On the Firing of David Silverman

On the Firing of David Silverman April 16, 2018

When I wrote about the downfall of Lawrence Krauss last month, I said that his case would be a precedent for the next time this happens, “and there will be a next time, I have no doubt of that”.

I just wasn’t expecting it to be so soon:

Last night, the American Atheists Board of Directors voted to terminate David Silverman as President of American Atheists.

…On April 10, 2018, the Board of Directors placed President David Silverman on leave pending a review of allegations raised regarding Mr. Silverman’s conduct. The Board of Directors has reviewed internal documents and communications related to the initial complaint as well as evidence relating to the additional allegations brought to the Board’s attention. Today’s announcement is based on these findings, and the Board intends to cooperate with any future investigations.

When I saw this announcement, I wondered what it was all about. A new story on BuzzFeed, published just after American Atheists’ announcement, fills in the ugly details.

The article by Peter Aldhous, one of the reporters who broke the Krauss story, says that American Atheists was investigating a staff complaint about Silverman related to his book Fighting God (I saw a comment saying that the complaint was that he was using the organization’s money to promote his book). There was also a complaint that he had hired a woman he was having a sexual relationship with to a senior position at American Atheists, an obvious conflict of interest.

While that investigation was going on, they received two written complaints about Silverman. One woman alleges that he sexually assaulted her at the 2015 American Atheists convention in Memphis:

“He physically pressed me to the wall and began to kiss me forcefully, grabbed my breasts, and put his hand into my leggings where there was actual penetration of my vagina,” she wrote.

…R. got her feet and said “no,” she wrote. Silverman then lightly slapped her face and said, “You don’t get to say no to me.”

The second report was from a woman named Rose St. Clair, who was an undergraduate at the time and was applying for an internship at American Atheists. She says that she met Silverman at a bar during an atheist conference, that he pressured her into coming back to his hotel room and having sex with him, then told her that she was ineligible for the internship. Here’s a written statement on the matter by Dustin Tucker:

In the interests of full disclosure: This happened at the 2012 Secular Students Alliance convention in Columbus, which I also attended and spoke at. I was at that bar on the night in question, which was Saturday, July 7, 2012, and I can corroborate part of this story.

After the day’s talks were over, the speakers and conference attendees were coalescing into groups to go out on the town. I ended up in a group together with Greta Christina, Jen McCreight, Rose St. Clair and one other person. We went to a whiskey bar called Barrel 44, but there was no air conditioning and it was unbearably hot, so after one round of drinks we went next door, to the Surly Girl bar.

I can vouch for the fact that both Silverman and St. Clair were at a table together and talking during the evening. I don’t remember personally witnessing any inappropriate behavior, but it was noisy and crowded, I was talking to many different people over the course of the night, and yes, quite a bit of drinking had been taking place. I left around 2:30 AM, at which time both of them were still there.

It should be noted that Silverman denies all the allegations, saying through his lawyer that he “has never had a non-consensual sexual encounter”. It’s not clear if he’s denying that he had sexual contact with these women, or that he admits sexual contact but claims it was consensual – although the statement emphasizes that he and his wife were in an open marriage, which suggests the latter. (If so, it would be highly inappropriate for the president of American Atheists to solicit sex from a woman he knew was applying for a position in his organization.)

On the other hand, the fact that American Atheists took the initiative to fire him, their president, after receiving these reports – something it’s safe to assume they wouldn’t do lightly – suggests that they find them credible.

There was also a blunt public statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation:

Our dealings with [Silverman] have been scant and only at a professional level. That Silverman is accused of saying to a woman fighting him off, “You don’t get to say no to me,” however, unfortunately rings true to me. I felt “bullied” while attempting to work with Silverman on the speakers committee for the second Reason Rally. I say “attempting” because I was summarily booted from the committee he was chairing and denied a voice in the planning…

And from Linda LaScola on Patheos:

None of the Silverman story surprises me. I heard a much milder story about him from a very credible source at the time it happened. She wasn’t assaulted. She was receiving unwanted attention at a conference that continued after she made a point of trying to avoid his company. She told me and a few others at the time or shortly afterwards.

I should note that, until this story came out, I’d never heard anything untoward about Silverman’s behavior, not even rumors. Of course, I don’t expect to be privy to the whisper networks that women establish to protect themselves.

This is especially disappointing because, in the past, Silverman has said many of the right things in response to harassing lowlifes. AA has also done a lot to make their conferences accessible, including childcare, ASL interpreters and gender-neutral bathrooms. Of course, if these allegations are true, it wouldn’t be the first time a predator tried to camouflage himself as one of the good guys.

Some of the comments I’ve seen on this story drawn a parallel with Silverman’s firebrand, take-no-prisoners style of atheist activism, but I don’t accept that. I don’t believe that aggressive advocacy has any necessary correlation with aggressive, boundary-violating private behavior. You can be passionate about a cause without trampling basic ethical rules about how to treat other people.

On the other hand, given how many high-profile atheist men have been felled by #MeToo (and just as I said last time, I doubt this will be the last one, either), we have to give some serious thought to what we can do differently. I’m coming to think that we’d be better off if more secular groups had woman leaders – not because women are incapable of sexual harassment or assault, but simply because an egalitarian, mixed-gender environment seems to be less conducive to this kind of bro-ish behavior than the locker-room atmosphere of an atheist movement run overwhelmingly by men.

At the same time, it speaks badly of us that such a thing could even seem necessary. Guys, is it really that hard to keep your dick in your pants? Even if you’re going to conferences to get laid, is it so much to ask that you make absolutely sure you have consent first? This goes double for those atheist celebrities and Thought Leaders who, I’m sure, would have no trouble finding a willing partner if that’s what they were looking for. Is it the case that power rises to these men’s heads and they just decide they’re entitled to whatever they want? Or is it that creeps and predators are disproportionately likely to rise to those positions in the first place?

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