David “Mr. Atheist Pants” Silverman’s new book is provocatively called FIGHTING GOD: AN ATHEIST MANIFESTO FOR A RELIGIOUS WORLD.
He is the President of American Atheists, and under his leadership, the organization has become quite prominent, with its “You Know It’s a Scam” billboards, the well-attended Reason Rally, and his interview with Bill O’Reilly that produced the “WTF” meme with his face.
David and I have been friends for years, and we’ve been discussing this book and how it changed and progressed over those years, so it’s great to finally see it come to fruition.
It will be released next week, but he provided me with an advance copy, which I enjoyed tremendously. We sat down in front of an attentive audience at a convention last weekend where I interviewed him.
MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Tell us about FIGHTING GOD.
DAVID SILVERMAN: This book has three years in the making. The book was written because after I did the Reason Rally in 2012, a small publisher came to me and said he wanted me to write a book. I said yes, and it was called ‘I, Atheist’ and it was 50% atheism and 50% autobiographical. Right at the very last moment, my agreement with him fell through. It was a completed book, but the publisher and I parted ways amicably.
So I had a book and no publisher. I sent an email to Barack Obama’s agent. And she knew who I was, and signed me right away. Then she sent out the initial treatment to her top line of people and one was a guy from MacMillan, who was a fan of mine! And he signed me right away.
So now I’ve got this great contract with a major publisher. And he says, “Oh, three things. We’re changing the cover, we’re changing the title, and we’re taking out every part about you.”
So now I’ve not half a book and six months to fill it.
And so — is Keith DeCandido here? (audience says no)
So, what I did was structure the “Atheist Art of War” after his book THE KLINGON ART OF WAR. I added a lot of data. I added a lot of research. So what used to be my opinion is now backed up with independent quantifiable data from multiple sources.
What I’ve got now is a manifesto that puts forth the idea that firebrand atheism is more effective on a macro level, more effective on a micro level, and, more importantly, it’s the nicer thing to do.
Recognizing that religion is a poison — recognizing that religion is a scam — and not saying something is a selfish act. It’s an act you’re doing to preserve yourself and not to help your fellow human. If your friend is being scammed, you would have a moral responsibility to at least mention it.
So in FIGHTING GOD, I put forward this proposal that “Live and let live” may not be the ethical choice at all.
VENTRELLA: You talk about not respecting other beliefs. What do you mean by that?
SILVERMAN: There’s a difference between respecting a belief and respecting someone’s right to believe. If you’re talking about Constitutional rights, we as Americans all have the exact same rights. If you want to believe in a Man in the Sky, you have the right to do that.
I do not respect that.
You don’t need my respect. And I don’t need your respect to believe what I believe. What is wrong is when you go to somebody who says they believe in something you don’t respect and you lie. And you say, “Oh, I respect it.” You’re respecting a scam not worthy of respect. You are lying when you do that.
I submit that is morally wrong. That is a selfish act. That is something you are doing to make yourself feel better at the expense of somebody else.
VENTRELLA: But are we under an obligation to say something as opposed to just remaining silent?
SILVERMAN: That’s up to you. In FIGHTING GOD, I don’t say that we should attack. We definitely should not say we respect things we don’t respect.
VENTRELLA: At the same time, you are proud to be “Mr. Atheist Pants”, and somewhat of a dick.
SILVERMAN: I am not a dick! (laughs)
VENTRELLA: But you write that sometimes someone needs to be. You discuss the Overton Window — which is the first time I had ever heard that expression — Can you explain that to us?
SILVERMAN: The Overton Window is a business term that talks about the amount of stuff that is politically correct to say. In the 2002 election, when Mitt Romney was running for the first time, he was a Mormon and on the fringe. And then, a couple of elections later, he’s the mainstream candidate. That’s the Overton Window shifting, with Mormonism coming into the norm.
What I have been doing, and what firebrand atheism does, is shifting the window in the same way.
If you look back at when I first came into the Presidency of American Atheists, the first thing I did was put up a billboard at the New York tunnel that called religion a myth. This billboard was on the national news in nine different countries because no one had ever called religion a myth with such grandeur.
After I called it a myth, I called it a scam, I called it nonsense, I called it this, I called it that — and I moved the Overton Window and now, if I put that same billboard up, nobody would care. Calling religion a myth is now inside that window.
