News from the Back of the Atheist Bus: Richard Dawkins and Josh Timonen Put Their Fellow Atheists and Agnostics in Their Proper Place

Disgruntled Peter Harrison, a (former) forum moderator at RichardDawkins.net, dishes on a behind the scenes controversy between the site’s support volunteers and Josh Timonen, the site’s manager. Peter Harrison now wants people to join him at a different (and presumably more open) secular site called Rationalia. Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins’s site is revamping, and Josh Timonen has decided to can its volunteer moderators and have a more regulated environment. The ugly fallout over the news has led to the closing of the community forum section of Richard Dawkins’s site. A lot of community volunteer work—extending over years—appears to be going down the drain. The moderators are, understandably, upset:

If you visit the forum at www.richarddawkins.net now, you will find that you can still view threads but no longer post. . . . All members of the community have been treated like garbage, especially the hard-working moderators who were kept out of the loop and shoved aside in a rude and offensive way with no warning. The moderators and the regular members were explaining how they felt, and that it was a bad idea letting the number 1 atheist community on the internet be killed. Regular members were also angered by the fact that Josh [Timonen] had used and lied to the moderating team. Many members had come to the forum to speak freely, and were upset that they would need to seek approval to discuss very specific topics on the new system. Everything about the news was a disaster. Not a single post was made claiming this was a good idea. Then the drama really began.

In response to the unanimous criticisms, Josh started playing with the settings in the forum. First he deactivated private messaging. This caused a major problem, as members were starting to share personal details so that they can keep in touch with good friends if the forum really did end up closing. Members also filled their signatures with details and where to find members after the forum had closed. Josh went on to lock viewable access to the forum. For a while, nobody could do anything. With the forum all to themselves, Josh and Andrew deleted any posts that criticised the decision. Next, they removed signatures so that other forums and meeting places could not be advertised. When all of this was done, Josh and Andrew reopened the forum in a read-only state. Nobody could post anymore, and the complaints thread had been completely deleted. . . . Josh’s actions towards staff and all members couldn’t have been any more heavy-handed. Josh has done more damage to the website’s reputation than any other person could ever have done. To make things worse, Josh and Andrew started deleting members. The moderator who explained that the staff were innocent and treated so disrespectfully, Mazille, had his entire account deleted. This isn’t like a ban where you can no longer access the forum. When an account is deleted, all the user’s posts are deleted too. Mazille had thousands of posts that he was hoping to archive over the next 30 days. All gone, forever. They aren’t in a Recycle Bin of sorts. Next was CJ, a member who had been posting on the front page to explain what Josh was up to and that he was hiding the criticisms and the evidence that the moderating team were lied to and censored. Tens of thousands of posts lost forever.

Quite a power play. And surprisingly, Richard Dawkins himself joined the pile-on, supporting Josh Timonen’s rather cruel deletion of people’s accounts and posts. Here’s part of what Richard Dawkins wrote in defense of the revamp of the site and of Josh Timonen’s actions on his behalf. Comments responding to what Dawkins wrote are not enabled at his site:

[Q]uality will take precedence over quantity, where original articles on reason and science, on atheism and scepticism, will be commissioned, where frivolous gossip will be reduced. The new plan may succeed or it may fail, but I think it is worth trying. And even if it fails, it most certainly will not deserve the splenetic hysteria that the mere suggestion of it has received.

Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, over-reacting 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. Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people? How can anybody feel that strongly about something so small? Have we stumbled on some dark, territorial atavism? Have private fiefdoms been unwittingly trampled?

Be that as it may, what this remarkable bile suggests to me is that there is something rotten in the Internet culture that can vent it. If I ever had any doubts that RD.net needs to change, and rid itself of this particular aspect of Internet culture, they are dispelled by this episode.

Something so small? People devote a lot of energy to their postings at community sites, and it assists them in their social networking and intellectual development. Deleting whole swaths of people’s posts is akin to journal or book burning in an earlier time—and must be a terrible blow to the people who have experienced it. Such a thing can make a person rather alienated and cynical.

As an agnostic, I myself have written a lot of posts at Dawkins’s site. I just assumed that they would always be there. One thing I’ve long liked about his site is the feeling that here is a place for free, unfettered, and protected speech. But perhaps it’s a delusion. Maybe the next time I click over for a visit, I’ll find all that I’ve ever written there is gone. Not good etiquette in the Internet age.

I hope that Richard Dawkins corrects this, and at least apologizes to the web volunteers that gave his site so many unpaid hours, but he appears to have dug in with Josh Timonen on this, and in the process he has shown himself capable of being both imperious and callous: what he writes is important; what forum contributors write is “small.” Perhaps it’s true. The average person has always been disposable. Sometimes somebody from the elite classes has to remind us of this.

