Tell the Truth
An Earnest Review of Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a World by David Silverman
James A. Lindsay – @goddoesnt
Originally, I had intended to read through David Silverman's Fighting God chapter by chapter and review each as I went. My goal was partially to address his work and partly to voice my serious misgivings about the movement-style atheism he advocates for, based upon the research I did that led me to write Everybody Is Wrong About God (EIWAG). Incidentally, Fighting God and EIWAG were published on the same day, December 1, 2015, with similar intended audiences and apparently radically divergent themes. Had I stuck to my original intent, however, I feared I would have written tedious, over-long commentary (exceeding, perhaps, the length of Silverman's book), so instead, I read the whole thing, gave it a chance to digest, and am now offering my thoughts as earnestly and briefly as possible.
Silverman argues passionately that atheists should strike while the iron is hot and amplify "firebrand atheism." We must, he insists, tell the truth, which is that religions are damaging and false. We should be loud, proud atheists, and, in fact, failing to do anything short of the most we can in that regard, given our situations, constitutes a moral failure against our privilege. Proudly claiming the label of atheist makes you a good person, in Silverman's view, and doing less than your honest best in that regard makes you, at best, a fortunate recipient of the moral stridency of others. His book isn't wholly about this point, though. It's more about "fighting God," as the title indicates.
For context, the overarching theme of EIWAG could hardly be more different. I argue there that those who don't believe in God should change our tack and begin leaving theism and all its trappings - including atheism - behind. In place of "being atheists," I urged that we should move forward into a "post-theistic" world in which the atheism-versus-theism argument is little more than a sadly necessary artifact of our history. Though he doesn't say so explicitly in the book (how could he?), Silverman thinks this post-theism stuff is "asinine," based on "fake logic," and "grotesquely naive." Since my outline of post-theism embraces most of the advocacy work done by American Atheists, I can only assume he says this out of a failure to appreciate what I mean by it (to my knowledge, which isn't vacuous here, Silverman has not read EIWAG).
The thing I can't get away from with Silverman's book is the distinct feeling that it is simultaneously two books at once. We'll come back to this in a moment because this would also be a fair-enough comment about EIWAG too, incidentally, since that's exactly what the ideas in EIWAG originally were intended to be. I don't think it was intentional in Silverman's case, contrary to my own. I had things to say both about theism and about atheism and happened to recognize that they were linked in the crucial way. Had Silverman read it, he might realize how fundamental that link is to my concerns with his book.
Those concerns come from Silverman painting "being an atheist" as an explicitly moral thing to do. Good people should bear the term as a proud identifier, leaving little or no quarter for alternatives of equal moral weight, which he derides as "euphemisms." But that literally makes a moral tribe out of atheism, which EIWAG specifically warns against. Moral tribes, I argue in my own book (under the term Ideologically Motivated Moral Community, IMMC), are the correct generalization of religions. They are the cultural structures that resemble religions whether possessing a deity or not, like political parties, sports fan-bases, and cults, for examples. My concerns about that problem are central to my misgivings about Fighting God.
Now, not only does Silverman's book seem to be two books at once, the two diverge by arriving in two distinct voices: his angry one and the one worth reading. Both are about firebrand atheism, but in the first of these voices, his writing is nearly indistinguishable from tribal invective. The second reflects his years of experience as a qualified activist who understands both what he's doing and why he's doing it. Though the first voice creeps into it, the main body of the book (most of chapters 3 or 4 through 8, out of 11 total) are well worth reading. The beginning and end of Fighting God, however, were I to employ as much nuance and self-awareness as Silverman's angry voice, I'd be content to describe merely as "the Qur'an of Atheism" and have done with it after some trumped-up defense of that claim.
Instead of defending that claim, however, I'll walk away from it to share my EIWAG-inspired concerns and to talk very positively about most of the middle of the book (which is good enough where I'd give his book a highly qualified four out of five stars, were I rating it). Through the middle, Silverman walks in his stride. It's clear that he is an effective activist who knows his way around his craft. His methodical use of the media to gain attention - mostly of the right kind - for his movement is both interesting and encouraging to read about. His passion is obvious. His plain-sense call to put atheism visibly where it's not (most vividly, to my mind, is at the Republican National Convention meetings he attended) - that is, to deliberately pop the insulating bubbles around religious echo chambers in our ultimately-secular society - is both perfectly inspiring and spot on, not to mention overwhelmingly needed in our overly divisive political landscape at present. His call to advocacy on behalf of beleaguered closeted atheists (and the rest of us, including the religious) is almost perfectly done.
