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:
@WhyThaHeckNot I just think we shouldn't snipe at allies, and if we do, it should be respectfully, and about true things, not hyperbole.
— David Silverman (@MrAtheistPants) March 25, 2015
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?