(RNS) — One day in March of this year, Owen Morgan walked into a Walmart in Kentucky for a quick stop at the store’s newspaper rack. Wearing a mask and a hood to avoid being spotted by anyone who might recognize him, he rifled through newspapers to see if his name had made the front pages.
A few days prior, Morgan, who is known as Telltale on YouTube, had uploaded a video on his channel titled “My Daughter’s Health Teacher Tried To INDOCTRINATE THE CLASS.” The video featured a recording of his 12-year-old daughter’s health teacher discussing religious beliefs in class. Since then Morgan had been receiving hate messages online and offline.
Morgan objected to the teacher telling her sixth-grade students not only that it was wrong to be sexually active, but relating her cautions about sex to the Bible and God.
“If you’re brought up with morals and values, then God’s gonna be there to help you make better decisions,” the teacher is heard saying on the recording.
When Morgan released his video saying that involving the Bible in education is against the law, many of his neighbors in West Virginia threatened him and his daughter, he said, and started posting hate comments about him on social media and repeatedly driving by his house and honking their horns. In a later video, Morgan said he couldn’t leave his house, open his doors or even take the trash out for fear of abuse or reprisal.
Born into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Morgan came to think of his family’s beliefs as destructive. At the age of 18, he was disfellowshipped for smoking a cigarette and shunned by most of his relatives and friends. He continued to believe in the religion till he was 22 before changing course.
“I wanted to understand how this happens to people. How they come to the point where they believe this extremist ideology. Not Jehovah’s Witnesses, but even non-religious ones — QAnon and Scientology and things like that. So I started researching and trying to understand and started a YouTube channel,” he said.
Morgan’s channel, which has drawn about 290,000 followers and 54 million views since he launched it in 2016, focuses on cults and religions he deems to be oppressive, with clips from religious leaders trying to convert others, viral Christian TikTok theories suggesting Beyonce is a demon and examinations of cult psychology.
But when he turned his focus to his hometown, he suddenly found himself not just ostracized but under attack. Morgan and his daughter had already planned to move to New York City, where they live now, after school was out last summer. The incident forced them to move up their plans. In the middle of the night that week in March, they packed up and fled.
Morgan’s experience only emphasized the necessity for nonbelievers to find communities such as the Faithless Forum, which Morgan helped found with fellow YouTubers Thomas Westbrook and Jeremiah Jennings in 2018. The group’s goal is to encourage atheist content creators and to build a secular community over time. It declares on its website that it aims to “build community, promote collaboration, and fight pseudoscience with scientific skepticism and critical thinking.”
The group held its third Faithless Forum conference in Austin, Texas, in late November to what its organizers call a pandemic-reduced crowd of 170. The three-day event offered workshops to support those who have left their religion, discussions on how religion promotes anti-science culture and how to raise children as atheists, as well as YouTube marketing techniques.
“We had an overwhelmingly positive response,” said Westbrook. “A lot of people told us that they have been isolated and that in their community, oftentimes atheists are viewed as, you know, with hostility. And so being in a community where they are being in a group setting like this where they can be open and out and freely discussing issues like this (is important).”
Westbrook, who was raised in a religious evangelical missionary family, said his doubts about faith came through reading as he got older.
“I read a lot of books by physicists. I read a lot of books about evolution and about biology. Took online classes just out of curiosity. And I started realizing that a lot of the stories that I was taught were at the very least not literal. At the very least, they couldn’t physically happen the way that they’re literally described,” he said.
He gradually transitioned to liberal Christianity and later atheism after discovering “logical fallacies” in religious teachings about the creation of the earth and evolution.
“When I became an atheist, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out right away. I was a closeted atheist for a while. I didn’t really tell my family or friends, and I didn’t really tell my coworkers because I didn’t want that to affect my job or my chance for promotions or raises. I just acted like a liberal Christian who believed in evolution,” he said.
But Westbrook’s feeling of being lied to pushed him to create awareness about atheism. His channel, Holy Koolaid, a reference to the mass suicide of cult members at Jonestown, in Guyana in 1978, now has over 216,000 subscribers and over 23 million views.
On Jeremiah Jennings’ YouTube channel, Prophet of Zod, Jennings appears with a signature look: a gray jacket and an oval filled with static covering his face. Growing up Pentecostal in Alaska, he left his family’s faith in his 30s and started his YouTube career writing material for his brother’s channel, TheFaithCheck before launching Prophet of Zod in 2016. He uses his channel to counsel non-believers on talking about atheism with the believers they know and love.
“I get messages from people talking about some of the difficulties they had figuring out what it means for them to not believe, and communicating with family members and stuff,” he said.
While they have left Christianity behind, these creators are missionaries in their own right, ones who primarily use social media to spread their message. But not all social media platforms are the same. TikTok is great for new exposure, but it doesn’t have the same audience retention, Westbrook said. But “with YouTube, you can have a lot more depth. You can have longer conversations. You can get really laser focused with stuff and flesh out a topic.”
And while TikTok is trendy, Twitter attracts a very diverse crowd, including those who may not agree with his messaging. Morgan said he also likes YouTube because he receives less hate on his channel, partly because of how its algorithm is structured to bring in viewers with similar interests.
He noted that TikTok’s lively conversation was slightly different. “If you’re a Christian, you go to the Christian TikTok hashtag. If you’re an atheist, you go to the Christian TikTok hashtag because you want to see people saying really weird stuff,” he said.