Patheos | An Interview with Dale McGowan, managing editor of the Patheos Atheist Channel

Dale McGowan
Dale McGowan
The following is an interview with Dale McGowan, managing editor, of the Atheist Channel on Patheos – an interview about what is probably the most exciting web platform of inter- and supra-religious dialogue to be found on the web: Patheos.
Olaf Simons: Hi Dale, it’s nice to have you for this interview. Wikipedia is eloquent on you: “…born February 28, 1963, American author, speaker, and philanthropist who has written and edited several books related to atheism, Berkeley graduate, B.A. in anthropology and music theory, Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in music theory and composition, all plus Family details…”

My curiosity is mostly about Patheos and the place of Atheism in this environment. Patheos is a surprising project. One big site for everything religious, faith based, spiritual – a huge repository of information about religions and faith and, shall I call it, a vibrant circus of blogs running on eleven “channels”. You are “managing editor” of the Atheist Channel. When did you first come across the site? What did you think back then?

Screenshot http://www.patheos.com/About-Patheos/Patheos-Team 2015-09-28
Screenshot http://www.patheos.com/About-Patheos/Patheos-Team 2015-09-28
Dale McGowan: I first became aware of Patheos in 2011 when Friendly Atheist, a blog I read frequently, moved there. I’ve always preferred sites that feature a mix of perspectives, so I immediately liked the Patheos model. Much better than every perspective existing in a separate echo chamber, don’t you think?
Olaf Simons: If you invite me to take the positivist position (which I tend to take for the beauty of the occasional provocation), well, then I am tempted to say: that is the logical place to promote atheism. Both, religion and atheism are interested in “insoluble questions” – in the same insoluble, intrinsically theological questions. It should be a classical win/win situation to act in this environment. Your audiences should be the same, the thing you offer – positions in a metaphysical dilemma – should be the same.

The provocation is, of course, the very title Patheos, “path towards God”? Friendly Atheist had already taken the step into this environment. Had that incited a debate on Patheos? Was the atheist channel the immediate answer? Was there a complementary debate among atheist bloggers whether they should invade or colonise that environment – I am not quite sure which word to use…

Dale McGowan: Atheism was not part of the site as originally conceived. It launched in 2008, but the Atheist Channel was only added in 2011. At that point, the religious language was already in place, and you get the awkward (and common) issue of atheism being designated one of 11 “Faith Channels.” There is currently discussion of changing that to “Perspectives,” which I would appreciate.

But the way things developed was interesting and I think unexpected. The Atheist Channel almost immediately became the largest of the 11 channels in traffic, and the largest blog by far of the 450 Patheos blogs is Friendly Atheist. Six of the top ten blogs in readership on the largest “religion and spirituality” website in the world are atheist blogs, and our 45 blogs, 10% of the total number, account for roughly 35% of all traffic in a given month.

As for ‘invasion’ or ‘colonization’, I think it’s less dramatic: we were invited to join the conversation, and we did so. Since then, we’ve become a big part of the success of the site, which helps ensure that the cultural conversation doesn’t exclude the rapidly-growing non-religious voice.

Olaf Simons: Wow, these are interesting numbers! They remind me of the different Twitter numbers of followers: Richard Dawkins has 1.25M, far more than Ken Ham with his 31.7K. Pope Francis, however, has 7.3M followers and the Dalai Lama a staggering 11.9M. The real question is probably who is reading whom? Atheists might follow provocative or famous religious voices but they will not read regular personal considerations of believers – whereas the atheist voice will be the natural provocation for believers of all brands, just as atheism might be said to have started as an invention of theologians and believers who played with their own numerous options from loss of faith to radical intellectual and spiritual opposition.

To what extent can Patheos stage a “conversation”? To what extent is it rather an arrangement of different rooms, each giving an individual a chance to find his or her personal audience? Are the Patheos managers discussing options to get more of a conversation, or do they see a greater need to channel audiences into their separate rooms?

Dale McGowan: You’ve identified one of our main objectives. We’ve been effective at hosting the conversation within our traditions, but we want very much to cultivate cross-channel interaction as well. Simply being on the same site makes the likelihood greater that a given Patheos bloggers will see and respond to a post in another channel than if we were on separate sites. This happens all the time, and you sometimes get an exchange between the bloggers. A feature called Patheos Head-to-Head features exchanges between bloggers of different perspectives on key questions. A recent one on the question of whether a deity is necessary for morality was inspired by a piece by atheist Peter Mosley, but then a Catholic blogger supported the nontheist position against an evangelical. Some have invited bloggers from another channel for a Q&A.

