After reading an article on David Silverman, an active member and current President of American Atheists, I decided to pick up a copy of Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, which is Silverman’s first book. When I started writing this rebuttal, I had only finished two chapters of the book, and wrote the rest as I continued to read through the text. I managed to get about half way. The rest of the book was more or less just a battle plan for militant atheists, so it wasn’t really useful for this essay.
There’s a lot to cover in my rebuttal. But let’s start where Silverman did: with a definition. Silverman spent quite a bit of time defining atheism, but he took very little time defining religion, and the definition he selected is ridiculously weak, although not uncommon. Silverman relies on Merriam-Webster.com’s definitions of religion: “the belief in a god or in a group of gods,” and “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” Thus Silverman declares that “religion is theistic by definition (Silverman 2015, 16).”
There are a few issues with this definition, not the least of which is that Buddhism generally excludes any god beliefs, yet Silverman listed Buddhism as a religion. Now, it’s true that not everyone considers Buddhism a religion, but the fact that Silverman himself recognizes it as such, and because of the legal implications of calling it a philosophy instead, it seems that a theistic definition of religion is, at the very least, incomplete. Silverman views atheism as being totally distinct from religion and he relies on this false dichotomy throughout Fighting God. In fact, he calls on all atheists to fight the war against religion (Silverman 2015, 43 – 45). It would be rather odd for a religious Buddhist to fight against religion, simply because he or she is an atheist.
So then, what definition of religion can we use that is more complete? In “Religious or Secular,” I developed a full definition of religion. For this discussion, only the criterion which separates religion from non-religion is needed. Specifically, in order to determine that someone is religious, we identify a core religious belief. A core religious belief is a belief which lacks any known method of being investigated empirically. Using this criterion, theism is religious. However, believing that there are no gods is equally religious. There are plenty of other core religious beliefs addressed in Religious or Secular, but this is all that’s needed to show a major flaw in Silverman’s argument, and his world view as a whole. (Goldman 2016, Draft)
In Fighting God, Silverman admits that he does not simply lack a belief in any god, which is all that is necessary to be an atheist, but he specifically believes that there are no gods. As Silverman puts it, he is a “conclusionary atheist.” He has “read, thought, and studied enough to satisfy [himself] that there is no god… ” (Silverman 2015, 18) If he defined god specifically to be something that can be investigated empirically, that would be one thing, but he did not. A sweeping rejection of all gods is a core religious belief, and therefore Silverman is religious.
This is rather problematic, given that his second chapter focuses on a supposed “war” between atheism and religion. In this chapter, he attempts to establish atheism as being superior to religion and discusses “saving” religious people. Of course, this sounds a lot like the view of religious individuals who actively proselytize. Silverman is quick to oppose that claim, and demands that “raising a fist and a voice, taking a firm stance for honesty, and pressing hard for equality is not religion (Silverman 2015, 27).” That’s true. However, that is not what Silverman is suggesting atheists do. He suggests that atheists push atheism and try to alter the beliefs of those around them. Silverman wants the total eradication of, what he considers to be religion. And as long as he believes that religion is synonymous with theism, it is certainly possible that this can be accomplished, but that is not the eradication of religion. It’s just a change in the religious landscape.
Silverman lumps all atheists into a single group. Yes; so long as you do not believe that you are a god, you are an atheist. And if you believe that there is at least one god, you are not an atheist. However, it is rather absurd that Silverman time and time again tries to unite atheists for his cause. It’s also rather absurd that he is angry that atheists do not have representation in government. Atheists are simply “not theists.”
Since when do people who are not something demanding representation? I don’t believe in unicorns. Do I demand representation for a-unicornists? But how many people in this country actually believe in unicorns? Of course there is no need to demand representation for a-unicornists because that’s just about everyone. But what about ghosts? I do not believe in ghosts either. Yet almost half the country believes in ghosts! Am I going to advocate for representation for a-ghostists? No. Again, I think most people would say that’s silly.
Indeed, it is quite silly, in any case, to request to be represented for not being something. But that’s what atheism is. It’s not being something. So how can we ask for representation? What else, besides not being theists, do secular humanists, Buddhists, Taoists, antitheists, etc have in common? How can all of these people be represented as a single group? They can’t. Yet this is exactly what Silverman wants.
“I Don’t Know”
Towards the end of Chapter II, Silverman claims that “atheism is perfect” and explains that atheism “provides ‘I don’t know’.” (Silverman 2015, 41) It’s true that, at its core, atheism is a lack of belief, and an admittance of a lack of knowledge. One could argue that this “perfect” as no future evidence can come into conflict with the current position. If in the future “we know,” it is still true that for now, we do not. However, what is also clear is that Silverman does not admit to not knowing. As mentioned earlier, he is a conclusionary atheist. He has thrown “I don’t know” out the window. Indeed, I have argued that the inability to admit a lack of knowledge, along with the existence of currently unanswerable questions, is part of the reason why religion persists. Even if, somehow, religion were wiped out, these two conditions would just lead to new religions. And in the case where people have begun to reject existing religions, this holds true, and Silverman is leading the charge away from “I don’t know” and towards “we’re right” once more.
Not only does he apparently know that there are no gods, but he claims that “the most important lie that religion tells is that there is no such thing as human death. All other animals die, and your body dies, but your ‘soul’ goes somewhere to live for eternity.” (Silverman 2015, 30) The issue with this is the use of the word “lie.” A lie asserts that the claim is not true. How does Silverman know that this is the case? Why does he just admit that he doesn’t know?
