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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. Abe

    The silliness people are saying that God is nonexistent. Often times people who say God doesn't exist is because they want Him to not exist. Often times, deep down they know they're going to have to change their lifestyles which so often is contrary to how they should be living their lives. One can prove the existence of God through reason alone. Besides, we all know that Western Civilization would be better off living in a Catholic Monarchy.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Brett

      The main theological argument for the existence of God is that life could not have been created from nothing. Yet, take that one more step back, and they have no trouble in believing that God could have been created from nothing. The argument that God is eternal, could also be argued that the Universe is eternal, and therefore no God needed.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Huh?

      "Often times, deep down they know they're going to have to change their lifestyles which so often is contrary to how they should be living their lives."

      Huh...yet there are Christians out there that have divorced committing adultery. You see Christians going to football games getting drunk or should I say drunkards. There are millions of Christians living in greed committing the very sin of Sodom by not helping the needy and poor. The gall of people like you just shows the stupidity of your religion. Now be a good Christian and condemn your own lifestyle!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • JakeAZ

      i've changed my lifestyle. used to believe what you believe. now i don't. it really wasn't that hard. i'm much happier now that i have reason on my side instead of faith. i can see clearly now, the rain is gone.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  2. RillyKewl

    I'd love to be there this saturday! But going to DC for rallies is always such a pain.
    I hope they show it online, or on c-span or someplace. I would love to watch the event in its entirety.
    Looks like its gonna be great. Wish I could be there just to stick that bible outside my room.
    That will be such an awesomely satisfying protestation!

    March 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  3. Rebel4Christ

    Psalms 14:1-

    1 The fool says in his heart,
    “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
    there is no one who does good.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Huh?

      "1 The fool says in his heart,
      “There is no God.”
      They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
      there is no one who does good."

      Yet religion has killed more people in our human history so I think that takes 1st place on vile and corrupt in their deeds.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • sybaris

      By that logic anyone who is not a christian can do no good. That is simply not the case and dishonest

      March 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  4. dude

    10 buckaroos that at this rally they harp about the intolerance of others....hmmmm

    March 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • JakeAZ

      that usually happens when one group has been the minority for hundreds of years and had their rights trampled on. you perceive it to be reverse intolerance mainly because of your own biases and cultural assimilation. we're just speaking up, get used to it.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  5. albion

    David's theism is atheism, no different psychologically or epistemologically from any other theism. I respect his strong beliefs, just as I respect all belief systems. But he should ponder the possibility that he is just as evangelical as any other evangelical theism.

    Beyond theism, only agnostism is possible; all else is still belief in this world. That is until one disassembles, by way of the science of meditation or other method, all thought, perception, habits of memory and association, ego, and ultimately time and space. But that experience is not translatable back to our world of theisms as it is truly beyond belief.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  6. barbara

    u believe in what u want and if i want to believe there is a god then i willl do so. i dont see anyone trying to change u so why are u trying to change people.. . u talk as tho we have been mislead and maybe i feel u are being mislead.. u are the devil in the last days . it makes me ill to read this article and i willl never read another one., may god be with u if not u are headed for helll. but u deserve it

    March 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Peter

      "it makes me ill to read this article and i willl never read another one., may god be with u if not u are headed for helll. but u deserve it"

      Don't you just love it when you know a Christian actually hasn't read their own bible. LOL!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • JakeAZ

      wow barb, i'm going to deserve an eternity of suffering just for not believing what you believe. now that's christian compassion!

      good thing hell only exists in countries with no line between church and state!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  7. hillbilleter

    Wars have been fought in the name of religion before. I guess atheists will be claiming their right to kill in the name of themselves very soon now. Bunch of missionaries!

    March 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  8. jstout5111

    Ah, the Million Brain Cell March. For their sake it better be a "dry" event.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  9. Silly Athiests

    "The signs were admittedly in your face, says Silverman"

    Athiests don't like others to push their beliefs on them yet they seem to think it is OK that they do it. And really what is the difference between a religious group and an athiest group. Each one is a group united under a common belief. It seems that while athiest despise everything about religion they are starting to use the same methods to impose their beliefs on everyone just as they accuse the religious groups of. Frankly I don't understand why anyone just can't have their own belief regardless of what it is and move on. This rally is pointless and accomplishes nothing.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Huh?

