American Atheists President Dave Silverman: Humanists and Skeptics Are “Lying”

This evening, CNN aired an hour-long documentary entitled, “Atheists: Inside the World of Non-Believers.” Heavy on names like Dave Silverman and Richard Dawkins, but light on diversity, the documentary largely seemed to be a vehicle for promoting the atheist brand as dictated by American Atheists.

I knew pretty early on not to put too much stock in this documentary. After all, in the first five minutes of the show, we have Dawkins stating that he loves the Church of England because “nobody actually believes it.” Silverman appears a few seconds later to continue dictating people’s identities, stating that people who identify as skeptics or humanists (instead of atheists), are liars:

Voiceover: “Nones. Humanists. Skeptics. Freethinkers. Agnostics. Millions of Americans.”

CNN Anchor: “I’ve interviewed men and women, they say, ‘I’m a humanist, I’m a freethinker, I’m a skeptic.’ So many people won’t say, ‘I’m an atheist.’ Is it all the same thing? Are these just softer terms for ‘I’m an atheist?’”

Silverman: “Yes. These are atheists who are afraid to use the word. And what are they doing? They’re lying.”

As I learned yesterday, this is par for the course for AA, whose PR Director Danielle Muscato thinks it’s okay to go to atheist meetups and tell people how they should identify. And I get it! You’re American Atheists, not American Humanists/Skeptics/Freethinkers, and you want to rally the troops. What American Atheists fails to realize is that brand promotion does not equal civil rights activism.

After a couple of decent segments featuring Jerry DeWitt, the Clergy Project, and some badass Harvard divinity school students, Silverman is back.

“Religion is harmful, religion is bad, religion is wrong. We can say that on Atheist TV. We can’t say that on any other network.”

Silverman yell-talks this last quote at the CNN anchor, on CNN, which I think is still technically considered a “network.” I’ll give Silverman the benefit of the doubt and assume he couldn’t find a less hilariously inaccurate way to worm in a mention for his sparsely-updated Roku Channel, Atheist TV.

This brief quote near the end of an hour-long segment was the most eye-opening part of the entire program. When Silverman spits those words at the anchor, it sheds light on a larger problem with movement atheism: Self-promotion too often trumps common decency. And when that happens, you lose the ability to call yourself a civil rights organization.

I’m looking at you, American Atheists.


Courtney Caldwell

Courtney Caldwell is an intersectional feminist. Her talents include sweary rants, and clogging your social media with pictures of her dogs (and occasionally her begrudging cat). She's also a political nerd, whose far-left tendencies are a little out of place in the deep red Texas.

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  1. ” Self-promotion too often trumps common decency. And when that happens, you lose the ability to call yourself a civil rights organization.”

    ^Yes, that. Oh boy so much that. Thank you for saying it.

  2. Successful social reform movements organise around an issue rather than an identity, because an issue can get people with different identities working together.

    Separation of church and state (to pick one example) is an issue. Atheism is an identity.

  3. Don’t the categories of atheist, humanist, skeptic, and agnostic overlap? I usually see myself as all of the first three, but I have encountered atheists who are neither skeptics nor humanists, humanists who are not atheists, and so forth. I think the context determines the way I describe myself to others. This is neither mendacity nor cowardice, it’s finding common ground when I can, in order to cooperate on the things that matter. Atheism is not the most important thing about me, but it’s probably the most important thing about Silverman.

    1. Heck, I’m 99% sure that non-secular humanism predates secular humanism as an established philosophy.

      If you share my moral goal of improving life for people, I don’t really care if you’re an atheist or not. One of the best things about being an atheist to me is the very natural way you can separate your system of morality from your existential beliefs.

      “Atheist” answers the question “What don’t you believe?”
      “Humanism” answers the completely different question “What do you believe(about right and wrong)?”
      “Skepticism” describes a process for validating beliefs, one that naturally leads to atheism for many skeptics.

      Just piling them all together just makes it so much harder to be an atheist in the US.

    2. It appears that Silverman is unfamiliar with the concept of the Venn diagram. The one for atheist, humanist, and skeptic is really easy to draw. Each circle has an overlap with each other circle and there’s a point where all three overlap.

      Agnostic is harder. People mean different things by it, and I’ll admit to finding some people’s use of the term to be a transparent dodge of any other label, particularly the atheist one. But anymore, I’m becoming less fond of the atheist label myself. I still one hundred percent consider myself an atheist, I think it’s the right word for what I believe. But I don’t want people associating me with the bile that’s been coming from Dawkins and Harris and a lot of YouTube atheists lately.

      1. Given that there are explicitly religious humanists, it’s pretty obvious that Silverman is an idiot. He really does sound like a Mormon or Catholic official who is trying to claim that anyone raised in the church is still a member, even if they have long since left the faith.

