My friend Max Kolbe has often described atheists, and especially prominent atheists on Twitter and YouTube, as cultists. I had always taken this as a metaphor, that is, as rhetoric. That is, that they had many of the qualities of member of a cult, such as an absurd degree of credulity, an astonishingly twisted and poor understanding of the outside world, and so on.
My problem was that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t realized which member of the cult he was saying that they are. For some reason I took him to be (rhetorically) saying that there was one giant cult and all of the atheists he was talking about were sycophantic followers in it. Obviously that wasn’t literally the case; they didn’t live on a giant compound and there was no leader for them all to have pledged allegiance to. And this sort of cult is always a cult of personality which requires a leader.
Then it finally hit me: he didn’t mean that these people were followers in one giant cult. He meant that they were each the leader of their own small cult. And that is way closer to literally true. It is, of course, possible to identify elements of a cult of personality in any popular figure because popular figures will have fans. Fans and sycophantic cult members do have some traits in common, and though I think that there are qualitative differences, it’s tempting to take the difference as being simply one of degree. But this is not what I mean here. First, the internet atheist’s relationship to his fans is one of revealing truth. Well, not exactly, since all the secrets of the universe he has to offer are that he doesn’t know any secrets of the universe, but this doesn’t seem to really bother the people involved. They still feel like somehow they have special knowledge.
They act like it, too. In a fair amount of talking that I’ve done with internet atheists, it doesn’t seem to occur to them that technically they are claiming to be ignorant. They invoke the words “atheism is a lack of belief” and “I haven’t seen any evidence” but then proceed in everything they say as if they said, “I know the truth: there is no God.” They like to talk about outsiders as deluded—which they are only in a position to say if they know the outsiders are wrong.
As we are moving from the era of YouTube ads to the era of patreon, we’re seeing more direct support of the leader from his followers, so I expect the cult-like aspects to intensify, but even in the ad-driven era, people will lead cults for affirmation even where they can’t get money out of it. And affirmation one clearly saw a lot of. And of course cults need to get to a certain level of success before the group sex with the leader begins; many would-be cults probably fizzle out before then. That they are not ultimately successful does not change the nature of the group dynamic. (Though of course that fact can be exploited to smear things which are in fact not cults.)
I’m also reminded of the gnostic heresy, in the second century. The gnostics were not a unified, hierarchical group, but rather a sort of network of cults where membership could be somewhat fluid. Cult members would be disciples of one or another gnostic leader, but the fringe members might learn from multiple teachers, though of course only the public knowledge, not the private knowledge taught to the trusted insiders. That structure seems very parallel to modern popular internet atheists, who work together to some degree and generally profess the same core principles. And you see similar dynamics where the existence of such an alliance is useful; it’s much easier to gain groupies from someone else’s group than from the general population, and the total population confers status by association on even the less popular members, but at the same time there will be vying for status and infighting, all of which we’ve certainly seen among internet atheists.