That’s what firebrand atheism does. Just like Mitt Romney put Mormonism into the mainstream, we’re trying to bring atheism into the mainstream and it’s succeeding. And I can quantify that with multiple data from independent sources!
VENTRELLA: Tell us about some examples where you’ve been surprised where it’s been accepted when it wasn’t before…
SILVERMAN: When I first started in American Atheists, back in ’97, we had a convention in New Jersey. We had to look to find a hotel that would allow us to come. That hotel, that we found, would not put us up on the marquee outside. On the one inside, we were listed as “AA” (audience laughter) and if somebody called the hotel and asked if the American Atheists were there, the hotel staff would say no. That was twenty years ago.
This past year, we had our national convention in Memphis. The city of Memphis flew us out and took us on a grand tour of the city. They bought us food. Bought us booze. Showed us all the hotels. The one we stayed at was a Hilton. When we went in, they had “Welcome American Atheists” plastered on the wall.
So this is serious movement.
People get so frustrated when they look at today. They see the inequality that atheists obviously have. There are ten times as many atheists in this country as there are Jews, but we have no representation in Congress.
This is a still a lot better than it was just twenty years ago. We’re making tremendous progress. We’re not there yet but we will be there in our lifetime.
VENTRELLA: So when we see studies showing that younger people believe now, it’s major change. Most of our fights are with the old crowd. And I’m thinking of the Hobby Lobby case, which was such a step backwards. You’ve been fighting those battles. Let’s talk about the Ten Commandment monuments and what you’ve done in those regards.
SILVERMAN: The Ten Commandment monuments are just a statement of religious privilege. It’s not about their right to do anything, it’s about them having superiority over everybody else. They put a Ten Commandments monument on the public lawn, and that’s illegal — you can’t. When we say “Take it off,” they say it’s an attack on their religious rights. When we go into a public place, there is only one choice: There must be equality.
Equality can be done in many ways: You can take the Ten Commandments off, and we have equality, or you can let other people put theirs in and we have equality.
VENTRELLA: And that’s a winnable argument that has won in the Supreme Court.
SILVERMAN: What happened was there a place in Florida where they had a Ten Commandments monument on public land, alone. We went in there and sued, and we won, and we put up an atheist monument on public land. The outcry was that this was “an attack on Christianity.” They said we were attacking them and that they weren’t attacking us when they put theirs in!
VENTRELLA: One of the book’s themes is that every single battle you have fought has been in defense. You’ve never fought to keep someone else from practicing their religion.
SILVERMAN: Everything we do is defensive. Everything is about equality. Nothing is about privileging atheism over religion. Nothing is about pushing religion away from the churches or persons. Everything is about defending the separation of church and state, which is a synonym for “religious equality.” The more separate church and state is the more free we are.
VENTRELLA: There’s a section of your book about the “War on Christmas.”
SILVERMAN: It’s starting! ‘Tis the season!
VENTRELLA: Happy War on Christmas, Everybody! (audience laughs) This is mostly an invention by Fox News, if I’m not mistaken. It never existed before they started bringing it up…
SILVERMAN: It’s all an invention by Fox News.
VENTRELLA: But it gets you lots of interviews and publicity…
SILVERMAN: And every year, I knowingly feed it. Yes, every year I attack Christians everywhere, reaching into their homes and weeding out their Christmas trees, grabbing their presents, and I do all of this by putting up a billboard or two. (audience laughs) And I say “Happy holidays!” Oh, how evil I am.
We’re putting up billboards this year. We have them going up in two major cities that I can’t announce yet. They’re going to be fun billboards that will speak to people.
VENTRELLA: One of the things you criticize other atheists for is their refusal to call themselves that. They want to call themselves humanists or agnostics… Why do you think it’s important for atheists to come out of the closet?
SILVERMAN: We’ve got polls and we know that the entire political process is based on polls. And if you look at the religious markup of the polls, you see that atheists are about 3% of the population and Christians are about 70%. So they look at those polls, and they say, “Oh, look, it’s 70% Christian, 3% atheists. Those atheists don’t matter.”
What they don’t realize is that really, this country is closer to 30% atheist. It’s just that 90% of the atheists in this country don’t call themselves atheists. They call themselves agnostics, secular humanists, none, they call themselves Christians, Muslims, Jews. They call themselves anything but atheists.
Now, if you look at Christians — you look at Methodists, and Baptists, and Presbyterians and all the different denominations, they all call themselves Christian. So they unite, despite real differences, and we divide despite no differences at all. We just don’t like the words.
