‘Tis the Season
Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World
By David Silverman
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2015
There’s a certain initial reaction of belatedness to David Silverman’s long-awaited debut book Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World. It arrives in 2015, ten years after the heyday of “New Atheism”s seminal texts, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, and god is Not Great by the late Christopher Hitchens. It arrives ten years after the landmark Pennsylvania court case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which a judge stingingly rejected the attempts of a religious cabal to inject creationism into high school science curricula. Indeed, many of the founding titans of the movement have fallen into varying degrees of disrepute, with Sam Harris crimping into a bullet-pointer of anti-Islam barbarity, Dennett retreating into fuzzy neurology, and Dawkins lately making one cringe-inducing faux pas after another on various social media. The whole “New Atheism” fad seems to have faded.
David Silverman (he jokes that his parents decided to name him “David Silverman” after deciding that “Jew” didn’t sound Jewish enough) argues in his “manifesto” that heydays might come and go, but the danger of religion hasn’t died or even dimmed. In this book he advocates “firebrand atheism,” the active and systematic confrontation of religious believers wherever they’re found – and they can be found doing real harm in many, many capacities. As one example out of thousands, he brings up US President George W. Bush’s religiously-mandated halt to stem-cell research during his presidency, which retarded research into diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, and as in many places in his book, here Silverman addresses his readers directly:
If you or someone you love has one of those diseases, someone else’s religion has reduced their chance of being helped before it’s too late. You, as a citizen of the planet, have suffered a Dark Ages-style delay on treatments that may have significantly increased your lifespan and its quality. Nobody called the president on it, and people still think Christianity is “pro-life.”
A key to understanding the book is knowing that Silverman, the president of American Atheists, has been at this a long time, since long before the New Atheist movement. His book is in many places a kind of complicated transcript of the countless talks and debates he’s been having with religious apologists and fundamentalists of all denominations all over the country. Here he lays out what has always been the bedrock of his case against all religions, his outrage at a whole cast of emperors wearing no clothes:
In the history of the world, the number of times a supernatural anything has been proven true is zero. Every god, ghost, spirit, devil, possession, and miracle ever claimed true is a lie. No exceptions. The number of times an atheistic (godless) argument has been proven wrong by a theistic argument is zero. In contrast, every time a theist-versus-atheist argument has been settled, an atheistic argument has won (the “shrinking God of the Gaps” argument). This does not mean science is antireligion; it just means (or rather, strongly implies) religion is wrong. The “God of the Gaps” argument has a 0 percent success rate, but it is often repackaged to look deceptively fresh. I challenge anyone to find any scientifically valid testable proof of anything supernatural, ever. If you can prove it, even once, I’ll quit my job. I’m not nervous, as it has never been done in history, because it’s all a lie.
“The sum total of all scientifically valid proof supporting the existence of all the world’s gods, combined,” he repeats, “is zero.”
Although Silverman insists that the politically-correct stance of respecting the beliefs of the religious while disagreeing with them is fundamentally both dishonest and dangerous, he reserves sharper condemnation for the frauds and fleecers who have always glided in and among the credulous:
There are two kinds of preachers: victims and liars. The victims have been indoctrinated into religion, and though they may be intelligent, they truly believe that the man in the sky personally wants them to preach whatever word they’re preaching. I pity the believing preacher, as I pity all believers. The liars aren’t really theists at all – they are just atheists faking their way through their jobs for money or power (the whole point of religion in the first place) or because they once were victims of indoctrination and now, after realizing their gods are false, are trapped in a job in which they lie for a living. I pity them more.
In fact, the strongest theme running through Fighting God is this recourse to honesty. In Silverman’s view, a truly honest person cannot be religious any more than a truly religious person can be honest; past a certain threshold of awareness, deception – of yourself or others – becomes a requirement for keeping the whole artificial machinery working. He has encountered many people who take their faiths as mere matters of convenient momentum, and he sees countless examples of charlatans who fake even the convenient momentum. One such example is Bill Clinton, whose Oval Office affairs broke one of the central commandments of the faith he professed to hold. For Silverman, it’s a clear sign of fraud:
Here’s a question: If you believed dying in a state of sin meant you would go to literal Hell, and that such death could happen at any time without warning, would you ever have a long-term adulterous affair? Would you ever risk an eternal hell for a blow job? You’d have to be really stupid to do so – like blazingly stupid. (Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar.)
