What happened to the chain of unbelief at Patheos?

(RNS) – Visitors to Patheos, the multi-faith media platform that hosts commentary from writers from many of the world’s religions, may have noticed some changes lately.

His non-religious channel has become an empty shell, devoid of many of the household names that once occupied the space, including his most popular blogger, Hemant Mehta, the “friendly atheist.”

Mehta and 14 other non-religious bloggers, along with the channel’s manager, have taken to a new site, OnlySky Media, which is slated to launch later this month.

The changes come amid new surveys showing that the number of people with no religious affiliation has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching 29% of the US population, from 19% in 2011. These “nones,” a catch-all for a multitude of groups, including atheists, agnostics, humanists, and quite simply the laity, have established multiple service and advocacy organizations to serve this growing segment of the population. But there is no media platform dedicated solely to those who are not part of traditional religions.

RELATED: Poll: America is getting more secular every year

Efforts to join Patheos’ management team were unsuccessful, but outgoing bloggers and their channel manager, Dale McGowan, said that about a year ago, Patheos decided to change his editorial direction. Bloggers were told they can stay in Patheos as long as they stop writing negative or critical articles about religion or politics and instead focus on living a good life within their own vision. of the world.

“The writing on the wall was that unless you are ready to say nice things about religion, you have to find a new outlet,” said Mehta, who has written for Patheos since 2011, often posting several times over. day, with particular emphasis on stories of religious hypocrisy.

About 20 bloggers left the site in the last days of 2021. On Tuesday (January 4), the main article on the homepage read: “Don’t stop believing: faith for the new year” .

Patheos is owned by BN Media, which created a new umbrella organization called Radiant last year. It includes Patheos, the Beliefnet lifestyle site and three other wellness and spirituality platforms with a mission to help people “live their most fulfilling lives”.

Beliefnet, once a vigorous journalistic site, has undergone a similar transformation after being acquired on two occasions, first by Fox Entertainment Group in 2007 and later by BN Media, where it became an inspirational, spiritual-focused site. , health and well-being.

“What they were asking us was not consistent with the editorial tone we had taken up to that point,” said Adam Lee, who wrote the “Daylight Atheism” blog for Patheos. “Many of us felt that this would require such an editorial change as to make our blogs unrecognizable.”

McGowan said he was told last March that Patheos wanted to change his name.

“It was a business decision to take a long-term view,” said McGowan. It may have been difficult for Patheos to attract publicity among religious businesses while providing a forum for atheists to criticize religion, he said.

McGowan, the author of 10 books on non-religious life, including “Parenting Beyond Belief,” had previously spoken with investors about creating a new platform for non-religious people.

“When Patheos announced this shift in focus, we realized it was an opportunity to give some of these bloggers a soft landing,” he said.

Fifteen Patheos bloggers have agreed to join OnlySky, where McGowan is now Content Director.

The new media platform is designed as a site that combines storytelling and commentary exploring the breadth of human experience from a lay perspective, said Shawn Hardin, its founder and CEO.

A Bay Area entrepreneur who has created several media products for AOL, Yahoo and NBC, among others, Hardin said he envisions a space that explores a wide range of age-old values.

“We believe that the unaffiliated are a woefully underserved segment of the population,” Hardin said. “We are quite optimistic about our opportunity to create a business that meets the public interest and can invest in its own growth. “

(The name of the new media company was inspired by John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” which envisions a world without Heaven and Hell – “above us only Heaven.”)

Author Hemant Mehta. Photo by Steve Greiner, courtesy of Mehta

One key will be to create a sense of community for a diverse set of people who seek meaning and wish to connect with others on a similar path. Whether non-religious Americans want community is not yet clear.

The Sunday Assembly movement, which attempted to create local congregations for non-believers, numbered 70 congregations in the United States and the United Kingdom. About half have closed or slept.

Beyond polls indicating their growing numbers, little is known about non-religious people or their willingness to engage with issues as a group.

“There are people who are passionate about secularism, atheism and agnosticism, perhaps because they don’t like what they see about religion in the news,” said Diane Winston, professor of religion and media at the University of Southern California. “But it’s a small minority of people that make up the unaffiliated or disaffiliated. A lot of these people don’t care in one way or another.

Mehta, however, said he had high hopes.

“There is no media that specifically targets atheists,” he said. “All the other atheist-specific blogging networks are run by volunteers and people who are passionate about the topic but don’t do anything good in business, so they falter and die. This one has digital expertise.

RELATED: The Sunday Assembly hopes to organize an ungodly future. It is not easy.

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