Sunday, December 2, 2012

@ProLifeAtheists and the Damascene Conversion

"By sticking steadfastly to religious arguments, the prochoice advocates who organised this march have shown they are out of touch with the modern debate – a debate which includes people of all faiths and no faith. Just look at @secularprolife, @prolifeatheists and many others for examples." - Cora Sherlock, Deputy Chair of ProLifeCampaign.ie, via thejournal.ie 
"The Church is entitled to contribute just like any other group in society but the fact remains that abortion concerns human rights, not religion. The Journal readers can see this from groups like @secularprolife, @ProLifeAtheists, PLAGAL and of course the writings of secularists Nat Hentoff and the late Christopher Hitchens." - Cora Sherlock, Deputy Chair of ProLifeCampaign.ie, via thejournal.ie
Sad that you don't respect beliefs of others & feel need to make abortion a religious discusion. It is not. See @secularprolife or @ProLifeAtheists for eg. U must know argument will be list on human rts grounds


Atheism is the absence of belief in gods, nothing more, nothing less. Being both an atheist and opposed to legal access to abortion is not an incoherent position, though it would be inconsistent for an atheist to advance a religious argument against abortion.

Still, I was a mite curious about this @ProLifeAtheists group. Who were they? Could they be what I was looking for - a majority Irish group?

First, as I so typically do, I made a word cloud of the Twitter biographies of their followers. Click to zoom.

The word Catholic loomed larger than one would expect for an atheist group. And the word atheist was nowhere to be found. Checking the source data, I found only three people with the word 'atheist' in their Twitter biographies, and one of those hits was for the line "Ex Atheist revert".

Confused, I ran the scan again and found exactly the same results.

Then I asked myself if the followers of @ProLifeAtheists followed any atheist Twitter accounts. So for every follower, I pulled a list of all other accounts they followed. Using this I was able to build a matrix of which accounts were most popular with fans of @ProLifeAtheists. Here's the top 20, presented in order:

CoraSherlock Human rights activist, lawyer, political obsessive..in an ideal world I'd write all day to a soundtrack of Bruce and Leonard and Beethoven. 
spud_planter Just an average guy convinced that abortion is a violation of human rights and human dignity, much like slavery.
IrelandProLife 20something science student doing her best to help keep Ireland #ProLife | #rejectactiononx #nfem | Views = my own & follow/RT ≠ endorsement | Also @MistyAiya
prolifecampaign Human rights group defending the right to life. We campaign for supports for pregnant women and those hurt by abortion. A follow is not an endorsement.
IrelandsEar Conservative. Pro laughter. Infuriatingly nice.  
LilaGraceRose President Live Action, UCLA grad, advocate for the dignity and life of human beings.
srhcrrll Pacifist. Feminist. Fan of musicals. Politics addict. Baking enthusiast.
StevenErtelt Founder of http://LifeNews.com, the pro-life news service and the #1 pro-life web site on the Internet. Christian, fan of GOP, rock music, Steelers football.
secularprolife Secular Pro-Life brings together pro-lifers of every faith and no faith.  You do not have to be religious to recognize the humanity of the unborn.
AbbyJohnson Planned Parenthood Director turned Pro-Life Advocate!
CardinalDolan His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan was named Archbishop of New York by Pope Benedict XVI on February 23, 2009.
maidrinruadh ProLife. Don't necessarily agree w/ those I follow or retweet
DavQuinn Columnist with Irish Independent and Irish Catholic.
 Director of Iona Institute.
MorragM Working towards Utopia where each unborn baby has a right to life, every pregnant mother is fully supported & sick disabled & elderly are protected & cared for.
yelofmail Archivist, overeducated and underemployed. Interests: philosophy, economics, history, politics. Sometimes wears a blue shirt. 
LifeSite We are ranked the #1 pro-life news website on the internet. Our passion is to ensure that every human life is respected, and to protect the natural family.
carolinesimons Lawyer. Keeping up with Irish, EU and international current affairs,politics and life issues. 
JenniferMMPCK Where your treasure is there is your heart..
 http://jenniferkehoe.blogspot.ie/ http://ourlittlelouise.blogspot.com
Donum_Vitae ♥ Catholic ♥ life ♥ Ireland. Against death penalty. #prolife #politics /.... T h é r è s e  H y n e s
eilisohanlon Writes for The Sunday Independent. Published some books that nobody bought. Full time grump.




I was a little surprised to note that Dawkins did not make the list. In fact unless I'm very much mistaken, there's narry an atheist amongst them. Moving further I searched the report for any mention of 'atheist'. The report listed any account followed by five or more followers of ProLifeAtheists so I expected to find at least one.