Politics run throughout the book as well, mainly because Silverman was born and raised in the United States, where sham piety and religious hypocrisy have been the life-blood of public office for well over 200 years and very much continue to be so today, particularly – as Silverman need hardly stress – in the current incarnation of the Republican Party. “Christianity wants to own Conservatism, as it has for a few decades now, and it loves to give the impression that the two are inextricably linked,” he writes. “The linkage tells us that all Conservatives are Christians, and most important, that Conservatives need to court Christians, nearly to the exclusion of everyone else, thereby promoting Christianity’s legitimacy via government endorsement.”
Against such institutional endorsement, he ranges canny protest action, a mastery of apologetical fancy-dancing, and most of all a simple insistence on the truth of things. “Never once in the history of our species,” he reminds his readers (perhaps a trifle too often, but then, religion has been reminding its own readers of the obverse for millennia), “has any religion found, offered, or shown any verifiable and testable proof based on scientifically-valid evidence and the scientific method (you know, the way we would prove anything else) of any supernatural being or phenomena. Ever.” He wants his readers (one gets the strong impression that his target demographic is college undergraduates) to above all be truthful people, to attack religion rather than religious people, to patiently demonstrate to them what they must on some level already know, which is that they’re practicing what Silverman and others refer to as “cafeteria” faith, moving along the line of offered religious positions on matters of ethics and morality and picking and choosing which items they want to add to the finished meal of what they then regard as their personal faith. Most people do this picking and choosing and then “call their morality objective and perfect, whether it supports flying planes into buildings or helping a stranger in distress,” he writes. “The stuff in religion that you hate has no less of a basis in the source material than the stuff in religion you love.”
The book has more than its fair share of awkward segments, mainly made so by the catch-all arrangement of contents. In striving to make sure he hits all the most popular dodges and fallacies used by the faithful against the proselytizing atheist in their midst (again, the implication of dormitory debates is very strong), Silverman scatters arguments and rebuttals all over the debate playing field, thereby diluting the monomaniacal focus that is the main identifying characteristic of all real manifestos. Too much of the book is formatted along the lines of “When they say X, you should respond with either Y or Z, and here’s how …” – Fighting God lacks both the elegant through-line of The God Delusion and the crystal-clear (albeit fatuous) theme-mantra of god is Not Great. Instead, it has the feel of a program laid out to instruct the next generation of firebrand atheists on how to do the job. The publisher’s decision to finish off the Table of Contents with a handful of speech-transcripts only adds to the slightly provisional feel of the end product).
Silverman is confident in the ultimate success of that next generation for one simple reason: according to him, atheism is winning. He claims that America today has roughly 82 million atheists, and for such a demographic he sees a bright future:
In this enduring battle for freedom from the Lie of God (a phrase I use to describe all deities and the lies, empty promises, and threats that surround them), we are finally winning, mainly because, thanks to the Internet, we are finally capable of trying. We, the atheists of America, are on the cusp of achieving victory.
This is the only part of the otherwise lancingly intelligent Fighting God that seems just a bit delusional. The so-called Islamic State has murdered (often by crucifixion) hundreds and perhaps thousands of people in Syria because they either professed the wrong faith or else professed the wrong version or intensity of Islam. The group claimed responsibility for the Friday the 13th murders in Paris, whose gunmen were heard to be shouting the praises of Allah. And closer to Silverman’s home-precinct worries, none of the current candidates for the Republican nomination for President of the United States is willing to tell an audience of potential voters that they believe in the theory of evolution (one of those candidates, Ben Carson, commented publicly in 2012 that he considered evolution to be “encouraged by the adversary” – referring to a 3000-year-old Middle Eastern demon named Satan). Mike Huckabee routinely advocates ignoring or disobeying US law if it conflicts with a 3000-year-old collection of Middle Eastern folklore and civic codes. At an event called the National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa, several speakers, including “pastor” Kevin Swanson, addressed an enthusiastic audience on the fact that the United States government should follow the dictates of a 3000-year-old Middle Eastern text and summarily execute people for the crime – the sin – of homosexuality. Three Republican presidential candidates attended the conference, and when Swanson invited one of them, potential frontrunner and Texas Senator Ted Cruz to agree that Jesus Christ was “the king of the President of the United States,” Cruz didn’t respond by saying the United States has a separation of church and state and no religious requirement for taking public office, nor did he respond by pointing out that the US is home to millions of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and even atheists. Instead, he smiled at the man whose conference was calling for gays to be rounded up and killed and said, “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this country.”
So David Silverman is in this case entirely right: more firebrands, please.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.