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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. Doledart

    As an agnostic, the comment “I am very confident that we will win within 20 years" just shows this guy is a tool. What is there to win? They are just looking for a fight. My question is why? Why care?. I know I don't. Believe what ever you want. I'm not going to mess with you, you don't mess with me. OK? Good.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Bob

      Yeah Doledart. That'll work till they come for you, man. Like they usually do. In the night. Your whole family. Disappeared.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  2. Robble

    What a brave man!
    I will forever place the Bible outside my hotel door.
    What a creepy book: used to legitimize slavery, misogyny and the murder of nonbelievers.

    ATHEISTS ARE HERE!!!!

    March 23, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  3. Cain Jauregui

    How pathetic is this guy or any atheist that tries to convince others a non-existent deity does not exist. These extreme atheists are just like religious fundamentalists who want to convince non believers at all costs that their view on life is correct. Why cant we feel comfortable living life without having to spend a lot of energy convincing others about our view on life.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  4. Religion is Poison

    The jesus Nazis don't like having atheists assemble because they are afraid that their shakey little make belief world will fall apart.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  5. Scott

    Hey Christians, Pray for this guy. Hey's digging a hole that he doesn't believe in. He really is much like Paul, who attacked the church and later Jesus revealed himself to him, which put him on a path that brought life to many. This'll probably tick him off, but hey, if there is no God, then we can't do him any good. On the other hand, he should be grateful, because if there is a God, and God reveals himself to him, they he gains everything. So, come on guys, rend the heavens with prayer for this man that he might meet Jesus. Maybe he is the kind of person, once having come into faith, that might help flip the world upside down like Paul helped to do. He is alive, we have hope in Jesus, find that prayer closet and loose Heaven!

    March 23, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Huh?

      "On the other hand, he should be grateful, because if there is a God, and God reveals himself to him, they he gains everything."

      There is no proof of that – the lies you people come up with are hilarious.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • JC In The Hot Tub!

      While you're praying for him, can you pray that Texas gets rain and Tebow stays in Denver? Oh, and I would really like a pizza delivered to my door.

      Thanks!

      March 23, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "So, come on guys, rend the heavens with prayer..."

      Please do. It would be the first evidence ever of what you claim to be the Truth.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Brett

      Too bad God didn't give Jesus a digital camera. I guess God couldn't think 2000 years ahead.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  6. Coug9

    If I put up a sign about Christian faith, the atheists would cry foul and demand that I took it down. They do not support "choice"....their motive is the destruction of religion and faith. They can lie to you all they want...their motives are clearer from their actions then their words.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • whachootawkin' bout Willis

      I lost my job and wasn't able to make my usual contributions at church the last while. Yesterday Jesus 'unfriended 'me in Facebook.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Brett

      There's a billboard for a Baptist Mega church right by my neighborhood. What are you talking about?

      March 23, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Lets turn this around shall we? I guess that no matter how much Christians espouse love and tolerance, their real agenda must be to marginalize the GLBT community, marginalize the right of choice from women when it comes to reproduction, and to base our laws in this country on their thoughts. These are the actions that christians have been taking, so according to your logic, these things are what they want. Marginalized minorities, choices taken away from women, and a theocracy.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Coug9,
      Are you kidding? There are religious billboards every where.

      "Jesus Saves" "He is risen" "Thou shalt not kill"

      March 23, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  7. thomasandeaton

    I have to agree with Bill Donohue, who says that this groups only existence is to be against people of faith. Silverman admits that though he respects people, he has no respect for religion. That's fine, but why mess with people who DO respect religion? By rallying and posting billboards.....aren't atheist doing the same thing they accuse the religious of doing?
    I've never met an atheist that wasn't angry about religion. It's as though they are simply children, rebelling against their parents.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @thomasandeaton,
      "...this groups only existence is to be against people of faith."

