Busting Through The Overton Window — An Interview with David Silverman

Anyone remotely familiar with atheist literature has at least heard of Christopher Hitchens. Whether in print or during a debate, the late anti-theist provocateur had a habit of saying, “There can be no progress without confrontation.”

This perspective reflects the stance social reformer Frederick Douglass articulated long before Hitchens or the rise of New Atheism. Douglas wrote:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass, An address on West India Emancipation, (8/3/1857)

The notion that there is no progress but through resistance and conflict seems to be a foregone conclusion given the fact that it appears those in elevated social positions have a habit of overlooking, diminishing, or denying the state of marginalization meted out to those who aren’t in the same boat as them.

David Silverman–American Atheist President and Fighting God author–is quite familiar with this state of affairs when it comes to the ways atheists are othered. Perhaps Hitchens-esque in his rabble-rousing candor, Silverman seems to support the idea of pushing societal maturation through unapologetic opposition to widely accepted beliefs and values.

I recently spoke with him to see if I could get a clearer understanding of the rhyme and reason behind positions he promotes that many deem unnecessarily incendiary.

 


Sincere Kirabo: I know you’re familiar with the Overton Window. I’ve always been under the impression that your firebrand persona can be attributed to intentionally trying to push the public window of discourse into territory that is more accepting of the atheist identity.

We have spoken on many occasions. I’ve listened to several of your talks. I was present when you took on a wide range of ideological opponents with relative ease. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it accurate to consider your tendency of what some characterize as a “polarizing message” a strategy related to the concept of the Overton Window?

David Silverman: I don’t think being polarizing is a strategy, but it’s an expected outcome of pushing the window. When you push the window you are apt to offend some people (usually theists), and in doing so other people (atheists) might see this as a negative and thus push away without considering the intent and effect of the effort. As you look at prior movements, you can see that other firebrands in our nation’s history were also considered polarizing while they were being very effective at moving the window.

Kirabo: This relates to the first question. Something that seems to be a continued bone of contention for some is your approach to normalizing atheism.

More specifically, you have a penchant for referring to humanism as a euphemism, or as a cop-out to conceal atheism. I know you know the two terms are distinct and relay two independent positions that may sometimes run parallel but aren’t identical (i.e., some humanists reject the god hypothesis while others observe god beliefs).

Why do you do this? What are you trying to accomplish with this form of engagement?

SilvermanSilverman: In many cases, this is absolutely true.  You and I both know that when someone asks you about your religion they are asking your opinion on God, and when you answer with words the listener doesn’t understand (nearly 90% of Americans don’t know what a Humanist is) about how you think people should treat each other, you are not answering the question, you are just pretending to do so.  If someone asks you what your religion is, atheist conveys the clear message and battles any bigotry against us.  Humanist doesn’t do that.  No other word does.

When you use ATHEIST you may take a bit of heat if the person to whom you are speaking doesn’t like atheists,   but you will de-demonize the term and us as a people on a micro level, making it easier for the next atheist that atheophobe meets.  That’s what makes calling yourself an atheist more humanistic than calling yourself a humanist.

We have the responsibility as humanists and Americans to call ourselves atheists, to de-demonize us, make us look larger in the polls, and take our rightful place at America’s table.  If we divide ourselves over nothing, using euphemisms to pretend we are communicating using words nobody understands, atheism appears small and powerless. I am a proud member of the AHA, but because I’m a Humanist I always call myself an atheist to facilitate change for the people who cannot.

Now to be clear, I’m only talking about those who call themselves humanists instead of atheists.  I have no qualms with anyone who calls themselves an “atheist and a Humanist” because at least the word atheist is understood.

Kirabo: In a previous article, I acknowledge that I get the importance on focusing on select issues. For example, the acute emphasis on separation of church and state and the general critique of religious hegemony that’s commonplace in atheist circles.

At the same time, many atheist and humanist activists speak of supplanting religious systems. This is said despite many of them displaying ignorance, incuriosity, and even resentment towards various matters that negatively impact the daily lives of people beyond any direct connection to god beliefs. This is said despite the fact many god-fearing individuals and religious organizations support or run initiatives designed to combat an array of social disparities.

By my lights, if we cannot broaden our message and capacity for goodness, our Good Without GodTM battle cry is deficient. What are your thoughts regarding the work I and others do seeking to both oppose harmful religiosity as well as—beyond the narrowed scope of what many consider “atheist activism”—confront social injustice and culturally ingrained prejudices?

Silverman: We are and should be a broad movement.

Social justice is important (all good is) and we should be a part of that equation (as atheists, so people know it). As I say in Fighting God, American Atheists represents one wing of this broad movement, and I am proud that atheists like you are doing what can be done to cure this country’s ills in the social justice arena in conjunction with religious people.

However, this does not negate our humanistic duty to remind those moderate religionists that they too are victims of a scam, and that they can do good (led by your example) without the god. In a very real way, I see both sides working together to deconvert those who legitimize the scam of religion (“It’s only the fundamentalists!”) by showing them that 1) people can be good without god and 2) all religion is a scam which, by the way, says you can’t (be good without god).

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