A Case Study of R/atheism As A Discourse Community

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Posted on 13 Apr 2013 02:49

A Case Study of R/atheism As A Discourse Community

Fidan Mamedova
April 12, 2013


In The following paper I analyze a popular internet forum that discusses atheism, the lack of adherence to religion and belief in a higher power, in terms of the model of a discourse community created by sociolinguist John Swales and I discuss how the community exhibits the characteristics of the use of "Discourses" and identity as described by James Paul Gee in the hopes of illustrating and validating what each of those is by using specific instances and examples gathered from discourse within the community.


When studying writing, one of the most important aspects to understand is genre. Genres are categories of literature that share similar compositional and stylistic criteria. The best way to understand genre is to consider groups of people who systematically use standard genres as modes of communication and identification: communities. More specifically, one should consider discourse communities, which, according to linguists James Paul Gee and John Swales, are communities of people who have similar values, goals, and ways of communicating about those values and goals.

John Swales helped develop the term “discourse community” by defining six qualities that he claims are both necessary and sufficient for characterizing it. He contends that all discourse communities have an agreed upon set of common goals, have mechanisms of intercommunication between members, uses its mechanisms of communication to make statements and to give feedback, makes use of certain particular genres consistently, have a unique, common lexis, and have a threshold of members and a way to rank them. I choose to use these proposed six characteristics as a model for studying a discourse community because my own observations of a discourse community and my peers’ observations of various discourse communities have benefitted from this model in that it has adequately described the different aspects of interaction between members.

James Paul Gee made separate observations; these were regarding how one enters a discourse community and adopts the “Discourses” of that community. Gee defines discourses as ways of being in the world, as an “identity key” which dictates what we say, do and which role we play depending upon whom we are communicating with. Gee contends that different social situations have an impact on this “identity key”, an impact that changes the way we speak, the words we use, and the roles we play. Furthermore, he describes that we have different Discourses in every social situation, beginning from our most primitive interaction with our family following our birth. His overarching point is that people usually have to learn, or adjust to, transferring what they intend to say and do from their primary discourse into a secondary one, each time they enter a new social situation.

In order to better understand these two conclusions made by sociolinguists, I have taken it upon myself to choose a community that I am a part of and analyze it using Swales’ model and to qualify it as a discourse community and to understand, by way of Gee’s conclusions, how people interact within that community. My community of choice is a sub-group of a popular online forum called Reddit. Reddit as a whole is a large community that serves to allow its members to exchange opinions and conversation about various topics regarding experiences of the world around us. Members communicate over the Internet and can be located anywhere in the world. Internet forums are very useful in that they allow this international exchange of knowledge and human experience in a mostly unrestrictive way. However, the whole of Reddit is much too complicated to describe at this point in my observation, so I have chosen a sub-group, rather a sub-Reddit, to which I shall apply Swales’ six characteristics in order to show that it is truly a discourse community and analyze the interaction of its members Gee’s claims in order to understand how people using Discourses to communicate in specified social situations. The sub-Reddit that will be discussed hereafter is called r/atheism.

R/atheism is an Internet forum sub-group that discusses the experiences and beliefs of people who have chosen to abstain from belief in a higher or divine power. This definition is simple and dry, mainly because being an atheist does not bind one to anything other than not believing in a higher power. While many atheists do share in beliefs about the validity of evolution, science in general, the lack of existence of an afterlife, aliens, etc., none of these is bound to the definition of “atheist”. That makes for a very large group of people. R/atheism claims to be the World Wide Web’s largest atheist forum, boasting over 1.8 million subscribers. Discussions vary from advice on coming out as atheist to religious friends and family, quotations that reflect a lack of belief in deities from highly respected individuals, funny and sarcastic pictures related to religion and its “backwardness” and, often, screenshots of arguments with religious people who appear to lack common sense or morality due to their religious beliefs. Fellow Redditors can comment on all posts and there are moderators who organize the posts into different categories based on their usefulness to the sub-Reddit and/or their genre type, which includes moving all of the spammers and disrespectful posts to a separate page, which is titled “Trolls”. One does not need to be a member of the sub-Reddit to view it, but one does need to be a member in order to post or comment on anything on the sub-Reddit, as is true for all of Reddit.


I have been a member of r/atheism for a little over a year. I have commented on posts, made my own posts, and have had long discussions with my fellow Redditors. However, over the course of the last month I have been observing r/atheism through the lens of John Swales’ six characteristics, attempting to classify it as a discourse community. My methodology, then, has been observation and record keeping of instances that reflect, or conflict with Swales’ discourse community model. I have made note of different genres used by Redditors, modes of communication, ranking systems, goals and values, and common lexis used by Redditors. My findings are described in the Results and Analyses section.