So the major push of my effort is not to convert believers. Why would we? If we looked at that that 70 to 30 chart and really crunched the numbers, we’d end up with about 55% Christian. Think about how that changes everything. We don’t have to convert anybody — we just have to do is get people to tell the truth about what they are.
If you don’t have an active belief in a god, you’re an atheist. If you don’t have an active belief in a god and you don’t like the word “atheist,” you’re an atheist. This is simply a fact, it’s a matter of definition, it’s not a matter of self-identification.
The important point is that how you identify affects your neighbor. When 90% of the atheists in this country call themselves something totally different, like “secular” or something that nobody knows what it is, the politicians lose interest in us. We, as a force, diminish. We lose rights because people aren’t using the right word.
VENTRELLA: We’ve used the metaphor of coming out of the closet to compare this with the gay rights movement to show how quickly that changed. When people started coming out and everyone said “Oh my neighbor is gay? I have no problem with that person.” Do you think that is the atheist goal, to say “Look, we’re just like you except we don’t believe”?
SILVERMAN: That’s it. We will win once we make this change. We don’t have to convert anybody or change anybody’s mind about God. All we have to do is take atheists who are already atheists and make them know that they’re atheists. They can call themselves atheists and be loud and proud about it, and when we can get a poll that shows that we’re at least a quarter of the population, we will be able to single-handedly influence the way the political situation works.
VENTRELLA: Do you see that as the main theme or goal of this book?
VENTRELLA: So why’d you call it FIGHTING GOD?
SILVERMAN: I didn’t! (audience laughs) The publisher did. But I am fighting the concept of God by telling people that they don’t have to pretend they believe any more. This is the big fight. Our lowest hanging fruit is just to get atheists to call themselves atheists.
VENTRELLA: And that’s different from the other atheist books we’ve seen from Dawkins or even Penn Jillette. You’re trying to start a movement.
SILVERMAN: The movement exists. It was started by my predecessor, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. American Atheists was founded in 1963 by her. She led the fight to take prayer out of schools. That’s the organization I run now and I’m very proud to stand on her shoulders.
VENTRELLA: You and her are the only names anyone knows from the organization. Why do you think that is?
SILVERMAN: I think Madalyn and I had a lot in common! I take a lot from her and I dismiss a lot from her as well, because she’s a person from a different time. I think the reason we are both well known is because we are both firebrands. Maybe the interim Presidents weren’t as firebrandy as I am or she was.
I think what we have here is a specific situation where a firebrand atheist movement can beat the Republican party. I think we can fix this country. And I’m not shooting pie in the sky — I write about this in the book — this war is winnable. Everything we see from the religious right is weak. I think the base is seeing it. I think when we talk to Republicans, they see it — not the leaders, the followers.
VENTRELLA: You went to a conservative convention and got a surprising response.
SILVERMAN: Tremendous response! I went to CPAC, this huge, conservative Jesus thing for Jesus. It’s all about Jesus Jesus Jesus except it’s not. I went to CPAC to try and just drive a little wedge between Christianity and conservatism and what I found was a bunch of people on top who were all Jesus People For Jesus and a whole bunch of atheists underneath.
Not tens, not twenties — hundreds and hundreds. At CPAC! Ayn Randians, libertarians, fiscal conservatives — they are tired of the religious crap.
We got five pages of membership sign-ups — at CPAC! I went there with two one-gallon bags full of buttons that said “Conservative Atheist” and we gave them away free on the condition that you wear it. And we gave away every single button! They were all young. Everyone under thirty at CPAC was wearing a “Conservative Atheist” button. What does that do to the candidates when they see conservative atheists walking around CPAC? I’ll tell you what — Tony Perkins of the American Family Association got up on stage and acknowledged that atheists were there and part of the conservative movement. That’s an amazing thing, but I want to make it clear — I’m not all giddy that Tony Perkins likes us. (audience laughs) I am however thrilled beyond measure that he felt the need to say that. He needed to say that because of the presence of so many atheists out and proud.
Look at us single-handedly affecting how the Republican party works. Only because we went in there and used the word “atheist” — the word that everybody understands. The word that shifts the Overton Window.
VENTRELLA: Do you have any optimism about the upcoming election?
