And here we go again.
So David Silverman is getting a lot of grief over this statement at CPAC:
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”
He’s right, you can’t deny that there is. It’s a shitty argument based on poor facts, but it is nonetheless secular. You could see it presented by the group Secular Pro-Life in a debate with Matt Dillahunty last year:
The argument is there. So why the grief? For a few reasons from my reading, each of which I’ll hit on.
1. People took this to mean that David Silverman was anti-choice.
This puts words in David’s mouth he never said. In fact, he has said the opposite multiple times. So, since we’re all good that Dave Silverman is not anti-choice, we can move on to…
2. People were upset that he was trying to make inroads with conservatives.
It has often been said that the atheist movement shouldn’t be so eager to swell our ranks that we invite bad people into them. I agree with that (though all atheist seem to have some measure of disagreement over exactly who the bad people are).
But it must also be noted that the mission of American Atheists (and of David Silverman) is to unmake the plight of atheists. He wants to end atheist discrimination and reach out to atheists to make that happen. He wants a world where atheists do not live in fear of losing their job should their skepticism be revealed and where children do not have to worry about being booted out of their homes and ostracized for their non-belief. And the plight of atheist affects conservative atheists, if not more so. Acknowledging that does not imply agreement with their politics any more than not wishing the travails of bigotry upon a gay person who is anti-choice implies agreement with their anti-choice stance. Caring about a person’s plight in one area does not mean our support of their other positions. Obviously (or maybe less obviously than I’ve thought reading comments around the internet today).
So I think it made sense for Silverman to be at CPAC for all the same reasons I go to churches – to talk with people who disagree in the hopes of maybe winning a few over to your cause (David’s cause being the plight of atheists). From all reports it sounds like he was successful.
We must be willing to work with people with whom we disagree on some subjects. If you would work for the cause of marriage equality or the end of racism with a person who was anti-choice, why not work with them to end discrimination against atheists (all the while working to change their minds on the other stuff)?
What’s more, atheists need to be seen. Without an out atheist at CPAC they are free to demonize us without anything to counter that. With Dave there they could talk to an atheist, see his smile, see him happy – facts that alone rebut much of what I’m sure the attendees of CPAC believe about us. I don’t think it’s a waste of time at all to be there – there are plenty of minds to change about a lot of things, and I have said in talks and blogs repeatedly that I believe minds can be changed. Isn’t this why we talk with Christians about god, creationism, etc. in the first place?
Ultimately, I’ve seen countless people insist that working with conservative atheists to empower atheists, even if we disagree on a lot of other things, amounts to “rolling out the red carpet for bigots and misogynists.” This is hyperbolic in the extreme. If you find common ground that discrimination against atheists is wrong, all the while saying that discrimination against gays, women, racial minorities, etc. is also wrong, how is that rolling out the red carpet for those positions? In fact, if you can get people to take their feelings of shame with atheism (heaped on them by the conservatives with whom they were all-but-certainly raised) and transpose them onto other forms of discrimination, maybe that will be enough to change their minds. Engaging people is not the same as agreeing with them or endorsing every position they hold.
And saying “a secular argument for x proposition exists (even though it sucks)” is frankly about as far from “rolling out the red carpet” as you can get. And if you accuse Dave of welcoming misogynists because he made that acknowledgement, you’ve gone beyond taking him completely out of context and all the way into making up things that fit your narrative.
So if you acknowledge that someone need not be right on all subjects for them to be right on the one you’re working on together, this can’t be a reason for you to be upset with Dave Silverman. So we’ll move on to…
3. While not saying or believing that anti-choice arguments are sound, what he still did was a “tip of the hat” to the anti-choice crowd.
Here’s a comment I pulled off Silverman’s facebook:
I never thought Dave felt the secular argument had validity. That has not been the issue. The issue, as stated by Mai and by Elsa, and by many others, was his hat tip to the people who are actively trying to take away the rights of women. It was an open invite, a nod that they would be welcome.
Which is saying that women’s rights are up for debate.
I don’t think it’s fair to expect someone to avoid telling the truth (that a secular argument exists for being anti-choice, lousy though it is) in order to not give a hat tip to the people Silverman has said multiple times he opposes on that subject. That seems a bit like getting exacerbated at scientists whenever they acknowledge the existence of complexity in the universe because they’ve given a “tip of the hat” to creationists. Well no, everything else the scientists have said makes it clear that creationists are wrong. Well, ditto with Dave Silverman. We get frustrated with Christians taking phrases in the bible and taking the “That’s what it says, but it clearly means something else” approach, and I think we should be above that. In fact, if we’re going to argue with people that all the arguments against abortion suck, don’t we have to eventually acknowledge those secular arguments in order to beat them?
What Dave was doing is asserting that not all conservatives do so for explicitly religious reasoning (and, if anything, he was giving some props to at least attempting secular reasoning over faith-based assertions). Silverman was driving a wedge between the atheists at CPAC and the fundamentalists they likely feel inclined to fit in with. I can only imagine that atheists in the conservative movement feel some friction being surrounded by people who demonize them, which is why that wedge might work to get those atheists to at least oppose their neighbors on the issue of atheism – if not to demand secular arguments from their cohorts. Even if those secular arguments suck, getting some conservatives in the habit of demanding secular arguments is a good thing.
And there are plenty of minds there open to such changes. For instance, more than half of young Republican support gay marriage (61% of them, in fact). These trends are achieved by challenging people’s pretensions, and we have to go to where they are in order to do that. If young Republicans can have their minds changed on gay rights (as they clearly can), why not abortion, the need to be open as atheists, or even the existence of god? But if we’re going to have that discussion, we have to acknowledge when their arguments come from the bible and when they come from erroneous attempts to interpret the facts. The latter is much easier to work with.
Remember, minds are changed slowly over time and bit by bit. Polling suggests the conservative movement is losing ground – minds are being changed. But if you were once religious, remember how long it took you to get all the way over to being the liberal atheist you are. It takes time, and it takes people planting seeds. That is what Silverman was there doing, and I’m glad he was.
So, if you don’t think that acknowledging facts that other people wrongly use to support their position (like complexity in the universe with creationists or the existence of a secular argument against abortion with anti-choice people) is bad, you can’t be mad at Dave Silverman for failing to obscure the fact that a (bad) secular anti-abortion argument exists. If you acknowledge as atheists we shouldn’t shy away from stating facts even though we know there are people out there who will twist them toward an inaccurate or unethical position, then you can’t really be upset with Dave Silverman. Which brings us to…
4. People think making the statement in the context of CPAC made it easy to misinterpret.
This may be true (even though I don’t think it is – in the context of the article, it’s pretty clear where Silverman stands with regard to social justice issues), which is why Silverman has clarified his position multiple times since. If you think this is grounds for suspecting the motives of one of atheism’s most passionate advocates, your threshold for betrayal is very, very low. So even if I were to concede that the context lent itself to misinterpretation, if you think this is cleared up by Dave clarifying his position, good on you.
If repeatedly clarifying his position has not been enough to satisfy you, ask yourself what you’d have Dave do before you admit that he’s a bit of a badass working in your interest and always has been.
Holy crap, can we stop trying to make it out like people who have fought for causes we love for years are suddenly betraying them? Can we stop shoving words into allies’ mouths they never said to support that narrative? We’re the atheist movement, we should at least be able to deal with what each other actually say. That is the minimum standard to which we should live up.
So many atheists are sick and fucking tired of the in-fighting and the inability to resolve things without just talking to one another (and questioning their loyalty). How many people do you think actually said to themselves “Dave Silverman is anti-abortion? That doesn’t sound right given everything I know about him. Maybe I’ll ask him before making a big deal out of this.” The answer: not many, and that’s a damn shame. There are plenty of real enemies to atheism out there, we really don’t need to fabricate more out of the people who are on our side. I want people leaving religion to see an atheist movement that is patient and eager to understand, not a group of people chomping at the bit to question the motives/character of people who have been doing the legwork in our interest for years.
That’s not to say everybody who disagrees with Dave’s attendance at CPAC has been guilty of trying to vilify him – but it is saying that it’s happening. In the wake of this one little sound bite (which was true) there have been plenty of people acting as though Dave has betrayed women and given approval to bigotry of all flavors because he had the audacity to go where Republicans congregate and tell them the’re wrong (even as he conceded a fact along the way that ruffled some people). It saddens me greatly as somebody who appreciates skepticism that anybody has bought into that idea.
Shanon Nebo also has a good write up on this.