It’s always disappointing when someone you have come to look up to says or does something that you simply can’t support. It makes you question everything that has come before and creates a sense of cognitive dissonance in which you fumble about, at least for a while, trying to figure out just how badly they’ve damaged your respect for them. You find yourself trying to rationalize what they said with everything you knew (or thought you knew) about them previously. When it’s a severe enough matter, it almost plays out like the Kubler-Ross stages of grief… Denial (did he/she really say that? Surely not…), Anger (he/she did say that? Graaaah!), Bargaining (okay, he/she did say that, but maybe the rest of the things he/she has done/is doing outweigh all that), Depression (Well, this sucks…), and finally Acceptance (ok, i can live with his/her mistake OR ok, i guess i need to find someone else to look up to).
This has happened for me more times than i’d care to acknowledge within the atheist community. Most recently, i’ve had to do this intellectual dance with American Atheists President David Silverman. A couple of years ago, i had the opportunity to hear him speak in person at Skepticon 4 in Springfield, Missouri, and after his talk i had the chance to visit with him. By the end of the weekend, i made the decision to join American Atheists. i have had to reconsider that choice recently, after reading Silverman’s words at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month. Of particular concern was his response when pressed about reproductive rights by an interviewer:
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”
To begin with, for those of my readers who haven’t already figured it out, i’m about as far out in left-field Progressive land as it is possible to be without crossing the warning track. As a result, i am sure that what i have to say on this subject will betray a touch of bias, and i will do my best to keep any appeals to rational arguments as balanced as possible. But i have to start out of hand by asking a very biased question: just what the sweet merciful fuck was American Atheists doing at CPAC to begin with? Sure, there are most likely members of the Republican party (or just generally conservative people) who are atheists, but if they’re taking up the banner of the Right, are they really people that we want to court as part of our movement? i can understand the populist idea that atheism can span all sorts of sociopolitical divisions, and i acknowledge that as true, because atheism only means “lack of a belief in a god or gods” (and that’s part of the problem i’m having with it as the rallying term for a movement, but more on that later).
So, yes, the word applies to people in the conservative camp who simply don’t believe in any gods, but by that logic it also applies to the people who believe in UFOs or homeopathic medicine, or the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, or conspiracy theorists, or even anti-vaxxers who also don’t believe in any supreme deity but maintain supremely irrational beliefs regardless. If the atheist movement at large has rejected those people, then why continue to bother with the sorts of people who attend a conference like CPAC? Is it just to try to bring on board the silent minority of libertarians who, when pressed, would rather side with the neo-conservative myth of shrinking government than protect the rights of those not lucky enough to be afforded privileged positions in society? Is deregulating the market (and allowing the rich to get even more massively wealthy than they already are) really worth the anti-LGBT, anti-feminist, anti-human-rights social policies that have been so heavily influenced by religious interests so as to make them fundamentally inextricable? How is that even remotely an atheist value?
Again i ask, if the by-now-debunked mythology of “unregulated free trade” taking care of itself without government oversight is more important to them than vouchsafing basic human rights and dignity, then who needs their self-righteous claims of “social liberalism but fiscal conservatism” that they use to mask the fact that the real underpinning of their political philosophy is utter Ayn Rand-worshipping selfishness. Conservatism is in decline, and the rats that haven’t already left the sinking ship are eating their own young (the swift rise and current decline of the Tea Party is evidence enough of that). i say let them tear themselves apart and make room for the rational values that are already on the rise to truly take hold.
But Silverman’s words are even more troubling than the mere fact that he was there trying to recruit for the cause in the first place. Silverman made a choice with his words that he would systematically knock down each of the main tentpoles of the Religious Right’s repugnant mockery of morality (and, by extension, that of the larger conservative movement as well). He explicitly says that the issues of school prayer, the right to die, and gay marriage are “clean-cut” issues, but then, as if to leave the clearly hostile crowd that tiny, dangling carrot, he concedes that a woman’s, or, for that matter, a trans man’s, right to choose whether their body is more than a glorified incubator with a pulse is up for debate in a secular society. Since when?
To be fair, Silverman’s exact words were that there is “a secular argument” that can be made against abortion, not that he supports or stands by that argument. But if he’s merely going to say that such an argument exists, it is disingenuous to immediately claim (or at least imply) that no such argument exists for the other issues he names. There is a secular argument in favor of school prayer. There is a secular argument against the right to die. There is a secular argument against gay marriage. There are, as stated above, secular arguments for UFOs, homeopathy, conspiracy theories, and anti-vaccination movements, as well. The point is that none of these secular arguments are remotely compelling, and can all be rejected with minimal effort by any person using physical evidence and rational thought. By privileging arguments against abortion with specific mention and implying that these arguments have any weight whatsoever (by claiming that the issue is not as “clean-cut”) Silverman has effectively thrown all women and trans men (not just atheist women and trans men) under the bus in favor of his attempt to garner a more politically diverse membership. He has sent the message pretty loud and clear that it is acceptable for members of the atheist movement to believe that a woman’s value in life can be reduced entirely to what’s going on in their uterus.
