Interview with Allie Jackson – CEO, Atheist Republic Part 1

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Recently, the Atheist Republic Facebook page was shut down. Why was that? How can Facebook do that without necessarily letting you know or with authorization?

Allie Jackson: Isn’t that a good question? We would love to know why. We were shut down, not once but twice, in less than 24 hours without warning. Normally, we know when there is a problem because Facebook will let us know they removed some post for some reason.

This has happened for years. They used to send us a picture letting us know which post was removed. We had a post removed that no one could tell what it was. This has been happening for quite some time now.

We post about once per hour, sometimes more and sometimes less. They say, “We removed this post for violating our terms.” We can’t know which post because they didn’t send a picture. Oftentimes, what they removed is innocent. It didn’t break terms of service. But we’ve learned to live with that.

So, leading up to this ban, they stopped showing us what they were removing from our page. We didn’t get an indication that a post was removed, then we’ve got this notification that we’d been restricted.

Some features had been restricted [Laughing]. It is mind-boggling. We click the notification. It takes us to the page. It is very normal, but then we realized that our posts weren’t reaching people and nobody was able to see our post unless they went to our page.

That went on for a couple of hours. We ended up putting in an appeal, of course. We ended up rallying the community because we saw that the Ex-Muslims of North America got a notification saying this restriction will last for one week and because the post was against the terms of service.

Something that I hadn’t heard before. So, a couple hours before we put in the appeal. It was the next day, but not the full 24 hours. Our page was completely taken down and unpublished. No reasons, again, and no posts were removed, just – boom! – “we’ve unpublished your page.”

It is frustrating because we don’t know what we did wrong. It is the same process. When we have a post removed, we want to improve things. We understand Facebook is a private company. We understand they have a right to run their own company.

It was not illegal, but I feel what they did was unethical. To take a paying customer and then remove the platform from 1.6 million people who want the content that we’re putting out there; that is not a very business-like way of doing things, I think.

It was very frustrating on that level.

Jacobsen: Once you get past 1.5 million, there aren’t that many groups. They are there, but not many. 1.6 million, given all of Facebook, it is relatively small, but given the community, it is relatively large.

The fact that it happened for a Facebook group housed, in essence, in Canada is rather remarkable.

Jackson: Absolutely.

Jacobsen: The first time when they took it down, they said you lost some features. Did they specify any at all?

Jackson: They didn’t specify anything. It popped up, like a notification if somebody liked a photo or commented on something that you commented on. It popped up in a notification, not explaining what features were removed.

We had to go through and figure it out. There were two: the speak now button and the news feed. People could not leave messages, and no one could get our posts.

Jacobsen: Has Facebook done this to ex-Muslim or ex-anything groups before?

Jackson: Absolutely, the most we hear about are ex-Muslim groups, especially Arab ex-Muslim groups.

Jacobsen: Is this regardless of location, whether Saudi Arabia or America?

Jackson: Absolutely. It is so sad too. This is a small group without a platform. They can’t say this is a big problem. We get these people coming to us and saying, “Wow, I had 17,000 people in a group. Facebook removed the group.”

Or another is that Facebook removed the group because we post scientific stuff and have “atheist” in the title. I am on a secret Facebook group with other admins of other groups. Many have had their pages down for six months now, with no reason or warning.

Many of them hadn’t even had a post removed. All of a sudden. Poof! They are gone. It is hard working from our platform and point of view because there are pages that I know – because I follow them [Laughing] – were not violating any terms of service.

If the offense is now a violation of terms of service, then let’s shut down Facebook because everything can be offensive. I look at things as far as terms of service and community standards. Those are two things I have engulfed the knowledge about.

We have a group with many members. It is a big Facebook group. So, we are dedicated. If anybody looks at our rules that we lay out for the group, we are dedicated to prevention of hate speech and make sure that everything is in line there.

On the page, though, things are different. We can control what we post, but not what others post. On a page of 1.6 million, Facebook could easily find them. Every single post we’ve put out has never had anything to do with hate speech.

People want to say hate speech is an opinion. In reality, it is not. If you look at its definition, it talks about inciting violence or hatred toward people or a group of people. We are not setting out to hurt anyone.

We don’t want anyone hurt, even their feelings. We attack ideas, not people. So, it is really difficult when people say, “You’re hateful.” No, we have a platform with anyone free to fight an idea.

We don’t ban theists or Muslims, or Christians, or any specific groups. If somebody doesn’t like what we say, maybe, they can educate us. They are free to do that.

Jacobsen: Do you think the equivalent opposite case happens when Muslim groups will state openly that atheists are going to hellfire or some equivalent, and they don’t get taken down – even though that would be about people rather than others such as on Atheist Republic criticizing the authenticity of a text and the validity/soundness of arguments for one particular faith?

Jackson: Yes, I think it is outrageously unfair. We have received, over the years, so many death threats. The rainbow Kaaba was probably one of the most controversial things we’ve shared. The whole purpose and point was love should be free for everyone.

Everyone, anywhere should be able to love anyone the way they want. We got so much support from the Muslim community, “Please don’t share my name, but I am gay and Muslim, and I can’t tell anyone my name. Your message gave us a lot of hope.”

It is not like we focus on atheist problems or only atheists. We focus on a lot of problems that stem from religious indoctrination, such as the hatred against the LGBTQ+ community by some people. Most Muslims support the community.

Unfortunately, they face criticism from their own community for doing that, but for me to get back to the hate speech, that happens. We have people who have sent us a man who was tied to a cross with his head cut off and his head laying at his feet. They said, “You’re next.”

We get people saying, “What is your physical address? Do you remember what happened to Charlie Hebdo? You’re next.” I have had someone say, “I am going to chop off your head and rape your neck hole.”

Facebook says, “Thank you for sending this. It doesn’t violate our terms of service or community standards. We can’t do anything, but you can ban them.” Armin and I both got banned once because he posted my picture and said, “Allie was sent to us from the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Ramen.”

That got mass reported and we got banned from our accounts for it. I am seeing this. This is just what I am seeing. I am not saying this is backed because I am seeing it. But from my perspective, it seems like there is some sort of bias.

It is very frustrating.

Jacobsen: The particular case you gave with Armin Navabi, the founder of Atheist Republic, is stating a parody religion’s “deity”. In the other case, it is directed at someone. One is a direct threat to a person.

One is to you. Another is directed playfully at an idea. People would seem to be insecure enough to find that threat enough to report en masse. People don’t want to be considered a block: all Christians, all Muslims, and so on. But then they want to take pride in saying, “We are one of the biggest religions, and so on.”

I have heard this. I am sure you have too. But even more, there is a population of over a billion called the religiously unaffiliated, but, maybe, there may need to be a coalition of some form. It is like “herding cats.” I am sure you’ve heard it.

Jackson: [Laughing] It is so true. We are tied only by the lack of belief in God. Other than that, an atheist can believe in reincarnation, in ghosts, in Karma. So, when you see different organizations of atheists...

I am a big friend, to me, of an organization called Mythicist Milwaukee. They don’t believe the Biblical Jesus existed. Then you look at people like Bart Ehrman. There was a debate between Dr. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Price, both who have different beliefs. Dr. Richard Carrier and Dr. Ehrman completely disagree with each other.

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Often, they write back and forth about their disagreement. You have these different groups of atheists that know what needs to be done for social justice around the world. So, it is hard. It is hard to take these people and bring them together.

The religious are lucky. They have a book and rules, which says, “All will think this way because it says in the text.” Even they can’t get it right. We have tons of Christians who love the LGBT community, then we have Christians at the Westboro Baptist Church [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Jackson: They have more to tie them together. That’s what I love about the Atheist Republic. Even if we disagree with an idea, we are a volunteer team of 300 people. We have different beliefs on politics. We have different views on many things.

We don’t restrict our page to be about one topic. We don’t just dump on one thing, or take one political side. People get upset when we make jokes about Donald Trump. We make the same jokes about Hillary Clinton.

We joke. We have fun. We have different beliefs. That brings us together more than anything. Atheist Republic puts that out there. Even if we don’t believe in it, we will be a platform for you. That is a mentality for bringing all of us atheists together.

Jacobsen: To your own experience, what made atheism seem obviously true – an argument, a disenchantment with traditional religious structures, a cranky parent, not taking the myths seriously, and so on?
 

Jackson: I was a strong Christian. I prided myself on being a child of God. I talked about my high school summer vacations. While my friends were partying and drinking, I was reading the Bible. I was reading it for Bible school.

I talked about it with people. I loved God. It was my senior year in high school. Things started clicking with me. I was never really allowed to question things growing up. I lived in a very conservative household. I watched Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, [Laughing] probably more than I’d like to say.

They hated homosexuals. They hated anyone different. It was around that time that I said, “I have a friend at school who is gay. I never even really questioned my own sexuality. I was straight because that’s what the Bible said I was to be.”

