August 5, 2008

Lingering Controversy at Atheist Nexus

I have been heavily promoting Atheist Nexus here since it first appeared. This may lead you to believe that I am biased in its favor and inclined to ignore the controversy which has surrounded it from the beginning and recent developments which have caused some to leave the site. I cannot deny that I have a generally favorable view of Atheist Nexus, but I will do my best here to summarize the controversy so that everyone can make their own informed decision about the site.

Origins

Controversy surrounded Atheist Nexus almost from the beginning. This was entirely understandable. The site appeared out of nowhere, and nobody in the atheist community seemed to know who was behind it or to have had any inclination that it was coming. People wondered about this anonymous person calling himself Thor who suddenly appeared from nowhere and started a community-building site for atheists. Who was he, and what what were his motives?

It was against this backdrop that information emerged on the rapidly growing site suggesting that Thor may not really be an atheist but a Christian. Could Atheist Nexus be some sort of Christian scam? The questions came quickly now. Who was Thor, and why did he appear to be connected to the Divine Christian Center?

As the questions intensified and it became clear that answers were needed, Thor stepped down and turned the operation over to Brother Richard from Life Without Faith. Thor's initial explanation involving his role as a web developer who had done some work for Christian organizations and who had only very recently de-converted satisfied many, but pockets of skepticism remained. Fueling the skepticism was the discovery that the site, initially billed as a non-profit, had obtained no such status from the IRS. Clearly, an investigation was needed.

To his credit, this is exactly what Brother Richard decided to do. First, Thor revealed himself to be Kym Membe and provided an expanded explanation of his background and intent regarding Atheist Nexus. Next, Brother Richard provided a few of us known to the atheist community with documentation about the site. We concluded that Atheist Nexus was not a Christian scam. I don't think any of us realized at the time that this would not be the end of the controversy.

Fundraising

Because Atheist Nexus had always been advertised as a free social networking site for atheists and operated on the Ning platform, many were puzzled when a ChipIn widget for the purpose of collecting money appeared on the site without explanation. We knew that Atheist Nexus had never obtained the non-profit status we had been told it was seeking, and many were under the impression that the benefit of using Ning was that there would be no expenses. Why were donations needed, and how was the money to be used?

By this point, there was a current of impatience among many users with anyone asking questions. Some of those who questioned the sudden fundraising were criticized by various users. Even Brother Richard seemed to be growing increasingly frustrated with questions about why donations were being solicited. Regardless, he did an admirable job of responding to the questions by posting a categorized list of expenses.

Among the questions that surfaced in response to Richard's list of expenses, there were two main points of contention. First, some users objected to Richard's plan to fund his own personal high-speed Internet access from the pool of donations. Second, some users objected to Richard's plan to pay himself (and unidentified others) a small salary. While some users regarded these as appropriate rewards for the time Richard had likely invested in Atheist Nexus, others felt like they had been mislead into supporting what was starting to look more and more like a business venture.

Some users decided to leave Atheist Nexus at this point (although at least one has had a change of heart since). Others suggest that this decision was made for them by Brother Richard and that they were actually banned from the site. Brother Richard has denied this. What is clear from my own observations is that many who have expressed dissatisfaction over Richard's breakdown of expenses have been subjected to considerable criticism by other users.

Now What?

I have done what I can in this post to summarize the concerns related to Atheist Nexus. In my opinion, the issue of the site possible being some sort of Christian sham have been successfully resolved. Questions regarding fundraising have been addressed, and each of us will have to decide for ourselves whether to continue using Atheist Nexus now that it is looking more like a business venture than it did at the outset.

I hope the efforts by some users to quell dissent and discourage skepticism are fleeting and do not last. A user who feels adamantly that every user should donate to Brother Richard's fundraising efforts should continue to loudly voice his or her opinion. But at the same time, those who oppose either the fundraising as a general concept or Brother Richard's planned use of funds should be free to express themselves. A forum for atheists that does not encourage skepticism and critical thinking is not one I can support. Atheist Nexus has way too much potential to be squandered by users refusing to tolerate questions and dissent.

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