Results and Analyses

Analysis of r/atheism As A Discourse Community Using John Swales’ Proposed Characteristics:

1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
R/atheism is a community that seeks to make the consideration that there is no God or afterlife a very widespread idea for our generation. This community hopes to reach out to as many people as it can so as to create what this community considers to be a more advanced and more “aware” society that will reject fundamentalist, religious views that impede the beliefs and practices of others, and/or the advancement of science. Strictly speaking, the basic aim of this community is to discuss atheism, in all its forms, in the hopes that people reading the contents of these discussions will see the logic and reason behind these beliefs and decide to join, or at least be more open-minded.

2. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.

The mechanisms of intercommunication on r/atheism are also true for all of Reddit. They are quite simple: members create original posts using accepted genres, which will be described in the appropriate section, and other members “upvote”, “downvote”, or comment on those posts.

3. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.

Upvoting ad downvoting is a way to express the like or the dislike of an original post. The impact of upvoting and downvoting is that highly upvoted posts are more likely to show up on the first page of the forum, and are more likely to be read, and commented on. Furthermore, each time a member likes a post, the original poster receives a “karma” point, which accumulate for the original poster on their personal page. There is also an option to private message another member in order to discuss something that the two members don’t want other members to see.

4. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.

R/atheism utilizes the following genres: pictures, videos, comment threads, screenshots of conversation from other social media websites, quotations by respectable individuals, pictures with quotations, text posts, and memes. While most of these are self-explanatory, some of these genres deserve an explanation. Members of r/atheism like to cite famous, highly respected individuals who have received recognition for their successes in science, philosophy, or pretty much anything, in order to both idolize the person, or to give their own beliefs more value by using this person as an authority on the matter. Comment threads are the result of comments and subsequent replies that turn into long conversations stemming from one topic of discussion. Memes are like Internet fads in that they are concepts, presented in a recognizable form, which spread form person to person via the World Wide Web. Most of the memes employed by Redditors are called “advice animal” memes, which are images of a single character that has a specific niche or personality trait that is relatable to certain types of people. Memes are used on almost every Internet forum nowadays, and Redditors are particularly specific on the proper use of them, and Reddit is often the birthplace of new memes. An example of a “meme” is provided in the “Data” section. Screenshots of conversations are an especially important genre on r/atheism because it is a way for Redditors to showcase the discussions that they have with other people about religion on other social networking websites. Often times these screenshots show arguments or are meant to showcase the ridiculousness of the things that some religious fundamentalists say. There is a rule of thumb that all names and photographs must be blanked out to protect the identity of the people in the screenshots. An example of an appropriate screenshot is also provided in the “Data” section.

5. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.

Reddit-speak is really just a compilation of Internet language used on a multitude of forums. However, its constant use has really made it a signature Reddit thing. In addition to common abbreviations that are used all over the Internet such as LOL, for laugh out loud, Reddit has abbreviations that are used to say something faster such as “TL; DR” for “too long; didn’t read”, which is a section at the end of a long text post that is meant to summarize what was said for those who are simply skimming the conversation. There is also “OP” for “original poster”, “OC” for original content, and "IRL" for "in real life", among various other abbreviations. R/atheism has its own section for frequently asked questions that defines words like “atheism”, “agnosticism” and many other words that come up in conversation, so as to set a standard for their meanings as used in the entire sub-Reddit, and all subscribers are highly urged to read this section in order to properly use all terms.

6. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

The ranking and moderating system of Reddit is very subtle and, at first glance, difficult to identify. I say this because unlike most other communities, there is no restriction for entry into the community. In fact, because it is an open Internet forum, anybody can join from anywhere in the word simply by making an alias and a password. And even more interesting, is that members don’t actually have to participate in any way. There is a term for such members who choose only to observe, and that term is “lurker”. How then does r/atheism fit with this characteristic? The answer to this is the impact of the earned “karma” points. Members with a high amount of karma points, or who have made posts that have earned many upvotes are considered to have more “expertise” and to participate in a way that is most beneficial to the goals of the community.

Furthermore, there is a class of Redditors on this sub-Reddit, which has the ultimate control over which posts can be viewed and which cannot be viewed. These are the “moderators” or “mods” for short. Typically, becoming a mod is simple on most sub-Reddits; there must simply be an opening on the sub-Reddit. However, on a sub-Reddit as highly populated as r/atheism, there is almost never an opening and in order to become one, you must appeal to one of the current mods via private message. I have, myself, tried to do this and have not yet received a reply, which likely means that there is either no opening or that I am under qualified for the position.