      "This rally is pointless and accomplishes nothing."

      All the churches and all the Christian rallies accomplish nothing.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • JakeAZ

      you must not be gay, or in a state where they want to teach creationism to your children.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Adam

      So now , not believing something is a belief ?

      March 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • sybaris

      "Athiests don't like others to push their beliefs on them yet they seem to think it is OK that they do it."

      Let's compare:

      Atheist Publicity = Single event, Rally for Reason

      Christian Publicity= God on our money, God on license plates, Bibles in every motel room, televangelists 24/7, Christian cable networks, Christian radio broadcasts 24/7, a Christian church every 6 blocks in every major US city, Christian bookstores in every US town over 10,000, a population where 75% claim they are Chrisitan another 13% claim an Abrahamic faith, A moment of silence (prayer) before public events.......

      March 23, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Brett

      There's a billboard for a Baptist Megachurch right by my neighborhood. Who's pushing belief on who here?

      March 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  10. Rebel4Christ

    Lets have a giant rally for No hope YAY!!! Jesus brings hope to the hopless. Peace to the Restless. Religion doesn't bring peace, or love! only Jesus does!!! Man AMERICA NEEDS JESUS!!!

    March 23, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • jstout5111

      Amen.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • sybaris

      You can replace Jesus with Placebo and get the same result.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Adam

      Yeah, look what he did for the muslims in Yugoslavia.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • jstout5111

      sybaris, we can replace you with a dolt...oh, wait, somebody beat us to it.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • Peter

      "Jesus brings hope to the hopless. Peace to the Restless. Religion doesn't bring peace, or love! only Jesus does!!! Man AMERICA NEEDS JESUS!!!"

      Actually all you have to do is meditate and you get the same chemical reaction, no Jesus needed.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Rebel4Christ

      Meditating doesn't get rid of Sin!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Rebel4Christ

      Everything in existence points to God. The trees, the sky, Yourself being alive and breathing!!, Even Dawkins said that there will never be perfect proof to deny the existence of God!!!!
      I don't get how you could be so foolish in to deny your creator?

      Imagine if you were a kid and you came up to your father and said "I don't believe in you anymore" THAT IS SO FOOLISH!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  11. T. Lee

    "THERE IS NO GOD" – proclaim those standing in a muddy pond claiming THAT'S where they came from.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • sybaris

      Ignorance is bliss Mr. Lee

      March 23, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  12. Santa Claus

    My favorite:

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.

    Seneca the Younger 4 b.c.- 65 a.d.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • hillbilleter

      Seneca also believed in slavery, right?

      March 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  13. savid silversman=JEW

    thats how jews work, they pretend they are atheists and spread such filth and then when they get everyone duped then they are in control

    March 23, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • RillyKewl

      die pig.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • thedoctor

      You should have that paranoia looked at by a doctor.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • savid silversman=JEW

      disprove me or ssttffuuu jew vermin

      March 23, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  14. john

    what gets me is that people are killed in the name of their god- – -wow!! – – -I firmly believe in not believing lest I become a fanatic- – I am extremely religious in my belief that is is best, at least for me, to be non-religious.- – – -hey man the "golden rule" is god enough for me- – let us love and respect everyklne but not the fanatics.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • hillbilleter

      Maybe Islamic maniacs will kill Christians in the name of their common God. All the rest of that nonsense happened hundreds of years ago. Hmph, and they say Southerners carry a grudge for The Late Unpleasantness. Sheesh!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • craig

      Wow. Enjoy life now because one day you will be on your death bed and what do you have to look forward to? complete darkness and non existence after life here? Yikes.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Squeezebox

      Sorry John, but Jozef Stalin was an Aetheist, too. He killed in the name of his god – Communism!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  15. msadr

    What Silverman doesn't seem to understand is that the majority of us don't respect the idea that atheism deserves respect. There is nothing more blindly stupid then denying the existence of God. No reasonable person could respect that.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • sybaris

      NOW THAT'S FUNNY. You used belief in god and reasonable in the same post.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Brett

      It will suck for you when you are no longer the majority.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      spoken like a true cult member! woohoo! turn your brain off and throw it away, i'm a christian!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Maya

      So the intelligent alternative is to blindly insist that there is a God?

