No, Atheist Is Not the Only Option

So CNN’s much-anticipated special about atheists on Tuesday night. My response: Meh. Except for one thing that really jumped out at me, a statement by American Atheists leader Dave Silverman that immediately had me seething. Courtney Caldwell has the brief transcript of the remarks, which irritated her as well.

Voiceover: “Nones. Humanists. Skeptics. Freethinkers. Agnostics. Millions of Americans.”

CNN Anchor: “I’ve interviewed men and women, they say, ‘I’m a humanist, I’m a freethinker, I’m a skeptic.’ So many people won’t say, ‘I’m an atheist.’ Is it all the same thing? Are these just softer terms for ‘I’m an atheist?’”

Silverman: “Yes. These are atheists who are afraid to use the word. And what are they doing? They’re lying.”

This is wrong on nearly every level, not to mention insulting and offensive. First of all, those labels are not synonyms. One can be an atheist without being a humanist, a humanist without being an atheist, and an atheist without being a skeptic (take a look at my Facebook news feed and how many atheists pass on fake quotes and simpleminded memes every day and then defend them to the death when challenged on them — skeptics, my ass). So no, when someone calls themselves a humanist or a skeptic rather than an atheist, they aren’t necessarily lying. So this argument is just plain false from the start.

It’s also highly insulting to those who choose another label and offensive in its dismissal of the fact that some people simply aren’t in a position to call themselves atheists without great risk. I understand the desire to destigmatize the word atheist and I do think it’s important for us to use that term without shame (and I use it myself), but there’s a world of difference between “I’d like people to call themselves atheist more often” and “if you don’t call yourself an atheist, you’re a liar.” The first statement is entirely reasonable; the second is simply obnoxious.

I call myself an atheist. I also call myself a humanist. And frankly, humanist has a lot more meaning. Atheist just tells someone what I don’t believe; humanism tells them what I do believe, which is far more important. So if I choose to call myself a humanist for that reason, how am I supposed to react when the leader of the oldest atheist organization in the country goes on national television and calls me a liar? I’ll tell you my initial reaction: “Go fuck yourself.”

I like Dave Silverman. I like him a lot, actually. He’s funny and charming and a very nice guy. But he needs to stop this kind of shit. It doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help support atheists in general. It doesn’t help American Atheists specifically. All it does is alienate and insult people who should be his target audience. This isn’t being a “firebrand,” it’s just being an ass.

To make this even more incredible, Silverman sent out an email the night before the show aired to leaders of other atheist/humanist groups that said:

I hope we don’t use this opportunity to harp on our differences, but rather delight in our diversity. We all disagree, and this event will provide plenty of fodder for twitter wars and sniping, but it will also provide a great opportunity for us, as a movement, to once again think as a movement, and to show off our breadth and diversity by supporting each other, even when we disagree…

Let’s take advantage of the opportunity to show our best, broadest, and most diverse side.

Seriously? You just insulted huge numbers of people who choose not to identify as atheists but are potential allies by calling them liars, but you demand that no one publicly disagree with you in the name of unity and diversity?

Then on Twitter, he reacted to criticism of what he said by saying this:

This is Bryan Fischer-level lack of self-awareness, just totally oblivious to the obvious contradictions in one’s position. You didn’t just “snipe” at allies, you dismissed them as liars on national television because they don’t use the term you want them to use. Is that “delighting in our diversity”? Is that “sniping at allies respectfully”? Dave Silverman is a very smart guy. He can’t really be this blind to irony, can he?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • UnknownEric the Apostate

    They need to stop calling themselves American Atheist, and start calling themselves what they actually are: “American Asshole Atheists Who Seriously Think Someone Making A Snarky Comment About Your Atheist Shirt Is A Bigger Civil Rights Violation Than People of Color Being Murdered By Police.”

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/axp/ Martin Wagner

    It has always been a problem with American Atheists, that they’ve been way too presumptuous about insisting they represent the interests and goals of all atheists. Dictating how people identify is is just doubling down on that arrogance.

  • caseloweraz

    I’ve never been a smoker (well, I smoked pot 3 or 4 times back in the ’80s) but I’ve heard that people who give up smoking often become obnoxiously anti-smoking types. Maybe this is a similar thing.