  4. Sam Harris: “I think that “atheist” is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people “non-astrologers.” All we need are words like “reason” and “evidence” and “common sense” and “bullshit” to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.”

  5. I understand what Silverman is trying to say, since there’s so much stigma attached to the word “atheist.” But I think everyone should be able to identify however the fuck they want to.

    It would be like somebody saying I’m lying by identifying as bisexual, and that I should say pansexual.

    1. I reminds me of some atheists who simply won’t allow Neil DeGrasse Tyson shy away from the atheist label. He is so obviously an atheist by definition, the argument goes, that he is missing out on the opportunity to show atheists in a good light.

      I understand the sentiment but you do not get to control others’ labels.

    2. I kind of wonder sometimes if calling myself pansexual is lying. I’m not really under 30!

  6. So, Silverman would be the pot calling Russell’s teapot black.

    Fit neatly into the box I want you in or I will call you a liar, just another reason not to give money to his regressive organization.

    What a dick.

  7. Plus the fact that Silverman is simply wrong about those labels meaning the same thing.

    Bill Maher is an atheist yet he is not a skeptic.

    Penn Jillette is an atheist but not a humanist (I can’t bring myself to see any libertarian as a humanist).

    Most people would label the Dalai Lama a humanist but he is most definitely not an atheist.

    Depak Chopra is a freethinker (in his words, so free his brains seem to have flittered off somewhere) but he is not an atheist or a skeptic.

    Silverman is in the habit recently of seeing just how far he can fit is feet into his mouth.

    1. Yeah, basically the guy doesn’t understand that identities can intersect, so he sounds like one of those massive crossover fanfics: You like Thing A, so you must also like Similar Things B and C. And if you like Thing B, you probably like Similar Things, D, E, F, and G. Liking Thing C means you probably like, in addition to Similar Things D and F, Other Similar Things H, I, and J.

  8. This is the guy whose organization sent someone to CPAC, who, for all intents and purposes, outed herself as being neither a skeptic, nor a humanist, by claiming that you could somehow be both socially liberal (i.e., give a damn about people), but fiscally conservative (i.e., unwilling to actually spend the time or the money to help the people you claim to care so much about).

    Of course he somehow thinks that humanists, skeptics, etc. are liars – I doubt he has a damn clue how to be any of those things, any more than Dawkins has shown himself capable of, by his own words, “considering social issues to be more than a distraction from his real mission”.

    And, by the same token, when you have nothing useful to sell, it becomes vastly more important, even if its only in your own head, to over promote the shinny packaging that your otherwise worthless product is dressed up in. Too bad, like most such self promoters (say, the GOP, on the other side of the fence), they miss the fact that its not how much you bang the drum, or what the wrapper looks like, which is the freaking problem.

    1. Not defending Silverman or whoever went to CPAC (not familiar with that situation) or any fiscally conservative person in general, but being fiscally conservative doesn’t mean you’re unwilling to spend money on those less fortunate, it means believing that the government is not the correct mechanism for doing so. Private giving is an entirely separate matter. There are people who are fiscally conservative who give a damn about others, and people who are fiscally conservative who don’t. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

      1. And what “mechanism” would you suggest as a replacement? Private charities don’t work. There is never enough “volunteers” able, or willing, to throw money at them, and the times when they are needed the most are when they receive the least donations. I suppose you could just go back to the 1800s, and hand it over to corporations again – everyone works for the company that supplies them their housing, food, clothes, etc., but then.. you would need, say.. effective government oversight, of some sort (yeah right..) to make sure these corporations are not doing what got them banned from being able to do this in the first place – robbing them blind, lending them money, then making sure they can’t possibly work off the original loan, or interest payments.

        People like you Amy, keep claiming there is “some other way”. But, what is it then exactly? It can’t be community support, because, again, that is just private charity again, and if the community is in crisis, there is no money. I suppose you could ask the city for money, but then, that would be government, and they might not have enough, so they would have to ask the state, who might not have enough, so they would have to ask the fed. And, neither the state, nor the fed, as going to just hand over money to some local program, without control over how the program runs, and how the money gets spent, so.. in two steps we are right back to having the fed provide the mechanism to help these people, because private groups, and local systems, can’t do it.

        In this matter – how do you efficiently, and effectively, assuming you don’t have a bunch fiscal conservatives trying to screw it up by babbling about cheaters, and it costing too much, and how we need 4 more special committees to make sure its not being misspent, and 50 more laws restricting who, and when, or if, they get any support, fucking the system up, do you make sure everyone that needs the help gets it?

        Sadly as with all imperfect systems, you either “allow” some people to cheat, and try to catch them at it, or you do what “fiscal conservatives” constantly do, and either spend 10 times as much money and resources trying to make it impossible to cheat, while actually making it impossible to either a) effectively and efficiently help anyone, while b) making it nearly as impossible to actually figure out who is legitimately receiving aid, *OR* you cut the funding to the bone, so the cheaters are still gaming the system, but there is no way **to** catch them, with the resources available, and 10 times as many people who should have been helped are not, because there isn’t any money, or resources, or time, left to do so.

