When Atheists Get it Wrong: Dave Silverman

When Atheists Get it Wrong: Dave Silverman September 21, 2011

Real talk: This post isn’t the most topical. But I’ve been spending the last few weeks impaling my arm, being in and out of hospitals, submitting an application to an international fellowship, starting to figure out plans for grad school, and actually being a student or something.

So I’ve been busy.

But for all my preoccupations, I’ve yet to be distracted from something I found about a month ago: Dave Silverman’s talk at the Secular Student Alliance Student Leadership conference. Now let’s get something out of the way first: I don’t really like Dave Silverman or the American Atheists, but because I don’t want to spend any substantive time attacking Dave Silverman or his reliance on dated and unoriginal memes as the only source of humor in his talk, I hope to focus instead on the claims he makes. Which are bad.

He calls atheism the last phase in the America civil rights movement.  He claims atheists are the most derided group in the country (we aren’t), yet still at an advantage because we’re “in vogue.” He criticizes Dinesh D’Souza for revisionist history in one breath, and frames every civil rights violation in the United States as the product of religion in the next.

I am astounded by the self-contradictions and misinformation in his talk, so allow me to take some time to address them here:

Atheism is the last phase of the civil rights movement.

Let me be clear about this for a minute.  Some people don’t like atheists and that’s something that’s worth fixing. Occasionally atheists are fired from their jobs, prevented from getting jobs, and generally ostracized from particularly religious communities. These are all practical issues we should be trying to prevent.

Dave Silverman says atheists are “lowest on the totem pole,” but no one to my knowledge has used atheist as a derogatory slur. Since coming to Yale, I’ve never had anyone be surprised about my atheism, let alone react negatively it, and I’ve received nothing but support from the religious communities on campus that I’ve engaged with. In fact, I’ve seen fat people treated with more discrimination than atheists.

I can marry whomever I want, attend whatever school I want, vote all I want, and enjoy the freedom any Christian has (all within reason). I have never been threatened physical violence for my atheism, nor have I heard any stories of atheist teenagers being killed because they were openly nonreligious. I know of no stories of any Christians brutally beaten for asserting the rights of atheists, nor have I seen groups of atheists systematically targeted to be shut down by local law enforcement.

In fact I can’t think of any substantive reason to imagine that we are significant targets of discrimination, other than that we’re unpopular in specific parts of the U.S. If any appreciable rights of ours are violated, they are surely as minor as “in God we trusts” and religious iconography tacitly supported by the state. And I don’t mean to marginalize their importance, but they are relatively innocuous and solvable without violence, so much so that any meaningful comparison between our movement and any other civil rights movement is shallow at best, and profoundly offensive and insensitive at worst.

Abrahamic religion and the Constitution are incompatible.

This one, to me, is just so ignorant of history, especially of secularism, that I’m amazed it went unchecked. Let’s put aside “render unto Ceasar,” for a minute, and just look at the history of secularism. John Locke, the philosopher whose works include “The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures,” is often credited as the origin of the idea of the separation of church and state. And for all the deism of our founding fathers, many were undeniably Christian.

In fact, many arguments of philosophers such as Spinoza, who argued that coerced religious belief was not genuine belief and thus worthless, made the secular society most preferable from a religious lens. It was considerations such at these that were directly put into practice in some of America’s first colonies.

Just because there are those few extremists who would blur the lines between church and state, in no way points to anything substantive in the religion writ large, other than simply a few corrupt, ignorant, and at best mislead individuals and churches.

Religion is to blame for American Civil Rights violations.

I think this represents the most internally inconsistent misconception we have about religion. On one hand, we treat the bible and religion like a Rorschach test, wherein men use the dictum of God and the Church to reflect and reinforce their underlying prejudices against gays, women, blacks, and so on — racists and sexists pick the parts of the bible that fit their prejudices, while other believers ignore them.

But on the other hand, Dave Silverman is taking the position that because Churches had these specific prejudices, they must be causing them — which is entirely unjustified and untrue.

You can’t have it both ways. Religion can’t simultaneously reflect and cause prejudice; it seems like it has to be the one or the other. And if we are seriously holding religion to be the cause of slavery, shouldn’t we expect support for slavery to be divided by religion, rather than say, existence of a manufacturing rather than an agrarian-based economy? It seems to me that even a moment’s reflection on this should make it obvious that religion here is used as a rationalization, rather than a reason, for these civil rights violations, and that it makes no sense at all to hold religions culpable, especially considering how pivotal Christianity was in the black civil rights movement.

The theist is a marketing tool, and will be treated as such.

Let’s put aside for a second secular ethics, where we treat others as agents and hold objectification to be immoral. While I find this statement to be entirely repulsive and morally infantile, let me instead tackle it from a civil rights and pragmatic perspective. Silverman makes it clear throughout his presentation that many disenfranchised minorities facing civil rights struggles were able to succeed, despite having no money or power.

What he didn’t make obvious was that the reason they succeeded was because of their oppressors. Without men invested in the cause, there would be no suffrage. With no whites fighting for the freedom of blacks, there would be no emancipation.  With no straight allies fighting for gay rights, there would be no gay marriage.

I don’t know if Dave Silverman is planning on converting the entirety of the religious population. If so that’s a pipe-dream at best. But if there really is activism needed to be done on behalf of atheists, it necessarily requires religious believers invested in our cause. We simply don’t have the numbers ourselves.


Smaller claims:

Tyler Curtis tackled Silverman’s claim that 30% of those under 30 years old are nonreligious. It’s actually closer to half that. At best, fewer than 5% of the population is explicitly nonreligious like us.

Despite Silverman and American Atheists’ claims to the contrary, the cross in the 9/11 Memorial Museum is not the only religious symbol allowed, and it is not in the memorial — it’s in the historical exhibit detailing America’s response to 9/11, along with a Star of David (this claim was debunked in impressive detail by James Croft).

The claim that in 9 countries religion is going extinct is somewhat tenuous, and references religious affiliation and not belief.

Rupert Murdoch is not an atheist, or at the very least we have no reason to think he is.

And lastly, religion is not a scam. While there are certainly churches that can be best described as scams (Prosperity theology, megachurches, and scientology come to mind), the criterion that “saying things that aren’t true, even unintentionally” certainly doesn’t hold.

And Dave Silverman should be happy about this last point; it wouldn’t paint him or his organization too charitably otherwise.


vladVlad Chituc is a senior at Yale University, studying Psychology and Philosophy with an interest in how we form beliefs (particularly moral and religious), with an interest in metaphysics and moral philosophy on the side. He has served as the Community Service Coordinator and President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale (formerly the Yale Humanist Society), during which he participated in the Inter-Religious Leaders Council and worked closely with the Yale Chaplain’s Office to foster relationships with liberal members of the Yale religious community. In his spare time, Vlad enjoys listening to hipster bullshit and writing sarcastic articles and music reviews for the Yale Herald.

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