I was disappointed.

I then checked to see which accounts they retweeted most often - maybe there I'd find an atheist?

Frequently retweeted accounts: (note - Cora Sherlock is deputy head of ProLifeCampaign.ie)
# RTsAccount Retweeted
28corasherlock
10prolifecampaign
8angieann
6theevertbopp
6secularprolife


So, what's happened? Who are all these atheists too shy to make their absence of beliefs known in their Twitter biographies? Why don't they follow any atheist accounts? Why do so many of them describe themselves as Catholic? And why are so many of them following Cora Sherlock?

Barring an unlikely spate of mass conversions to Catholicism I have to say it's hard to find a charitable hypothesis to explain these results. Let's just say I think Cora would be better off not using this group to show examples of atheists opposing access to legal abortion. Oh, and SecularProLife isn't a great choice either, for much the same reasons. Here's their wordcloud; click for big.

Also, cui bono? I'm a little suspicious of groups @ProLifeAtheists feel are deserving of donation:
I suggest everyone frustrated by @rtenews repeated unbalanced reporting make a donation to hearbothsides.org to expose their bias.


Addendum 7th February 2013: this post contained a throwaway observation that @SecularProLife's followers primarily self-described as Catholic. This is hardly a problem - there is no barrier separating Catholicism and secularism; I work with many Catholics in secular endeavours and hadn't considered it a negative statement. I meant only to say that their Twitter account does not show that many atheists are against abortion.

They've been in touch and were kind enough to give me permission to share the following image:
It's a word cloud of conversations on their Facebook page, and by my own standards gives us a reasonably good impression of the sort of folk who regularly comment there. They're friendly folk, from my brief interaction, so if you're in to discussion do check them out.

25 comments:

David Robert Grimes said...

As always, great work Geoff! I remember getting stick from these guys when I did my IT piece on it and peeking at their list of followers and going.. 'ang on a second! These are FAKE atheists :)

Jon said...

David Robert Grimes said:"These are FAKE atheists".

Sort of non-believing non-believers, then.

Matchstick Maker said...

Perhaps she owns the account, setting it up in the hopes of advancing her argument

John said...

AFAIK opponents of whatever POV will follow for intelligence reasons, so this excercise is flawed

Geoff said...

Thanks David! I heartily recommend your earlier piece on the group to other readers.

Geoff said...

Jon, could we say faktheists?

Geoff said...

Matchstick, that's certainly a possibility. Alternatively, maybe a fan of hers made it without her knowledge.

Geoff said...

John, how so? I'm contending that @ProLifeAtheists is made up primarily of Catholics. Your hypothesis that huge swathes of Catholics are following @ProLifeAtheists as some sort of intelligence-gathering exercise is fairly ridiculous, for starters, but also doesn't affect my point that this group should not be used as an example of atheists supporting ProLifeCampaign.ie's position.

It also makes no effort to explain why only two self-described atheists follow the group.

AndrewF said...

you sir have remarkable patience and are doing great work proving what we all suspected but didn't know how to demonstrate

jackofalljacks said...

Is it necessary to follow atheist twitter accounts (specifically Richard Dawkins) in order to qualify as an atheist? To self-describe as one?

I'm not saying these people are all secretly atheists - they're probably not, and I don't doubt for a second that pro-lifers are willing to co-opt any viewpoint they find convenient, but I do find your reasoning here a little shaky.

Ark said...

re: jackofalljacks, you're right. Only a small fraction of atheists and Catholics will self-describe as such in their profile.

The problem is that there are many more people self-describing as Catholic than as atheist here, which is very strange if the followers are actually primarily atheists.

You could make the argument that all the Catholic followers are very open and all the atheist followers are very private about their beliefs, but that seems a bit of a stretch. The most reasonable conclusion is that the followers are almost entirely Catholic.

Geoff said...

"Is it necessary to follow atheist twitter accounts (specifically Richard Dawkins) in order to qualify as an atheist? To self-describe as one?"

Were we looking at a single individual I'd take your point, but is it really realistic to assume that of an entire group of supposed atheists, only two would self describe as such? That's ignoring the fact that Catholic is the most common word used in their Twitter biographies.

And why are these atheists so interested in Catholic accounts, but so thoroughly disinterested in accounts targetted to atheists?

It's hard to imagine that they'd take such pains to hide their godless status and then set aside their privacy by declaring for team @ProLifeAtheists

Myk said...

Exactly how do the details of one account's followers say anything about the owner of an account? We know that very few atheists are pro-life. Any outspoken atheist pro-lifer is going to be followed mostly by other pro-lifers, the vast majority of whom will be religious.

