David Silverman's visit to Europe in 2015
Elizabeth Hawkins, Heidelberg, Germany
The Consequences of “Fighting God”
On the upper floor of Heidelberg’s public library, men and women, young and old — of various nationalities but uniformly well-educated — file into the lecture hall where the talk will take place. All are curious and interested in the world, all speak excellent English, and it is likely that most are atheists.
David Silverman knows that this is not his typical audience. When he speaks in the United States he usually wears his bulletproof vest. But tonight there have been no death threats, so he has left his body armour in the hotel.
Silverman is a nice guy: he seems polite, tolerant, accommodating, funny, accepting and hard-working. As president of the organisation ‘American Atheists’, he campaigns to raise awareness about atheism, pushes for equal rights for atheists, and strives for true separation of religion and state. He is forthright and ruthless and his work involves giving talks, debating, and organising marketing and legal campaigns. He has just written his first book, “Fighting God”. Silverman calls himself a “firebrand”.
Firebrand atheists openly tell the truth about religion — that it is a lie — and do this even if there is a risk of offending or insulting religious people. Silverman explains: “It’s not an insult but they take it as an insult, why? Because they have been told since birth that they are a Christian, Jew or Muslim, that they are one and the same as their religion. We have to separate that out.”
Eloquent, charming and a master of rhetoric, Silverman holds his audience in the same way a preacher or politician might. Critics call him militant; chapters in Fighting God include “The War has Already Begun” and “Fighting Unpopular Battles”, but Silverman is not an aggressive person. “I hate the phrase ‘militant atheist’ because it implies violence,” Silverman says. He denies that his use of emotive language could be misconstrued: “There’s absolutely no violence in anything that I push,” he pauses, “but I do push fighting, I do push arguing, I say it’s our duty to fight back hard because we’re fighting an evil, horrible lie that enslaves people.”
Brought up a Jew, Silverman realised during childhood that scientific evidence and logic did not convince him of the existence of a god. He states: “In the history of mankind, the number of times anything supernatural has been proven true is zero.” Religious people, to Silverman, are victims of indoctrination, and in a conviction, not dissimilar to that of Christian missionaries who set about ‘civilising’ pagans, he believes that atheists have an ethical responsibility to free fellow human beings from the lie of religion which is holding back humanity and society.
Even some atheists are sceptical of his approach. Can it really be that religion is all bad? Silverman argues fiercely that it is. Take, for instance, charitable religious organisations, which he believes often take credit where it is not due: “Every single bit of good that we as humanity do, can be done without lying, pretending or imagining a man in the sky.” Silverman gives the example of a church with an annual income of 10 million dollars which on one day a year organises a food drive: “That’s not charitable!” Silverman exclaims appalled: “That’s a business with a marketing campaign.”
Another point is whether a world without religion would really be a better place. If not religion, humanity would surely find some other ways of separating itself into groups, starting wars, discriminating and hating. Silverman acknowledges that what he calls in-groups and out-groups are part of human nature, but he argues that religion is the most divisive and hate-inducing issue in the world. “If you’re a religious person it is part of your definition that everybody outside of your religion is an out-group,” Silverman says. “So, if I snapped my fingers and everybody realised there was no god, the amount of hatred and violence would not go to zero, but it would go down a lot.”
Contrary to what many think, the main aim of Silverman’s work is not to convert religious people to atheists – although from a humanistic standpoint he would like that to happen. Only around 3 % of the American population officially call themselves atheist, but Silverman believes actually 25-30 % of the population is atheist. “We’re so ashamed of the word, we’re so ashamed of being right and knowing the truth that we hide ourselves, calling ourselves agnostic, secular, nones, or even worse – Christians, Muslims and Jews.” His purpose is to encourage closet atheists to look into the definition of the word “atheist” and start using it.
Fighting God is clearly aimed at an American audience, but since recently lecturing in China, Germany and Switzerland, Silverman has noticed an increased international following. Many European atheists struggle to see the need for firebrand atheism because they do not feel discriminated against. But Silverman argues the rise of Islam has motivated more atheists to embrace his approach. He says: “Fundamentalist Islam is visible. You can see women in their burkas and you hear men talking about Sharia law, and this is scaring atheists into the firebrand.”
The audience in Heidelberg clap politely, ask mostly sensible and informed questions and file out in the same orderly fashion in which they arrived. Most participants rate the talk favourably in their feedback questionnaire.
Back home in the US, a large security fence encloses the premises of American Atheists. Silverman periodically moves house so he cannot easily be found. Despite putting up atheist billboards in Arabic in a Muslim neighbourhood and regularly admitting to drawing Mohammed, Silverman says all the threats are from Christians: “They’re not vague, they’re not obtuse in any way, they are like ‘I know where you live, I know where you sleep, I’m coming to your house tonight, I’m going to cut you from your belly to your gullet and then I’m going to do the same to your wife and daughter. Have a nice day, Jesus loves you.’ Silverman sighs. “This is the kind of shit I get.”