        This is why we say that it is “impossible” to give a damn, and be a fiscal conservative. Its not about what you think you are doing, what you wish you where doing, what you would like the world to be, or work, like, or how much you ever so desperately pretend to care about the, and I really love your bullshit euphemism – “those less fortunate” (like someone starving, or dying from a treatable medical problem, or living with an abusive foster parent or a thousand other things that go wrong thanks to interference by anti-government types are merely “less fortunate” somehow, instead of being intentionally, and actively, neglected by the people claiming to give a damn about them), that matters, its whether or not you can pull you head out of you ass and stop looking to further break what *does* however poorly, work, in favor of some pipe dream, nonsense about how there, “Has to be some magical unicorn like, super special, “other way” to do it.

        Well, what the F is it then exactly, and how the fraking hades is it supposed to work exactly? More to the point, how, other than just crossing your fingers, and desperately imagining it is true, do you even bloody know it would be better, assuming its not the usual idiocies that get trotted out all the time, like, “This time, private charity will really, super duper, truly work, just like abstinence education, and three strike laws, more guns in schools, an increase in drone strikes, or spending a few billion more on the ‘drug war’!!!”, just to name a few stupid ideas that conservatives keep trying, over and over, again, like a broken record, by some band no one gave a damn about in the first place.

      2. The problem is that the fiscal conservative position is unrealistic in expecting private charity to deal with the problems of society. They may ‘care’, but they don’t do so in an effective or intelligent manner.

  9. I usually identify as an atheist because it’s easy and it gets the job done, and because sometimes I just don’t well feel like getting into long discussions defining terms. But I like nuance and Silverman’s insistence on HIS way or no way is not very helpful. Don’t call people liars, Mr. Silverman.

  10. I dunno, in some ways it makes sense to me: I label myself feminist, humanist, sceptic, lgbtq-friendly atheist. But I don’t know any lgb or trans people personally, interact with women on an individual basis, don’t partake in many local events concerning atheism. For all the labels I consider important my life is pretty much ordinary and comparable to people who hold a different set of labels except I tend to bitch about bigotry more and try to disregard my own prejudice.

    If Silverman were saying: your actions define you! If the label fits, wear it! Don’t pretend to be something else! Yeah I’d get that.

    But no. He’s saying: what matters is that you’re an atheist! The rest are lies!

    And that’s bullshit. Silverman? You don’t know me. And part of what you don’t know is that I’m prouder of being a half-assed feminist and humanist and LGBTQ ally than if being a full-blown, hands down, pants down, anyplace, anytime atheist, which I am and its mine, but fuck all is it important!

  11. It’s like saying, when I call myself a “Californian,” I’m lying because I don’t call myself a woman. But maybe my gender doesn’t freaking matter to this conversation! Different labels can be applicable in different situations! Embracing my state of birth does not mean I’m rejecting any other label that may apply to me.

  12. Also, can I push back, like really really REALLY hard against American Atheist’s latest attempts at declaring that “Atheist is the new gay” or whatever they’re doing? Yeah, Americans don’t like or trust the concept of Atheism. Yes, atheists in some countries are persecuted. But I’ve never heard someone say, “That’s SO atheist!” as an insult. The *word* atheist does not need to be normalized – the concept that Atheists are not amoral, evil, or Satanic *does.* I think that’s one reason why atheists often prefer more precise terms like Humanist or Freethinker – it describes *why* their disbelief in god is important to them – it’s a consequence of their personal ethical or philosophical beliefs.

    1. Can’t agree with you enough on this. Co-opting civil rights language ALSO doesn’t make you a civil rights org :)

      1. Why not? A lot of groups I consider objectionable co-opt indigenous identity, many of them becoming more successful than real indigenous groups. ;)

    2. It’s also annoying for the straight white cis male atheist community to co-opt the LGBT community when there’s still so much heteronormative ignorance and sometimes outright transphobia towards LGBT people and issues in the white atheist community.

  13. I must admit that I harbor some good will to American Atheists since my first published work appeared in American Atheist Magazine. Plus, that credit looks really good now that I’ve started writing some skeptic- and atheist-oriented non-fiction. That credit probably had at least a subtle effect that helped to get my article accepted by Skeptical Inquirer. Though the article was obviously judged on its own merits, the American Atheist Magazine credit probably got Ken Frazier’s attention, since all my credits are for fiction.
    Still, I have to agree with the sentiments of this post. Personally, I consider myself all of the above. I have no patience for rhetoric-spewing atheists.