Many of these exchanges begin in a private Facebook groups where over 350 Patheos writers of all traditions exchange views, sometimes heatedly, often productively. The channel managers are also in daily contact in a Facebook group of our own. So yes, there is continual effort to host an actual conversation and even structures in place to encourage it.

Olaf Simons: Did you ever face the opposite: complaints of bloggers on Patheos, who felt that the presence of others – atheists, pagans… or of a particular blogger – was unbearable to them? What does the team in order to calm conflicts?
Dale McGowan: Yes, it happens all the time. Most people are accustomed to sites that share a single perspective, so it can be disorienting to share a space with points of view that are diametrically opposed to your own. It’s hard to know how to respond when you write a passionate piece in support of trans rights, for example, then see another piece that is virulently anti-trans on the same site (or anti-atheist, anti-gay, etc.). Many of our writers have strongly protested when a piece that contradicts their values is featured on the home page or Patheos Facebook page. They feel it is an “endorsement” of a toxic point of view.

The challenge is to help them understand that Patheos is bound by its model to give a fair representation to all points of view on the site. Many religious views are incredibly toxic, including doctrines woven into the fabric of the religions themselves. When one Catholic writer was critical of homosexuality and my bloggers protested to me, I pointed out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls homosexuality a matter of “grave depravity” and “deeply disordered.” You can’t very well have a Catholic Channel, then forbid Catholic bloggers from sounding Catholic. Instead of censoring those voices, we have to respond using the very prominent platform of our own blogs.

Olaf Simons: I assume that the entry to the platform is the other big option to make sure the participants agree to fundamental rules. Do they already have blogs before they ask to join? Do they make a proposal, a kind of outline? Do they offer a test post? What do they sign before they get the keys?
Dale McGowan: Most already have blogs. Some approach us, and some are recruited in. If someone seems like a promising voice, but does not currently have a blog, we often invite them to write single posts for our various channel group blogs to test reader response. The channel managers propose new bloggers to an editorial board, and our recommendations are usually accepted. Once someone is in, they sign agreements that clarify rights and compensation. Beyond that, they have considerable independence. Some channel managers assert more control over their bloggers than others, but few engage in outright censorship.
Olaf Simons: – compensation? I felt something like this would be part of the deal. To what extent is Patheos a company, to what extent is it a collaborative yet eventually personal engagement? Is it indiscreet to talk about the business model?
Patheos Atheist Channel Screenshot with German Advertisement 2015-09-28
Patheos Atheist Channel Screenshot with German Advertisement 2015-09-28
Dale McGowan: Patheos is a company, a commercial enterprise. They were among the pioneers in creating a model to compensate bloggers for their work. The company is run (like most online content companies) on ad revenue, and bloggers are paid based on the traffic they receive.
Olaf Simons: If they are not a secret I would love to show statistics. If there are statistics – composition of bloggers on Patheos, visitor statistics, gender – I’d love to add some of that hard stuff the historian loves most.
Dale McGowan: Overall traffic averages about 25 million page views per month, making it the largest “religion and spirituality” website in the world. The other stats you mention are either unknown to me or proprietary.
Olaf Simons: You have the usual gender composition: Atheists are usually male. Religious folks have more of a tendency to be female. Spirituality is usually particularly female.
Dale McGowan: The gender split has been noticeably shifting in the US in the past decade. Susan Jacoby has written and spoken about this. Men still make up more than half and are most of the writers and speakers, but that is rapidly changing. Patheos Atheist is reflecting that with a number of new bloggers who are women.
Olaf Simons: The commercial aspect is in any case startling, the other thing is the American touch. This is a quote from the Overview Video:

The world is a confusing place and faith, religion, spirituality, infuse all the things we care most deeply about but in the past generation nearly half of Americans have switched or abandoned their religion. So now they are going online to seek answers. And when they get there they find confusing, biased information. They are looking for something more. Welcome to Patheos.

As we raise our families, as we run our businesses, as we elect our officials, the things we care about are still the same. We are all part of one conversation. Patheos. It’s about faith, Life, Spirituality, Dialogue, it’s about time.

it’s right at the beginning:

Patheos Overview Video
How many of the participants are located in the US? Are the visitors again mostly US-addresses?
Dale McGowan: The bloggers and readers are primarily in the U.S., though there is a good representation of other countries as well in both.
Olaf Simons: What is producing this North American center? The web should be international. English as lingua franca is pretty international… Is it the personal networking of those who started Patheos that tended to bring US-bloggers on board? Is it a kind of touch, something of the design, a particular feel, that attracts Americans in particular?
Dale McGowan: I can only guess, but I imagine it starts with the history then continues to attract like to like. It was started in the US by two US web technologists. They tapped the initial contacts and writers they knew, most of whom were in the US, and it continued from there. US writers tend to write about US concerns and draw US readers. But it’s definitely not by design.

