Reflection – 2014 edition

It’s the end of 2014, and before ringing in the new year, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the passing year.

So how was 2014 in blogging for me? Well, hectic, honestly – I contribute regularly to three blogs, and sporadically to others, so keeping each of the beasts fed with content can be draining. On the other hand, it has been wildly successful, on just about every front. The fact that I am pressured to provide content means that there really are people who want to hear what I have to say. I truly wish I had the resources to contribute more.

Nevertheless, 2014 has been a spectacularly successful year for me here at Canadian Atheist. But for the blog itself, it was the year that almost wasn’t!

It started with the entire blog killed by hackers in late 2013, but Joe yanked it back from the netherworld in late January. CA survived, but there still were murmurs of concern. People were wondering about whether CA could possibly return to the same levels of quality and success that it had enjoyed before. It felt almost like starting from scratch, with an entirely new team, and a daunting legacy to live up to. Even I wondered if we could pull it off.

All of my doubts, however, were put to rest with the very first content post.* Veronica Abbass came out of the docks with full cannons roaring on one of her favourite topics – the publicly-funded Catholic school system in Ontario – along with a generally scathing criticism of the unwarranted reverence and privilege that Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, enjoys in Ontario, especially in media treatments. Right from word one, Abbass was pulling no punches; here are the actual first words of post content on the revamped Canadian Atheist:

The media are partially responsible for the excessive respect religion receives in Ontario. Most articles, whether they are for or against accommodating religion, use pictures with their articles that imply that religion and religious symbols (especially Christian) are familiar and acceptable in Ontario.

I vividly remember reading that first post, and my eyebrows went up and I let out a low whistle, saying to myself: “Game on.” Abbass always writes with a punchy, wry wit, but she must have been holding it in for those weeks that CA was out of commission, just storing it up for this opening salvo. And it wasn’t just a critique post – after some sharp pokes at the cowardly politicians who allow the status quo to continue, she not only offers solutions, she even posts suggestions for how you – the reader – can get involved yourself. I don’t think there could have been a more fitting first post for the new Canadian Atheist.

The gauntlet was thrown and other writers – first Diana MacPherson and then Corwin – quickly stepped up to the challenge.

But… where was I during this time?

Well, I admit: I had a bit of a rough start this year. My opening post was around two weeks late, and it was certainly not up to the quality I expect from myself. My followup post came almost two months later, and it was actually a followup to a (lost) post from 2013 – and even then it was half-assed.

What was happening was that behind the scenes at the time was that I was looking into possibilities for recovering the lost content from the previous iteration of Canadian Atheist. It was an enormous undertaking – there was a lot of content – and it was very, very risky; reintroducing the old content might also have reintroduced an old back door, opening the site up for hacking a second time. And, as the new Canadian Atheist started filling up with content, I was discovering that clashes between old content and new content were going to be extremely difficult to resolve.

It was around late March that I realized it just wasn’t going to be feasible. But at the same time, I also realized… I preferred it that way. I’m not really the kind of person who likes to lug around cruft from the ancient past. One could view the complete reinitialization of Canadian Atheist as a tragedy, for all the content that was lost. But on the other hand one could also view it as an opportunity to be something new and fresh – to go in directions set by the current contributors, without being burdened by what was left behind by contributors long since moved on.

So… I took a deep breath… and closed the file on the old Canadian Atheist. It will always have a dear place in my heart, and it’s not like it’s lost forever: it’s still available in the Internet Archive, and backups still exist that could theoretically be used to recreate the entire site (security holes and all).

But it’s now in the past, and so I chose to finally let it stay there. Then I turned my attention to the future of Canadian Atheist.

So I guess, in a way, blogging on Canadian Atheist in 2014 for me really started at the end of March. And, it started slowly and required some steam to build up. But eventually, I did get back into the swing of things.

I am certainly not one of the more prolific authors on this blog – in fact, I may actually be the least prolific contributor. I only did 14 posts in 2014 (15 if you count this one). I don’t post often, but I believe I post well. I tend to put a lot of research into my posts, and keep laser-focused on topics of specific interest to Canadian atheists. It’s hard to be certain, because we only started tracking stats some time in September – and I don’t actually have access to detailed reports – but what little evidence I have seems to suggest that that strategy has paid off in droves.

