The Firebrand’s New Brand: David Silverman’s Return to Atheist Leadership

I was raised a Missouri-Synod Lutheran in rural Wisconsin, and nearly every Sunday of my childhood included a long, white room where folding tables full of people I’d known forever enjoyed some kind of casserole, plastic cups of fruit punch, and conversation that ranged from gardening tips to the nature of existence. While I’ve never regretted my departure from organized religion, I have felt the absence of community that my church and small hometown gave me. That’s why, as I experienced my first American Humanist Association (AHA) conference in 2017, I was filled with hope and excitement. I felt a growing sense of possibility as I listened to panelists discuss terms like “genderqueer” and “white fragility” and a deep sense of connection as I participated in a debate about the role of men in feminism. These are my people, I thought. They speak my language; they share my values.

Immediately after the conference, having learned there was much work to be done, I joined the AHA’s Feminist Humanist Alliance (FHA) as an advisory council member. Despite the empathy- and equity-based principles of humanism, the secular movement is not immune to the sexism and racism that plague society at large. In fact, during my first FHA meeting, local chapter leaders pleaded with the advisory council to provide resources to combat the routine, casual sexism they were experiencing in their communities. And while the social justice commentary of the conference speakers was cutting-edge, the audience was overwhelmingly older, white, and male. If this was going to be my community, I needed it to be inclusive.

It’s become clear through my work with the AHA’s social justice alliances that there’s a long road to walk between our humanist ideals and our movement’s institutions. Last year the FHA drafted and began to implement initiatives to help the humanist movement become a safer, more welcoming space for women and people from marginalized communities—a few steps further down that road.

Enter the newly hired executive director of Atheist Alliance International (AAI), a global federation of atheist groups and individuals who endeavor to “make the world a safer place for atheists.” On October 11, 2019, AAI announced that it had created the new ED position and hired former American Atheists president David Silverman. A week and a half later, on his “Firebrand for Good” YouTube page, Silverman declared that we, as a culture, are post-sexism. He went on to state that the gender pay gap is fake, the glass ceiling has been smashed (because it’s “better visually” for companies to hire women now), and that since second-wave feminism won, modern feminists can stop being so angry about inconsequential nonsense.

Silverman’s comments confirmed what I feared about the nontheistic movement, and his hiring both surprised and concerned me.

Silverman’s recent anti-feminist and anti-social justice statements, as well as associations with antagonists of both movements, are legion, but I’ll limit my coverage to just a few. On September 20 he wrote he is “no longer a progressive feminist” and admitted to being “red-pilled,” a reference to a quarantined Reddit forum for Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) widely known to be anti-feminist and rife with misogyny. In a September 22 podcast episode titled “Feminist Tyranny,” Silverman asserted personally or agreed with the host (MRA-adjacent Sargon of Akkad) on a number of concerning ideas, including that women are using feminism and the #MeToo movement to “secure personal privilege” and that social justice is a “cancerous social movement” that “has to be undone.” Around the same time he did an interview with female MRA Karen Straughan and the men behind Mythcon, the conference that controversially gave platforms to several anti-social-justice atheists; he retweeted an October 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Social Justice Warriors Won’t Listen, but You Should” that mocked concepts like white fragility and systemic complicity in white supremacy and misogyny; and on October 17 he shared a video suggesting that more rape allegations are false than we think (part of a video series that includes “Feminazi vs. Reality”).

Bye regressive left,” Silverman tweeted on September 23. “I have a lot of regrets for being in your whiney culty immitation [sic] of feminism.”

This is seemingly the final destination of Silverman’s “redemption arc” after being removed as the president of American Atheists, a position he held for eight years and for which he came to be known as the “firebrand atheist.” On April 7, 2018, Silverman was put on leave while AA’s board of directors reviewed a complaint against him. Six days later the organization released a statement explaining that Silverman had been fired after review of the “initial complaint as well as evidence relating to the additional allegations brought to the Board’s attention.” That same day, Buzzfeed published an article detailing two sexual misconduct allegations against him. An American Atheists representative later said that the original complaint was not related to those two allegations but that everything taken together caused a loss of confidence in their president. (Silverman denies the allegations.)

At one point it seemed possible that Silverman would be one of the very few men to demonstrate genuine redemption after sexual assault or misconduct allegations. After all, Silverman had a strong record as an ally before his firing. From the podium at a feminist rally in 2014, he introduced himself as a “proud feminist.” In 2012, Silverman claimed he was working to minimize “irrational, hateful, and counterproductive behavior [against women] wherever [his] authority allows.” The following year he was lauded for “repudiating the spammy, photoshopping, lying behavior of the anti-feminist clique.” In 2016 Silverman defended anti-harassment policies at the second Reason Rally in Washington, DC, and in 2017 he said the mocking of a sexual assault victim at Mythicist Milwaukee’s Mythcon conference made his “blood boil and bile bubble.”

