American Atheists’ David Silverman at Netroots: ‘Why do we talk about God when we talk about politics?’
This year at Netroots Nation, Raw Story is asking 5 Questions of various panel speakers, exhibitors and attendees about issues you won’t hear addressed on the main stage.
Though many liberals progressives define themselves as non-religious, most candidates they are asked to support nonetheless openly espouse religions views during the campaign season — with one open exception– Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). David Silverman, who became the president of American Atheists in 2010, led the first official delegation of American Atheists to Netroots Nation this year, and spoke to Raw Story about atheism in politics and the atheist movement’s recent struggles with sexism.
Raw Story: Why are you guys at Netroots this year?
Silverman: First of all, we’re thrilled to be at Netroots. One of the things we’re seeing is that the atheist presence in America is really exploding. And as atheists explode, as the atheist movement grows, we’ve had better and bigger conventions and we’ve started tabling at each other’s conventions, but one of the things we’ve noticed is that there’s a lot of navel-gazing. There’s a lot of the movement looking at itself and not going outside.
So one of the things that I’m doing as president of American Atheists is reaching out to the non-atheist community where there are a lot of atheists. The progressive community is chock full of atheists. The National Organization of Women, People for the America Way, the ACLU, Americans United, the Creating Change: these are movements, these are organizations chock full of atheists that need to know that we’re here, that need to know that we’re here to help them, and that need to know that we’re here to help them by fighting their fight with them. And one of the things that I really am happy about is the incredibly warm welcome we have received at this convention. The response at Netroots Nation has been warm, it’s been exciting, people are thrilled to see us here. So I think you’re going to see American Atheists at these conventions probably more often than you’re going to see us at atheist conventions because I think this is really our place.
Raw Story: Obviously, in politics, there’s often a back-and-forth between a Democratic candidate and a Republican candidate both of whom expose most often Christian views but usually some sort of view of god. It’s very rare to be elected as an atheist to higher public office. Do you think that’s changing as we grow as a nation?
Silverman: It’s absolutely changing. There was an old adage that you couldn’t get elected to Congress at all, you couldn’t get any elected office, if you were an atheist. And then about I think it was 10 years ago, Congressman Pete Stark came out as an atheist. And then after he came out as an atheist in Congress, he was reelected three times. So the idea that an atheist can’t get elected to Congress has been proven incorrect. And what we need to do is to remind people of that.
There are lots of atheists in Congress right now. They’re just not outed. And what we need to do as a movement is not only elect outed atheists but get the closeted atheists that are already in Congress to come out and say to their constituents, “Hey, I’m glad you like me. By the way, I’m an atheist,” and really destigmatize what we’re doing and where we’re going.
I think what we’re seeing as a national trend is a secularization. I think we’re watching the Christian right die. I think we are, because it is so easy, from my perspective, to make the Christian right look foolish — all I have to do is give them a microphone and talk about, you know, “You can’t get pregnant off of a rape.” It is getting silly! And people are realizing that it is getting silly, people are realizing that saying you believe that you believe in an invisible man in the sky isn’t necessarily a good thing.
What we really need is people who are going to look at the natural world that we live in and deal with the real problems that we face. And I think that as long as we stick to that kind of mentality, I think we’re going to see a shift, I think we’re going to see a shift in the next couple of election cycles where atheists are going to be elected — not only are atheists going to be elected, but outed atheists are going to be elected, and I think we are going to see atheists coming out as atheists in Congress.
And I think once we see some outed atheists in Congress again getting reelected, I think we’re going to lose that stigma.
I think we’re going to see a growth of atheism, it’s going to be an exponential growth. And driving that, of course, is going to be the young people. Approximately 30 percent of the under-30 crowd are non-religious. That’s a big market, that’s a big voting bloc. And as that 30 percent of the under-30 ages, and it becomes 30 percent of the under-40 market — assuming no growth — and 30 percent of the under-50 market in another 20 years, I think we’re going to see an inevitable shift from a “You have to be religious to get elected,” to a “Why are we even talking about God when we’re talking about politics.” And I think that’s the question we have to bring in. Why do we talk about God when we talk about politics?
Raw Story: Doesn’t talking about God, talking about religion, in politics really serve as a stand-in for politicians claiming the ground of morality, especially to differentiate themselves from atheists? How do you think atheists can talk about morality in a non-theistic context?
Silverman: What politicians do is they hide behind their religion when they have nothing to say. They don’t have a financial plan! A good example is Rick Perry. His state is having some serious problems, the financial difficulties in the state of Texas, the educational difficulties, they’re bad. He has no solution. So he hides behind God, and they pray for rain. And they pray for God to help their state, that’s all he can do. And I think what needs to happen is that needs to be exposed as a complete cop-out, as the complete cop-out that it is.
