By AT Taylor
Secular humanist. Atheist. Bisexual. Gender-fluid. Sexual assault survivor. Activist for LGBT+ issues. Peter/Ethel Thurston isn’t easily defined by any single label, and his YouTube channel EssenceOfThought is both an exploration of human curiosity and a platform to combat pseudo-science and anti-intellectualism from both the secular and religious worlds.
Having already faced his fair share of criticism and scorn for standing up for reason, logic, and equality, Thurston continues to fight for his principles as he works his way through college in the United Kingdom, with plans to continue growing his YouTube channel, and possibly open a refuge for LGBT+ individuals in the future.
We recently visited with Thurston about his experiences with Christianity and how he became an atheist, as well as his thoughts on the 2016 presidential election in the United States, from the perspective of someone living outside of the United States.
Please tell us about your background, and how you typically describe yourself.
I describe myself as an atheist, the type of which depends on the deity we are discussing. The Abrahamic gods? In all their scriptural contradictions I find myself certain of their non-existence and therefore stand as a gnostic atheist. Some deity I have a vague understanding of and yet see no sufficient reason to believe? Agnostic atheist. Just a ‘god’ or ‘gods’ otherwise non-defined? Ignostic atheist.
However I am more than ‘just’ an atheist as some like to put it, I am also a secular humanist. This philosophy, unlike my absence of theistic belief, actually guides my actions and thoughts in day to day life. As a humanist I hold to an innate human value and see education as the emancipator of all humanity. These two values act as a fluid base for me to build pragmatic series of beliefs hinged on the qualities of empiricism, reasoning and compassion.
Were you raised around religion, or do you have a more secular background? Please tell us more about your experience growing up, and how religion played a role in your childhood, if at all. Also tell us more about your path to becoming an atheist…
I come from a joint household with my father being atheist and my mother being Dutch Catholic. However my mother, who raised me after a very easy divorce, was more cultural and never once even discussed religion with me until I was already an atheist. My school, however, had other plans. Though it called itself a secular school we were still made to attend religious assemblies where a Gideon’s group would hand out these little red pocket bibles and preach to a captive audience. There, I picked up Christianity before entering a rough patch of life that led me to push harder to learn the bible in attempts to become a ‘better’ Christian. What I found was a series of archaic codes that made no sense either logically or ethically and soon found myself without belief.
The process was slow; it started with me still believing in god but fearing them. I began to notice things dying, I began to develop paranoia over my own mortality in the eyes of god. But as things do, this fear quickly turned to anger. I found myself being pushed out of circles I had once been part of like a leper because heads of church saw I had the potential to drag others with me. That’s when I fell in with what they would have viewed as a bad crowd. They, along with a wonderful science teacher who was teaching us the philosophy of belief in a forcefully covert manner due to school regulations, demonstrated the basics of burden of proof and hypothesis testing.
Over time I began to realize that my anger had become my ‘evidence’ for god, and yet I wasn’t angry at some mythical entity. I was angry at people. I was angry at how said people had used a book to and its unfounded claims to destroy lives. There was no reason to be angry at that which had not been proven to exist, beyond the anger directed at those who used such ideas to infect society with said nonsense. It was a moment of clarity… I didn’t hate god, he didn’t exist. I hated those who used the human creation of god. And at that moment I lost what I had held on to for so long as proof that god existed. I realized I was an atheist.
What motivated you to start a YouTube channel focusing largely on atheism, and how long have you been doing this?
I first started a YouTube channel in 2009. It was actually just to comment on videos but before I knew it I was making them. However the next two years would be a roller coaster of drama, which resulted in me attempting to stand up to an online predator who had enough support to destroy my channel at the time. After that I decided to move away from the anthropomorphic community and on to newer tastes. I was becoming more settled existentially and saw prospect in testing my position.
So I thought, where better than the YouTube discussion on religion, and created my first channel, ImperialAtheist in mid to late 2011. But only a video in I felt that perhaps my username was a tad militaristic and began thinking of a new one. Somehow I came up with the idea that I was pursuing the very essence of thought, and so that’s where the name came from. And five years down the line I am going from strength to strength.
Are you a full-time atheist, or do you make your living in another way?