Thanks Richard.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to News from the Back of the Atheist Bus: Richard Dawkins and Josh Timonen Put Their Fellow Atheists and Agnostics in Their Proper Place

  1. Praxis (Aesthetic Atheist) says:

    Thank you, I enjoyed reading this. Most excellent ending, too. Cheers.

  2. Skinny Puppy says:

    Thank you for clearing the air. I’m an ex-member of the RDF forum and I’d like to mention that the ex-moderators on RDFNet were a very dedicated and caring team. They worked 100s, probably 1000s of hours for free to ensure that Richard’s site remained true to his objectives. They treated the membership with respect and caring and worked very hard to strike a fair balance for all. It was a difficult and time consuming job, but they gave freely of their time because they had the greatest respect for us as members, and of course, the utmost respect for Richard and his goals and vision regarding the direction the forum should take.

    While I’m saddened by the closing of the forum as we knew it, I’m even more saddened that the moderators are being used as a scapegoat for the problems that developed after the initial announcement by Josh. I truly hope that Mr. Dawkins will eventually see the truth as to what really transpired during that difficult period of time. At this point in time I don’t believe (because of his busy schedule at the moment) that Mr. Dawkins has been fully informed as to the actual sequence of events that took place.

    I understand that his busy schedule is probably preventing him from giving this matter the attention it deserves. Hopefully in the coming weeks Mr. Dawkins will have the time to investigate this matter and the truth will come to light.

    At the very least, his team of moderators deserve a hearty thank you from Mr. Dawkins for their years of service in furthering Mr. Dawkins’ goal of providing a safe outlet for atheists to freely express their views, concerns and fears by leaving religion behind them and embarking on a life that’s free of religious dogma.

    I, and 1000s like me, wish to say thanks to such a dedicated team of moderators. They’ve left a legacy behind them that they can truly be proud of.

    Larry

  3. Simon Gardner says:

    “what he writes is important; what forum contributors write is “small.” Perhaps it’s true. The average person has always been disposable. Sometimes somebody from the elite classes has to remind us of this.”

    LOL. Thanks for that. Made my day.

    • dt_busse says:

      The professor has spoken. His words are gold. How dare anyone suggest that he might be elitist! He’s just like us, onlly more so.

  4. David M says:

    Just to reinforce the point about the protests. When the original decision was announced members were clearly unhappy and threads were started on the forum questioning the decision and starting to ask questions about how the new forum would funtion. These adhered to the forum rules and none of these threads contained any personal attacks and the worst comments were along the lines of “this is an F***ing stupid idea”.

    Its the actions of a couple of admins that caused so much greivance, rather than try to explain of justify anything (one would think that before such a huge change was announced someone would have written a proper rationale for the change and how the new system would function) all dissent and discussion was removed and the entire membership silenced.

    This silencing went so far as to limit all members to sending 1 private message a day so there was really no way to keep in contact with friends and colleagues.

  5. andrewclunn says:

    Ah, what a small world. I left RD.net and found that Rationalia was a much more open site. I have left there as well, but not because of any kind of problem with the site or the atmosphere there. It’s definitely worth checking out.

  6. James says:

    Great post, I think you hit pretty much all the key points. The only thing to add, the vitriol that Dawkins posted was from another site not related to RDF and was posted AFTER the deletions and site closure, not before.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. Santi

    I don’t know if you have saw it already but Richard gave an apology.

  8. santitafarella says:

    Gato,

    Thanks for sharing that. I didn’t know that he had given an apology.

    I wouldn’t like to see Dawkins and the atheist and agnostic community at odds. It struck me as kind of sad.

    —Santi

  9. Stein says:

    I have only managed to view Dawkins’ apology quite recently and do not pretend to have been a very active member of the now-extinct Richard Dawkins Forum. However, I do feel I must register my dismay that this otherwise handsome apology fails to take any account of the appalling last-minute destruction of all the posts of a select number of highly valued members, including a moderator or two, during the Forum’s death throes.

    Mazille(sp.?) and CJ are two erstwhile members whose posts typified the kind of substantive, well-researched offerings often seen on this canceled forum. And yet their thousand-plus posts were all wiped on a whim at the last minute in a high-handed gesture that some have compared to book-burning. I find the comparison profoundly apt.

    Where is the regret for a virtual torching of original and useful and extensive material that was highly valuable to the Forum’s more thoughtful members, as well as to thousands of lurkers who had mistakenly assumed that this material would be safeguarded without question at a site that prided itself on its freedom of thought?

    An unconscionable betrayal.

    Sincerely,

    Stein

  10. Pingback: Josh Timonen: Richard Dawkins’s Judas Iscariot? « Prometheus Unbound

  11. Pingback: A God Delusion: Josh Timonen v. Richard Dawkins « Prometheus Unbound

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