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Atheist organizer takes ‘movement’ to nation’s capital
American Atheists president David Silverman in Washington, planning for Saturday's rally.
March 23rd, 2012
11:04 AM ET

Atheist organizer takes ‘movement’ to nation’s capital

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – Sitting in a chilly hotel hospitality suite in a suburban Maryland hotel, David Silverman plans his attack. As the frequently quoted president of the American Atheists and a constant thorn in the side of religious organizations, attack mode comes easily to him.

At the moment, it isn’t the religious right or the “horribly misinformed,” a term Silverman uses for certain religious people, that are in his sights. Rather, it’s a menu.

“Spinach or Caesar salad?” Silverman, 45, asks to no one in particular. His dinner guests, a logistics consultant, a Marriott hotel representative and Silverman’s new administrative director, eat through a few courses before discussion turns to dessert.

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“In the beginning, God created chocolate,” Silverman says, his eyes scanning the table for reaction.

Laughter ensues. But this is a business meal. From choosing salads for a fundraising dinner to studying the timing of the Washington transit system, Silverman has been spending less time recently on the big question of God’s existence and more time immersing himself in the nitty-gritty of planning what he promises will be the largest-ever atheist gathering.

On Saturday, Silverman hopes that from 10,000 to 20,000 atheists, agnostics, doubters and secularists of all stripes to converge on the National Mall in Washington for what his group calls the Reason Rally.

Silverman is especially proud of the event’s speaker’s list, dropping names like a proud father. He beams when noting that the man he calls “Dawkins” – Richard Dawkins, the scientist and author of “The Blind Watchmaker” and “The God Delusion” – will headline the rally.

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“We have people busing in from as far west as Ohio, as far south as Florida and as far north as Maine,” Silverman says. The weekend will also play host to the American Atheists’ annual convention, to be held at the Maryland Marriot where Silverman is debating salad options.

Silverman is billing the weekend as a watershed movement in the atheist “coming out,” of recent years.

“We want people to know we are huge, we’re everywhere, and we are growing,” he says. “The goal is to advance the position of atheists in America.”

A nice guy combatant

Silverman, a professional inventor at Bell Labs who has 74 patents under his name in the area of telecommunications infrastructure, worked his way up the ladder at American Atheists.

He started as a volunteer in New Jersey in 1996, moved up to be the state’s director and then jumped from national spokesperson to vice president. In 2010 he became president of the organization, which counts 4,000 members, has a $750,000 annual budget and has become the organizational face of a burgeoning American movement of atheists.

Silverman has taken the group in a much more outspoken direction, reflecting a national trend among atheists.

“Ed is extremely intelligent, better educated than I am… I think I have more fire than he had,” Silverman says of his predecessor at American Atheists, Ed Buckner. “It shows itself in the billboards; it shows itself in the press; it shows itself in our corporate attitude.”

In November 2010, weeks before Christmas, American Atheists placed a billboard at the New Jersey entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel that showed the three wise men heading to Bethlehem with the message “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason.”

The sign earned national media attention and stirred so much controversy that it prompted the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil rights to respond with a pro-Christmas billboard at the New York end of the Lincoln Tunnel. “You Know It's Real,” the sign said. “This Season Celebrate Jesus.”

Silverman says that atheist billboards started popping up in the 1970s but then mostly disappeared until the Secular Coalition for America started raising billboards around the country several years ago.

Silverman has taken the billboards to an aggressive new level. Earlier this month, his group paid $30,000 to post two billboards - one in heavily Muslim Patterson, New Jersey, and another in a heavily Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood - that read “You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice.”

The signs were admittedly in your face, says Silverman – all the more so because they were in Arabic and Hebrew.

“What I am doing is not giving religion respect that it wants but it doesn’t deserve,” Silverman said. “I respect people; I respect humans. I do not respect religion. And I do not respect the idea that religion deserves respect.”

That attitude has made Silverman a bogeyman for religious groups, especially conservative ones who discern a secular assault on American religion.

“These people are vicious is what they are,” says Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. “They stand for nothing. Their only existence is to be against people of faith.”

And yet some of his faith-based enemies say Silverman treats them with respect. Donohue says Silverman “is a nice enough guy” and that on the occasions they’ve met, the atheist organizer displayed geniality and a sense of humor.

Alex McFarland, the Christian director of Worldview and Apologetics at North Greenville University, holds regular public debates with Silverman about God and the place of religion in American culture. Though they “disagree on God and a lot of the great issues of life,” McFarland says, he has “great respect for David Silverman.”