      Did you read the article?
      "Silverman says. 'What people don’t seem to understand is all we demand at American Atheists is equality.'"

      or try this:
      http://atheists.org/about

      Perhaps, the very fact that you don't understand the need for such a group is exactly why there is a need for this group.

      You said, "It's as though they are simply children, rebelling against their parents."

      Well you certainly have the patronizing part of the parental role down pat, perhaps you can work on the understanding part now.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  8. JC In The Hot Tub!

    Organized religion is a scam designed to rob the gullible and molest the innocent.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Perfrid

      Senseless ad hominem attack.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  9. Dana

    The earth is not flat either. Grow up people.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Locally, it's flat. Is space Euclidean?

      March 23, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  10. Reality

    A money-making scheme by the Silvermans (the atheist version of the Graham family)?? Probably!!!

    Internet media networking is doing the same job at no cost and no trip to Washington and $1000 front row seats required.

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS–

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

    And then augmented by the following:

    Putting the final kibosh on religion to include Mormonism:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    March 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  11. FauxNews

    I hear they are praying for good weather for the rally.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  12. mark

    the bible is just another book. life is reality. none of you have ever had a conversation with god and none of you ever will.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  13. Old guy

    "You don't need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" Don't you miss the days of rage and burned out cars in the street? Water cannons, gas, dogs and wall-to-wall cops with riot sticks? Hey kids act up! Be loud! Bring us a revolution all right? BUt maybe lose that Silverman guy he just doesn't look angry to me.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      What are you babbling about?

      March 23, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Observer

      Sorry to disappoint an old guy. I think it'll be more like the LGBT movement, but without the Stonewall riots.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  14. SciGuy

    Why is he opposed to Bibles in hotel rooms? The Word of God may terrify him.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Dan

      Probably because it is nonsense. Why not a science book instead? Someone might learn something.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • SciGuy

      It is great literature, at least. If he has read it with understanding, it would be reasonable that he is terrified by it. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Dan, the only work of science that might qualify would be Euclid's elements. You would need to find a group willing to pay for it, as the Gideon's do for the Scriptures. One problem is that more Americans would ignore Euclid than ignore the Bible. And Euclid is not nearly as inspirational or life-changing.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  15. SomeGuyInNC

    @Scratching: That's why I'm an atheist. I'm for reason, not against it.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Perfrid

      Another ad hominem attack. For the Christian God= logic and reason.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  16. NJreader

    Speaking as an atheist, I find this stuntsmanship revolting.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • ammamaw

      It seems that ego is happy to take over atheists as well as the religious. 🙂

      March 24, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  17. Dan

    Religious people are a constant thorn in my side.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Dave836

      Peace be with you. I'll pray for you!

      March 23, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  18. whachootawkin' bout Willis

    CNN BREAKING NEWS:

    Vatican scientists successfully crossed a pickle and a deer. Catholic priests are excited about the new hybrid, the Dill-Doe.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  19. Scratching my head

    Be for something not against something. Peace be with you.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Rundvelt

      > Be for something not against something. Peace be with you.

      We are for something. Reducing the nonsense people believe.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Aren't most of the ten commandments 'thou shalt not...'?

      March 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Dan

      We are for reasoning and common sense.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Pirate

      For something = Common sense and reality! Religion is made up by man to control man! When one person has an imaginary friend he's called crazy. When many people have the same imaginary friend, it's called religion!

      March 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Pirate

      Nominus: lol – yeah the first three focus on "I am great, worship me, everyone else sucks!" NOT a very respectable quality in a supreme being, if you ask me!

      March 23, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Seattlite

      "be for something not against something" Sounds like you didn't understand the basic concept.. which was mentioned in the article. He is for FREE THOUGHT. Pretty simple stuff..

      March 23, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  20. longtooth

    Religion and politics are CNN's bread and butter. When there are no "blockbuster" news events, they can always go back to the bread and butter. To all the zealots out there, whether religious or atheist, look within to find peace and happiness. It won't be found by dominating others, or annoying them.

    March 23, 2012 at 5:06 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.