    1. Congrats on being published, I personally don’t hold any ill will toward American Atheists per se but I do have a problem with the people they have been courting lately and when Mr Silverman starts telling people how they must identify. He can do as he wishes of course but I won’t be funding their cause.

      1. Thanks! I have to admit that I’ve been really excited about this because, as I said, all my other credits are fiction. Plus, this was the first article I’ve ever written, and Skeptical Inquirer was the first publication I submitted it to. That’s also the first time I sold a work to the first place I submitted it to. That’s a pretty big ego boost.
        Anyway, I completely agree with you. I personally don’t think much of so-called “new atheists.” You don’t win a lot of coverts by insulting them! And, as you said, they have no right to tell people how they should identify themselves.

  14. I’d like to add that I’ve been getting a better idea of the distinctions while researching where to submit an essay about all the believers who prayed for me during my six-week coma in 2013. It’s also about the numerous believers–even medical professionals–who have told me that my recovery was a miracle. Indeed, I did almost die, and the doctors were proclaiming that I had profound brain damage. But my recovery wasn’t a miracle of God; it was a miracle of modern medicine.

    In any case, the essay is a better fit for Free Inquiry because it’s more about religion than my article, which is part personal essay, part science-based article.

    As I indicated, I identify as a skeptic and an atheist. And, from what I’ve learned, I’ve been a secular humanist all along. I’ve long been keenly concerned with the separation of church and state. Indeed, the piece I sold to American Atheist satirized Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign. Yes, it was that long ago.

  15. American Atheists have been an embarrassment to the atheist community since its formation by their hate monger founder, O’Hair. I can’t think of anything of value the American Atheists have ever contributed to the improvement of society. It’s also a bit rich for him to say religion is bad on network TV when Dave Silverman is on Fox News about as often as the religious extremists are.

  16. Ironically, it’s people like Dave Silverman trying to push their narrow views on the rest of the atheist community that are the reason why I personally no longer identify with that label.

    1. Personally, I don’t think you should let anyone should define how you label yourself. You define how the label applies to you. And how you behave defines the behavior of atheists to the people you know. I don’t like the tactics of many of the so-called new atheists, but that doesn’t mean I don’t call myself an atheist; I just don’t behave the way they do.

      1. Oh, that’s not the only reason why, but jerky cis straight white guys ruining the atheist community is just one of many factors of why I don’t really identify with atheism anymore. I also just find the label to be too personally restricting to me as my thoughts on God and religion can day to day and I don’t feel comfortable with restricting how I feel about it with a label. I have nothing against people who do use religious labels though but I just don’t feel like any religious label really fits me anymore and my thoughts on the issues.

        1. You shouldn’t let me label you, either, Brooks! Sorry about the implication. If not having a label is the label the fits you, then that’s the way it should be.

  17. There are skeptical, critical thinkers who believe in god. Just like there are people who come to atheism because of pain, anger, or an assortment of other reasons, and don’t employ critical thought to much of their world view. Lumping everyone together is a logical failure. I make my decisions based on critical thought and empathy. If I label myself a skeptic and humanist, I’m not saying I’m an atheist, because I am not. I believe in god. And while my beliefs don’t extend to organized religion, there are others whose beliefs are more traditional and who are still skeptical/critical thinkers. When people like Silverman and others say I’m not actually a skeptic because I’m not an atheist I consider it ironic. Anyone who considers themselves a critical thinker and who believes that they are able to, and do, think critically on all subjects/word view are only fooling themselves.

    1. I think it’s a mistake to think of them as enemies. They’re more like antagonists. Thinking of your opponents as enemies is reminiscent of religious thinking.

      And since when did debate about tactics become treason to the cause? That’s religious-type thinking, again. Rationalists live for debate. Without debate, how can you arrive at the truth? Or at least arrive at something approaching truth.

  18. People who identify themselves all over the map have expressed their views in this thread. And every single one of them has the right to not be be called liars for their sincerely held beliefs.

    I admit that I used to think that the label of secular humanist was a dodge to avoid wearing the scarlet A. But, I’ve come to understand the distinction and realized that I was both. And, I’ve been a skeptic the whole time. I’ve always known the difference between a skeptic an an atheist, though I think most people who identify as skeptics are also atheist. Probably many of them are also secular humanists. That’s why the recent merger into the Center for Inquiry made so much sense.

    I’ve now been published, or will be published, in flagship magazines in all three categories, since Free Inquiry accepted my essay just last week.

    They all represent who I am, Still, though I’m an American Atheist, and was published in their magazine, I don’t truck with their tactics. And I’m certainly not a liar for identifying as a skeptic or a secular humanist, as well.

    PS: The piece I published in American Atheist Magazine was a satire of Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign. (Yeah, it was that long ago.) That was a satire related to separation of Church and State–a particular secular humanist issue. Were they liars for publishing it?

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