My alter-ego is simply my student life. I am in full time studies earning a BSc in Sociology, Culture and Media at the University of Surrey (located in Guildford, Surrey – United Kingdom). I am currently doing my dissertation on trans representation in film. However YouTube is acting as my part time job, meaning I can do what I love between doing the other thing I love. It financially supported me from my first year, right through including my placement year, which was an unpaid charity placement at an LGBT+ support charity. So I’d see it as more of my part time job.
It seems like many of your videos are directed towards an American audience. Is this this case?
Not at all, I don’t really have a targeted audience. It just so happens that America has a lot of people with access to the internet, not to mention cameras. Being restricted to English has meant I only really have a choice out of Americans, Australians, Canadians and the British for frequent content. Americans just have the numbers on their side, particularly that of the religious population. But the most frequented organisation I respond to is iERA (Islamic Education and Research Academy) with its English channels the London Dawah Movement, Mission Dawah and more recently Darwinian Delusions.
We just had a huge election here in the United States. Being from the U.K., can you share your personal perception about that, and the perception of those in your community, regarding the election and how people outside of the U.S. see us?
Your system screwed up from the start, the Democrats in particular. You had a clear ticket to beating Trump but allowed the rich to overrule the people in favor of their invested interests in Hillary. I saw democrats attacking young vocal LGBT+ individuals and women of color early on in the primaries as opposed to having their issues discussed, the same people I saw becoming more and more disconnected with the whole process as things dragged on. The rest of the world saw Trump coming. The only people who failed to see it really are those covering their own asses, as they cost humanity the election.
We haven’t watched all of your videos yet, but it seems like your most common type of production is taking videos made by Christians, Muslims, and other theists, and interjecting your personal commentary and rebuttals. What motivated you to take that approach?
For a start it really rubs in the difference between militant atheist and a militant theist. My videos are defensive. A theist makes an assertion or attacks secular individuals, women or LGBT+ folk, and I respond. They’re the ones who make the call. I also use their videos as opposed to starting with a summary because of how easy it is to give a poor representation of their work accidentally. I want to pull apart their best work so why not go for the source? That way they have no excuse of a ‘straw-man’.
Do you ever get rebuttal videos from people whose videos you have deconstructed? If so, how often, and do you maintain contact with those people?
Sometimes, but very often these responses are of poor quality and just re-assert what the original stated, but in an emphasized manner, as if it refutes my surgical and referenced critiques. But there have been some stretched out discussions over several months. My most notable between myself and Hamza Tzortzis from iERA. In the end what occurred stretched out from August through to December of 2015. (Click link to jump to The Islamic Liar Series With Hamza Tzortzis)
In a previous discussion, you mentioned some controversy and backlash regarding videos you have produced in the past. Please elaborate on that.
I had the audacity to question the lack of scientific integrity of one known as Thomas James Kirk. Was I surprised to find that TJ’s fans, which have shifted over time away from the scientifically minded critics of such things as creationism towards a majority of white supremacists, misogynists and anti-trans activists, responded less than favorably? Not particularly.
Each time I have created a fully referenced response to his work and the work of other secularists on YouTube which have sadly become indicative of many people’s impressions of online secularism, I see my channel sink. My subscribers take a hit, the dislikes increase to levels seen nowhere else on my channel, and yet I see no academic response to the issues I raise. Thankfully, I’ve introduced some new elements to my channel that very clearly show people what I align with so there can be no “j’accuse!” later down the line.
Don’t get me wrong, all are welcome on my channel. But it seems that many who like my videos on religion because of my clear referencing style and sound argument expect me to abandon all of that when it comes to social science to project their fragility. They merely hear that there are those who have it worse off than them and that is it. In my years in discussing rape, domestic abuse and genocide I can safely say that the quickest to be triggered for the silliest of reasons are those being referred to as the alt-right (Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, a large segment of people who identify as MRA) who fly into an absolute rage when simply reminded of their privilege; sometimes to the point of death threats. (Thankfully empty in all cases so far!)
How do your friends and family react to your videos?
For the most part my family seems rather disinterested. I had more of a reaction from my tutors in college who seemed to believe I was circling some kind of cult. The one exception to that rule is my partner Udita. She’s interested in my work and my world in general, having come from a Hindu household in which her father was a priest. So she’s learning many new things about science and how it operates, and I too am learning much from her about things I am weaker at, such as languages and people skills.