To come back to your concern about the commercial aspect. I tend to think it’s more problematic when companies earn their way from content without compensating the writers of that content. It’s the norm in some quarters, but that strikes me as unfair.

Olaf Simons: Oh, no objections from my side, I am a game theorist on the web. Pages like Wikipedia or Quroa have their different models of gratification. You earn virtual credit points, “upvotes”, you get supporters, you become part of a network and this is actually a problem of Wikipedia and Quora: People are looking for internal support not for the customer outside. Their quarrels are consequently almost entirely internal. Conflicts are mostly the result or rules. Do Patheos bloggers fear that they could underperform?
Dale McGowan: In terms of traffic? I don’t think so. Patheos is very good about letting bloggers find their own level and frequency. Some are willing to post less often and cultivate a small, devoted readership. They won’t receive the same compensation as the larger blogs, but the company itself doesn’t set requirements. There is often a great advantage in having relatively small blogs that increase the diversity of viewpoints within a channel. I have several of those in the Atheist Channel, and I wouldn’t want to lose them for a focus on the large blogs within a more narrow, “mainstream” atheist perspective.
Olaf Simons: Did Patheos change your perspective on the entire debate between belief and atheism?
Dale McGowan: It is actually a very good fit for the perspective I already had. I share the approach of Karl Popper. When writing a rebuttal to an opponent’s argument, he would start by improving that argument, strengthening it, adding elements his opponent had missed. Only then would he counter with his own. The result tended to be an unanswerable decimation of the opposing view.

In the important human questions that intersect with religion, I want all voices, no matter how different from mine or how reprehensible I find them, to have a platform for open expression and critique. I don’t want hateful points of view shunted away so they can both claim victimhood and hide from criticism. I want them in the light of day, making their best, shiniest arguments. That’s the best hope we have of defeating inhumane, regressive ideas.

But just as important is the revelation made on a daily basis at Patheos that many of the most important human values are actually shared between religious and nonreligious people. Never all, but more than enough to be worth noting and acting on. If anything, I’m even more interested in that.

Olaf Simons: But I guess there are limits. Islamists, representatives of the self-declared “Islamic State” or sympathisers would not get a chance to open their blogs on Patheos. This is the Patheos Muslim channels editorial statement:

The Muslim Portal at Patheos presents coverage of Muslims in America, Islam, and Islam as part of the global religious dynamic. The portal strives to present the issues facing Muslims in America and abroad to a non-Muslim audience while providing a deep conversations within the Muslim community on matters of faith, unity, shariah, Islamophobia, our Ummah, the Qur’an, hadith, sunnah, fiqh, differences of religious opinion and schools of thought, and the place of the mosque/masjid in Muslim life. The Muslim Portal’s goal is to provide the best in Muslim thought and Islamic coverage with articles, columns and the best in Muslim blogs. We are moderate, conservative, progressive – all striving to dispel misconceptions, end stereotypes, and provide accurate coverage and intelligent opinion on Islamic issues.

Dilshad Ali, Managing Editor of the Muslim Portal

…and there it is again: this US-American focus…

Dale McGowan: There are indeed limits, and they are the usual ones – voices inciting violence, for example. Most interesting are the voices that another channel considers “the best of x” and I consider awful. But for the most part, channel managers serve as gatekeepers, and none of them is likely to bring a violent or otherwise beyond-the-pale voice into the mix.
Olaf Simons: If the atheist field is that big field of growth – will there be divisions? What kinds of divisions could come? – like a more academic channel of research or a channel of philosophical tenets…
Dale McGowan: This is an excellent question. I wouldn’t be surprised if this became pressing in the coming year or two. I’m not sure how it would divide.
Olaf Simons: What do you feel are tendencies of the entire project? – tendencies you see as a risk, tendencies you see as an immense potential…
Dale McGowan: Every step in the direction of greater segregation – religious, political, racial, cultural – is a step away from the resolution of our shared issues. Every step toward greater integration and intersection diminishes distrust and fear and increases the recognition of shared humanity. That’s the greatest potential of a project like Patheos, and I see it constantly moving further in that direction. I’m glad to be a part of that.
Olaf Simons: Good luck on the path then, and thank you very much for the interview.
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