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About Austin Cline

Tracie Harris
Posted: February 19, 2008

Some years ago, when I recognized my god was a metaphor, I began searching to find information about atheism. Easily the most helpful site I encountered was <atheism.about.com>, where I found active forums, articles and a live guide to help me find anything and everything I ever wanted to know about atheism.

As I became more active in my local atheist community, I left the online community behind. But I recently had cause to go back to <atheism.about.com>, where I was impressed to see things still going strong. Visitors to the forums encounter threads with titles like "Science and God," "Being Atheist & Black," and "Political Correctness." There are posts by apologetic theists, atheists with questions for other atheists, and topics ranging from politics to personal dilemmas to media headlines.

The homepage serves up a helping of hot, fresh articles several times each day. They include atheist-oriented perspectives on politics, philosophy, religion, international news, media reviews, commentaries, opinion polls, and more. In all, several thousand pages of material are available to entertain and enlighten the public about atheism and atheist perspectives.

Want to comment on an article? Feel free. There is a comments thread attached to every piece.

How is this information produced, organized, catalogued, monitored and moderated? As if by some miracle of a godless universe, this online well of all things atheist is the work of, mainly, one man--one atheist--working tirelessly to keep it buzzing: Austin Cline.

Guides at About.com come and go, but when I returned to the atheist and agnostic section, Austin was still writing, moderating, analyzing, identifying fallacies, correcting misconceptions, and staring out at guests from his familiar photo on the homepage. Who is Austin Cline, and what is he doing at About.com? Austin agreed to an interview with me about his views and work, and to share his story with the atheist community. Obviously, the first thing I had to know was: What motivates him to activism, and how did he end up at About.com?

"I enjoy writing, learning, teaching, and academics generally. Because I can read fast, and have read extensively, I can provide others with information and perspectives that would be difficult for them to find otherwise. I started writing short essays on my own, publishing them on my own Web site, when I learned about an opening at About.com for a guide for the Agnosticism/Atheism site. The initial requirements were to do much the same thing I had started doing on my own, so it seemed like a great opportunity--and it has been."

This achievement becomes even more amazing when one considers that, in addition to the hours he puts in at About.com, Austin holds down a "real" job as well:

"My day job isn't associated with About.com at all. I do graphic design, networking, database maintenance, and various other computer work. I've been interested in and working with computers since I was young and so have developed a diverse background of knowledge and experience which I can use in a variety of jobs."

Still, he explains that he manages to "spend several hours a day, every day, working on the site. I am usually able to get in two or three hours in the morning and four or five hours in the evening. There are blog posts to write and upload, articles to write and upload, books to read and review, e-mails to read and reply to, online articles to read and perhaps use in some manner, and so forth."

"One thing that helps prevent burnout is the degree of variety that can come with the topic. Atheism itself doesn't entail very much, which means that if I'm going to write about anything for very long I have to branch out. Depending upon how I feel, I can deal more with politics, history, philosophy, or several other areas. That may be an important motivation behind continuing--I have the opportunity to study so many different topics."

Austin says the most rewarding aspect of his work on About.com is "seeing other writers and bloggers find useful material on my site and using it in their own writings. Even if they disagree with me, it indicates that I'm succeeding in giving people something interesting to think about."

Austin has administered the site for about 10 years now. His guide resume includes a master's from Princeton (in Germanic Studies). The degree "doesn't have a direct impact on my atheism and writing, but it does have some influence. My studies forced me to read a lot of philosophy and gave me a lot of experience with textual analysis and criticism. All through my studies in America and Europe, moreover, I consistently took classes in religion because that subject was an interest of mine."

In fact, it was so much an interest that Austin attended a Christian church and Christian youth activities despite the fact his parents did not raise him in a religious environment. When I asked Austin about his early years, he shot me a link to an article about his upbringing and his personal religious history, posted on his site archives.

"...when I was in school, I was invited by a classmate to start attending a Christian church, and I did so. My parents did not attend with me, but they also did not discourage me. On the contrary, they did whatever was necessary to help me attend and participate in the church's youth activities."

"Over time my interest in the church waned somewhat, but at no point did I ever actually stop being a Christian or believing in basic Christian doctrines."

Like so many other atheists, Austin's article goes on to recount a clear connection between religious study and deconversion:

"...when I began to take classes at the University of Pennsylvania, I immediately signed up for courses dealing with religious history."

"Through these courses, I acquired a perspective on religion that was both deeper (I learned more about Christianity in my classes than I did in my church) and broader (I learned a great deal about a number of non-Christian religions and non-orthodox Christian groups). As a consequence, I began to lose the belief that Christianity was the One True Religion."

"...in the end, my road to atheism was through education about religion and philosophy--the more I learned about the two subjects, the less tenable both religion and theism became for me. My actual and current disbelief in the existence of any gods is based upon the fact that I simply lack any good reasons to believe in any gods. Without good reasons, belief for me is impossible."

In addition to the tools offered at About.com, Austin is supported in his work at the site by his wife:

"The only person who has any involvement with the site (except for those who volunteer to help moderate the forum) is my wife. She's done a tremendous amount in terms of proof-reading articles, making suggestions, and generally providing support at home that has allowed me to invest so much time and effort into the site. On top of all that, she's a theist--which makes her a theist who has done more on behalf of atheist activism and education than many atheists."

Austin doesn't encounter much opposition to what he does at About.com in his personal life. In fact, he says it doesn't come up very often. But he certainly encounters opposition online. Apologists visit often to pitch salvation to this online community of prodigal sons and daughters. In any given week, Austin will be accused of being immoral, arrogant, deceitful, angry, hateful, a tool of Satan, or even--inexplicably--homosexual.