  • sugarfrosted

    @2 This isn’t the first time. Remember when he claimed you couldn’t be Jewish and atheist? I am in a way, my ethics are Jewish. (Technically Yiddish socialist.)

  • dugglebogey

    It just brings attention to the problem that the opponents have successfully stigmatized the word “Atheist.” Now we have to figure out what to do about it. Do we just use another word? Do we go through the long, difficult, painful and LONG process of attempting to de-stigmatize a word, knowing that that can almost never be fully accomplished?

    It is probably wrong to try to assimilate all people sympathetic to the cause under the umbrella of his label, but it’s understandable why he’s trying to do it. Trying to rally people to a common cause that’s chief proponent is a negative (non-religious) without being anti (because anti-religious would be wildly inaccurate) and for good reason involves tons of apathy is very very difficult.

  • Michael Heath

    caseloweraz writes:

    I’ve heard that people who give up smoking often become obnoxiously anti-smoking types. Maybe this is a similar thing.

    This truism doesn’t apply here. Dave Silverman claims he’s self-identified as an atheist since he was six years old: http://www.mastermediaspeakers.com/davidsilverman/index.html.

  • themadtapper

    I like Dave Silverman. I like him a lot, actually. He’s funny and charming and a very nice guy.

    I don’t. The more he opens his mouth, the less he seems like a funny, charming, or nice guy. He’s an arrogant asshat who cozies up to some of the worst political elements under the guise of pushing “big tent atheism”. He reminds me of Dawkins in some ways. Someone who might have been a force for good in the atheist movement once upon a time, but has grown proud as he rose to ever greater prominence. He seems less concerned with making atheists equal and more about making them powerful. He wants strength in numbers, which is why he tries to recruit conservative/republican/libertarian atheist from the ghastly CPAC and why he is pissy about people not claiming the atheist as their chosen identity.

  • John Horstman

    Dave Silverman is a very smart guy. He can’t really be this blind to irony, can he?

    Unchecked privilege be a slippery beast.

  • eric

    I call myself an atheist. I also call myself a humanist. And frankly, humanist has a lot more meaning.

    Absolutely right. If people are going to define me with a label, I’m damn well not going to pick atheist because it says so little about where I stand on important issues. I’m a secularist first – a political or ideological position shared by many theists deists and agnostics.

  • screechymonkey

    Seems pretty simple to me.

    Silverman says publicly whatever he thinks is good for the AA brand, even if that means insulting other nonbelievers. But he wants to give other “leaders” a wink and a nod to say, “hey, I don’t mean YOU folks personally. Maybe your members and donors, but not YOU. Don’t rock the boat, there’s plenty of donor/membership money to go around for all of us!”

    I’m not saying Silverman doesn’t believe at least 90% of what he’s saying. But I do think that there’s a bit of “us leaders are different from the commoners; we mustn’t fight each other.”

  • cry4turtles

    I personally have lied about my atheism (check Silverman) to save my ass (check Ed).

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    100% agree with Ed.

    Even if every last person who ever identified as a freethinker, humanist, secularist, etc. was really an atheist (and obviously that is not the case) , they wouldn’t be lying when identifying that way so long as they are a freethinker, humanist, secularist, etc. as well.

    Who does it help to tell people that if they profess to be these things but aren’t also an atheist, or don’t choose to call themselves one, they are liars? Nobody, so far as I can tell.

    Yes, if you think it’s important to declare your atheism publicly (and I agree that it is, if you feel safe doing so), it can be aggravating when people refuse to do so. Or worse, in my opinion, when people profess not to be atheists because they’re really angry about something an atheist or group of atheists did. But that doesn’t make the whole lot of them liars. It just shows that the person calling them liars either doesn’t understand what “freethinker,” “skeptic,” “secularist,” etc. really mean, or doesn’t care. Or both.

  • abb3w

    American Atheists has tended a bit on the obnoxious side ever since Madalyn Murray O’Hair helped found it. Contrariwise, it would seem nice if Silverman could do better on this. Nohow, it’s hard to be perfect, especially when the video’s editor can take the six most provocative thirty-second segments of a three hour interview.

  • wsierichs

    First, I’m an atheist but self-identify as a secular humanist. There are a lot of atheists (maybe a majority???) that I cannot consider to be humanists as they don’t share what I consider to be at least some basic humanist values.

