing of the forum. It was extraordinarily badly handled, but hey its their forum and now one would have given a hoot if they had not deleted large number of mods posts, some 30,000, including a huge amount of essay or explanatory material from the Evolutionary Science, General Science and Debunking Creationsim forum, for absolutely no reason as the forum was already locked (well there was a reason: those mods said they were aggrieved – in VERY mild terms) or tried to email Richard DAwkins.

    What made it all funnier is that the RDF have done all they can to stop users communicating: avatars removed, sigs disabled, etc, etc. They have asked us not to leave and join other sites.

    Based on the little i have seen about 400 people are vocally angry and posting about this now (mainly at Rationalia) — a long way from 85,000 – but I think we can assume a larger number are pissed off but not maoning vocally. Still yeah, 85,000 was the whole signed up community – and as you know a very samll percntage are active on any given day (about 8% on that site)

    cj x

  5. Moochie says:

    I am/was a member there as well. Didn’t post much, if at all. Read mostly. I am looking forward to the new arrangement. In the typical forum configuration sorting the wheat from the chaff becomes onerous all too often, so anything that points to stuff that might be worth one’s time reading is all for the good, I would think.

    I’m not unsympathetic toward those who feel at odds over what’s happened. It might have been handled better. But it wasn’t, and in that I think there’s a lesson for all of us.


    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      I noticed earlier that Dawkins comment was October 2008, not oCtober 2009, so 16 months not 4 months ago.

      cj x

  6. johnawlock says:

    I read about this in today’s “TheTimes” and it was the only good news in there. I was an active member of the RDF between January and March last year posting under my own name and operating mainly in the faith & religion and debunking Creationism forums. I am a trained up biological scientist and atheist. Some bits were very good, especially those on the history of religion front, some aspects were absolutely shockers. My opinion was that it was riding for a fall. Things can go to hell in a handcart without many of those in the handcart knowing anything about it though it may be all too apparent to an external observer. And sometimes (as per the mythical flood) it is better to destroy everything and start all over again 40 days later (interesting to have a biblical analogy, no?) I just went back to see if I could recover some of my saner contributions. Sadly it’s going to be a drawn-out process as I can’t use the “view your own posts” option. I looked at some of the moderator names at 23 Feb and wasn’t impressed to recognise some names still there. Hopefully they won’t be back in the new incarnation.

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  9. Lenrek says:

    Reading this article brought back a lot of memories…

  10. Anonymous Coward says:

    For me there are several things to take home from this.
    1) Maybe the godbots are right when they say we have no morals. If the majority of atheists aren’t able to find sympathy for cases like this, for people with very reasonable complaints, then what does that say really?
    2) Internet fora attached to other organisations are a bad idea since keeping the forum up and useful will never be the organisations priority. As you said, the organisation can kill it off without losing anything, so it will. Be it out of conflict, boredom, neglect or just randomly out of the blue. An internet forum / community must be its own independent self or it will fail.
    3) There needs to be a universal export function for forums as a way to introduce some checks and balances. Currently, if the forum leadership changes and nukes the forum, that’s it. The power to fork should always be there, both as a threat to keep admins honest and useful, and as an insurance policy if the forum does go belly-up.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      All sounds completely correct and sensible to me: though I think atheists have morals, just like religious folks and people who inhabit tv or ghost or poetry or whatever forums. People screw up regardless of beliefs — so I like your recommendations as they ease the inevitable screw ups losses. Recommend as a pretty sound forum in my experince though I’m not posting much anywhere right now 😦

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