"I spent a lot of time reading, and some time posting, in a number of Usenet newsgroups well before I started writing about atheism. No one can spend much time in newsgroups dealing with controversial and political topics without developing a thick skin. It helps to remember that people who just engage in insults are usually covering up for a lack of substantive arguments. The best 'revenge,' then, is to make that as clear as possible by giving them enough rope to hang themselves."

Poke around the site, and you'll find a personal statement from Austin that reads, in part, "Both atheism and agnosticism are neglected in popular culture. When was the last time you saw an openly atheist politician, an article on atheism in a major periodical, or anyone discussing secular humanism as a serious alternative to religion?"

I asked if his view had changed, with more recent coverage of atheism in popular media:

"Even though writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are popular and represent a level of popularity not known by atheists a few years ago, the fact remains that little is seen of atheists, humanists, or alternatives to religion in the traditional press."

"How many newspapers carry opinion columns written by atheists or humanists, conveying an explicitly atheist or humanist perspective? How many 'religion' sections of newspapers carry information about atheism, humanism, or freethought? How often do we see explicitly atheist characters in fiction? How often do we see reporters asking pointed and skeptical questions of the religious beliefs of either religious leaders or politicians who are pandering to religion?"

"If we change the quote above to be about gays or Jews, we'd immediately see that it is (mostly) inappropriate because we see gay and Jewish perspectives all the time in popular media. One could argue that gays still have a long way to go, but it would be hard to argue that they are as invisible as atheists."

A good number of Austin's articles involve combating common misconceptions about atheism. When I asked if anything he encounters still surprises him, these common, simple errors were foremost in his answer: "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at how often people make basic errors which they never would have had they done even a tiny amount of research, but for some reason it does surprise me. People 'care' enough to write to me, but not enough to do any independent research about...well, much of anything at all. I can't fathom that sort of mentality, but I encounter it with depressing regularity."

It seems that Austin repeatedly addresses the same misconceptions--not due to a repetitive nature, but because he continually encounters them in articles and comments he comes across while gathering material for his own posts. Since common misconceptions are a prominent issue with Austin, I asked some questions about his views on them, starting with which misconceptions he sees most often from other atheists.

"The two biggest misconceptions and points of debate about atheism which I see among atheists are probably the same ones I see with theists: that atheism is a positive, clearly defined ideology/philosophy and/or that atheism is defined narrowly as the denial of the existence of God rather than broadly as the absence of belief in gods. (Curiously, people sometimes try to argue both even though they are incompatible.) For theists these extend outward into a spider web of closely associated misconceptions (like that atheism is a religion, atheists can't be moral, etc.)."

"The arguments used by atheists for these errors are about the same as those used by theists--which is not a surprise because I think that they are both working from common cultural misconceptions, in particular an evangelical culture in which all sorts of misconceptions about science, philosophy, religion, and culture are operative. Offering the dictionary definition of atheism is popular, of course, but always involves either a highly abridged pocket dictionary or a willful disregard of anything in the definition that doesn't fit with one's preconceptions."

"I don't think we would be seeing nearly so many mistakes from atheists or theists if there weren't so many errors--some probably willful and deliberate--in apologetic works from evangelical Christians. Lies about history, science, and everything else are integrated in numerous books that are part of a huge publishing industry. It's only to be expected that they would, over time, negatively affect more and more people."

One section of the site is specifically titled "Atheism Myths & Misconceptions: How Theists Misrepresent Atheism." I asked Austin what he considered the most common theist misconception and, additionally, the most damaging:

"The most common misconception of atheism is one that lies behind just about every other misconception you are likely to come across: the very definition of atheism itself. People who mistakenly assume that atheism is either the explicit denial of gods or also a particular ideology as well are likely to believe a host of other errors on top of that. The next two most common misconceptions are probably the belief that there can be no moral values or behavior without theistic religion and furthermore that there can be no meaning or purpose in one's life without theistic religion."

"The most damaging misconception is probably the belief that atheism is incompatible with morality. Not only does it encourage more anti-atheist sentiments than the others, but I think it makes it even less likely for people to seriously consider it. Who would give up theistic religion if it meant giving up the only possible basis for morality?"

And if Austin could eliminate just one of these misconceptions?

"...I think I'd eliminate the assorted misconceptions about the definition of atheism. They may not be the most dangerous, but nearly all the rest stem from this problem and thus would be easier to dispel."

In addition to being a formidable and tireless advocate for atheism, Austin is also a regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism. Since humanism and atheism are often closely tied, I asked about his thoughts on the common pairing of atheism and humanism:

"There are advantages and disadvantages, but I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. The major drawback may be that people who are inclined towards atheism could be put off if they assume that atheism requires humanism and they don't properly understand what humanism is. Fortunately, humanism isn't a dogma and is instead a set of values or principles that people tend to share anyway. More importantly, there's nothing about humanism that requires a person to accept every single principle or value outlined in any particular document or manifesto. Those who assume they have to sign off on such documents, agreeing with every single point 100%, are the ones most likely to be put off."

"As to the advantages, the most important may be that atheism itself offers no particular values, principles, or ideas on its own. Atheism is the absence of one single belief and is thus compatible with a wide variety of ideologies. An atheist can, in principle, just as easily adhere to noxious racist and fascist ideologies as to humane and liberal ones. Atheists who support freethought and humanist principles need to do so because simply being an atheist or announcing their atheism won't cut it."

Austin Cline is not the average atheist. He cares enough about his beliefs, and the beliefs and rights of all atheists, to take the time to explain them and defend them, publicly, to anyone who will listen. Stop by his site. You might not agree with everything he expresses, but whether you agree with him or not, he's clearly right on at least one point, he's definitely--as noted earlier--"succeeding in giving people something interesting to think about."

© 2008 by Tracie Harris.

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