Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, got himself into some hot water with secular, liberal ideologues recently. He made some remarks to Roy Edroso, who authored a Raw Story article about Silverman’s attendance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Silverman’s remarks to Edroso were as follows:
“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”
Then, Edroso writes:
“Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.”
To which Silverman replied:
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “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.”
Such a reply, in my mind, was relatively uncontroversial. To simply admit that there are secular arguments against abortion doesn’t, as far as I can tell, amount to an endorsement of those arguments. As J.T. Eberhard has pointed out, Silverman has explicitly said that he is “vehemently pro-choice.” Some, however, have criticized Silverman for making the remarks. Consider the following from a post by Steve Ahlquist:
“Silverman did not have to say it outright. By floating the inane concept that there may be reasonable secular arguments against abortion rights, he was offering a space to compromise on the issue.”
Read this quote carefully. The mere suggestion that he was “offering a space to compromise” to a conservative is the offensive action for which Silverman is being asked to answer to critics. On what is he compromising? Simply put, Silverman is making the following compromises: 1.) a secular argument against abortion exists and 2.) secular support for abortion rights may not be as “clean cut” as is the case for other issues, like school prayer. Essentially, the idea Silverman was expressing was merely that secular people who oppose abortion may have a place at the atheist debate table. That’s it.
Some are criticizing him for such innocuous statements. For example, PZ Myers recently authored a post asking, “Who is Dave Silverman representing?” In his post, Myers admits that organized atheism has a “decidedly liberal bias” and he laments that Silverman tried to “appease the 0.0% of atheists who think abortion should be illegal” by allegedly pandering to potential secular conservatives in attendance at CPAC. How inviting conservative atheists to the table amounts to pandering is something I’m still trying to understand. But let’s return to that question Myers asks: Who is Dave Silverman representing?
American Atheists bills itself as “a nonprofit, nonpolitical, educational organization dedicated to the complete and absolute separation of state and church” with aims and purposes that include stimulating and promoting freedom of thought and inquiry. In describing itself as a nonpolitical organization, it seems to me as though Silverman’s attempts to represent American Atheists at CPAC are consistent with the organization’s goals. In fact, since organized atheism is predominantly filled with liberals and Democrats, it is actually exceptionally courageous of Silverman to appeal to secular conservatives. The fact that Silverman is using the gravitas of his position to appeal to a woefully underrepresented political minority within the ranks of organized atheism demonstrates his commitment to broadening the appeal of American Atheists, which I believe is a step in the right direction.
American Atheists is an organization with a very specific purpose. Thus, while it may not please some liberal members, the goals of the organization are advanced when it works to appeal to as broad an audience as possible while remaining consistent with the goal of advocating for the separation of church and state. Silverman recognizes that there is a key constituency within traditionally conservative circles that may be receptive to church-state separation. He should be commended for this politically astute observation, not condemned for it.
With that in mind, I’ll pose this question: Is organized atheism hostile to non-liberals? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and I think there may be something to it. I’ve attended atheist and skeptic events both locally and nationally and, without fail, complaints about conservatives and libertarians are inevitably aired openly and aggressively at many of these gatherings. Of course, I’m not saying that the ideas many conservatives or libertarians express don’t deserve criticism. Many of them do. But, I get the general sense that the distaste runs deeper; it seems as though the mere notion that an atheist or skeptic may identify as a conservative or a libertarian is what evokes the animosity.
Microaggressions are often brought up in the context of gender and race. For those who are unfamiliar, Wikipedia offers a pretty decent, general description of the phenomenon. Essentially, what microaggressions amount to are brief, non-physical acts of aggression aimed at a minority group. The notion of microaggressions seems to resonate for those who endure acts of racism and sexism that fly under the radar because they are not as prolonged or overt. I wonder if, perhaps, microaggressions can occur at multiple levels of society and if they can be aimed at members of dominant groups when those members are in certain contexts. For instance, while one may be a white, straight, cisgender male in society at large, could identifying with a particular political group make one a prime target for microaggressions when that person is among atheists and skeptics?
I’m one of those socially liberal, fiscally conservative types that PZ Myers complains about. While I do enjoy the privileges afforded to me as a white, straight, cisgender male, I’ve sometimes felt the pressure to keep my mouth shut about my political views in atheist and skeptical circles. During some of my more courageous moments, when I’ve hinted that I’m not a textbook liberal, I’ve been met both with welcome curiosity and with uncomfortable silence. The recent hype over Silverman’s remarks has only served to illustrate that my suspicions may be true: conservative or libertarian atheists and skeptics may not be welcome in these movements, or, maybe they’re only welcome if they conceal their political affiliations from others. It isn’t unusual to see atheist or skeptic content sprinkled with remarks like this:
“On the other hand, Silverman was being true to the spirit of Libertarianism, which is, “I’ve got mine, fuck you.” – Steve Alquist
“You know, I’m getting really tired of the schtick of so many people that they are “socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.” – PZ Myers
At the heart of these remarks is not criticism of particular conservative or libertarian ideas, but attacks on people who identify with these political positions. Has Steve Alquist considered the possibility that the so-called “spirit of Libertarianism” may not be the same from person to person? Has PZ Myers thought about the fact that, for many people, libertarianism isn’t some sort of schtick? Are these microaggressions? I don’t know. But I’m bringing the issue up to facilitate debate on the matter. I think it may be worthwhile to think of the ways microaggressions against non-liberals within the skeptic and atheist movements may create a hostile atmosphere toward secular conservatives and libertarians.