Each day brings us new evidence of quasi-pathological faith-derangement among members of our ruling class, and not just those of the GOP: Despite the monumental, universe-explaining 2012 discovery of the Higgs Boson, Hillary hews to her belief in the supernatural, and President Obama, even after Islamist terrorists murdered 14 people in California, cannot bring himself to call the Islamic State Islamic. Where religion is concerned, darkness and confusion rule, and “ill fares the land,” as the late Tony Judt once declared.
The battle for American hearts and minds – the religious might say souls – is on, and reason must prevail. Now more than ever, secularists, rationalists and supporters of First Amendment rights – that is, of the United States Constitution – need a mediagenic figure to debate, on-air and live, the Enemies of our (fabulously godless) Republic, whose ranks include top Fox News talk show hosts, the obscenely voluble Donald Trump, and crudely theocratic Republicans including, but not limited to, Sen. Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson.
And such a figure has in fact emerged -- David Silverman, the president of American Atheists. Silverman has just published a book, “Fighting God,” which will be an inspiriting read for nonbelievers fed up with religious privilege and yearning to glimpse the better, more secular future that, surveys show, is on its way.
Silverman cut his teeth as the cable-news paladin of secularism a few years back. He barely flinched when, in 2012, Fox News megastar Bill O’Reilly called “insane” American Atheists’ position (and by extension, its irreverent, “Keep the Merry! Dump the Myth!” billboard campaign) on the U.S. government’s preferential (and thus anti-constitutional, on First Amendment grounds) treatment of Christianity on Christmas day. (American Atheists are mounting another billboard campaign this holiday season.) But when the Fox News talk show host referred to him and American Atheists as a “merry band of fascists,” Silverman came close to – but only close to – losing his cool.
“Fascists? Fascists? You call me a fascist?”
“Absolutely!” replied O’Reilly, showing no regard for the definition of fascism.
“I am a patriot, sir,” fired back Silverman, “who’s taking the craziest notion that everybody in this country is equal and that the government has to treat everybody fairly. That’s fascism?”
O’Reilly tried to talk over him and misstate Silverman’s argument, but Silverman retained his sang-froid and actually out-bullied O’Reilly: “We demand equality from the government and it's our constitutional right and you should be demanding it along with me!”
Multiple encounters with Sean Hannity have yielded similar scenes, with favorable outcomes for the rationalist team. (Check out this one for starters.) Really, after other, equally humiliating encounters with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, you would think the Fox News Duo of Faith-Deranged Dunderheads would have wised up. But thankfully, the Lord keeps them at it, which at least assures the rest of us a good laugh.
"Bashful," thus, is not a word that describes Silverman. If “New Atheism” has its established authors – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne – it also now has Silverman, the 49-year-old who has led American Atheists for the past five years, years in which stats now demonstrate the unprecedented rise of nonbelief. His “Fighting God,” with its tightly pleached, often data-based arguments for firebrand atheism, stands as his contribution to the godless canon and will take its place alongside the works of the above-mentioned writers.
I caught up with Silverman on Skype last week while he was in Seattle on his book tour, which actually began before publication, in July, in Shanghai. We talked for just under an hour, and covered the goals of American Atheists, politics and what he really thinks of his Fox News opponents.
I asked him what his goal was.
“I’m not seeking to outlaw religion,” he answered. “Every American has the right to practice a religion. But we would be a freer state, healthier, if we dropped the myths of yesteryear. We’d be a more knowledgeable country. Just look at Scandinavia. We see the positive effects of atheism there.”
The most critical flaw of faith, he told me, was the notion it offers of an “objective morality” – that is, unquestionable, immutable, heaven-decreed moral absolutes that cannot evolve as our consciousness does. “The lie of objective morality that make people do bad things and think they’re doing good,” with ISIS atrocities and attacks on abortion clinics serving as obvious examples thereof. Such murderers “think they’re doing God’s work, they think they’re doing good.”
I asked why he chose the present moment to publish “Fighting God.”
“We’re seeing this rise in religious hatred all over the world,” he said, “and a pushback against criticizing religion. Yet religion is the problem. We see its influence all over, in abortion, gay rights, climate change. In Europe, the rise of Islam” – especially with the influx of Muslim refugees – “is leading to the rise of firebrand atheism, as atheists are being pushed into realizing that they have something to fight, and something to defend. In Heidelberg and Basil and Zurich I spoke to packed crowds who wanted to know more about firebrand atheism because of the fear of the rise of Islam. Religion is hurting our species, it’s hurting the entire world, and yet we protect it. We need to put religion in its place, which is back in the church.” He paused. “Religion is a scam, a lie codified in our society, demanding respect, even from the non-religious, and cannot be challenged. But religious opinions are opinions just like any other opinions. It’s about time for the lie to come to an end, for the lie to die.”
“How exactly is it a scam?”
“A scam takes money from people for a promise that’s never kept. Religion tells people they will get to heaven. But they never get to heaven. Religion lies, takes money, funnels money to preachers and then demands respect. No really powerful god would have to demand respect. So I refuse to give respect.”
Does disrespecting faith work as a tactic?