“I enjoy dialoguing with people like him that are misguided,” McFarland says. “I feel a duty to give a response to people that are holding positions that undermine the fabric of our liberties and freedoms.”

Silverman speaks highly of sparring partners like Donohue and McFarland. “I don’t see them as evil people, I see them as wrong people,” Silverman says.

But he believes they overlook one major aspect of atheism – that its numbers are growing.

Atheists have long pointed to surveys that suggest atheists and agnostics make up between 3% and 4% of the U.S. population. That number increases when Americans unaffiliated with any religion are included. The Pew Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that 16% are unaffiliated, though only a fraction of those are avowed atheists and agnostics.

“Atheism is growing in all 50 states,” Silverman says. “What people don’t seem to understand is all we demand at American Atheists is equality. We don’t want the obliteration of religion; we don’t want religion wiped off the face of the earth.”

From Hebrew school to disbelief

As a kid in Massachusetts, Silverman was the only atheist he knew. “I’ve been an atheist all my life,” he says. “When I was a kid, I had to get on a bike, I had to ride 2 miles to the library to find the one book that had to do with atheism.”

Silverman was raised Jewish. His parents sent him to Hebrew school and he had a bar mitzvah, even after telling his mother that he did not believe in God.

“I remember it clearly, getting up on stage and everybody in my life was in front of me. Everyone,” Silverman says, recalling his bar mitzvah. “And I stood up there, and I looked everyone in the eye, and I lied. I lied. And I hated it.”

For Silverman, it was a turning point, a moment when he resolved not to lie about his disbelief. “It was one of those experiences… it saddened me,” Silverman says, the disgust showing as he contorts his face. “And I didn’t really do anything about it. I just did it.”

Silverman studies computer science at Brandeis University, a predominantly Jewish school that helped him cement his non-belief and honed his debating skills.

“I was the fodder of debate,” Silverman says. In the lunchroom, he proudly used the non-Kosher trays and relished debates with religious friends.

“Even the people who had gone to school to become rabbis could not put together a reason to believe in God,” Silverman says.

At Brandeis, Silverman met his future wife, Hildy. “Very early on when we dated, it was more of an issue because I was Orthodox and he was atheist,” Hildy laughs. “We were actually apart for a few years because we couldn’t see how that would work.”

Two years after graduation though, Hildy called him and said that she was doubting her religion and needed a non-religious weekend. Silverman picked her up from the airport and six months later the “mixed” couple, as Silverman calls them, was married.

“Religion is not a factor in our lives to the point that is causes strife,” Silverman says. Hildy stills attends Orthodox synagogue sporadically.

“I am a very strong supporter of separation of church and state,” she says. “My husband has no problem with people believing what they believe. I am proof of that. He just doesn’t want it foisted on him. And I am totally in line with that.

“I think he is extremely brave in what he does,” she says.

The couple has one child, 14-year-old Rayanne. She was introduced to Judaism at a young age and attended a Hebrew school in New Jersey. When it came time to plan for a bat mitzvah, however, Rayanne let her parents knew the truth.

She didn’t want one. She was an atheist.

Silverman says he didn’t want his daughter to be an atheists just because he is, but his pride in her decision is clear. For him, she is the future of atheism.

“I am very confident that we will win within 20 years,” he says. “I am saying that we will have a substantially more equal presence in 20 years.”

No issue too small

Back at the hotel, Silverman has turned his focus from the monotony of salads and soups to more pressing issues.

“What are we going to do about the Bibles in the room,” Silverman asks the obviously surprised Marriott event planner. “We do not want the Bibles in the rooms.”

It is Marriott policy not to remove Bibles in guest rooms, but Silverman won’t back down.

“We need to do something with them,” he says, ticking off ideas with his assistant: Recycle them, give them away, put them outside the doors, perhaps even destroy them.

The event planner sits back in her chair, struggling for words.

“What we don’t want to do is be disrespectful to the hotel,” says Silverman’s administrative director, Amanda Knief, putting an end to the discussion.

Yet Silverman plans to encourage atheist guests to place Bibles outside their doors in protest.

For him, each battle - whether over the presence of a cross at the World Trade Center memorial or Bibles in a hotel room - is worth having.

After the latest American Atheist billboards went up in Patterson and Brooklyn, Silverman said he reported death threats to the police. His attitude: just par for the course, another day in the life.

“We ask the tough questions,” he says. “We say the things that are politically incorrect if they need to be said.”

“We will win the big picture,” Silverman says, twice in a row. “(Being) the Marines of free thought means that we are going to fight the unpopular fight, and yes we are going to win.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • DC • Politics

soundoff (3,330 Responses)
  1. Fake god

    The world would be better off without hateful christians and muslims.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Clarify

      Your level of compassion and kindness is astounding. Yes, the world needs more folks like you and Pol Pot.