    Second, Silverman might not know – most people don’t know – that under two definitions of “atheist,” everyone on the planet is an atheist. The traditional Christian definition of atheism included denying the divinity of Jesus. That’s why Christians routinely called Jews “atheists” over the centuries. I have many examples of this. Christian groups sometimes called other Christians atheists for not believing in what a group considered to be a necessary part of Christian theism. Various “heresies” were denounced as atheistic. I’ve even found Roman Catholic medieval denunciations of Orthodox Russians as atheists. Pagans were atheists even if they considered Jesus to be one of the gods because it was blasphemy,, therefore atheism, to elevate other gods to Jesus’ divine status.

    But all Christians are atheists for rejecting the gods of other religions. That’s the main reasons why Christians were unpopular in the Roman empire. Pagans called Christians “atheists” for rejecting the divinity of Jupiter, Juno etc., as well as blasphemers for saying Rome’s gods were actually demons sent by Satan to fool pagans into idolatry. Some Christians even admitted to being “atheists” for this reasons, although defending themselves as the true theists.

  • Enon Zey

    @sugarfrosted

    I’ve run into a number of non-theistic Jews. Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who founded Humanistic Judaism, coined the term ‘ignostic’ which I like. “God exists” isn’t a coherent or meaningful statement. To borrow from Wolfgang Pauli, it isn’t even wrong.

    Religion, religious literature, how people come to believe the things they do, how religion has evolved and functions in human society – I find these things interesting. Quibbling or philosophizing over the existence or non-existence of ‘God’, not so much.

  • doublereed

    @4 sugarfrosted

    Many people are Jewish Atheists. There’s nothing contradictory about that. Jewishness is an ethnicity and culture, and the liberal forms of the Jewish religion tend to openly accept nonbelievers, so you still maintain solidarity there.

  • neonsequitur

    Dipshittery like this is the reason I self-identify as Agnostic, and will continue to do so until atheist arse-holes like this learn to behave. I am NOT with these people.

  • doublereed

    @4 sugarfrosted

    Sorry, I completely misread your post. Me stupidface.

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  • Al Dente

    I have never, not even a little bit, been impressed by Silverman. He may be funny and charming but he is not a nice guy. Nice guys don’t lie about other people. He’s also arrogant and too fond of the extreme right. I’ve made donations to various atheist and humanist organizations but I’ve never given one cent to American Atheists. That policy will continue until Dave Silverman is no longer AA’s Maximum Leader.

  • John Pieret

    As an agnostic myself (and no, when correctly used, it doesn’t mean a “fence sitter” half way between a theist and an atheist, it is a philosophical position on epistemology and what humans can know), I am used to this sort of abuse from atheists. Back in the day, when I was active on talk.origins, we’d regularly be invaded by atheists who insisted that agnostics were really atheists because agnostics don’t specifically believe in god(s), which they insisted is all that is required to be an atheist … what PZ Myers calls “dictionary atheists.” Worse yet, they’d call us “soft atheists,” as if we agnostics were unable to chose the best descriptor of our own beliefs. It was as useless to argue, no matter how logically or with what support, as it was to argue with hard-core creationists.

  • kellym

    When I met Silverman in person, I found him charming, and liked the guy. Every single thing I’ve read about the guy since then has convinced me that I made a huge error in judgement. The guy is pure asshole, dishonest, favors government defunding of Planned Parenthood, favors slashing earned benefits of my elderly parents, and is opposed to gun control, to name just a few issues where I find his values morally repugnant. He has personally helped enforce Dawkins’ blacklisting of Rebecca Watson, while publicly denying it. He gave away free one-year memberships to rich, sexist, racist assholes at CPAC, while more progressive members have had to pay full price. American Atheists will never see another penny of mine.

  • Michael Heath

    I don’t remember ever encountering Dave Silverman, so I searched his name. He was the guest on Bill O’Reilly’s show when O’Reilly did his ‘tide goes in, tide goes out, you can’t explain that’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb3AFMe2OQY.

    As idiotic as that was, Silverman was also lying his ass off by claiming highly insulting billboards (“all religions are a scam”) weren’t insulting. He was also claiming to know everyone knows religion is a scam. Uh, not even close.

    I am not impressed. Secularists don’t need liars and we certainly don’t need sloppy thinkers like Silverman demonstrated on O’Reilly’s show.

