Friday, November 29, 2013

Alts, Poes, and Internet Anonymity

A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances. ~Urban Dictionary

The popular MTV show and film of the same name, Catfish, has popularized the reality that people use the anonymity of the Internet to pose as someone they aren’t in order to become more appealing. A high school drop out poses to a potential mate as a Harvard grad. A homosexual boy poses to a heterosexual crush as a cute girl. An atheist poses to a Christian apologist as a curious theist.

...wait, what?

Hear me out. The second I engage a believer I’m immediately (and correctly) seen as an atheist by my publicly recorded post history. The problem with this is that their preconceptions of an atheist color everything I say. To them I’m just mad at God, close-minded, hindered by secular culture, parroting the words of the “horsemen,” or even influenced by demons. Although some of their preconceptions are clearly unfounded, it’s natural to apply a stereotype and I’ve seen the same crime committed by atheists. Allowing the message to be heard independent of the messenger’s perceived stigma I see as the central benefit of theological catfishing.

This is my confession. I have been impersonating a theist in a variety of Google+ communities. I’ve already told you why I do it. Now I throw myself at the mercy of my readers with the question: is what I’m doing ethical?

I feel it is or I wouldn’t be doing it. The ends justify the means in my mind and I feel no need to defend my actions further. However, I have thought about how I might take it too far. The following are ways in which I choose not to abuse the trust of my “fellow” theists.
  1. I will not become a parody of fundamentalism in order to drive moderate theists away. Talking to coworkers I’ve concluded that the single biggest reason folks are less religious these days is the Westboro Baptist Church. No one wants to be associated with the likes of them. If the more interactions people have with WBC-like fundamentalism, the more they distance themselves from analogs in their life, it stands to reason that becoming a poe would encourage secularism. I think this logic is sound, but I still won’t do it on the off chance it encourages a single nut-case in any way.
  2. I will not dishonestly convert to atheism. An eventual reveal of my atheism is likely, but to do it as if I was persuaded out of the white lie of theism makes the lie darker. I won’t muddy the power of authentic conversion stories.
  3. I will not affirm theistic beliefs that I view are harmful just to maintain the illusion the I’m a believer. For example, I will never recommend faith healing knowing real medical attention is needed.
  4. I will not promote or defend doctrine that promotes inequality like popularized biblical marriage or the notion that women should be subservient to men.
Considering all this, I would like to know your opinions. I respect my readers and fellow bloggers a great deal. If the majority of you say I should come clean, I will.


  1. Not meaning to get all Grammar Nazi on you here, but my obsessiveness is kicking in. Third paragraph, just after the "wait, what?" The first word should be "hear".

    With that out of the way....

    Have you ever acted as a Christian/theist, in order to get into places online that a non believer couldn't get into, or wouldn't be accepted in? Have you done that just to see what's it like being an "insider", and to see what people would say with their guard down, seeing you as one of them?

    You know about my experiences as the "undercover agnostic"/still being somewhat closeted. It's a unique experience, it can feel like being an undercover cop infiltrating a place, or an anthropologist studying a culture, I hear fundies tell me things that most of them wouldn't say around outsiders.

    The bizarre thing is that I have very, very, rarely ever had to use any level of deception to blend in, it's a combination of already having established credentials/trust in that world, and apparently I give up some sort of subtle fundamentalist vibe without realizing it.

    For instance, my town has one of the largest abortion clinics in the Midwest, and though protesters aren't as common as they used to be (mostly due to hostile reactions from locals, especially to the more extreme protesters), there are still a few that will show up during warm weather.

    I confronted some of them once, and went to talk to them about my issues with the "pro-life" movement (I had just de converted, and I was still sorting out what I believed), when I was talking to the youth pastor running the gathering, another minister walks by, not knowing what was going on in the conversation. He slaps me on the back, and says something to the effect of "thanks for joining in, brother", thinking I was a part of the event despite not having any signs, shirt with slogans, etc.

  2. Speaking as a believer in God honesty is the best policy and nothing discredits more than non disclosure.

  3. This is a new one - something I've never thought about - so I'm not completely sure about what I am about to say, but I'll give it a try.

    My initial reaction is negative. It amounts to lying and deception, and I think it is a stretch to consider that ethical. I wouldn't like to be lied to and manipulated like this. If I wouldn't want someone doing it to me, it would be tough for me to justify doing it to someone else. So I am inclined not to see it as ethical.

    I think much of my reaction is due to the rationale provided about how the ends justify the means. That makes me uncomfortable. Quite a few awful things can be (and have been) justified that way. I'm not saying this is one of them, but giving that as a reason this raises a red flag in my mind.

    1. I don't live by a set of hard and fast commandments. My moral code doesn't include "thou shalt not lie," rather it takes into account the benefit to others versus the harm to others. I think most people are better off without religion, a lie to get them thinking realistically without defensiveness getting in the way isn't bad in my mind. The only question to me is whether the lie could cause more harm then good. So far I don't see that happening.

  4. It’s deceptive, which if you think there is nothing wrong with being deceptive, then fine. However, it may cause someone to say, “See! I knew them atheists had no moral standards and play by whatever rules they want.”

