A couple of days ago, Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists, wrote this guest post on why atheists should go door-to-door trying to convert people to atheism. Here’s his thesis:
I’ve said before that atheism is perfect (as it contains no exceptions, fallacies, or lies), and we all know countless people who have recovered from their religion and now live freer and happier lives. Indeed, I can’t think of anyone who is not better off (in their own opinion) after leaving religion.
So why aren’t we converting theists? Why aren’t we preaching? If we are to accept that religion is a poison, and if we look at the anecdotal evidence of everyone we know being better off after dumping mythology, and we have a literally flawless philosophy, why aren’t atheists preaching atheism, actively and emphatically?
So I actually disagree with literally everything in this piece, mostly because it’s completely absurd. Fortunately, most of the people in the comments seem to think so too, and in most of the discussion elsewhere, this article is being thoroughly and deservedly mocked. So I thought I’d join in.
First, I take issue with Silverman describing atheism as “perfect” and “a literally flawless philosophy.” Silverman seems to think that the only criterion for a “flawless” philosophy is that it contains no “exceptions, fallacies, or lies.” Which is pretty easy to do when your entire philosophy consists of three words (“God doesn’t exist.”) I also think that Silverman should aim a bit higher than “does not refute itself” when shopping for philosophies. Ideally, there should be some sort of meaning, or purpose, or a moral code that he can adhere to. Instead, he seems to be saying that as long as a philosophy is self-consistent, it’s “literally flawless.” That’s a pretty low standard for flawlessness.
Next is Silverman’s assertion that atheism directly improves people’s lives. He defends this point by saying that he doesn’t know anyone who is worse off after deconverting. Color me surprised that the president of a national atheist organization would surround himself with people who are enthusiastic about their atheism. Let’s say there’s a bit of a sampling bias going on here. Just because everyone in Silverman’s circle of friends is happier as an atheist doesn’t mean that everyone is happier as an atheist. In fact, the people who are unhappy as atheists are probably less likely to go to atheist conferences, read atheist blogs, or be involved in the atheist movement where Silverman is getting all his anecdotes.
And I would like to point out that there is also a large group of people who used to be atheists, and have since converted to a religion. Many of these people will say that their lives have improved since their conversion; are we supposed to completely dismiss their testimony? Maybe people switching from one religious belief to another aren’t very good judges of what makes them happier. Or maybe religions are like ice cream, and different people prefer different flavors. Regardless, I’m entirely unconvinced by Silverman’s anecdotal evidence.
In the second paragraph, Silverman states, as a premise, that religion is a poison. He doesn’t provide any arguments to back up this assertion, likely because he sees it as self-evident. I disagree. Religious people do bad things sometimes, and religious people do good things sometimes, just as atheists sometimes do good things or bad things. Arguing that the atheists who do bad things are just bad people who happen to be atheists, while the religious people who do bad things are motivated by their religion, is an unfair double standard.
Also, as many people point out in the comments to the piece, door-to-door proselytizing is really annoying, and of questionable effectiveness. Silverman ignores both of these points (or maybe hasn’t even considered them), and does nothing to assuage my fears that this strategy will accomplish little more than to make a bunch of religious people hate atheists even more than they already do.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just some silly piece that people will laugh about and then ignore. This was written by the president of perhaps
the largest one of the most prominent atheist organizations in the United States, and the thinking (or lack thereof) that inspired it also guides the policy decisions of American Atheists. And this is hardly a new direction for Silverman. I’ve written about his skewed priorities before, here and here. It’s very obvious that Silverman seems to prioritize making more atheists over nearly anything else, including improving the public perception of atheists and challenging diversity issues within the movement. This is also consistent with the actions his organization has taken over the years, including funding needlessly antagonizing billboards and wildly unpopular lawsuits.
And it’s very clear now that my goals and Silverman’s goals are opposed. My stated goals are not to make more atheists, but rather to improve the world in such a way as to minimize suffering. I’m a part of the atheist movement because discrimination against atheists causes suffering, and the best way to end that discrimination is to fight for equal rights and representation of atheists in all walks of life. Perhaps one of the best ways to end atheist discrimination is to improve the public perception of atheists, by showing religious people that atheists are nice people that they can get along with and be friends with.
All of that is undermined by Silverman’s efforts to antagonize and irritate religious believers in the hopes that they will become atheists. Instead of seeing atheists as decent, ordinary people, Silverman’s actions will cause people to feel even worse about us. Silverman’s post isn’t just silly, or absurd, but (if his advice is followed) directly harmful to the cause. But I suspect that Silverman himself will never realize this.
One thing that I noticed after having written most of this post is that, throughout Silverman’s piece, he frames religious believers as “victims” who are “trapped in their own mythos” and who need help to “live freer and happier lives.” While dissecting this mindset would take a completely separate post, I’m going to say that treating adults who have different religious beliefs as though they need our help to escape from the unspecified horrors of believing in a god is really weird and kinda creepy. I’m just picturing Silverman riding into a church on a white horse shouting, “I’ll save you!”