SILVERMAN: Yeah! (big smile) One of the things we’re doing at American Atheists right now is that we’re running the atheist voter campaign. It’s a grass-roots campaign that organizes people to go and see the candidate while wearing “atheist voter” t-shirts, and ask the candidates specific questions about atheists. The questions can be very broad. “I’m an atheist and I want to know if, in your cabinet, you’d have an atheist?” Things like that, just to bring out the bigotry, just to get them to address us. We’ve gotten statements now on atheism from Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorino, Mike Huckabee, and I think Santorum as well. We’re going to be publishing them soon. This is going to be something we’re going to be able to show the atheists of this country what they’re saying about us but at the same time, it’s going to show the candidates that we exist and we have to be addressed.
It’s no coincidence in my mind that Trump is the number one person in the Republican party. And everybody knows his religion is bullshit. He says, “Yeah, I read the Bible. I can’t remember anything about it.” (audience laughs) Everybody knows his religion is bullshit. He’s the only non-religious candidate on the Republican ticket and he’s number one by double digits. Why? Republican atheists. There are so many Republican atheists who are sick and tired of the religious right.
I don’t think we’re going to see a religious right candidate. I think what we’re seeing now is the beginning of the end of the religious right’s hold on Republicanism. We’re going into CPAC again this year and we’re going to push that wedge open.
I don’t know if you all know this, but there was a time when Republicanism was not the same as Christianity. Back in the olden days of Barry Goldwater, who was a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state — those days can come back. And we’re pushing that very hard with Republicans.
VENTRELLA: On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has refused to say much about religion …
SILVERMAN: I know! He calls himself a “non-religious Jew.” Sounds like a synonym for “atheist” to me! (audience laughs) I don’t know if you all watched the last Democratic debate, but the only person there who didn’t invoke God or prayer was Bernie Sanders. The other two snuck it in, and it was really artificial. “They have their right — I mean, their God-given right…” Bernie Sanders was the only person who didn’t do that. I think he’s an atheist. I hope he’s an atheist. And I hope he wins. If he comes out as an atheist, I will definitely vote for him, but I’m probably going to vote for him anyway. American Atheists is a 501C3 organization, we do not endorse candidates!
We see the progress. We’ve got a person on a major ticket who is an atheist. He has not professed a belief in God. When he talks about his faith, he talks about how “we’re all in this together.” This is an atheist talking and he’s a major candidate now. He’s going to be like Romney in 2002.
VENTRELLA: He’s going to move the Overton Window.
VENTRELLA: The new Prime Minister of Canada has something like four atheists in his cabinet.
SILVERMAN: And what would it be if the Prime Minister of Canada had a secular humanist, an agnostic, a “bright” and a “none” in his cabinet? Same four people. Think about the difference in the impact. Think of what that could do at the local level. This is what we could do simply by using the right words.
VENTRELLA: Let me ask one last question. Tell us about the “What the Fuck” face.
SILVERMAN: I’m a meme, too! That’s the more famous part of me. I did a “Mr. Deity” episode a while ago. I love Brian, if you haven’t looked it up, look up Mr. Diety. We were filming this little webisode in his house. And his daughter comes out and she’s maybe sixteen years old. And he says “Honey, this is David Silverman! He’s the President of American Atheists!” And she says, “Oh, that’s nice.” And then he says, “He’s also the ‘What the Fuck’ face guy.” She says “No WAY! Let me take a picture! Do the face!” (audience laughs)
Basically what happens is that I go to O’Reilly. I’ve been on a couple times now, but this was the first time we actually had a chance to talk before the show. And he is, by the way, intelligent. He’s knowledgeable. He knows what he’s saying, knows what he’s doing. We had a really good conversation. And then the cameras go on.
If you watch the video, you’ll see — I was manoeuvering him into a corner. “You’re a skeptical person and you don’t really believe this shit.” And he went defensive, and he said, “I’ll tell you why God exists. The tide goes in, the tide goes out, there’s never a miscommunication, you can’t explain that.” And I made this face. What?
A lot of people think it was about the question. It was about the question after we had this whole intelligent conversation beforehand. So I have this look on my face of a complete disconnect. What the hell am I listening to?
And the young people at Reddit seized on it, and they created this meme. And now this face, which is public domain — I don’t get any money from it — is on pajamas, on stickers at the dollar store. I love it!
It’s good marketing, right? Because if people look it up, they will watch that video of Bill O’Reilly saying something really damned stupid.
VENTRELLA: Stephen Colbert called you “Mr. Atheist Pants” after that incident.
SILVERMAN: That’s now my Twitter handle.