  • Lady Mondegreen

    I hope we don’t use this opportunity to harp on our differences, but rather delight in our diversity.

    Delight in our diversity–by sugarcoating our differences.

    BTW he used “diversity” and variants three times in that email. The segment itself featured white male atheists almost exclusively.

    Words. They mean whatever you want them to mean, right?

  • dingojack

    wsierichs – I’d be very interested in links* to those sources (as resources in further arguments). Thanks.

    Dingo

    ———

    * Sorry to the top two links, since FtB only allows two links per comment, otherwise it goes into moderation…

  • dingojack

    kellym – “When I met Silverman in person, I found him charming, and liked the guy. Every single thing I’ve read about the guy since then has convinced me that I made a huge error in judgement. The guy is pure asshole, dishonest, favors government defunding of Planned Parenthood, favors slashing earned benefits of my elderly parents, and is opposed to gun control, to name just a few issues where I find his values morally repugnant.”

    In short — Silverman is, at least, a borderline sociopath. :)

    Dingo

  • lofgren

    agnostics were really atheists because agnostics don’t specifically believe in god(s), which they insisted is all that is required to be an atheist … what PZ Myers calls “dictionary atheists.”

    This whole “dictionary atheist” and the apparent disgust that some in the atheist blogosphere seem to feel for such people is totally bewildering to me. I mean, isn’t that just what atheist means? It’s what I mean when I call myself an atheist. It’s what I interpret others to mean when they say they are atheists. Is there some other definition I should be familiar with? Nobody has ever articulated a coherent alternative.

    I read a few of PZ’s posts on the subject and they seemed utterly confused. It seemed as though he was basically annoyed that “atheist” was not a sufficient label to express his whole philosophical outlook, maybe even his whole identity, and he was cranky that he might have to find some other labels to accurately describe his beliefs.

  • lofgren

    As for Silverman’s original comments, it sounds like he has a history of this sort of thing and that kind of changes my initial reaction.

    My initial reaction was, “Well that’s overstating the case more than a little bit.” It certainly didn’t seem to be so egregiously offensive to warrant a “Go fuck yourself.” Sure, it wasn’t completely accurate, but isn’t there some level of opprobrium between total outrage and complete acceptance? If somebody said this in conversation with me I would probably say, “Whoa. That’s kind of exaggerated, don’t you think?” not “Go fuck yourself.”

    But if he has a history of saying this sort of thing, meaning that he’s really thought it through and went ahead and said it again anyway, then that really makes me rethink that reaction and I lean closer to a “go fuck yourself.”

  • UnknownEric the Apostate

    But if he has a history of saying this sort of thing, meaning that he’s really thought it through and went ahead and said it again anyway, then that really makes me rethink that reaction and I lean closer to a “go fuck yourself.”

    Yeah, numerous people on numerous occasions have tried to discuss this with him, and he immediately and rudely shuts them down and starts screaming about not criticizing your “allies.”

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    He seems less concerned with making atheists equal and more about making them powerful. He wants strength in numbers, which is why he tries to recruit conservative/republican/libertarian atheist from the ghastly CPAC…

    That doesn’t sound like he wants to make atheists more powerful — it sounds more like he’s trying to neutralize atheists as a force for progress, by packing the movement with reactionaries who, as we’ve already seen, bitterly and irrationally oppose any involvement by atheists in any justice movement.

  • Childermass

    He includes “nones” as atheists. Might I suggest that he is being dishonest himself. While some of the Nones are unadmitted atheists, some really are just those who believe in a god or spirit but don’t believe or align with any particular church. And some are just people who just have not decided where they stand.

  • dingojack

    Lofgren – AFAIK an atheist denies that god(s) exist; an agnostic is unsure of the existence/nonexistence of god(s) [or, as pointed out above, the more original definition: one who believes that god(s) are unknowable by their very nature as beings ‘above’ (or outside) the natural world. (How could one test for the presence of, or prove the existence of, or even know the nature (say, the composition, density, structure etc.) of an object that is outside the universe?)].

    As I said: AFAIK.