      March 23, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  2. Varangian

    I swear I hear more examples of atheists bashing the faithful than the other way around.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Sundays off

      Mockery of religion is one of the most essential things... one of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.
      Christopher Hitchens

      March 23, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • mandarax

      maybe it's because the faithful do things like fly airplanes into buildings and withhold healthcare from women and fight to suppress education and condone insti.tutionalized discrimination against gay people. etc, etc.

      I don't know, just a guess...

      March 23, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • AGuest9

      The believers who use multiple handles to attack and "prove" their point aren't on yet tonight. They must be getting their drunk on tonight so they can be sober for Sunday morning.

      March 23, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  3. Religion is the root of all evil

    Religion will likely be the end of civilization as we know it. Religion (not oil) is why the Eastern civilization hates Western civilization so much. Religious differences are what sustains hate and difference. Religion is why we are over-populating this planet. Religion gives people the perceived right to pollute this planet and mistreat all other species here. Religion is so sad and it's evil embrace is growing tighter and tighter. We are doomed. And the irony is that those with religion think that atheists are evil–even though atheists don't need the fear of hell or reward of heaven to be good people.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Atheists don't need any excuse to be bad people either.....

      March 23, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • Masterwindu

      Amen.

      March 24, 2012 at 3:18 am |
  4. Daniel

    why is CNN calling him an agitator?

    March 23, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Sam

      Coz they didn't know the spelling of ALLIGATOR.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • ammamaw

      @Sam – :)))))

      March 24, 2012 at 2:35 am |
  5. b4bigbang

    At last this new belief system has a national rally in DC!

    March 23, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Sundays off

      Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely soley upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.
      Christopher Hitchens

      March 23, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
  6. George Fear

    I find atheists just as silly and dogmatic as the fundamentalists they ridicule, their arguments just as fallacious and arrogant. Atheists are but the other side of the coin. I suppose the ones I respect are those few on either side who actually have the balls to say, " I don't know but this is how it seems to me" after which a conversation ensues. But a preacher is a preacher is a preacher whether arrogant atheist or funny fundamentalist. They both have dogmatic aggendas and that makes both sides untrustworthy
    George Fear

    March 23, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      It's sad that we live in a world where fantasy is subscribed to over reality, reason and evidence. So yes, it is important for atheist to stand up and "preach" or teach to help weed out ignorance. There is dogma is physics. That doesn't mean that gravity is untrue. The difference is that the atheist dogma is evidence-based. We're preaching to people to think for themselves and learn how to use reason to discover reality. Just because both groups preach, are dogmatic and fanatical, doesn't mean that both are wrong.

      March 23, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Clarify

      I like this.

      March 23, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • burnz

      Evolution? Science? I dunno how dogma fits with those. Atheists don't know how the universe started, we just think "god did it" is a stupid cop out. If you're religious, have the balls to say that you don't know the truth or care to.

      March 24, 2012 at 1:07 am |
  7. haha on you!

    It takes waaaaaay more "faith" to be an atheist than it does to believe in God!! I mean, come on!! Do you seriously believe the incredibly complex human being could have just happened?? Just appeared?? Evolved from goop??? Plants, animals, fish, birds. Seriously?!?! Does the term "fool" mean anything to you? It should, if you're an atheist.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • momoya

      You believe in magical beings and magical forces.. Atheists don't.. Get it straight.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Sundays off

      Gullibility and credulity are considered undesirable qualities in every department of human life – except religion.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • America12345

      Yeah! Makes more sense that an invisible man in the sky just plucked a bone from Adam, and magically his wife appeared.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • AGuest9

      haha: I find it truly amazing that in the 21st century, there are people as ignorant of science as you. Even more frightening is that there seem to be many like you. I hold little hope for humanity evolving much beyond this, as we will always be held back by ignorance.

      March 23, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  8. Tom

    religion is the scourge of the human race, not the mention mankind itself. sometimes I think that the human race is some sort of diabolical biogocal mistake

    March 23, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  9. Pete Banks

    Oh my, that sleazy Silverman is leading the sheep astray!

    March 23, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Answer this

      Can the atheists survive in muslim lands?

      –No, because their sword is mightier than their god. 🙁

      Can the atheist survive in christian lands?

      –No, because their God is mightier than the atheist hate! 🙂

      March 23, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • momoya

      Well, if takes a bunch of atheists getting together to make your god finally show up then you can thank us for the service.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  10. Fake god

    Allah beat the freaking Jesus and Mormon cult.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  11. Big Joe

    I can't believe they got the host of Family Feud to come out and headline this event. He DID say Richard Dawson, right?

