Popular Religion and Participatory Culture (Final Round): Sarah Banet-Weiser and Hannah Scheidt (Part 1)

Hannah: My work explores contemporary atheist culture. My goal is to determine how “atheism” operates today as a source of identity and community – how it comes to be associated with a host of meanings, messages, and values amongst self-identified atheists beyond the simple definition of a “lack of belief in god(s).” As a scholar of religion, I am particularly interested in the ways that atheism is defined and “filled out” alongside religion, in a complex negotiation that involves appropriation as much as it does conflict as critique. 

If religious studies is one “pillar” of my work, media studies is the other. New media technologies have played an integral role in the development of contemporary atheism, as others have acknowledged. The challenge comes in developing methodologies and frameworks that allow us to organize and analyze the huge stores of material – the cultural “texts” in their varied media formats – that exist across multiple platforms. My work draws from diverse sources, including atheist fan art and digital comics, popular television programming, moderated debates, and observation of grassroots Internet communities. Throughout my analyses of these varied formats and media, I pay attention to the ways atheists circulate, interpret, and remake the stories, images, characters, and “facts” that they encounter. This allows me to piece together a living narrative of contemporary atheism: a narrative that involves a variety of voices with different degrees and kinds of power that alternately cooperate, compete, and conflict.

As mentioned above, atheism’s main cultural “conversation partner” is religion, and much of my work deals with exploring just how religion is imagined in contemporary atheist discourse. What kinds of authorities, institutions, and modes of social organization do atheists see as “belonging” to religion? What kinds of identities and ways of knowing are “religious”? When should atheism oppose or contradict religion, and when should atheism mimic or borrow from religion? 

Studying atheism as participatory culture – operating in spaces supported and structured by new media and defined by the creative and critical involvement of consumer/producers – reveals that contemporary atheism has a host of other cultural conversations partners as well. As one would expect, the contours of and divisions within the atheist network are shaped by affinities with countless other contemporary subcultures and movements: gaming culture, sci-fi and fantasy fandoms, popular therapeutic culture, and the LGBTQ movement, to name a few. 

One movement that has made its presence felt in contemporary atheism – and this is where my work has confluence with Dr. Banet-Weiser’s – is anti-feminism (and, relatedly, men’s rights activism). I have been aware of New Atheism’s less-than-subtle “woman problem” for years, having followed the “Elevatorgate” incident of 2011 (atheism’s “Gamergate”) as well as coverage of sexist remarks made by New Atheist leaders. I knew, from work on the fan followings of New Atheist leaders, of the reluctance among some atheists to unsettle traditional structures of power, at least when it came to white male hegemony. The tension or irony (and the reason that the existence of anti-progressivism within atheism surprises some people) is that atheist movements have historically been invested in a critique of traditional authority as part and parcel of religion.

But it was my attendance at an atheist-conference-turned-men’s-rights-rally about a year ago in Milwaukee that opened by eyes to the extent of this trend: its health, its energy, its populism. The conference featured a session on identity politics in the atheist movement. The conversation, between an anti-progressive YouTuber and a mainstream liberal podcast host, took up questions of censorship and political correctness (do campaigns to stop cyberbullying threaten free speech? what are the limits of the liberal commitment to free speech?) and social justice and equality (do contemporary feminist movements and Black Lives Matter address “real” injustices and inequalities? do progressive efforts to counter the effects of inequalities and injustice actively repress white men?) 

The event felt like a YouTube comment section come to life: anarchic, offensive, agonizingly circular: a real-life “flame war.” There were obviously a number present who were confused and alarmed by the direction the conference, which to them felt only tangentially related to atheism, had taken. But a good portion of the audience had obviously come for this battle. 

Why does this affinity exist? Or, as one colleague asked when I described this experience, “What’s the throughline?” The internal logic – the way atheist critics of the “regressive left” explain it is this: feminists, progressives, moral relativists, and other “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) have turned liberalism into “ideology”. Ideology is understood as inherently authoritarian and antithetical to the autonomous exercise of reason (read: religion). Identity politics = ideology = enemy of reason, out of touch with reality. “Reason” is big in atheist discourse, and many (even those who don’t follow the train of logic all the way to anti-feminism) appeal to reason as a means of freeing people from the corrupt influences of institution and authority. 