You've found exactly what we'd expect to find.

Myk said...

Exactly how do the details of one account's followers say anything about the owner of an account? We know that very few atheists are pro-life. Any outspoken atheist pro-lifer is going to be followed mostly by other pro-lifers, the vast majority of whom will be religious.

You've found exactly what we'd expect to find.

Cora said...

I'm not really sure why I'm quoted so much in this post - I'm only a regular follower of @ProLifeAtheists after all. Let me lay to rest the thoughts of those who think I have feverishly worked on setting up this account "in the hopes of advancing my argument". They're wrong.

I have one Twitter account, held in my own name. As I've said before, I don't much care who follows me or where they come from. But then, I'm not really that interested in attaching a neat little label to everyone in the debate.

So those who follow @ProLifeAtheists don't describe themselves as Atheists; so what? They're obviously more attracted by the "prolife" part of the title than what accompanies it. Maybe they like what the groups tweets about in that area.

As for whoever holds the account, well, are you going to insist that there's no such thing as an anonymous twitter account anymore? If so, good luck with that.

If not, maybe spend some time thinking about the fact that it is possible for people to loosely consider themselves atheist without having any strident views. They don't follow Richard Dawkins? Wow - maybe, like me, they found Christopher Hitchens a far more compelling personality and they just don't feel like listening to Dawkins after him. I think it's called choice!

Whatever about atheism, I personally find some of Dawkins' comments on how he is in favour of infanticide particularly extraordinary; why would anyone who classes themselves as prolife follow him?

Of course, there is also the possibility that any atheist espousing a prolife position would cry off on taking a look at some of the twitter feed today. Not exactly welcoming of a different opinion.

All of this of course is just dancing around the elephant in the room, which again, I've pointed out before. Human life is ended in every abortion. Let's discuss that. Or the Report from Canada last week that found over 400 babies had been born alive followed "botched abortions" and left to die over a 9 year period. Or the fact that in the UK, the guidelines of the Royal College of Gynaecologists allows babies that survive after 22 weeks can be administered a lethal injection to kill them. These are living, breathing human beings who have their lives ended legally in a country that has long since outlawed the death penalty for even the most heinous crimes.

Ignore those facts all you like, spend forever picking on twitter accounts, analyse the followers over and over again but until you engage with that simple question - is it permissible to end human life in this way? - you're still only skirting around the real issue.

Cora Sherlock

PS Hmmm, why are there so many of them who are following me? Who knows, maybe they just like the cut of my jib!!

Geoff said...

Hi Cora,

Let me begin by repeating my offer of a guest post. I edit only for profanity (I doubt this will be an inconvenience) and offer an introduction which you can decline.

To your comment:

"I'm not really sure why I'm quoted so much in this post - I'm only a regular follower of @ProLifeAtheists after all"

"So those who follow @ProLifeAtheists don't describe themselves as Atheists; so what?"

Based on searches I couldn't find anyone else endorsing or recommending the account. Search was not exhaustive, but your name came up frequently. My blog is more and more about the abortion debate in Ireland; you are a significant figure in the debate. And you do often use @ProLifeAtheists and @SecularProLife as sole examples when saying that the opposition to fulfilling our obligations to the European Court of Human Rights is not religiously motivated.

Note - this does not mean that wishing to prevent legislation to give doctors legal clarity on when they can perform an abortion is exclusively religious. It just means that your regular argument is insufficient. Perhaps there's a different approach you'd like to suggest?

"As for whoever holds the account, well, are you going to insist that there's no such thing as an anonymous twitter account anymore?"

Not at all. I just see no evidence that they have any significant number of atheists following, and ample evidence that the vast majority of their followers are Catholic. As such, I feel citing it as an example of atheists supporting your position is misleading. (I do not say deliberately misleading; I'm open to the interpretation that you were unaware of its makeup.)

"If not, maybe spend some time thinking about the fact that it is possible for people to loosely consider themselves atheist without having any strident views."

Following atheist or humanist accounts does not necessarily imply stridency. Without wishing to toot my own horn, I've been on four different Christian radio shows, I've been a guest author for vox.ie (a Christian magazine) and I've had Christian guest posts. There are a wide variety of atheists interested in working with and better understanding our religious friends, and the constant label of stridency irks somewhat. Why identify themselves as atheists solely by this one Twitter account? It strains credulity.

"They don't follow Richard Dawkins? Wow - maybe, like me, they found Christopher Hitchens a far more compelling personality."

They don't follow him either. My cutoff point was five - by that I meant every account followed by five or more followers of @ProLifeAtheists was included in the report. No atheist or humanist accounts made the cut.