    March 23, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Sundays off

      Yes. Richard Dawson. Hopefully your rabbit ears in the trailer will be able to pick up the broadcast.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • ammamaw

      OMG, Sundays Off!!! :))))))

      March 24, 2012 at 2:38 am |
  12. Fake god

    Santorum is a good example of religious nut.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • George Fear

      He certainly is a religious nut and must be kept out. But I don;t want an atheist nut in there either pushing that aggenda.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  13. Jackie

    John 3:16
    New King James Version (NKJV)

    16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

    YOU have a choice. Its not Religion, but a relationship with Jesus. Jesus is real, God is real. What if you are right and Christians are wrong...then we were just nice people living on earth...BUT...what if Christians are right and you are wrong? sucks huh? You still have the choice to believe what you want. God doesnt force you to believe...HE said WHOSOEVER believes....

    March 23, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • momoya

      People don't choose what to believe but are compelled to believe as they do.. An atheist can't choose to believe in Christ for the same reason you can't choose to believe in Santa.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • poopmeister

      It isn't as relevant as you think Jackie. We have one shot at our time on Earth, we should be good human beings no matter what religious affiliation we are. So when the afterlife comes around, we should only be judged on our actions, not our beliefs. I don't mind burning for eternity in hell, as long as I know I was a good person, only for myself and the rest of humanity, not for any false Gods....which is all of them in my book.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • America12345

      You shall be punished for eternity for not bowing down and believing in the power of the flying spaghetti monster.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  14. Say it ain't so

    I don't belong to any particular religion, it's not my thing. I do believe in God though & his son Jesus Christ. For me to believe there's nothing higher than us, to believe we come from a "big bang", believe we're the only ones is just ridiculous. Just as ridiculous as being an extreme religious person or being an atheist which both have more in common with each other than they let on.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  15. Fake god

    Religion is always a tool for those wh 0re politicans to control gullible voters.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  16. Dale

    I have never heard of this man

    March 23, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  17. Tom

    After watching the history channel for the last 30 years, I'm throughly convinced that if there is a so-called god ,he's got to be the biggest underacheiver of all time. Amen

    March 23, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      After watching the *Nature* channel for the last several years, I'm throughly convinced that if there is a so-called god,he's got to be the biggest *overacheiver* of all time. Amen

      March 23, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  18. JG

    I agree with everything Mr Silverman says. However, I did not real all of the comments but Richard Dawkins died several months ago.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • professorkechi

      Actually, that was Christopher Hitchens. They're both militant atheists with books, however, so I can understand the confusion.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Mike

      Christopher Hitchens died in December not Richard Dawkins.

      March 23, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • Mike

      I'm am not a thiest and neither Richard or Christopher are militant. They just do not give magic men believers any special treatment for their ignorant views.

      March 23, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  19. jackenstien

    Well, it's a MYTH in the MIND of David Silverman, but it's not a MYTH in my mind.
    Either he knows something I don't know, or I know something he doesn't.
    Which is it?
    If it all "turns to black" when we die (as these atheists say), the how do you know it's "BLACK".
    The "outer darkness" (or blackness), Jesus talked about, is reserved for David Silverman.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • ingatuma

      YOUR imaginary friend Jesus, is DEAD he is NOT coming back, Unless you people find his remains and SCIENCE clones him, just keep on living your life. Think about it this way, jesus was our david coperfield of today...a simple magician.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • AGuest9

      I guess you've never been clinically dead.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Ariel

      It's the same blackness in your personal universe that existed before you were born. Not a color, but a lack of conciousness. What do you remember prior to your first sense of the world? Nothing. That's the same nothingness that follows your death. That's it. Simple. No analysis. Accept the existence you have now as the only one you'll get in the universe. What a treasure, eh? Makes each moment more valuable knowing it's limited. Common sense, no fantasy about a place above the clouds or the nightmare of a so called "hell". These ideas were the legends of ignorant people in our deep rooted past so help the living and to provide leadership to show people their morals. We all have what it takes to do what's right without religious guidance. Just do it and you'll be free of the biggest lie of mankind.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Well put, Ariel.

      March 23, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
  20. yodaddy

    Muslims, Jews and Christians should get together and kill off the atheists. Afterwards, we can go back to focusing on killing each other.

    March 23, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Shaneeda Quit

      You're too busy killing each other to focus on us.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • America12345

      You guys just keep killing each other off.. It's better for everybody else to thin the herd of you people.

      March 23, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.