A full explanation of the existence of anti-feminism within atheism also involves an account of how the social norms of Internet spaces have shaped the development of the culture. Work in cultural studies and media studies shows how aggression, harassment, and antagonism became the “social norms” in early Internet spaces, and how these norms persist in some Internet communities. It is some of these same white-male-dominated spaces that hosted communities and conversations dedicated to atheism, and from which the stereotype of the “Internet atheist” (an aggressive and socially-inept white male who trolls the Internet looking for religious people to debate and ridicule) emerged. Of course, now in the age of Trump, these social norms seem to have crept off the Internet.

Sarah: Thank you for inviting me to be part of this conversation – it is really great to engage with Hannah and to get to know her work. Like many others in this series, I am not a scholar of religion—my recent work focuses on popular feminism and popular misogyny. In particular in my recent work I analyze contemporary forms of gendered power through an analytic of visibility – what I call an economy of visibility. 

As I’ve argued, feminist media studies scholars, critical race theorists, and cultural studies scholars have long been invested in studying the politics of visibility. The politics of visibility has thus long been important, and continues to be, for the marginalized. To demand visibility is to demand to be seen, to matter, to recognize oneself in dominant culture. The insistence of marginalized and disenfranchised communities – women, racial minorities, non-heteronormative communities, the working class – to be seen has been crucial to an understanding and an expansion of rights for these communities.

Politics of visibility are clearly still important, and have real consequences. But alongside the politics of visibility, we are witnessing the ways economies of visibility increasingly structure not just our mediascapes, but also our cultural and economic practices and daily lives. Within this context, visibility often becomes the end, rather than a means to an end. The visibility of these categories is what matters, rather than the structural ground on and through which they are constructed. 

For me, what is really important about this shift to economies of visibility is that it reshapes what political struggle looks like. And this gets us to an interesting intersection between Hannah’s and my work, or between media scholars and religious scholars more generally. Here, I suppose I’m thinking more of a religiosity rather than religion itself.  

The demand for a visibility politics competes with an economization of visibility, resulting in quite different goals and consequences. This kind of visibility is in line with what Nabil Echchaibi calls hypermediation: the ubiquity and interactivity of emergent and residual media circulations. This hypermediation then authorizes and enables a visibility of religious practices, as Hannah points out in her work on atheism.  

Part of what I noticed when researching online misogyny is the increasingly normative visibility of white nationalism, where media representations of white nationalism often are framed as a hybridized kind of public secular religiosity. 

How does this work?  I think that economies of visibility connect politics, religion and visibility in specific ways. The messages that circulate easily within this economy are those that require little labor to be seen and understood, they rely on familiar narratives, ones that are easy to incapsulate in an image, a slogan, a product.  

One of these familiar narratives that has found traction within an economy of visibility in the contemporary moment is that of injury and capacity. In my book, I think about this in terms of popular feminism and popular misogyny, and how these discourses and practices tap into a neoliberal notion of individual capacity (for work, for confidence, for economic success), but both also position individual injury as a key obstacle to realizing this capacity. For women, the injury is found among other places, in centuries of sexism, misogyny, and gendered violence. 

For white men, however, the injury in the contemporary moment is one of displacement; white men feel displaced by women in general and feminists in particular, and in the US, by immigrants and people of color.  We’ve seen in all realms of culture – in the technology industries (as Hannah mentioned, perhaps most visibly in GamerGate), in online communities in the violent responses to the apparent threat posed by women and people of color simply because they exist; in politics, with Trump leading the pack in his relentless ranting about how white men are disadvantaged.  

I see these tropes of injury and capacity as the crux of white nationalism as it circulates within this media economy. In this moment of hypermediation, white nationalists distribute their racist and nativist message with religious fervor, as a recuperative mission, a pursuit to restore whiteness and patriarchy, to repair injuries caused by women, people of color, and immigrants, and to return capacity to white men. An economy of visibility creates an environment where white rage is mobilized by using media outlets to emphasize hopelessness and fear. Indeed, hypermediation stokes this rage, and the dynamic of visibility validates a reactionary response to the perceived displacement of white men, which then manifests as a structural violence.  

That is, hypermediation and an economy of visibility are validated and amplified in a particular political economic context: As Wendy Brown has argued, the retraction of social services, and the return to a kind of statism and nativism as we are witnessing now in the West, means for many that a “need” for a strong authority is produced, to secure order, boundaries, borders, as well as to reclaim and restore a way of life for a declining white middle and working class, since the contemporary life has apparently been destroyed by immigrants, people of color, feminists, terrorists, refugees (Brown, 2018).  An economy of visibility provides the platform for the circulation of this “need” through images, misinformation, lies, and obfuscation. 