"Whatever about atheism, I personally find some of Dawkins' comments on how he is in favour of infanticide particularly extraordinary..."

Geoff said...

Cora, I'm afraid you go down a notch in my estimation with this one. You're referring to Creationist attempts to quotemine him, and you know it just isn't true. When you say things that just aren't true, your voice starts to lose credibility. I strongly counsel against. I'd be grateful if you provided links for any further assertions; I do like to fact check.

"Of course, there is also the possibility that any atheist espousing a prolife position would cry off on taking a look at some of the twitter feed today. Not exactly welcoming of a different opinion."

Of course, we atheists are famed for our shy and retiring nature on Twitter :).

"All of this of course is just dancing around the elephant in the room, which again, I've pointed out before. Human life is ended in every abortion. Let's discuss that."

I have a limited amount of time and a limited skillset. I'm good at this particular avenue of research and it is relevant. On a general note I find those opposed to legislating for X in Ireland exaggerate their support by appealing to American groups. They are either definitely funded from the States, or likely funded from the States and unwilling to deny or show accounts indicating otherwise. They tend to be buttressed by those in the States who want to falsely claim Ireland as a golden example of maternal healthcare to advance their own legal agenda - these folk do not hold Irish women as a priority.

Those in favour of legislating for X are unfunded, majority Irish, don't exaggerate their numbers, and aren't using highly suspicious Twitter accounts to advance their point.

Are these not reasonable factors to consider when mulling over the debate?

Geoff said...

Myk: Exactly how do the details of one account's followers say anything about the owner of an account?

I find curiosity about the character of an individual is best satiated by looking at the accounts they choose to follow. In this instance my interest was in the demographics of the followers, and Cora's implied claim that they are an example of a significant number of atheists supporting her position. The operator of the account wasn't of primary interest, but if you like, I'm happy to check.

"You've found exactly what we'd expect to find."

Interesting. I did not approach the investigation with preconceptions, but it sounds like you've suspected my findings for some time. Do you agree, therefore, that they do not support Cora's point?

Hooligan Hobo said...

I am an atheist. I know a lot of atheists. None of them follow any atheist twitter accounts.

Also, given my own laziness when it comes to updating profiles etc., many once Catholics, now atheists, probably have profiles with the word catholic in them. As strange as it may seem to the more excitable atheists out there, many of us just don't care what other people think and are not concerned with how we are viewed by masses of randomers we'll never meet.

All that said, your case is a good a one and I expect you are probably right in your analysis. I would wonder only about the degree.
There are a lot of once Catholics flirting with atheism these days, mostly a reaction to the litany, pun intended, of child abuse scandals in the RCC. Most lack, in my humble estimation, any real conviction about their atheism or newfound Buddhism etc.

Geoff said...

Hooligan, your blog is fascinating. Highly enjoyable; I look forward to reading more.

I considered posting all the biographies, do you think that would help?

Siobh said...

Geoff does one thing here: analyse @ProLifeAtheists followers. But it's not the only thing that sheds light on the account. The Twitter users that @ProLifeAtheists follows also lean significantly towards the usual suspects. (Geoff - could you analyse them too?)

The account regularly retweets religious pro-life individuals (Cora Sherlock seems to get more retweets than anyone). More significantly (because there can't be any doubt about where they stand), it retweets religious pro-life groups - including the likes of the American Life League's Stop Planned Parenthood campaign (@Defund_PP). It posts links to the likes of Life Site News.

But surely the most important thing is the content of the tweets authored by @ProLifeAtheists. In that it's clear that whoever is behind the account uses the same rhetotic as religious pro-lifers and spouts the same disinformation.

Look back to around the time the news about Savita Halappanavar's death first became public. The account is indistinguisable from that of every religious pro-life group. It joined the same panicked scramble to attack pro-choice activists and to deny deny deny that Savita's death had anything to do with access to termination or the confused state of abortion law in Ireland.

I've already asked @ProLifeAthiests who they are and got no response. There is no information about them on their Twitter bio or on their (empty) blog. All we're asking is who they are. By the way, I'm using "they" because of that plural in the username and because its tweets have used the word "we" - of course it's very likely it's just one person.

sight66 said...

They're atheists the same way SE Cupp is an atheist. Very strange.

stephband said...

Of course, it could simply mean that atheists don't see the need to follow other atheists, whereas as religiousists do, in order to affirm their religiousisity.

But i doubt it.

larisa said...

try pro-life humanists. on FB i personally found groups like pro-life socialists, feminists, punks(!). they are little groups... but there is plenty space to expand.

larisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.