“Yes! When no one shows disrespect for religion, those inside the churches feel afraid and abandoned. Yet religion deserves no more respect than tarot cards or astrology. This is an outreach effort to those inside the churches. We’re saying, you can get out! We can grow the movement by spreading atheism, but also by getting atheists who don’t call themselves atheists to call themselves what they are. Ninety percent of atheists don’t call themselves atheists; the real number [of atheists] isn’t 3 percent but 35 percent. All I need to do to multiply the movement by a factor of ten is get atheists to call themselves atheists, we don’t have to change opinions about God. There are even atheists behind pulpits.”
(The Pew Research Center has documented the apparently unstoppable increase in the number of people without any religious affiliation, who now account for 23 percent of Americans, with millennials – go, millennials! – already at 35 percent. Between 2007 and 2014, Christians decreased from 78 percent to 71 percent. Even Baby Boomers are losing their religion. Within a few generations, the day may dawn -- in the United States, at least -- when the faithful find themselves as rare – and respected – as Flat-Earthers.)
Closeted atheists are, thus, Silverman’s target market. In “Fighting God,” he cogently argues that confusion about words often used to designate atheists (humanist, secular, freethinker, agnostic), combined with high unfavorable opinion ratings for “atheists” in general, has systematically led to underreporting the actual number of nonbelievers. More controversially, Silverman argues against the idea that there can be Jewish atheists. You can be one or the other – not both.
Our talk then turned to politics, about which Silverman, citing American Atheists’ non-political legal status as restricting what he could say on the subject, nevertheless opined trenchantly. Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States is an “asinine policy purely based on ignorance” endorsing an us-versus-Muslims mentality that plays into ISIS’s hands, since ISIS “wants to goad us into a holy war. What we need to do is embrace the Muslim people and teach them that there are many ways to look at the Quran, and no way is more than personal opinion.”
Ted Cruz, for Silverman, is an “obviously under-qualified person” who hopes to “make up for his lack of ability and lack of experience and lack of knowledge” by saying that “God wants me to be president. Universally, if all you have to offer your voters is God wants me to be president, you have nothing to offer your voters.” Dr. Carson would put “his personal opinion, his religious opinion, above the law of the land . . . . This is something Dr. Carson needs to expand on, so we can know what laws he’s going to ignore as president of the United States.”
So much for the Republicans. Democrats, with Silverman, fared a bit better. Hillary’s recent response at the Democratic debates that ISIS is a "barbaric, ruthless, violent, jihadist terrorist group" explained little, and failed to address Islam’s motivating role in the movement, which is convenient for American politicians on both sides of the aisle who wish to “shy away from the fact that there’s a clear link between Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism. They’re both the same. It’s exactly the same with people in America shooting up abortion clinics, they’re just victims of a different con . . . they think they’re doing good. The reason so many Americans and politicians are shying away from this fact is that they don’t want to see the clear link between Islamic jihadism and Christian fundamentalism, they don’t want to admit that both are the same. So they pretend that Christian fundamentalists are good people, and those Christian terrorists are just one-off rogues . . . . It’s not just about Islam. All religion is a lie and includes the concept of objective morality. These people do bad things and think they’re doing good.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, said Silverman, professes to be a non-religious Jew, but holds that his religion is really “’we’re all in this together’” which sounds “pretty humanistic.” According to Silverman, “He’s clearly an atheist.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Silverman what it was like being a guest on the notoriously faith-friendly Fox News Channel.
“At Fox I’m really well received. Mainly because almost everyone working there’s an atheist. I have a lot of fans there, they take their picture with me, they ask for my autograph, they tell me good luck. Among the hair people, the microphone person, the makeup people and camera people, they’re atheists. It must be hard for them to work inside a proverbial lions’ den of anti-atheist bigotry. They thank me for going on.”
And Bill O’Reilly? Silverman has made three appearances on his show, two of which, he told me, gave him the chance to talk with him at length before the cameras clicked on.
“O’Reilly’s a very nice guy, a very intelligent man, he’s very knowledgeable. He falls for the ‘God of the gaps’ idea. That’s exactly what the cosmological idea is, and the idea from design is and the argument from morality. It’s all ‘God of the gaps.’ My personal opinion is that he’s too smart to believe what he’s saying.”
I objected, and pointed out that after an earlier interview with Silverman, during which O’Reilly contended that atheists could not explain the tides, O’Reilly posted a video showing he really does not understand astronomy 101.
“My personal opinion is that he’s too smart to believe what he’s saying. I can’t get in his head,” Silverman said. “I don’t think that anybody who is skeptical for a living can look at God of the Gaps and say it makes sense.”
“Unfortunately, and unlike Mr. O’Reilly, Sean Hannity’s off-camera persona is exactly the same as his on-camera persona . . . . I have some fun with him off-camera, but it’s clear he doesn’t like me and I think he actually thinks I’m evil. I don’t think he has the ability to like me and disagree with me at the same time . . . . Because religion poisons people. Religion makes good people hate . . . . Religions creates divisions that shouldn’t be there. It gives us nothing but hate while saying it’s giving us love. This is a very good example of why religion deserves to die.”
Silverman and his new tome “Fighting God” are doing a lot to help hasten the day when it does. Even in these grim times, that’s a good reason for holiday cheer.