When it comes to friends, that really depends. Are they friends who have been drawn to me due to my work or secular nature or whether we share other interests? And there are many who I have met through my videos who have helped me along in so many ways and hopefully others who feel they have been helped by me. I know I have a bad reputation on my university campus after I yelled down a preacher who questioned the psychological harm rape causes the victim, but for the most part I see myself as a rather polite and withdrawn person until human well-being comes into question.
Have you been involved in any formal debates outside of YouTube videos, Skype chats, or email, and if so, please tell us more about that. If not, do you plan to engage in formal debates in the future?
I used to take part in Skype discussions in my first couple of years, yet, never with a formal structure, which meant they always broke down. Later down the line I’ve really avoided them, first for personal reasons involving my PTSD which decimated my confidence in 2011 after a series of breakdowns, and still makes me extremely anxious in direct confrontation.
But more recently, even though I am still willing to get involved with such discussions, as shown with my interaction with iERA, I ultimately don’t put much weight on this type of discussion. People do not present their best in a debate, it’s not about evidence, but about charismatic ability. Real science and real discourse is had via reviewing a text, whether it be a book, video or podcast, and taking it to town utilizing all the resources you have access to in order to make the strongest case.
Consider the legendary talk between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. Thankfully, Ken Ham actually lacks a lot of the charm many preachers like Hamza Tzortzis hold and yet he was allowed to fire off so many blank assertions that Bill could not possibly prepare for and thus give a decent refutation of that I feel those present left with a very different picture of who won when compared to later referenced reviews done by people such as KingCrocoduck. I’m happy to have them, but they can at most be an introduction to a discussion and never the concluding factor.
Which of your five favorite videos would you consider to be “must watch” for people who want to take a crash course in what you’re doing and what you’re all (or mostly) about?
Therein lies a slight curse to my line of work. Rarely do I create a video which I can enjoy for very long as I see the flaws as I learn and improve my arguments. However the must see of my channel has to be my recent video titled “Answering Confusion A Young Christian Has About Atheists.” It’s nothing spectacular, it’s certainly no Hitchslap. But I feel it demonstrates the qualities I hold to on my channel, in seeing how most theists from fundamentalist religious backgrounds did not chose that, and therefore, we need to remember how to reach out to them, not scorn them. To teach, not abuse.
But if I had to pick four others they would likely be: (click titles to watch videos)
- Hamza Tzortzis Vs. Christopher Hitchens : Plagiarism, Beheadings And Islam
- Smashing Cissexism Targeted At Trans Children – A Scientific Breakdown Of BBC Discussion
- Victims Of Catholic Molestation Are Part Of ‘Sissy Culture’? PTSD And Safe Spaces
- Muslim Apologists Crying About Humanist Bully Stephen Fry Meet A Militant Atheist
What does your future path and goals look like? Are you planning to keep spreading your wings within the atheist community, or do you have other aspirations?
When I finish my degree I have plans to move to India to be with my partner, who I met when she was doing her Master’s degree at Surrey. Sadly she couldn’t extend her visa and had to return. I plan to go there and work full time, as I put down a mortgage on a decent size place. The reason for that is so I can have an actual studio to improve my work as well as possibly open a refuge for LGBT+ individuals, apostates and victims of domestic abuse. This is in part due to me having ended up inside such a refuge in the U.K. with both my mum and my brother after my mum’s relationship turned abusive (linked to the before mentioned PTSD).
I plan to fund this by expanding my base next year. I already tested a more general field on YouTube in media discussion outside that of religion and found decent prospects there. However, with my charity work last year and my studies I have decided to ensure my current channel carries on growing this year and onward and using the newly freed time I’ll have after my degree to work on the other channel. That way I ensure my current audience doesn’t miss out.
The studio will allow me to do a lot more in ways of production value and I am also looking into the possibility of working with my partner. She’s already had spots on the channel before, but this would mean she could play a much larger role. We’ve already begun planning topics to cover. But as well as all this, I am working on pet-projects in the background, referenced documentaries. Whether much will come from that work is currently unsure, but there certainly is hope.
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