American Atheists Answers Follow-Up Questions After the Firing of Its President

It’s been a few days since BuzzFeed posted a bombshell report about American Atheists president David Silverman, just a short while after he was officially terminated by the group.

Since that time, I’ve seen people criticizing American Atheists for not giving Silverman a “fair hearing,” defending him as the subject of a witch hunt, and making a whole bunch of assumptions about what the article said and didn’t say.

Earlier today, I spoke with Nick Fish, the group’s National Program Director, to see if we could shed light on some of the questions still floating around. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it represents some of the main threads I’ve seen online.

I should make one thing clear from the outset: Fish is a staffer at American Atheists. He’s not on the board of directors, which made the key decisions here. So while he could provide a public response on certain matters, he couldn’t always shed light on the board’s thinking (much of which, like any non-profit board dealing with employment matters, will remain confidential).

1) Was anyone on the board aware of any of these allegations before last week?

There were four main complaints mentioned in the BuzzFeed piece: A financial concern involving promotion of Silverman’s book Fighting God, a potential conflict of interest involving the appointment (later rescinded) of a senior staffer, and two separate sexual misconduct allegations dating back to 2012 and 2015.

According to Fish, he’s not sure if individual board members were aware of any of the allegations, however the full board was only made aware of these problems last weekend. When they learned about the first two concerns, they began investigating (and hired an outsider to conduct a formal audit). As that was happening, they received written testimonies about the misconduct allegations and took decisive action.

2) Other than the written statements submitted last week, did American Atheists do any investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations? Will they do any further investigation on those matters? Or is BuzzFeed the final word on this?

Fish said — and this is important — the first two allegations warranted termination on their own. The board had reason to believe Silverman had violated a confidentiality agreement, conflicts of interest policies, and staff management guidelines. While there was an investigator conducting a formal audit, the board felt like they had enough evidence to take action.

When they received statements from two women (along with those corroborating their stories), there was no reason to wait any longer. That’s also why they have no plans to investigate the women’s stories beyond what they’ve already heard.

So even if no one came forth with stories about sexual improprieties, there’s a likelihood Silverman would have been fired anyway. (When that firing might have happened, we don’t know, but Fish said the BuzzFeed piece played no part in the group’s timing.)

The behavior that was reported was at odds with their policies and their values. And they have no reason to doubt the women’s testimonies.

3) Did American Atheists take action only because they knew the BuzzFeed story was coming out?

No. In fact, BuzzFeed didn’t reach out to American Atheists for comment (and to confirm details) until after the decision had been made to terminate Silverman.

That said, board members were no doubt aware an article was in the works even if they didn’t know all the details. If BuzzFeed wasn’t getting ready to publish a story, would the board have acted as they did? I don’t know. That’s a hypothetical question so I couldn’t get a definitive answer.

4) The BuzzFeed article noted that a woman with whom Silverman may have had a sexual relationship with was appointed to a “senior position,” and that her appointment was later rescinded. If there was no relationship, would that have happened? Is she being unfairly punished for something Silverman did wrong?

This is a tough one to answer because there are a lot of conflicts of interest wrapped up into one. As president of the group, Silverman had the authority to appoint people to those positions. In this case, he single-handedly appointed her to a role as vice president. All positions of that sort, I’m told, are unpaid. The board usually doesn’t approve or disapprove of those appointments.

The person in question was hired to assist Silverman with his work, so if he’s no longer president, the thinking went, there was no need for her position. (She was the only volunteer in that kind of role.)

While some may wonder how there could be a conflict of interest when this person wasn’t getting paid, keep in mind that AA often covers travel expenses and reimburses people doing business on their behalf. That applies to state directors and other volunteers with the organization as well.

5) Was anyone on the board aware of that woman’s appointment? Did anyone object to it?

They were aware of the appointment, but because Silverman was allowed to name his own staff, including volunteers, there was nothing to necessarily object to until the board learned about the alleged conflicts of interest at a later date.

6) When will the search for a new president begin and what will American Atheists be looking for?

It’s still too early to begin a new search. The board will complete the internal review, hopefully by early next month. The investigator still needs to go through documents, communications, and personnel files. Interviews need to be conducted. They won’t move on until they feel the organization is on a solid path forward. That will take some time.

7) How transparent will American Atheists be with the investigation? Will the public learn any more than we already know?

The short answer is no. In some cases, the board was told things in confidence and they’re not going to publicize them. Their deliberations, as with any board, are also confidential. We’re not about to get a minute-by-minute account of what happened in case that’s what people are looking for.

If the outside investigator makes any recommendations and there are policy changes as a result, those will obviously be publicized.

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