I never really questioned anything. But at that moment, I was saying, “I don’t want to hate people.” The second I said that, something clicked. When I left my family, and when I started studying at a Catholic university, I would stay in the library and study the Bible.

I loved being God’s child but it began to be more difficult for me. Social media began to boom. It wasn’t big in high school [Laughing]. I saw friends posting these awful things about Jesus, so I would immediately unfriend them. It hurt.

Once I was honest with those images, I decided I might be hurting because the images hold some truth. Things became harder. I began reading the story of Samson in the library. How Samson gathered 300 foxes, tied their tails together, and marched them into town to destroy.

It was so unreal. In my head, and I am sorry, I said, “This is bullshit.” I immediately got scared. At that moment, I immediately said, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore.”

Jacobsen: I want to dig a little deeper. I think there is an important moment there. Where Samson pulls the foxes into town, and you realize how unreal this is and say, “This is bullshit,” then there was fear, what was the fear?

Jackson: Questioning God, questioning God, that I would burn in hell. The days following, it brings me to tears just thinking about it. It was such a draining moment of my life. I prayed to a god I no longer believed in, begging him to give my faith back.

Jacobsen: Wow.

Jackson: I spoke to God on a personal level. I truly thought I felt God in my heart, not understanding that that was my own compassion that I was showing myself. I truly thought that was God loving me, being there for me in my tough times, and I didn’t want to live with the thought of not being God’s child anymore – and losing God.

I was praying to a god I no longer believed in, to give me my faith back, because I was so lonely. After that, I didn’t feel God anymore. It took years to realize I was an atheist after that. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t believe anymore.

I stopped going to churches – sorry. I am choking up.

Jacobsen: It’s okay.

Jackson: I stopped doing things that normal Christian people do. I slowly stopped doing it. Then I had this fight inside me. I feared hell. I knew I was going to hell. I knew somehow the world had corrupted me.

This sounds crazy. Right?

Jacobsen: No, it doesn’t. It is telling me something very deep. Rarely, people lose complete worldviews at once. You’re describing emotional reactions that are still in place, but you’re consciously losing bit-by-bit. So, you lose the belief in God, but still have the belief in prayer – and the efficacy of it.

But when you lose that, you still had the belief in hell. So, the fear was still there. The way you ordered it was a fear I no longer had in God, but also, following that, was a fear of hell. So, I am noticing that bit-by-bit. It is almost like a jigsaw puzzle where you’re removing the pieces rather than an orb that just melts.

That’s not crazy.

Jackson: I was then scared when I realized I was an atheist. That, suddenly, I might start doing something bad because I don’t have any morality.

Jacobsen: Go to hell to morality.

Jackson: Absolutely. Why do I have compassion? God gave me that. I am going to hell, even though I stopped believing in hell. I couldn’t shake it. It was still there in the back of my mind. We live our lives as Christians.

When I take myself back to the mind frame, we live our lives for the afterlife. This doesn’t matter.

Jacobsen: What was the branch of Christianity?

Jackson: Southern Baptist. If everything is for the afterlife, why do anything for this life? It was an amazing transformation. I was a girl who helped other Christians. I volunteered at the church. I was a good girl.

To where I am now, where I help and run a one-on-one support group through Atheist Republic, we help people all around the world. We don’t have the resources unfortunately to pay a lot of money to help them with those needs.

We volunteer our time. We could be at the movies.

Jacobsen: Your Sundays are free now.

Jackson: [Laughing] That’s true. There is nothing that drives us to do that as far as a spiritual being is concerned. There is no reward that we will get from him. We know there is no physical reward for it.

We know we will be making the world a better place one person at a time. If we didn’t help someone out of a funk, we could find them resources for a doctor if they didn’t have insurance, or that an ex-Muslim is cared about by someone – right here, right now, let’s cry together.“

Tell me everything. For the first time in their lives, in their own country where they can’t tell anyone about their atheism, that changes their world.

Jacobsen: In the back of my mind, when you said, “This is bullshit,” I was thinking about the power of words. Of not only that, but of the spoken word for an individual, either to hear someone else say, “I don’t believe this,” or to say, “This is bullshit,” [Laughing] in more colloquial terms.

I feel as though religious authorities, and more religiously authoritarian countries, know this quite deeply. So, they label, as in Saudi Arabia, atheists as terrorists – or ideological threats [Laughing]. I think that one-on-one work is very powerful for a lot of people.

Jackson: That it is. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It is my true passion. It is what I love doing. I couldn’t imagine anything else.


 

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