“This is the Face of an Atheist” : Performing Private Truths in Precarious Publics

Abstract: The primary aim of this dissertation is to gain a greater understanding of the particular vulnerabilities attached to wo/men publicly performing atheist selves on YouTube. The purpose is to examine lived non-religion as a performance of a personal and stigmatized identity in a digitally mediated public. I thus examine 60 vloggers’ videos and comment sections in relation to their experiences of, on the one hand, publicly performing atheist identity in the US context – a culture that strongly ties the idea of good citizenship to religiosity – and on the other hand, to what it means to speak out as a woman, agendered, or gender queer person in a minority discourse dominated by men. By use of qualitative feminist intertextual analysis, this study focuses three empirical questions: What characterizes the process of the performances of selves in videos made by non-religious wo/men in the US context? What socio-technological affordances are made visible in the videos, and how do they structure the performances? What characterizes vloggers’ interactions with commenters, and how does this process shape the construction of a space for their self-performances? The findings and their significance for sociology of religion – more precisely the subfields of digital religion and nonreligious and secular studies – is discussed through the fourth and fifth research questions: How can theories of self-performance, counterpublics, and third spaces in digital religion help us understand what is happening in these types of spaces? What theoretical implications follow from these results for understanding visibility of religion as a public phenomenon in current sociology of religion? The study finds that vloggers co-effect third spaces of emotive resonance that enable a precarious counterpublicness of performing atheist visibility. This dissertation can thereby open up a new intellectual space within sociology of religion and digital media studies for engaging with non-religious identity in a mediatized society. Further, it provides novel understandings of the visibility and publicness of atheist identity and the socio-technological conditions that both afford and constrain them.

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