Facebook Needs to Stop Removing Atheist Pages


The story about Facebook punishing secular pages for offending religious believers has taken off, with many atheist blogs and a growing number of other media outlets reporting on it. Having read quite a bit about this over the last few days, there are a few things that stand out to me. First, it sounds like this has been a problem for much longer than I previously realized. Many of the Facebook pages involved have been temporarily removed from Facebook multiple times, and this has happened to far more pages than I knew of. Second, there is a strong suspicion that these removals are being prompted by organized reporting campaigns by religious believers, primarily Muslims, who know how to manipulate Facebook's algorithms effectively. In essence, they have figured out how to use Facebook's reporting tools to have pages with content they consider offensive removed. Third, at least some of the many pages facing this sort of thing (e.g., Ex-Muslims of North America) are serving valuable functions that makes their repeated removal, even when temporary, something about which we should probably all be more concerned.

In this post, I'd like to focus on this third point and to begin by acknowledging that this is something I fully appreciated until this latest dust-up. Since then, I have read plenty of outstanding descriptions from Atheist Republic, Ex-Muslims of North America, and many of their supporters about what these pages do and why they are important. The short version is that these pages and many others like them provide support to atheists living in some of the most religiously oppressive areas of the world. They offer opportunities for people who probably feel alone much of the time to connect with like-minded others and talk about what they are going through. So yes, they do the same things many atheists do online. The key difference is that their focus tends to be on those who may need these things most desperately.

In many posts, I have referred to Mississippi as a "religiously oppressive" environment. Compared to somewhere like Vermont, this is an apt description. But compared to places like Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, this characterization is downright silly. Compared to these places, Mississippi is a bastion of religious freedom, tolerance, and human rights. And while I don't even do a good job of providing anything of value to Mississippians, many of these other atheist groups, pages, blogs, websites, etc. are doing great work in places far more oppressive than Mississippi.

If the Mississippi Atheists page on Facebook were to be removed by Facebook, it is difficult to imagine anybody would care (update: I no longer maintain this page). I'm not sure it would even bother me much. But it is very different when one of these other pages goes down. The manner in which some people in truly oppressive environments rely on these pages to connect with other non-believers is just too important. I have seen some supporters of these pages describe them as "lifelines," and I don't doubt this at all.

Facebook needs to fix their algorithms. The current state of affairs where an organized campaign of reporting can lead to the automated removal of one of these pages pending the appeal of the pages' administrator cannot continue. What these pages do is too important. This is about the free expression of ideas, but it is about so much more than that. It is about maintaining vital lifelines on which many atheists rely.

This post was updated in 2020 to remove some outdated content.