By AT Taylor
Raised in a Muslim country by parents who were evangelical missionaries from the United States, Thomas Westbrook (aka Holy Koolaid) admits that he was “pretty sold out to God all the way through college.” Faith healing, speaking in tongues, and young earth creationism were deeply ingrained in his upbringing, but he began having doubts as his college days came to a close.
Facing the daunting challenge of coming out as an atheist to his parents, he began producing videos on religious matters as a way of expressing his changed beliefs, and to being slowly breaking the ice with family members regarding his skepticism of religion. Although he still faces criticism from his family, his Holy Koolaid YouTube channel has amassed over 12,000 subscribers in a relatively short period of time, and he is undeterred from his mission of uniting skeptics and freethinkers in the battles against religious dogma and dangerous pseudoscience.
We recently visited with Westbrook about his upbringing and motivations, and discussed the ways he wants to help grow the atheist/skeptic movement in the coming years.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and the Holy Koolaid channel. What motivated you to start making YouTube videos?
I was raised in a Muslim country, but my parents were evangelical missionaries from the southern United States, so I definitely grew up in the church. We had daily devotionals, and I memorized large sections of the Bible growing up (including the entire sermon on the mount). My parents believed in faith healing, the power of prayer, speaking in tongues, etc., and I was taught young earth creationism in school. I was pretty sold out to God all the way through college (I did missionary work, was a youth pastor, church worship leader, christian camp counselor, etc.), but towards the end of my senior year at Texas A&M I really started having doubts. I’ve always tried to stay open-minded, because I would rather follow the truth than warp the evidence to fit my preconceived notions. I’ve always been an autodidact, and the more I learned about science, the more I realized something wasn’t lining up with the Biblical narrative.
When I first started making videos it was supposed to be my way of slowly coming out as an atheist to my parents, but I didn’t have time to make videos covering all the topics to fully express my feelings. My first Holy Koolaid video was July of last year, but I only started doing this full time a couple months ago. Now I do a video every week, and I’m much more passionate about it, because I see a lot of the harm that religion is causing – harm that’s easy to overlook when you’re a die-hard Christian.
How many years did you spend with your missionary parents in a Muslim country?
I was there for 14 years.
Where do you currently call home?
I’m fully nomadic at the moment, so I’m in Thailand now, but I’ll be heading to Vietnam at the end of December. I basically found the cheapest places I could live to stretch my funds out as long as I can until Holy Koolaid is self sufficient.
Regarding leaving your faith, it sounds like you’ve only recently let your parents know about that. Please tell us more about how they ultimately found out, as well as what their reactions to your videos has been. Do your parents support what you’re doing now?
I’m pretty sure that they’ve seen my videos, but they never actually mentioned them to me directly. They definitely don’t support my atheism and think the devil has somehow corrupted me. Somehow some of my family found my stuff and shared it with everyone else. None of them really get why I’m doing what I’m doing, but hopefully they’ll watch my content and it’ll make more sense to them eventually.
Is your primary focus creating YouTube videos, or do you have a website, blog, or other material we can check out?
I have a website/blog, Holykoolaid.com, and I’ve decided to start making more content there as well. I would love to create an entire online community/support group for fellow atheists, but my primary focus right now is growing my YouTube audience. I’m also working on an e-book about dealing with blow-back from religious family and a behind the scenes course walking people through my video making process. People can sign up for my mailing list for free, early access to my e-book (once finished), and patrons supporting me on Patreon.com get will get access to the course if they’ve pledged $25 or more (per) video. I’m also on just about every major social media platform.
What would your idea of a larger online community/support group for fellow atheists look like?
There are currently quite a few Facebook groups for atheists who feel alone. I would like to take things a step further. Maybe not just about atheism, but a group that promotes humanism, science, critical thinking, open-mindedness, and skepticism. I would love to have it as a hub that connects local groups/communities, offers resources on how to get started, become activists, or just deal with day-to-day issues (a community of people promoting something bigger than themselves). I’m not sure exactly what it would look like just yet, but I’m playing with the idea.
We really enjoy the animations many of your videos have. Are you an animator, or do you work with others to have animations created for your videos?
I outsourced the 3D intro to an excellent 3D animator in Venezuela, but all the 2D animations I do myself.
Your videos get a lot of positive feedback. What are some examples of negative feedback and attention you’ve received that really stand out?
I get a lot of religious moderates claiming that all theists aren’t that bad. I realize that, but even if it’s the fringe that’s doing the majority of the harm, there’s still damage done that needs to be addressed. Every once in a while I get the religious fanatic or internet troll blasting threats of damnation or quoting Bible verses at me. They don’t really bother me, and I just laugh it off (they don’t realize that reading the Bible was one of the things that made me an atheist). The feedback that hurt the most was when my parents told me I’m a guilty sinner going to hell and later said that their faith was more important to them than their own kids. My uncle compared me to religious extremists… I must draw some pretty intense cartoons if it’s as extreme as flying a commercial plane into a building. But you can’t let it get you down. Even if they disowned me, I would just double down, because it just means that there’s so much more work to do to change fanatical mindsets like that.
I’m glad to hear it sounds like your family hasn’t disowned you yet. Did you get the impression initially that they might? Beyond the empty threat of hell, did they threaten you in any other ways? How have things changed with your family since your announcement?