    1. Hurting atheists' already bad perceived reputation is the number one reason I'm considering dropping this. Thanks for weighing in.

  5. I'm completely against dishonesty for any reason, I think it irreparably damages one's reputation and credibility when the dishonesty invariably comes out. I see no point to playing along with the crazy religious, in fact, I don't even go into their forums and the like because I'm not going to spend my time watching the insanity scroll by.

    I'd never do such a thing, your mileage may vary.

    1. It sounds like you don't think it's worth the risk of it going bad, which I totally get.

      Hypothetically, if a deception never comes out and makes the deceived theist more receptive to naturalist concepts in the future--which I know you'd agree is a positive outcome--would you still be against it? If so why?

  6. Curious: I am getting e-mails from this thread but don't see my comment.

    1. I don't see a comment other than this one. Might have been lost to the internet. What did you say?

    2. Here is something close to what I wrote earlier:
      Here is what I have told my son about lying, when I first found him doing it:
      Lying is not always wrong.
      Sometimes lying is the right thing to do.
      Why, because as you have found out, sometimes lying works.
      But here are the problems with lying (with that method):
      If you are caught, consequences can be terrible:
      (a) with enemies, you will be punished
      (b) with allies, you will lose trust -- a very valuable commodity
      (c) with both, you will be labled a liar -- and rightfully never trusted.
      (d) with loved ones who give to you without expecting much in return, you may lose the most valuable thing -- real love!

      So lying is always a very dangerous strategy. The biggest risk is that lying once builds the habit of lying which will slowly change you almost imperceptibly until you don't recognize yourself. Respect lying, it is a dangerous tool - best avoided when possible.

      By confessing lies -- you have also possibly hurt yourself here. How do we know you are not a theist, pretending to be an atheists who is pretending to be a theist. "Trust" is valuable, lying is dangerous.

    3. But everyone lies to some degree and we are all aware of it. If I've made anyone more skeptical by confessing this--even of me--I consider that a win.

      I still never say anything I disagree with, I'm only a little more charitable to apologetics. Funny thing is, by acting as-if, I am actually becoming more charitable. We are understanding each other better in ways I haven't seen in all the time I've interacted with theists. I get what everyone is saying, but knowing how psychology works I can't think how this could be anything but a positive experience to all involved--no matter if or how the truth might come out.

    4. The psychology, is the one thing I was wondering about.

      People have biases and will apply them to any situation, however I just wonder if they are applying these biases in an echo chamber if they really are learning anything. Even if you do not agree, they still think you are a believer, so it is like an echo chamber for them.

    5. @ Grundy,
      "Skepticism" is not a virtue in all situations. You are valorizing/rationalizing a mistake, in my opinion.

      But since you said "I still never say anything I disagree with ..." that is a big plus. Probably the worse thing then, was having your cover blown or giving it away.

      BTW, may I make a suggestion to at the words @ Sabio to comments to show who you are addressing. Otherwise, when I get emails from your blog of your comments, I can't tell who you are talking to. Just a suggestion.

    6. "You are valorizing/rationalizing a mistake, in my opinion." I recognize that as a possibility. Just because I'm defending myself doesn't mean I'm dismissing what you say. Thanks for the input @ Sabio.

    7. @ Christian

      Nothing I say could be considered part of their echo chamber. I am self-identified as a Christian in my profile, but otherwise I disagree with nearly everything they say--just as I normally would. My message is the same, the only difference is the perceived messenger.

  7. I'm not a huge fan of this kind of thing. I do get where you're coming from though, I know I am often met with hostility right from the start. I will often try to get through that by just being polite, avoiding comments that seem to be baiting me, and sometimes just coming right out and saying something like "I'm just trying to understand your argument" or "please explain to me the hole you see in my logic". Sometimes it works and I get into good conversations. Sometimes they just continue being a dick, in which case I just disengage.

    1. It's really amazing how receptive theists have been to a secular message, they have agreed that I'm right on points that invalidate transcendent morality and the idea that mind is separate from the brain--which in public view of atheists they never have before or would.

      Really the only lie is listing myself as a theist in my profile. I haven't said anything in conversation that I disagree with...does that make it okay in your eyes?

    2. Hmm, I guess so. The argumentation is what I find most interesting anyway, if the arguments are exactly the same, but they are coming from someone who they think is a theist instead of an atheist then it seems much less bad. Still it makes me uncomfortable. Is there an option to just leave the religion field blank in the profile?

      I wonder if you would alter what you say in small ways to maintain the ruse. If I was trying to do this that kind of potential would bother me.

      On the other hand, my name is a mathematician and my avatar is a bible (well, it usually is. My wife mentioned my star trek blog to a potential employer so I separated them as best I could. Don't want her not getting a job because of my blog). It occurs to me that my first time on a new Christian blog they might mistake me for a Christian. I'm sure it affects which point I bring up first and how I engage a bit. It feels a bit similar, but the mistake would be entirely on their end.

  8. I would say rather disappear into the ether than come clean. If someone does not want to engage you because you are an atheist,they will not likely change there mind soon anyway.