The landing page – “Home” – obviously gets the most views of all, by an order of magnitude; other site-wide pages like “Contact” and “About” are also quite popular. Ignoring these site-wide pages, the average number of views per post (since statistics started in September) is 46.9.** Including the site-wide pages, the number of views per post is 75.2 (you can see how the landing page makes a huge difference). Well, my posts average 168.1… that’s more that twice the site-wide average including the site-wide pages.

It is hard to say for certain, given the lack of good numbers, but I would estimate that the posts I wrote that had the most impact in 2014 were:

  1. “Electoral Reform” (18-May-2014)
  2. “The Salvation Army throws family out into freezing night, due to fear of imaginary gay paedophiles” (2-Dec-2014)
  3. “CBC News discusses atheism, badly as usual” (29-Sep-2014)
  4. “Study on diversity in the atheist movement shows we have a ways to go, but are making progress” (15-Dec-2014)
  5. “The 2014 Freedom of Thought report” (10-Dec-2014)

You’ll notice that it seems a little biased toward posts from later in the year. That’s not because of any actual bias, but simply because I got off to such a slow start. Half of all the posts I did this year were from October on.

“The 2014 Freedom of Thought report”

I have to admit that I’m not particularly surprised that this post generated a lot of interest. The same was true of the (now lost) article I did for the 2013 report.

A lot of it was indignation by various people because their country – sometimes Canada but not always – scored so poorly. These were emotional reactions, of course, and more often than not quite impossible to respond to. Most of the rest of the comments were people asking why this or that country scored as it did, or how the report made its conclusions – which really only required a “RTFR” response.

And, really, the credit here goes to the IHEU, for the work they put into the report.

“Study on diversity in the atheist movement shows we have a ways to go, but are making progress”

Many thanks to Veronica Abbass for alerting me to this study. (I actually had the alert in my inbox, but hadn’t gotten around to noticing it before she notified me. Indeed, without her heads up, I might have missed it completely.)

I was pleasantly surprised by the interest generated by this study. A lot of times when people start taking about diversity issues in the atheist movement, the response is a lot of negativity. You get people rolling their eyes in disdain at the idea of caring about diversity – for reasons I struggle to understand – or soap-boxing about how “there is no movement”, and other such nonsense. Sometimes it really makes you wonder if people really don’t care about diversity, or the atheist movement – or both – as much as you think they do.

And, unsurprisingly, this study and the reporting on it – including my own – generated no shortage of the usual negativity. But what pleasantly surprised me was how much positive (or at least neutral) interest it raised as well. It turns out that people do really care about the atheist movement, and about making it as diverse and welcoming as possible.

“CBC News discusses atheism, badly as usual”

Ah, the CBC. It has had a truly shitty year – especially toward the end there with the whole Jian Ghomeshi thing. I’ve been loosely following it, and I shamefully admit to indulging in some schadenfreude as the execs are squirming in the spotlight (under pressure by their own reporters, no less!).

But my post came long before all that came to light, and was just one of many, many posts I have made over the years about the CBC’s rampant ignorance of and often naked hostility toward nonbelievers. As I note in that article, Wendy Mesley is a serial offender when it comes to being boneheaded about atheist and secular issues – I don’t know if it’s just that her reporting “style” is supposed to be that she’s playing some kind of Colbert-idiot role to provoke contention in the discussion for the sake of ratings, or she’s actually that ignorant, but whenever atheist or secular issues come up, she can be truly cringe-worthy to listen to… and she just loves to talk about those issues.

And all that is even without touching on the other examples of antipathy toward nonbelievers you can find on the CBC, like Rex Murphy telling atheists to “quit yer whinin’”. It seems these foibles have caught the attention of CA readers, which I think is a very good thing. After all, Canada’s national broadcaster is ours, too – we deserve better representation there.

“The Salvation Army throws family out into freezing night, due to fear of imaginary gay paedophiles”

Every year since 2005 I have published a post about something horrible the Salvation Army has done. This is not something I plan or schedule… it just happens, every year. (I actually made that “no to the Salvation Army” image almost ten years ago. Depressingly, I still find a use for it.)

Every year I am surprised by the strong response these posts get. A lot of the comments are people troubled – or sometimes infuriated – by the fact that I speak so badly of such a venerable institution. Some express shock or unease at the discovery of what the Army really is – a church, not a charity – and what they’ve done and continue to do behind the scenes.

I’m actually of two minds about the strong response I get every year to my Salvation Army posts. On the one hand, I’m disappointed that I have to keep repeating the same damn thing year after year, and year after year again face the same outrage and shock from people just learning for the first time at what a horrible and deceptive organization the Army is.

