If there's no god, how come Reddit just downgraded the atheism subforum?

Reddit steps up its editorial role. But will it have to take responsibility for what goes on within its walls?

Reddit has announced a major shake-up in the way the site looks to new users, swapping out the "politics" and "atheism" subreddits with popular alternatives including "books", "earthporn" (pictures of beautiful places around the world) and "explainlikeimfive" (where users are tasked with explaining difficult concepts as though the listener were a five-year-old).

The change affects the default subreddits, which make up the front page for users who haven't logged in or have just created an account. Once an account is made, a user can change their front page at will, unsubscribing from subreddits they don't like and joining smaller forums for more niche interests, from r/economics to the notorious r/beatingwomen.

The addition of new subreddits - at total of five, with r/television and r/gifs making up the count - is relatively uncontroversial, but the removal of the politics and, particularly, atheism is more surprising. In her blog post announcing the change, Alex Angel, Reddit's community manager, explained their decision:

We could give you a canned corporate answer or a diplomatic answer that is carefully crafted for the situation. But since this is reddit, we’re going to try things a bit differently and give you the real answer: they just weren't up to snuff. Now, don't get us wrong, there still ARE good parts about them. Overall, they just haven't continued to grow and evolve like the other subreddits we've decided to add.

Both subreddits have become strongly identified with a particular niche in their overall community, with r/politics morphing from a stronghold of Ron Paul-supporting internet libertarians to one of equally fervent left-liberals and r/atheism being colonised by (and to a large extent creating the stereotype of) the sort of Dawkins-loving, Sagan-worshipping meme-creating atheists the Guardian recently characterised as "anti-theists".

Both groups have taken the shift relatively well, with a highly recommended post on r/atheism pointing out that "by removing this subreddit as a default, the admins of Reddit have done the right thing in creating neutral set of default subreddits which does not raise any particular view above another". Similarly, this comment catches the zeitgeist at r/politics:

I consider myself very liberal, fiscally and socially, and I hate this sub. I unsubscribed forever ago. This sub has become a joke and the personification of a stereotype, that until I came here, thought only existed in the minds of the extreme right. Hopefully this is a wake up call.

Nonetheless, this reshuffle poses a risk for Reddit. The organisation – owned by the same holding company as Condé Nast publications – has a huge interest in portraying itself as an entirely neutral platform, something more akin to Twitter or Facebook than anything else. That lets them wash their hands of responsibility for travesties like the aforementioned r/beatingwomen, as well as put off decisions like banning r/jailbait (a subreddit dedicated to sexualised photos of under-18 year olds) and r/creepshots (a subreddit dedicated to sexualised photos of women taken without their permission).

Even the default subreddits were, ostensibly, chosen impartially. They were the largest subreddits on the site at the time the idea of a default was introduced, and so when a bunch of them decided to block Gawker in protest at Adrian Chen's unmasking of the man who ran the above subreddits, even though the company had given them a degree of legitimacy, it still managed to argue it was entirely in the hands of its users.

That is no longer true. By adding new default subreddits based on "a few key factors: traffic to the subreddits, rate of subscriber increase, average number of users online, and number of submissions/comments being posted", and, crucially, by removing old ones because they weren't "up to snuff", Reddit has taken on a far greater editorial role than ever before. That has obvious benefits (stuff like that in this article won't end up on the front page anymore), but it also means that the company is taking ever more responsibility for what appears on its site. The next time there's a scandal over content or behaviour, will the Reddit staff step up to that responsibility?

Richard Dawkins and others pose with the atheist bus. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear