By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation
This is a personal statement about the disturbing allegations in yesterday’s BuzzFeed article concerning David Silverman, until yesterday president of American Atheists.
Given ubiquitous and undeserved stereotypes against nonbelievers, it should go without saying that it’s incumbent on those of us who have the privilege and responsibility of leading freethought groups or speaking out on behalf of nonbelief to be irreproachable in our personal conduct.
That’s because we live in a country where nonbelievers, along with Muslims, are the least socially acceptable of the minority groups. And being tied with Muslims for unpopularity is an improvement! Until recently, and only due to Muslims’ faltering public relations, atheists, according to the University of Minnesota sociological studies, were the single most disliked group in America. The university’s sociological studies have shown that an atheist is the person people would least want a family member to marry. Absurd stereotypes abound that atheists are prostitutes and prisoners. Much of this bigotry stems from the bible, which says: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” Psalm 14:1. The most challenging public relations problem for nonbelievers in this nation remains the myth that we reject religion because we want to “go out and be sinful,” that, in a nutshell, if we don’t believe in God we are immoral.
That’s why at the Freedom From Religion Foundation we have worked hard for four decades to dispel these baseless and defamatory views about atheists and other nonbelievers. We’ve developed the Freethought of the Day site, amassing and publicizing how many prominent writers, artists, musicians, scientists, and others, reject religion. We’ve published brochures, articles, and integrated this information in social media, our radio show and other campaigns to educate about who nonbelievers are. As John Stuart Mill put it: “The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments—of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue—are complete skeptics in religion.” (The point of the site is to document the nonreligious views of so many influential and well-known individuals who’ve contributed to society, but are not well-known for their nonbelief; many fall into the “ornaments” category. but admittedly all may not be paragons of virtue.) We’ve published articles, chapters of books and brochures on morality without religion, Dan has debated the topic many times, and we’ve tried hard to run FFRF as an exemplar freethought organization. We’ve promoted “out of the closet” and “friendly neighborhood atheist” campaigns for more than a decade using FFRF members, usually our best advertisement for freethought, to dispel myths.
These persistent negative views about nonbelievers are a unique backdrop to the Buzzfeed revelations about David Silverman and his firing by American Atheists. Religionists and the media — already all too ready to condemn the nonreligious just for being nonreligious — have been granted a very good excuse to tarnish the secular movement as a whole.
But Silverman’s highly aggressive brand of atheism does not represent FFRF or many nonbelievers, nor do his alleged actions here. There’s room in the movement for differences. There’s not room for this kind of misconduct.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation was founded nationally 40 years ago this month in part due to dissatisfaction with the leadership and reputation of American Atheists. My mother, Anne Gaylor, was asked to take our regional association national to offer an alternative. There were many concerns about American Atheists’ founder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and about her personality and irregularities. Many freethinkers did not like being asked to literally sign a statement that they were an “American atheist” in order to join the group, turning atheism into a litmus test. FFRF consciously started as an umbrella freethought group welcoming all nonbelievers — atheists, agnostics, skeptics of any pedigree.
After FFRF went national, O’Hair “excommunicated” many of her members if they joined FFRF (including Anne Gaylor). Having members in common was fine by us, but O’Hair sporadically continued to direct hostility and malicious claims against FFRF. After the horror of the kidnapping and brutal murder of O’Hair, her granddaughter Robin and son Jon Garth, our general feeling was one of great pity, and we have not wanted to “speak ill of the dead” or rehash old history. But after all these years, our two groups still have very different styles, leadership, accomplishments and goals, and there has been little interaction. In all fairness, Silverman denies the allegations. Our dealings with him have been scant and only at a professional level. That Silverman is accused of saying to a woman fighting him off, “You don’t get to say no to me,” however, unfortunately rings true to me. I felt “bullied” while attempting to work with Silverman on the speakers committee for the second Reason Rally. I say “attempting” because I was summarily booted from the committee he was chairing and denied a voice in the planning (but at least not before I was able to secure Julia Sweeney as a speaker, I’m pleased to say).