But on the other hand, I find my spirits lifted by the fact that so many people care. There are a few who cling desperately to the Army out of some misguided sense of tradition, but most are more concerned about whether and how we can provide the same services to the needy that they do. It warms my heart to be reminded that what we unbelievers care most about is not simply anger at the way the Army has been fleecing us for decades, but rather making sure that the people who need help get it.

“Electoral reform”

I must confess, I did not expect this post to go viral, but it did.

It was written in the lead-up to the Ontario election – just after the Québec election, and looking ahead to the New Brunswick election in September and the federal election next year (also, I believe 2015 means elections in PEI, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories). In all honesty, it wasn’t really intended to be a major post. I presumed that knowledge about the problems with Canada’s electoral system were widely and well-known, and that the need for a move to proportional representation was simply accepted by everyone. The post actually assumed all of that as prior knowledge, and focused instead on why the issue was important to nonbelievers specifically.

What happened instead was I discovered that very few people knew about how badly in need of reform our electoral system is – and fewer still were well-informed about the potential fixes. I found myself in a very surreal position, where several people who had repeatedly mocked me in comments on other posts for not understanding Canadian politics (according to them) were caught completely flatfooted on this very important issue, knowing literally nothing about it. It was like – as it was put into words by a friend I discussed it with – there was a crowd of people who had previously jeered me for not knowing enough about climate science, so I wrote a post on what Canada needs to do about climate change… only to discover that no-one in that crowd knew what climate change, arguably the most important issue in climate science, was.

I spent a great deal of time answering questions and objections about electoral reform – never actually getting to the point where the issue was well-enough understood that we could talk about how it relates to nonbelievers specifically – and apparently the discussions on CA attracted an enormous amount of attention. I started getting emails at my personal address, people chasing me down on IRC, and even messages sent from organizations focused on electoral reform asking me to join! Almost all of them were quite supportive – most people wanted to thank me for bringing the issue to their attention, and explaining it in so much detail.

Even now, seven months later, I still get people bringing up that post, and asking me to make more “soundbite-friendly” posts or infographics about it (the latter is my own fault, because I was the one who suggested in the comments of the original post that it might be worthwhile to make some kind of infographic about it). Given the continued interest – and the fact that 2015 will be a busy year for voting – I expect I will be revisiting the topic in the coming year. (Though, that will depend on whether I can find a way to frame it so that it will be of interest to Canadian atheists in general – I do not use CA as a platform for my own political views on issues unrelated to Canadian atheism.)

2015

What are my plans for next year? Same thing they are every year. (Cue Pinky & the Brain theme music.)

I don’t really make plans for what I’ll write in the future on Canadian Atheist. Oh, sure, there are some things I have in mind that I’ll post about – I’m thinking, for example, of a post mining the data from “Study on diversity in the atheist movement shows we have a ways to go, but are making progress” for just the Canadian conferences and presenters… and I’m probably going to make a more “soundbite friendly” version of the in-depth look at the 2014 Freedom of Thought report (because someone asked me to). I’m also considering a change in style toward smaller, easier to read posts, because several people have suggested that. But that’s about it – and none of those things are really set in stone.

You see, I never know what direction freethought is going to blow in any given year. That’s one of the things I like most about it, actually. Atheism, humanism, secularism, freethought – and all the movements and people associated with them – they’re constantly surprising me, and challenging me. I am perpetually forced to learn, to change, to grow. I think that’s a wonderful thing, which is why I like blogging about these things so much.

So 2014 was a good year in blogging for me. I’m as proud and just as thrilled to be able to call myself a Canadian Atheist contributor today as I was when I first got the offer. And I’m still particularly honoured to stand with the company I work with here. I’m as much a CA reader as I am a contributor, and always eagerly look forward to their posts.

I hope you found my posts interesting, maybe even informative, and I hope to bring you even more and better in 2015.

I’ll see you on the flip side!

(* Not counting the weekly update of Jesus and Mo.)

(** Bear in mind that that doesn’t mean that posts actually get ~47 views – it’s actually a lot higher. The number is artificially low because the stats only started counting in September, so all those pages from back in January and February only have the two or three views they got in the last couple of months… whereas at the time they would have gotten hundreds. I just don’t have an easy way to filter out the posts that were published before stats counting began.)

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