A schism in the atheist community was all but inevitable. But did anyone think it would be over something like this?
Richard Dawkins is accustomed to provoking the wrath of religious communities, but now a schism seems to have opened up within the atheist community who make up his fan-base.
The split occurred after he announced that a discussion section on his website, considered one of the busiest online atheist forums, would in future be tightly moderated and “irrelevant postings and frivolous gossip” would no longer be allowed.
The change was scheduled for next month but such was the torrent of abuse after the announcement that the forum had to be locked down, deepening the rift between Professor Dawkins and his 85,000 online fans.
Writing on RichardDawkins.net yesterday, in a posting entitled “Outrage”, he said that there was “something rotten” in internet culture and pledged to rid his website of its abusive element.
“Imagine seeing your face described by an anonymous poster, as ‘a slack-jawed turd-in-the-mouth mug’,” he wrote. “Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, overreacting so spectacularly to something so trivial.
“Even some of those with more temperate language are responding to the proposed changes in a way that is little short of hysterical.”
The cloak of anonymity under which many people contributed to discussions had led to a culture of extreme language that would not be possible if people wrote under their name.
Unwilling to be silenced, however, the members of the website and the 15 moderators, some of whom worked unpaid, vented their own outrage elsewhere.
“A lot of people have lost respect for Dawkins after this, although I do still support the work that he does,” said Peter Harrison, a former moderator.
“Thousands of loyal, intelligent, rational forum members have been misrepresented as a bunch of foul-mouthed, vitriolic thugs by the man who so inspired them.”
Another former fan said: “It may sound ridiculous to those not involved with online communities, but I feel hurt and displaced. It was like coming home to find the locks have been changed. My respect for Richard’s work is still intact but my respect for him as a person is in tatters.”
The forum typically attracted 3,000 postings per day, on subjects ranging from science to religion and ethics.
Professor Dawkins now faces a confrontation with his adversaries at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne in two weeks.
He denied that the forum was closing but said that it was being improved. “The forum is going to be more tightly controlled and will be under more central control. So it won’t be available for anyone who wants to sound off freely,” he said.
He conceded that there was a good case for anonymity for some contributors and such contributions would still be allowed.
“I can see why people in America who lost their faith and do not want their families to know, or perhaps people of an Islamic background who have lost their faith or become Christian, have every reason to be anonymous,” he said.
The forum’s implosion has been jumped on by Christian groups as a sign that the Dawkins community is not as free-thinking as it is claimed.