      Prove it. Prove there is a God right now. Prove it or shut up.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Rebel4Christ

      I agree with you completely MSADR

      Why would you ever deny the existence of God!!!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • thought

      Maya- simple question if there is no God why is there something rather than nothing??

      March 23, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Huh?

      "here is nothing more blindly stupid then denying the existence of God."

      Prove it's existence if your are so confident in yourself. LOL! But...you won't...cause you can't.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • thought

      Huh- I just asked Maya the same question, I will ask you... If there is no God, why is there something instead of nothing...

      March 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Adam

      If it makes you feel better, they don't believe in the divinity of Zeus either, but for some reason to you, THAT is not stupid and a perfectly reasonable position.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • thedoctor

      So you're saying that there isn't a single "reasonable" person on the entire planet who is an atheist? Wow. Perhaps you need to look up the word "reason" and "reasonable.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • RillyKewl

      Its schmucks like you that make this rally requisite.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • WoodsWitch

      @ thought..... What makes you think that goddidit? Maybe "some god" did it, but Yahweh is a very minor deity.
      He is admittedly jealous and petty. Pretty much a spiritual playground bully according to the bible.

      But let's face it. Belief in invisible, omnipotent superbeings is foolish.
      Just because YOU can't concieve of something without thinking that "someone" had to make it, doesn't mean
      that it's true. You just can't think on a universal scale with your finite mind.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Bre

      So believing in a religion that is based on a book or books that are thousands of years old with countless errors and contradictions is more worthy of respect.

      March 24, 2012 at 3:30 am |
  16. LAIBACH

    XTC "Dear God" (watch the video on YouTube)

    March 23, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  17. Brett

    The main theological argument for the existence of God is that life could not have been created from nothing. Yet, take that one more step back, and they have no trouble in believing that God could have been created from nothing. The argument that God is eternal, could also be argued that the Universe is eternal, and therefore no God needed.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • UhYeaOk

      Just more opinion, no facts.....I thought that is what you non religious types believed in?

      March 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • hillbilleter

      You just haven't seen a miracle yet. And sadly, you likely won't, because you don't hang out with people who do believe and will ask for one.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  18. DSM-V Religious: Thought Disorder

    BIll Maher and Dawkins are the #1 agitators by a landslide, not Silverman

    March 23, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • squints

      Only because "hitch" is now gone. I miss his with so much!!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  19. sybaris

    I would think most faithful might find a slight urge to attend, maybe a sense of "what once was". After all, everyone is born an atheist.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • thought

      No one is born an atheist, we are all born sinners, but no one is born an atheist....

      March 23, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • thought

      that's like saying someone is born Catholic or born jewish. I am a Christian, but I wasn't born a denomination. But the fact that I was born means I am one of God's creations....

      March 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Adam

      Westboro baptist will be there, protesting! Sounds like fun!

      March 23, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Dangle66

      a child has no concept of god... which means they don't believe in god... which means they are atheist. You don't sign up to be an atheist.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • sybaris

      Dangle66, thank you for clearing that up.

      Being born an atheist is just another one of those uncomfortable truths for Christians

      March 23, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  20. I'm_Skeptical

    People are free to believe whatever they want to believe, as long as they keep it out of the government. When theocrats rule, they create Afganistan, Iran, and Salem, circa 1692. Americans will not accept a tyranny of clerics.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Adam

      Hope your right, but where I live in the South, the ministers scream for a Christian theocracy and the congregation of course repeat it verbatim. Also, the relentless gay bashing reminds me of the sixties except they were bashing blacks back then.

      March 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • thought

      Adam- blacks & being gay are completely different. Black is a race, you are not born gay...

      March 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • ammamaw

      Yes acually Thought – people are born gay. And, to your previous comment people are not 'born sinners'. that's religious crap. People are simply born.

      March 24, 2012 at 1:53 am |
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