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The #metoo movement is rightfully taking down many a predator. Such allegations have, thankfully, been rare so far in the freethought movement. This is the first such allegation against an actual leader of an atheist group. (Physicist Lawrence Krauss, an atheist, the subject of an earlier BuzzFeed expose, was well-known on the freethought circuit, but was not a movement organizer per se. Nevertheless, some of his accusers met him through that movement, which had awarded him with speaking invitations. When the very serious allegations surfaced, FFRF and most secular groups took immediate steps to sever any loose affiliations.)
No excuses can be offered for the repulsive or even criminal misconduct alleged. Likewise, no excuses should be made when such actions are committed by “men of God.” We have seen decades and decades of thousands of allegations of sexual crimes and exploitation in church circles. The Black Collar Crime section of FFRF’s newspaper, which documents such allegations (and convictions and sentencings) against “men of God” and ministers, has filled two (small font-sized) pages a month since 1986. It could fill up to four pages if we had the space. The Catholic Church is well known, as an early church official warned, for “preaching morality while giving sanctuary to perverts.” And the cover-up goes all the way to the top in that denomination. Yet scandal after scandal fails to take down these churches. No one seems to consider that the crimes impugn the entire religion, even while churches have failed abysmally in policing themselves.
The cover-up that we see routinely in churches does not appear to apply here, with the AA board indicating they first learned of allegations within the past week, and taking swift action.
It’s likewise relevant to contrast the obvious difference in attitudes about women by the freethought movement versus religion in general. The bible and the church, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton famously put it, have been the main impediments in the way of women’s emancipation. Nineteenth century feminist and freethinker Susan H. Wixon noted: “Freethought has always been the best friend woman had.”
The freethought movement, as I document in my anthology of women freethinkers, Women Without Superstition, has often been led by spirited women and feminists. FFRF itself was founded by two of them (my late mother and myself, back in 1976), and would not have come into existence were it not for the religious war against women, particularly against reproductive rights. Women can never be free unless the government is free from religion, and FFRF’s commitment to equality has been unwavering. The freethought movement remains male-dominated (more men than women are nonreligious). But our male-dominated membership is also stalwart in supporting women’s rights and abortion rights, as our membership surveys have always revealed. Many groups and certainly FFRF have been eager to showcase and recognize the contributions of women freethinkers, and to support women’s causes.
Contrast this with the bible, a handbook for rape and women’s subjection, and with 4,000 years of sexism culminating in the infamous witch purges. The reforms shaking up many denominations came from outside, not within, and are largely the result of the women’s movement moving society forward in general, rather than a result of religious teachings. Intellectually and historically, the choice is clear: If you value women, you must make known your dissent from organized religion.
At FFRF, all staff and volunteers must sign an anti-harassment policy, which also instructs on how to report any such harassment. This has been in place for decades.
In 40 years, there have been only two reported or known occasions of sexual harassment. One involved a friend, then in her early 20s, who was accosted by one of our Board members, a middle-aged man, in an elevator as she left an FFRF convention in the late 1970s. He restrained her in a bear hug and forcibly kissed her as the elevator went down several flights. She was a rape survivor, and this repugnant encounter unfortunately summoned back that trauma for her. She told me what happened, I immediately informed my mother, the president of FFRF, who immediately confronted the Board member and demanded (and got) his resignation.
About 12 years ago, I learned that a young staffer, another woman in her 20s, was accosted at our office by a new volunteer, an elderly man. As she walked past him, he slapped her behind with a post-it note containing a weird message. As soon as I learned of this, I immediately contacted and confronted him, and he too was “fired.”
A commitment to women and equality means nothing unless the freethought movement makes clear it will not tolerate sexual misconduct or sleazy behavior by leading nonbelievers. (And I’ve seen more than my share of sleazy behavior. Maybe some of it is minor in an era of general vulgarity. But it contributes to a “boys club” mentality. Every I see the gratuitous “WTF” acronyms, etc., in presentations and tweets, I cringe. Folks, what you say reflects on our movement. Be role models.) The Silverman debacle will doubtless scare off young women who may have already been leery of the secular movement. There has been harm, as alleged, to the several unfortunate women involved, but the harm unfortunately will be to the entire movement.
Let’s make sure women are assured that sexual harassment (much less assault) — and the misuse of authority, or the power of “celebrity” — is not tolerated within our movement. We’re better than that. #Timesup.
FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. For more information and a copy of our paper, Freethought Today, please click here.