Analysis of Entering The R/atheism Community:

According to Gee, in order to become part of a new Discourse, one must transfer their thoughts and actions from their primary Discourse into a secondary one. In his essay "Literacy, discourse and linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy?" Gee describes an situation, one that he likely observed, wherein an toddler attempts to tell her mother and sister a story. The toddler often watches her older sister and mother while they are reading for school. The toddler, who is five years old pays attention to the story book style in which the mother is talking to her sister and concludes that in this time and place, this is the proper way to speak to them. After an incident at a birthday party she attends, the toddler tells the story to her mother and sister during reading time in the same story book genre. This is quite an interesting situation and it is Gee's way of describing how people enter new discourse communities by adopting the language, genre and roles of that new discourse community. In my research, I found a very interesting case of this situation. I would like to discuss a thread begun by somebody who is quite clearly an outsider to this community, but who managed to make it to the front page by using the proper terms and adhering to the rules and etiquette (actually defined as “Retiquette” on the main page).

The particular thread that I intend to discuss here was begun by non-other-than a Christian seeking an explanation from the atheists of Reddit as to how they chose to believe what they do. I think this post shows many positive attributes of the r/atheism community and it does a great deal to help Redditors at least think that they are achieving their goal of establishing a more “aware” society. This thread is a compilation of thoughtful explanations of reasoning by atheist Redditors and it is a generally mature and sophisticated conversation with somebody who doesn’t belong to the community. Clearly, the person who initially began the thread is an outsider, who, nevertheless, understands the lexis and etiquette of the community.

To elaborate, the person who began this post was well aware of a few premises, which he mentions, before proceeding with his actions. He very politely, and non-discriminatively, asks the Redditors of the sub-Reddit why they have chosen to abscond from religion. In the description for his question-post, he mentions that he is aware that he may be “downvoted” because the first few words of his question are “I am a Christian”, which to the sub-Redditors of this sub-Reddit often means that there is going to be an annoying argument about the chicken and the egg, with healthy doses of “YOU ARE ALL GOING TO HELL” and “GOD HATES YOU FAGS”. However, this Redditor does not proceed to do this and promises that he is only interested in learning why people have chosen to not believe in God. This post has been cited for the reader's convenience. His ability to use the proper language and to not stray from the terms provided by the frequently asked questions section, as well as his post's obvious usefulness to overall goal of the sub-Reddit earned him a temporary spot on the front page, a place typically reserved for high-standing "insiders". Because he was able to properly transfer his thoughts from his primary discourse into the secondary one, after having observed the community for a while is a good exhibition of Gee's own observation of the toddler transferring her story into what she believes is the appropriate discourse between her mother and older sister.


An example of a screenshot of a conversation from another social networking website:

This is a screenshot of a conversation that somebody had or observed on Facebook and it is meant to showcase the immorality, and the irony of the immorality, of a religious persons's statement, IRL. Unfortunately, the Redditor who posted this failed to secure the identity of the people involved in the conversation, which isn't in good taste.

An example of a meme:

Observe this image. The title of this "advice animal" is "Sheltering Suburban Mom" and on r/atheism it has taken on the role of representing conservative, fundamentalist religious people with stereotypically, ridiculous beliefs and the things that they often say. In this case, the character is justifying rape by saying that the victim must have been disloyal to the "Holy Sprit".


In conclusion, I hope that I have been able to show that r/atheism is, indeed, a discourse community because it fits with John Swales’ model and because it exhibits the qualities of intercommunication as it relates to identity and the use of Discourses as described by Gee. Gee and Swales’ models are quite old and were written before the internet age, making it difficult to exactly apply the definitions to something as broad as an Internet forum, but as I have shown, the broadest Internet forum of atheists still adheres to the characteristics presented by these sociolinguists and there is a lot in understanding genres and communication that can be gained from further observation of this community, and perhaps Reddit as a whole.

Works Cited

Gee, J.P. (2001). Literacy, discourse and linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy?. In Cushman, E. et al (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (525-534). Boston, MA: Bedford/Saint Martin's.

NineOneEight. (2013, March 4). I'm a Christian and I've been looking around on this subreddit the past few months and I have a question for everyone here. Message posted to http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/19o3cn/im_a_christian_and_ive_been_looking_around_on/

Swales, John. “The concept of Discourse Community.” Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990. 21-32. Print.

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