In truth, the only “argument” that matters in the abortion “debate” is that of bodily autonomy. It doesn’t matter when, or whether, you think a zygote or fetus is “alive” or “a person.” It is a violation on both legal and moral ground to force any person to give up any part of their body in order to sustain another person’s life. If this were not the case, then it would be illegal not to check the organ donor box when you fill out your application for a driver’s license, and the government would have every right to kidnap you, strap you down, and steal a kidney from your body if you were a match for a dying person who needed one. The fact is that neither of these hypotheticals is the case. In literally every other case where a person’s right to live is in conflict with another person’s right to bodily autonomy, the right to bodily autonomy wins out. Even if i had a child (already-born) who was in desperate need of a transplant for which i was a match, i could not legally be compelled to donate one of my organs. It’s simple common sense, and the only reason it is at all “unclear” is because of irrational thinking, usually of the religious variety. (Greta Christina gets even more into the bodily autonomy argument much more effectively than i can on her blog, and her other posts are similarly excellent… Also see Dana Hunter’s phenomenally passionate work on the subject, which was a big part of the inspiration for this post…)
But apparently David Silverman doesn’t get that. After the fact he has addressed some of the criticisms that have been leveled against him for his words. For example, he insists that he is personally pro-choice, and for what it’s worth i believe that assertion. But the fact is that it doesn’t matter what his personal philosophy is on the subject, and he has only protested his personal values; he hasn’t recanted a word of his claim to there being not-so-clear-cut secular arguments. By even acknowledging the possibility that there was a valid argument of any sort, he has symbolically abandoned, dehumanized, and objectified women and trans men in the movement in order to make cheap political points with members of another movement that didn’t even want us there anyway…
Moreover, later on he also made statements to the effect that the Democratic party was “too liberal” for him. Part of his reasoning for this was that he considers himself to be a “fiscal conservative” (there’s that weasel term again) who is a gun owner and supportive of the military. But he seems to focus more on his personal “suspicions” about the Obama administration, citing both spying on the American people and drone strikes as his reasons. It should be noted that this is a pretty awful straw man fallacy he’s constructed. To begin with, i know of many liberal people who are just fine with well-regulated gun ownership and reasonable military spending. As for spying and drone strikes, these are not “liberal values” any more than they are conservative. Those of us on the left are against both of those practices now, and were against them back when they were being carried out by the previous Bush administration (and, i should note, the conservatives were acting as apologists for both as “doing what’s necessary to keep us safe”). So Silverman’s arguments against liberalism don’t hold any more water than his supposed secular arguments against abortion.
All of this is not to say that American Atheists as an organization does nothing of value. On the contrary, they have done and continue to do a great many good things for the promotion of atheistic ideas, science, and reason. i have friends who are members of the organization, and i still look up to individuals in leadership roles with the organization. It is unfortunate that Silverman, as the most visible representative of the organization, has made the choice to alienate people who were already on his side in order to try to bring more into the fold, and it is somewhat telling that he and others in the movement continue to wonder why the movement is still so prominently white and male.
And this is, when it comes down to it, the problem with using “Atheism” as a rallying philosophical position. As i said above (and as many before me have stated much more eloquently) Atheism is merely a negative quality of belief when it comes to deities. That’s all that’s really implied by the word, and that means that literally anything else could theoretically be included, whether rational or irrational. Only charting the negatives opens the door for anything else positive to move in. Attempts have been made to re-brand the word, such as with the term Brights or the Atheism+ crowd, but they have met with limited success. i agree on some level that we shouldn’t shy away from the word atheist, because of how thoroughly the word has been dragged through the mud by the believing community, but using it as the primary term of identification feels… lacking. It seems better–more philosophically tenable–to take a stance based on positive principles instead of negative belief.
For me, this means secular humanism. i’ve identified for years a secular humanist, and in point of fact it is the best philosophical fit for me. i’ll still use the word atheist to help fight the stigma, but first and foremost i have always thought of myself as a humanist. Luckily, there’s an organization specifically geared toward secular humanism: the American Humanist Association. And they are more explicitly committed to certain values and issues, such as LGBTQ, feminist, and reproductive rights, that American Atheists do not name on their webpage, while still being committed to the same secular and rational values that American Atheists also stands for.
So, for this reason as well as the things stated above, this year i will not be renewing my membership with American Atheists. Instead, i will be joining American Humanist Association (which i’m kind of surprised i hadn’t already done anyway).