Given his recent departure from those values, it’s now unclear whether the supportive statements listed above were the result of Silverman’s own genuinely held beliefs or positions he agreed to voice at the suggestion of his staff. Regardless, the David Silverman of today doesn’t sound like a man on a journey of self-reflection, enlightenment, or redemption. This isn’t exactly a surprise considering the character arcs we’ve witnessed of other high-profile men. For example, in 2017 comedian Louis C.K. admitted that he abused his power in engaging in sexual misconduct with several women. But, despite his previous habit of “punching up” in his comedy, a year later he was in front of a crowd joking about his misconduct and making fun of transgender kids. Aziz Ansari, also known for his socially astute, feminism-friendly stand-up, took a similar path, though many considered the allegations against him to be less serious. After a woman reported in January 2018 that he repeatedly pressured her for sex on a date, he expressed surprise and concern but continued to support the “necessary and long overdue” #MeToo movement. Several months later, on his own “comeback” tour, Ansari denigrated collective anger, internet activism, and political correctness.

It’s becoming a repeated refrain: man holds himself up as a feminist; man experiences consequences for misogynistic actions; on reflection, man decides social justice warriors are the real problem.

Shortly before Silverman was removed from AA, the Humanist magazine ran a cover story by Amanda Marcotte asking if secularism was seeing a split between those who thought sexual misconduct had been condoned for years within humanist and atheist circles and those who thought #MeToo had gone too far. The article demonstrated that the “Great Rift” in the atheist movement wasn’t just evident in the highly visible leaders accused of sexual misconduct but in the everyday rank-and-file responses to it. When the AHA distanced itself from physicist Lawrence Krauss after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him, Marcotte noted that the move “drew a chorus of outrage from some corners of the skeptical community,” most notably those who repeatedly called for “due process… conflating Krauss’s ‘right’ to have plum speaking gigs with the right of others to be free from imprisonment without trial.”

Similar defenses abound in the 900+ comments to AAI’s announcement of Silverman’s hiring, alongside applause for the hire and laments over “outrage cancel culture,” “radical feminism,” “militant metoo,” “woke identity politics,” “feminazis,” “hysterical feminists,” and “SJWs.” The comments on Silverman’s personal social media posts, while certainly self-selecting, have been largely supportive, both of his return to movement leadership and his shiny new anti-woman rhetoric.

The rift isn’t new, but with Silverman’s hiring, that rhetoric appears to have gained institutional support. The refrain grows louder.

AAI is an atheist organization with nearly 190,000 followers on Facebook and multiple international partners. In initially publicizing Silverman as their executive director, the group made no comment about his departure from American Atheists or his recent tirades against social justice in the nontheistic movement. “David is a well-known public atheist, a powerful leader and a compelling public speaker,” AAI President Gail Miller said in the announcement published on their website. “He is a personality who makes things happen.” (Oddly, the main page of AAI’s website features a young, blonde-ponytailed woman holding a microphone to her mouth and looking rather accusingly at Silverman, who stares directly at the viewer with a benign expression, his visage surrounded by a hazy, halo-like effect.)

Two days after they announced hiring Silverman, AAI published a lengthy defense on its Facebook page (“Now It’s Our Turn to Speak: The Inside Story from the AAI Board”), repeatedly stating that choosing not to hire Silverman would be a violation of his human rights. AAI also suggests that because Silverman is “immensely well-liked by his female fellow-activists” (presumably other than those who claim he assaulted them and any woman who believes them), he cannot be a misogynist and that because the president of AAI is a woman, AAI cannot propagate misogyny. (Note: AAI did not respond to my request for comment on Silverman’s hiring.)

Silverman’s anti-woman, anti-social justice atheism is not my atheism. But it is apparently someone’s atheism, and institutional representation of these views is deeply troubling. As a researcher on male supremacism recently noted on this site, the alt-right is increasingly attracting atheist men. Is AAI (unwittingly or not) creating a space for them, emboldening harmful and regressive views of women who allege sexual misconduct, of feminists generally, and others committed to social justice? How will other secular organizations react? Will we see a further splintering?

A year and a half ago, Amanda Marcotte asked us to be alarmed that “the movement is mostly male while the human race is a little over half female, and that [the movement is] mostly white when most people are not,” and she challenged us to do better. When I joined the American Humanist Association and its Feminist Humanist Alliance, I set out to do just that. But I don’t know how to help atheism and humanism better reflect humanity when a movement leader espouses principles that belittle and marginalize entire groups of people. I don’t know how to help people feel welcome in this community when a large contingent of its members seems to be none-too-politely showing them the door. And I don’t know how to heal the rift in the movement without abandoning the values that attracted me to it in the first place.

The spark of community I felt sitting in a hotel meeting room at that humanist conference in South Carolina a few years ago struggles to burn when so much of the movement’s oxygen is used up defending harmful ideologies and elevating problematic men.