This middle part of the book had been described to me as "trite," but I found it encouraging and worth reading. It loses the one star by angrier Dave occasionally showing up and needlessly flinging the occasional liver punch from the corner and by presenting instructive but dull details about the wording of documents filed by American Atheists, say against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Despite my strong and informed desire to move away from "atheism" and toward "post-theism," the middle part of Fighting God reminded me of how fully I recognize and appreciate his advocacy, especially in normalizing nonbelief in our society and working tirelessly to secure secular equality. It is for that reason - even though clearly I didn't know Silverman's arguments yet - that in EIWAG, I gave a very positive nod to the efforts of American Atheists and explained the continuing and likely perpetual need for such advocacy groups (also, to be sure, the Freedom From Religion Foundation). There is plenty of room for atheism-centered advocacy within a post-theistic society because, as Silverman very astutely explains, supremacist movements (like many religious movements are naturally because of their belief in divine sanction) creep upon society unjustly, continually and by baby steps, and that fight cannot end so long as supremacist movements last.
The beginning and end of the book - not including the pass-the-collection-plate part of the final chapter - are, as I noted, effectively a fiery manifesto on behalf of a moral tribe branded with atheism. That is, in light of the arguments I make throughout EIWAG, the beginning and end of Fighting God look more like the thing Silverman is arguing against than the thing he is arguing for, once you account for some ultimately superficial differences and one substantive one. Substantively, Silverman is not arguing on behalf of a supremacist movement nominally based upon "atheism." He is pushing for an equality counter-movement against religious supremacist movements. His ends are therefore different, but his means aren't. At the level of moral identity, he's encouraging the same thing he's fighting, but insofar as the root values are inherently different, there's plenty of room to give him some credit for doing so.
On the other hand, his complete lack of knowledge of religious psychology - and apparent complete lack of interest in the field - is perfectly manifest. Silverman doesn't understand religion, though he wants to defeat it. I see this as a rather substantial problem in his approach (and the ultimate weakness in so-called "New Atheism"), and the error has serious tactical consequences.
The most obvious problem is increased balkanization. Sociopolitical balkanization - that is, separation into divided groups with little ability to communicate or compromise - is the usual fruit of identity politicking, and Fighting God is more accurately an atheist identity manifesto than anything else. Silverman wants nonbelievers to be atheists, not by virtue of the de facto nature of a label but because of embracing it as a personal identity. This will surely achieve some of his aims, but at costs. Granted, Silverman seems to be arguing to reduce balkanization within the so-called atheism movement, and for good reasons like forming a socially effective coalition against religious supremacy. As I note in EIWAG, however, atheists form a kind of automatic out-group against a broader religious society, and the more they look and act like a competing religion from the pews, the more they'll be treated as such (which is to say mostly ignored due to "conflicting theology" except when being scapegoated for political gain).
Silverman does a good job documenting his reasons for believing his movement is "winning," but the problems with these apparently solid claims are fairly manifest from even modest follow-up research. He dedicates an amazingly boring diary-esque chapter to the Reason Rally and its relative success, but Reason Rally 2 was a shocking failure. He documents the increasing search salience of the term "atheism" as proof that atheists are winning the fight for normalization, but the data since he published his book seem to show that popularity in decline again. (Rather than indicating a growth of interest and normalization in atheism, an alternative interpretation of the data, his own ability to increase search interest notwithstanding, is little more than that the Atheism Movement peaked around 2012 and the Reason Rally and has been slowly dying off since.)
Then there's worse. Trump's staggering electoral success with Evangelicals is difficult to read at least not in part as a deliberate backlash against excesses of "liberalism" (by which people mean social leftism), to which movement-atheism is rightly associated. Fox didn't peddle the "War on Christmas" for nothing, and though Silverman talks specifically about it and the successes his fight on that front generated, he seems to have missed the looming nature of this particularly substantial failure, one any open-minded listener in flyover country could have told him all about.