    Dingo

  • lofgren

    Dingo –

    This is all info I have picked up from comments on forums, which is pretty much the worst way of acquiring knowledge:

    In theology, agnosticism and atheism are two different things. Once concerns what we know and one concerns what we believe. An agnostic atheist does not believe in god and does not believe it is possible to know if there is a god. A gnostic atheist believes that it is possible to know if there is a god and that there is not. Agnosticism is actually the official position of several Christian sects. That’s the “leap of faith” you hear so much about. I have also been told that agnosticism is the official position of some Jewish sects. In practice, I’m not sure that followers really adhere to those precepts.

    In the vernacular, it seems to me that atheists and agnostics use the words differently. Agnostics (speaking very generally here) say that atheists deny the existence of god, while agnostics admit that they do not know if there is a god. Atheists (again, speaking at least if not more generally) say they admit that they can’t know for sure and agnostics are just fence sitters who don’t want to offend people. In other words, both claim that their position is the intellectually honest one and the other group is either deliberately obscuring their true beliefs or committing to a position they have no logical defense for.

    But that’s kind of neither here nor there, because PZ’s argument seems to be that atheism has some other meaning entirely, one not found in any dictionary, that entails philosophical positions beyond a mere lack of belief in (or denial of the existence of) gods. Basically, he seems to want it to be something much bigger and more meaningful than it is, but despite reading his own posts on the topics and some of the comments there (as many as I could stand), I never really felt like I had a perfectly good grasp of what the hell he was trying to say.

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    lofgren– The beef of PZ and others, so far as I understand, is mainly with atheists who insist that because atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in gods, when atheists get together in any organized fashion, there is no reason whatsoever for them to decide on the basis of their common atheism to work toward any kind of social goals. This beef is, I would agree with you, generally not well-expressed. It doesn’t do very well as a position to hold on its own, as opposed to a reaction to some essay by a “dictionary atheist” who has chosen to rant at length about “SJW” atheists and how horrible they are. Generally these “dictionary atheists” are hypocritical in their rants because they either advocate for or practice (or likely both) secularist activism, but do not acknowledge that as a kind of activism at all.

  • http://strangesally.wordpress.com/ SallyStrange

    To elaborate a little on what Gretchen said: in a world where religion flavors and influences nearly every aspect of daily life, it’s nearly impossible to actually be a “dictionary atheist,” that is, a person whose atheism informs nothing in their life beyond their decision whether to attend church or to pray to god or not. If one does not accept that gods exist, then one must perforce also accept that, for example, Yahweh is unlikely to save the world from the consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Atheism is a conclusion to one question, but the conclusion has ideological and political consequences and it would be dishonest to deny the existence of those consequences.

    That’s on top of the fact that actual dictionary atheists, while they probably do exist, would never be found on the internet talking about atheism or debating with other atheists about the proper meaning of atheism and whether it’s appropriate for one’s atheism to inform activism for abortion rights or against police brutality, vs. one’s atheism informing activism for secular government and good science education. They would just go about their daily lives, not believing in god, but not giving a damn about what other people who don’t believe in god are doing with their atheism. The people who show up in the fora run by feminist atheists or anti-racist atheists to insist that “atheism is just the lack of belief in gods, nothing more and nothing less” are ALWAYS being hypocritical. They always have their own brand of activism that is informed by their atheism, but fail to see that the link from atheism to secular government is equally strong (or equally weak, depending on your perspective) as the link from atheism to feminism.

    Back on topic: I’m so sick of David Silverman and American Atheists. It’s especially offensive that he’s egregiously lying when he pretends that the “nones” in survey data are all atheists. That’s so transparently false, he should be ashamed. And then to go on and call others liars for such tenuous reasons? He’s just not a good person, and I think the comment about him trying to pack the official atheist movement with regressives and conservatives so that atheists present no challenge to the status quo is apt. American Atheists is not a civil rights organization. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not about promoting human rights for atheists.

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  • Lady Mondegreen

    PZ’s argument seems to be that atheism has some other meaning entirely, one not found in any dictionary, that entails philosophical positions beyond a mere lack of belief

    I think his point is that you cannot base a movement on dictionary atheism. We should stand for something beyond NO GODS.

  • lofgren

    It seems as though Lady Mondegreen and Gretchen have similar understandings of the term but SallyStrange and John Pieret have completely different interpretations.

    I think it is safe to agree with Gretchen that whatever he is trying to say has not been well articulated, and it’s not just me who is struggling with it.