I’m still not sure that they won’t (disown me), but since I came out about 3 months ago to my parents, I haven’t seen or talked to them much. Mostly because I’m in Southeast Asia at the moment, but it’s really hard to connect with them since they’re promoting the Bible full-time and I’m fighting against that cause.
Do you engage in any forms of debate, and do you see this being something you might do more in the future?
Outside of the occasional Facebook comment, I don’t normally debate much. People scream in the YouTube comments just to be heard, but even if they tout misinformation, I find that my time is more effective making more videos than replying to creationist trolls. Maybe a few hundred see their comment, but my videos reach tens to hundreds of thousands. I’ll probably engage in public debates in the future, but that will be a ways down the road. I still have a lot to learn before I reach the level of someone like Hitchens. I spend most of my free time reading/studying new things, and I would love to get there someday, but until I’m more informed, I feel like doing a shoddy job in a debate would just be doing a disservice to the movement.
Do you find that you’re mostly “flying solo” with your projects, or do you get a lot of feedback and help from others in the atheist community?
As far as creating content, it’s just me (I get occasional suggestions from viewers). But I get a lot of support from people in the community who like and share my content as well as my patrons who support me financially. I couldn’t do it without them. I also get a lot of positive feedback and messages from people, and that definitely helps fuel my motivation.
Before you became an atheist, how much did you know about some of the more famous atheists in the world, and what was your impression of them? (I’m thinking Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Krauss, and so on…)
I knew about Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Hawking, and Sagan but that was about it. I thought Dawkins was delusional. Some of Harris’ work really reached me on a cognitive level, and I liked how witty Hitchens was and enjoyed his debates, but I never read their books. It was really more through YouTubers that I started to gradually question a lot of my presuppositions, and when I finally left the faith, I got really into atheist-themed podcasts.
Before you became an atheist, were you into any particular Christian apologists?
I definitely consumed A LOT of creationist content. I’ve had creationists tell me that if I only “read C.S. Lewis” or if I only “listened to Ravi Zacharias” then I would change my mind, but they don’t realize that I grew up with that stuff. I honestly find it a little insulting, because they assume I haven’t thought my position through. But in addition to the two mentioned above, I read Oswald Chambers, Dr. Dobson, Rick Warren, Max Lucado, and dozens of others. I watched sermons from Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, and many, many more. I read my Bible, prayed regularly, read devotionals, and memorized large portions of scripture (including the entire sermon on the mount). There was even a weekly event at my college (Texas A&M) called breakaway where thousands of college students would gather and worship and listen to sermons every week, and I used to attend regularly. So when people tell me I just need to look into it more with an open mind, I find it fucking patronizing. And the worst part is, those types of statements usually come from people who’ve never taken the time to study the other side of their argument – ever!
Which current atheist personalities do you get inspiration from?
I love the science side of things, so some of my favorite influences are physicists: Sean Carroll, Brian Greene, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Lawrence Krauss. I love Dawkins’ work in Evolutionary Biology and Dr. Donald Prothero’s work with fossils. Aside from that, I like Peter Bogosian and Anthony Magnabosco’s work with street epistemology, and what Jerry Dewitt is doing with his “atheist church” (we need a stronger community). I’m a big fan of Seth Andrews and Aron Ra, and I listen to a lot of podcasts (some favorites are Cognitive Dissonance, Scathing Atheist, and Dogma Debate). But one of my strongest inspirations remains Christopher Hitchens.
Do you find any particular atheist approach to be superior to others, or do you think it’s important to have a variety of tactics? For example, do you prefer street epistemology over more aggressive approaches?
I think “superior” and “inferior” is the wrong way to look at it. Different approaches are more effective, depending on the scenario; but even over the course of a conversation, I’ll shift from street epistemology (SE) to a more didactic approach and will call someone on a ridiculous statement, if I think it will resonate. You really have to listen and read the person you’re talking to. I try not to be insulting, because that usually just creates walls, but I definitely don’t always stick to SE. The other day, I was sitting with a group chatting, and one of them, a conspiracy theorist, was spouting off a string of nonsense. I quickly called him out on every one of his assertions – not because I expected to change his mind, but because in terms of group psychology, I know the power that one dissenting perspective can have in preventing group conformity. In a similar scenario: If anyone reading this is having a public debate in the future, it’s important to realize that you’re not trying to convince your opponent. You’re trying to convince the audience. So in that arena, street epistemology probably isn’t the most effective choice. That said, in one-on-one encounters, it can be a powerful tool.
What are your plans for the next year, in addition to your weekly videos and the e-book you’re working on? When do you expect to publish your e-book?
I’m hoping to crowd fund an educational tech startup, that I think all of my subscribers are going to love, once I hit 100,000 subs. The best way for us to reach that goal is by engaging with my videos (liking, sharing, commenting). The more engagement a video gets (especially in the first 24 hours), the more likely YouTube is to recommend it to others, and the more new people subscribe. It also helps if you tweet out my videos to other atheist bloggers, YouTubers, podcasters, etc. As for the e-book, it’s hard to give a timeline, because this is my first time writing one. But I’m hoping to have it done by May. The best way to stay up to date on that would be to sign up for my email list (on my site – Holykoolaid.com), where you’ll get early access to my book, and subscribers will be the only ones to get it free.
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