Now, to your question about morality. What needs to be said about morality is that people make their own moral decisions. Everybody makes their own moral decisions. Then a theistic person would go to a church and find a place where the church agrees with him or her and actually say, “Well, okay, now my morality comes from my church. Now my morality is perfect. Now my morality is flawless, unchangeable, and unquestionable.” And atheist will say, “I have this opinion, but of course it can be changed.” A theist will change their opinion, too, then they change churches, and when they change churches, they again reinforce their opinion of morality with the dogma of the church they have chosen because it matches their opinions. So when we’re talking about politicians using religion as a morality, what we have to understand is that it’s not that religion is the source of morality. Humanity is the source of our own morality. And when they use religions to justify it, what they’re really doing is hiding behind their religion so that they don’t have to justify their positions. And I think that’s what has to be exposed. When somebody says, “I believe X because that’s what my god tells me,” that’s a lousy answer, and we have to expose that.
Raw Story: I notice on your lanyard that’s you’re wearing the “Trust Women” button from NARAL, and I know there’s been a lot of controversies within atheism over the last few months about the confluence of atheism and feminism, and sexism within the atheist community. Obviously, there was a very big blow-up after the feminism and secularism conference because of some remarks made by a male atheist that reinforced sexist tropes. How do you think that atheists can address these problems within the community and address the kind of language that’s been used to marginalize women?
Silverman: That’s a difficult question, and it’s a big question. The reason I’m wearing this NARAL pin is because I’m a feminist. I’m a proud feminist. And I’ve always been a feminist. Now, American Atheists is not a feminist organization, but I believe pretty firmly that feminism is the inevitable result of atheism, that sexism is rooted in religion. And that’s not a perfect thing, there are other roots of it, the paternalistic societies.
But really when we’re talking about how we’re dealing with this, it’s hard because atheism is all about free speech, atheism is all about open communication, and some atheists are simply not nice people. And just like some Christians are not nice people, and some Jews are not nice people, some atheists are simply not nice people. And there’s a lot of people who are in that middle area, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding. So what I think has to happen is that the feminist voice in atheism has to be protected — protected may be not the right word, but I’ll use it anyways. The voice of feminist has to be protected, it has to be amplified, it has to be helped by the men in atheism and by the women as well. We have to make a stand that says, “It’s just obvious that men and women are equal and it’s also obvious that rape jokes sent to feminist speakers and sent to feminist bloggers, that’s not what good people do.”
At the crux of that, I’ve said many times that the atheism movement is the good guys. We are the good guys! We strive for equality, not advantage, that’s what makes us the good guys. Good guys don’t act like that. They don’t act like that to our enemies, and they don’t act like that to our allies. I have seen people within the atheist movement treat other atheists more poorly than I would treat the worst of our adversaries, and that shames me. That makes me ashamed of them.
I think the Women in Secularism Conference was a huge success, in my personal opinion. I was there, and I though it was great, and it was also packed full — and packed full larger than the first one (it was the second conference), and I hope there’s going to be a WISC 3, I hope there will be a third one. And I think that even if there isn’t, I think the feminist voice in atheism is going to continue to expand, as it should, I think it’s going to diversify more, and we are seeing that diversification within the feminist movement, within the atheism movement. And what I hope, and what I think will happen, is that the atheist movement on the whole will see the anti-feminists for what they are and drop them. And I think that’s going to happen.
A good analogy: years ago, before I became president, before I was vice president, before I was any paid positions, I was a volunteer and I ran the blog, the No-God Blog. And people started writing nasty stuff about me on the blog, in the comments. And at first, I would delete them, I didn’t like them. But what I found out was that if I left them there, the rest of the community would come in and pig-pile on the people who were posting the nasty stuff, and then the people who were posting the nasty stuff would go away. And that’s what I’m hoping will happen in the broader atheist movement, I think feminism isn’t going away, and I think the misogynists are going away.
Raw Story: One of the founder of American Atheists was a woman, right? How are you working to continue that tradition?
Silverman: The founder! The founder of American Atheists was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, my predecessor, her immediate successor was Ellen Johnson, she was president for 12 years, and I am very fortunate to have on my team a managing director, Amanda Knief, my vice president and very good friend, Kathy Johnson, and some fantastic diversity in the board of American Atheists that I’m very, very proud of and personally nourishing so that we can keep our perspectives fresh and diverse. I think that women have been and will continue to be invaluable — and I mean, literally invaluable to the atheist movement. That’s one of those words that is used too often, but the atheist movement is based on the actions of women, those “uppity” women who wouldn’t sit down and shut up. And I’m very, very proud to be sitting in the chair, sitting in the position, that was created by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
[Image courtesy of Dave Muscato, American Atheists]