All of these kinds of problems are also predictable through a lens that grasps moral psychology and moral sociology. People post-2016 are sicker than sick-and-tired of divisive "me, me, me" invective delivered by special-interest groups as a tool of cultural artillery. Even if the so-called Atheism Movement hadn't poisoned itself from within, it still would have become banal over the last two, if not four, years.
My belief, essentially, is that we cannot effectively deal with a problem that isn't clearly and accurately understood, and understanding religion for what it is, in all its complexity and for all it is doing for people, is central to effectively countering it. Post-theism is the natural fallout position of understanding religion and resisting it accordingly; atheism is little more than the failure to do so and resisting anyway in a way that inadvertently substantiates theism. This is why Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and many other prominent biologists refuse to debate creationists. Doing so legitimizes them in a way nothing else can. Similarly, engaging with theism on its own terms - which is what atheism qua atheism does - legitimizes theism in exactly the same way. Post-theism sees theism, by contrast, the same way almost all of us see Poseidon today.
Again, let me state clearly that much activism and advocacy on behalf of goals related to American Atheists (and thus of interest to atheists) remain necessary under a post-theistic mindset. That hasn't and won't change. Post-theism reflects a change in disposition toward theism and its claims, and any and all changes in behavior that can be associated with feeling post-theistic follow merely in the natural ways from doing the same things that already need to be done with a different mindset about their root causes. Post-theism, in that way, is a kind of more advanced - or perhaps more mature - atheism.
What Silverman specifically fails to understand about religion is that it is, first and foremost, a moral community. It is not a collection of "lies" perpetrated only by "victims" and "liars," as he refers to all preachers. Thinking of religions as large cultural objects by which people adhere to and express themselves as members of a moral identity completely changes the ways in which we should want to approach them, especially if we wish to undercut their bids for cultural supremacy and political privilege.
Moral arguments and intellectual arguments cannot be successfully waged in the same way. (The failure to appreciate this, incidentally, is what I've often referred to as the central failure of the Enlightenment, which wrongly assumed that we're rational before we're moral.) In EIWAG, I argue that the intellectual argument about religion is over, but the cultural one isn't and has to be retooled to be fought accordingly. Fighting a moral fight as though it's an intellectual fight will win some minor victories but is very unlikely to win the war (this bellicose imagery courtesy of Silverman's framing throughout this book).
To take his efforts to the next level, Silverman has to recognize fully that religions aren't lies; they're worldviews that, for a number of complicated psychological and social reasons, distort the ways in which their adherents read the evidence and apply reason. Being a Christian is like wearing Jesus-colored glasses that are so perfectly fitting that the Christians don't know they're wearing them, and yet the views through these glasses are so integral to who they feel themselves to be that they don't know how to see themselves as good people without wearing them. Calling them liars probably won't help that problem, and insisting that they're victims, at best, shoehorns in a dangerous identity marker into any newly deconverted it manages to generate.
Post-theism treats theism differently, as an immature model of reality that we'll start taking seriously once it can substantiate itself besides by arguments to popularity or force of moral conviction. It puts those who want to promote religious beliefs on their heels, demanding that they substantiate themselves before any person with a post-theistic mindset will take them seriously (this, of course, they cannot do, so it is ultimately fatal). Atheism, by contrast, effectively says, "Hey, you guys said that and lots of people believe it, so we're going to argue with you like what you said deserves taking seriously by pure force of popularity or conviction." The difference isn't subtle, and after reading Fighting God, I'm forced to wonder what American Atheists would achieve if their efforts were fully informed by this mindset instead of one that is more directly combative.
To be sure, and to close, however, Fighting God makes it abundantly clear - while saying the opposite - that the goals of the atheism movement that Silverman is acting for are not really "atheism" goals. They're secular goals, particularly regarding social justice and legal equality for American (and, to some extent, global) members of every faith and of none. Silverman may have a case that more people understand "atheist" than "secularist" as terms for one's position, but the relevant cultural fight that remains isn't atheism versus theism. It's secularists versus religious supremacists and theocrats (and at present, we're losing it rather spectacularly). His confusion on this point may follow from decades of directly engaging the fruitbats on the Religious Right, so it's ultimately comprehensible that he'd miss the distinction. My advice, then, is the same as David Silverman's: we should fight the right fights, and while so doing, we should tell the truth.