Review of David Silverman

The book is FIGHTING GOD: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, just published in December 2015, and I’m not linking it with a cover image as I often do with books I review, since I can’t especially approve of the author’s take on this issue. He makes several interesting points, which I’ll summarize, but I don’t find his take on religion, and why people are religious, as especially useful in understanding these issues in the larger context of human culture and history. (I have a couple other books that are more useful in that regard, that I’ll discuss shortly.)

The author is the president, since 2010, of the American Atheists ( This is a blunt book with little nuance but some evidence that in-your-face tactics do work to undermine religious privilege, especially Christian privilege, in the US, and evidence that such privilege is fading.

His first chapter exhorts anyone who considers themselves ‘agnostic’ or ‘secular’ or ‘humanist’ to embrace the word and designation *atheist*. He cites cultural issues where atheists have been vilified.

A concept I appreciate is his description (p82) of the so-called Overton window, from which the author quotes a passage from [though I can’t find any reference to it currently on that site]:

The Overton window… designates the range of points on the spectrum that are considered part of a “sensible” conversation within public opinion and/or traditional mass media.

The most important thing about the Overton window, however, is that it can be shifted to the left or the right, with the once merely “acceptable” becoming “popular” or even imminent policy, and formerly “unthinkable” positions becoming the open position of a partisan base. The challenge for activists and advocates is to move the window in the direction of their preferred outcomes, so their desired outcome moves closer and closer to “common sense”.

…The short, easy way is to amplify and echo the voices of those who take a position a few notches more radical than what you really want.

Last line is the key — thus the author’s advocacy of in-your-face ‘firebrand’ tactics. I think this is a profound metaphor, and I also think it describes the arc of progressive history: how, from generation to generation, ideas that were once unthinkable are put forth by radicals until they become part of the general political conversation, and eventually, as the generations pass, part of assumed culture. (In part this works because those who resist change are older people who eventually die off.)

I like one other key point that Silverman makes: that “All Religion Is Cafeteria Religion” (p89)

Every time Christians and Jews meet an atheist and don’t kill the person, they are committing cafeterianism. Every time a woman teaches a class, every time a man holds an old-fashioned football, every time anyone wears a blended fabric, the person ignores and breaks a biblical law.

Which is to say, despite nominal belief in the Bible (in the case of Christians and Jews) as the literal word of God, no one in fact follows or believes in every word of it, and every different person makes different decisions [based on their own background, mental biases, social circumstances, etc.] about which parts of it to believe and which parts to ignore. The easiest examples are all those vile condemnations in Leviticus, which modern believers mostly ignore *except* for the one about men sleeping with men. Those who cite Leviticus to justify animus toward gays are making a personal decision about which verse to cite — i.e., it’s about them, not about the Bible.

In later chapters the author addresses morality, and provides a cute version of the ontological argument to prove the most perfect god must be one that does *not* exist. (My thoughts about the various ‘proofs’ of God is why, even if they were valid, they entail any particular god. Why shouldn’t the ontological argument prove the existence of the Greek pantheon of gods?)

And he discusses how the evidence for evolution undermines the entire basis –- Adam and Eve and their need for redemption –- of Christianity. (A point Jerry Coyne is fond of.) It’s all a bronze-age, simplistic, myth.

Further chapters discuss “firebrand” tactics, with examples including billboards, not *competing* with religious organizations, attending conventions on both the right and the left. A brief discussion of morality, with religious right equations of morality to issues of abstinence education (which evidence shows does not work), abortion, gay marriage, etc.

Silverman discusses legal battles that American Atheists have fought, including IRS rules that exempt religious nonprofits from taxes, the exclusion of religious confessionals as accessories to crimes, the 9/11 ‘miracle cross’, and the ‘atheist bench’ set alongside a display of the 10 commandments, which the author places in the context of the Bible’s demands for the execution of those who break the commandments (most of which, of course, are not in fact enshrined in common law).

And final chapters discuss the 2011 Reason Rally in Washington DC, and some exploration of statistics showing that the “nones” are increasing every year. There’s a summary on p217, and several appendices, including reasonable responses to typical questions of atheists – that they have no morals; that they can’t prove God doesn’t exist; whether atheists seek to remove religion from society? [no]. And a key list of questions to believers about why Christianity makes no sense (p242).

And some discussion about how the US’s ‘Founding Fathers’ rejected gospel, p249.2, and approved the Treaty of Tripoli, which explicitly stated that

the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.

One of those quotes the religious right conveniently ignores.

As I said, Silverman is not one for nuance; he says things like “That’s theists being bigoted assholes as a result of serious brainwashing by a poisonous religion cycle.” (p87.3). He tosses that word “brainwashing” around quite a lot.

Salon has an excerpt from the book: I am the Fox News atheist: “Some call me a militant atheist. Others call me a dick. I am neither”, subtitled, “I believe that religion poisons everything and I argue for truth and honesty, no matter the audience. It is working”.

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