Here, white nationalism transmutes into a sort of distorted understanding of what Stewart Hoover calls the guiding principles of Christian masculinity, “provision, protection, and purpose.” Religious values get co-opted and distorted within this economy.  As Hoover has argued, Christian men define themselves by their ability to provide and protect their families and by identifying their purpose as head of the household and as breadwinner (to be clear, these principles are also based in patriarchy). White nationalists also claim to be guided by provision, protection, and purpose, but because they have lost these principles. They can no longer provide because immigrants and women have taken their jobs. They protect white masculinity, often through violence.  And their purpose is to destroy all “others” – and in particular women and people of color.  

These principles become legible then only as a threat, one posed by people of color, feminists, immigrants – the threat becomes the religion. Provision, Protection and Purpose are re-routed and severed from spiritual grounds, becoming rather only about the supposed decline of white people, and white masculinity in particular.  

Aided by the economization of visibility, where visibility becomes an end in itself, masculine Christian principles of Provide, protect and purpose are transmuted into violence, attacks that are waged within the logic of the conviction that the white race is perpetually in peril; threatened by racial integration, by “political correctness,” by multiculturalism, by all others.   

This economy of visibility also works to normalize white nationalism. For example, the style politics of celebrity Nazis like Richard Spencer, or alt-right spokespeople like Milo Yiannopoulos, have been profiled alongside some of the ideologies they espouse, effectively both normalizing them and distracting us from their anti-woman, anti-immigrant, racist, and nativism by their clothes and their dandy style. The visibility of the celebrity hatemongers is what matters, rather than their politics and the way they incite violence. For example, Mother Jones wrote about Richard Spencer: 


“An articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a “fashy” (as in fascism) haircut—long on top, buzzed on the sides—Spencer has managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic.” 

GQ has commented on Milo: “And while much of the media focus was on Yiannopolous's behavior, his clothes were worth noting, too. On a weekend when debating what it means to respect the American flag became a national pastime as big as, well, watching football, Yiannopoulos showed up on campus in an American flag-print hoodie from the streetwear brand Supreme.”

Claiming that public figures give “overt racism a new veneer of radical chic” or that Milo’s “clothes are worth noting, too” is part of the dynamic of an economy of visibility, where visualizing every experience rather than interrogating the grounds of that experience, is what circulates, accumulating likes, clicks, and followers.  

The consequence of this is both to distract from the structural ground of racism and misogyny and to normalize.  

For example, as many people have noted recently, mainstream media such as the New York Times has routinely profiled Nazis in a kind of US Magazine style of “Nazis! They’re Just Like Us!” – portraying them and their lives as “normal” US citizens who just happen to hate women, people of color, immigrants, non-heteronormative people. As the New York Times in their profile of white nationalist Tony Hovater framed it:  

“He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.”

Profiling white nationalists in this way transmutes the political logic of what it means to be racist, a political subjectivity invested in shoring up gender and race inequities, into what a nazi looks like, his visual representation. 

The clothes and the bodily style are the politics;  the politics are contained within the visibility. This works effectively to defang the violence of these politics, to transform them into “radical chic.” The identification, and announcement, of one’s visibility is both the radical move and the end in itself (Gray, 2013).  Economies of visibility do not describe a political process, but rather assume that visibility itself has been absorbed into the economy; indeed, that absorption is the political.

The economy of visibility within which these logics are circulated often dresses them up in a cool outfit, an ironic tattoo, as a way to distract publics, shifting attention to the “chic” rather than the racist. But we need to remember that the common sense of this moment is not consensus (achieved through normalization) but rage and violence. Within this context, white nationalists, Nazis, klansmen can gather in a “free speech rally” as “freedom fighters” and fascism is understood as authenticity.  

Sarah Banet-Weiser is Professor of Media and Communications and Head of the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.  Professor Banet-Weiser earned her PhD in Communication from the University of California, San Diego.  Her research interests include gender in the media, identity, citizenship, and cultural politics, consumer culture and popular media, race and the media, and intersectional feminism.

Hannah Scheidt recently completed her PhD in religious studies from Northwestern University. Her dissertation, a cultural study of contemporary atheism, was informed by perspectives from religious studies and media studies. The dissertation shows how "atheism" is constructed through a complex relationship with "religion" - a relationship that involves critique and contrast but also imitation and resemblance. Her other research interests include religion and science, transhumanism, and (newly) American craft and maker movements.