Equality, Government, and Religion
Silverman speaks of equality and separation of government and religion. Putting aside that the constitution never addresses separation of government and religion, only that there can be no state established religion, nor any government suppression of religion, Silverman seems to want equality through elimination. Again, Silverman wants the complete abolition of what he views to be religion. Thus instead of wanting to allow all religions to express themselves, it seems that he would rather keep all religious expression out of public view. Although he at least mentions the inclusion of an “atheist” monument rather than the removal of a Christian monument, as a success, I have to wonder whether or not this was done only because it would have been far less likely that they could have removed the Christian monument. (Silverman 2015, 37)
But let me get to the constitution now. Silverman calls separation of government and state “a synonym for ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘religious equality’.” But is this really the case? Let’s review the wording of the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Certainly if congress passed a law which required everyone to go to church on Sunday, that would be an establishment of religion. Likewise, if congress passed a law banning people from going to church, that would be a prohibition of the free exercise of religion. But what about a politician who applies his belief to his decisions in government? Is that in violation of the constitution?
No. So long as the politician acts within the confines of the constitution, and the first amendment, utilizing one’s own religious views, in making decisions, is not unconstitutional. It is not establishing nor prohibiting religion. If a politician were to push for the abolition of the death penalty, because his religion forbid such a thing, would that be a violation of the first amendment? It wouldn’t be if the government has the authority to determine the punishment of murderers, and is not required, by the constitution, to sentence murderers to death.
Admittedly, it is easy to see why Silverman has become so aggressive. This isn’t uncommon. Christianity had a similar history. During its infancy, Christianity had to be practiced in secret. Roman symbols were used to represent Christian ideas. Services were performed in crypts. Christians were severely punished in ancient Rome. While Jews at least had the protection of being a group of “ethnic origin” which was protected by Roman law, Christians were not considered to be an ethic group, and were often persecuted (Citation needed). Once Christians came to power in Rome however, the tables were turned, and the oppressed became the oppressors. It was the pagan religion that was sent underground. It seems that the same thing is happening in America. Silverman et. al. are reacting to having their lives flooded with religious, or more so just Christian, culture, and atheist groups are pushing back. And it is true that Christians seem to get preferred status within government. Christmas is, as Silverman mentioned, a national holiday.
But there is more. I have found that many people like Silverman once followed another religion, but managed to “break free” of that religion. When you believe that something is true, you become invested in that belief. In fact, we become invested in much of what we do. We see this, all the time, when people invest. When someone makes an investment, and it goes sour, instead of getting out, a lot of times people will invest more. They cannot break free of their investment. The same is true with belief. Now, what do you suppose happens when someone does finally break free? All of the investment in the belief, is now invested in the rejection of that belief, along with the energy taken to break the initial belief.
Silverman repeatedly brings up how he was once religious and considers himself to have been “brainwashed” at the time. Yet he does not seem to consider himself brainwashed now. He demands that just one piece of evidence would change his mind. (Silverman 2015, 42 – 43) But that’s easy to say when you believe that there is no such evidence. What we would like to think we would do in a given situation, and what we would really do, are not always the same.
Why scientism is so common among people like Silverman, I still don’t know. Perhaps its simply due to atheism being more common in academia, and yet people in academia still having a very limited understanding of science, while thinking that they understand it quite well. Perhaps it helps them justify their beliefs. It’s easy to believe that there are no gods, if one thinks that it’s acceptable to believe that something is false if there is no scientific evidence that it is true. But one thing is clear, Silverman relies heavily on scientism.
I feel like I’ve covered a lot of these topics in other posts I’ve written. Certainly much of this will be covered in my next book. I actually wish that things were different. I wish that I had found, in Silverman, an atheist with a unique perspective, that was truly “enlightening.” But I haven’t. He’s actually quite typical, and one trait that I have found he has in common with so many other militant atheists, is his reliance on scientism and the misunderstanding of the nature of science. Now, I can’t turn this essay into a full discussion on the philosophy of science. So instead, I will reference Karl Popper and suggest that science is clearly entrenched in falsifiability, not provable (Popper 2002), and Freeman Dyson and suggest that science is not everything (The Reconciliation of Science and Religion).
In demanding proof from others, Silverman claims that proof must be scientific, or it is not proof (Silverman 2015, 47). I wonder how many mathematicians would disagree. Mathematics is not scientific, yet one could argue that it is only in mathematics that we can truly prove something. So long as we have our axioms and our rules of logical consequence, then we can produce many theorems which can be proven true or false, with absolute certainty, or at least within the system. Science, on the other hand, can only disprove (falsify) something, if we are to rely on Popper’s formulation, or at best, support with evidence. Even falsification is difficult. In fact, one of the primary arguments against Popper’s criterion is that simple theories cannot even be falsified, and that it’s difficult to be certain that the evidence is (1) valid and (2) is absolutely contradictory to the theory or simply unlikely to exist given that the theory (Citation needed).
The trend of scientism, and even “dogmatic theorism,” a term I coined to indicate one’s dogmatic belief that a scientific theory must be true, continues throughout the book. In refuting religion, or really certain beliefs in the Abrahamic tradition, Silverman claims that “Evolution is proven, sure stuff, and it proves all creation myths, including the Old Testament, wrong.” (Silverman 2015, 112). This is incorrect. Evolution is not proven. At best, if we go back to the inductive approach to science, it is supported with evidence. It is not “sure stuff.” (Dogmatic Theorism)
Religion: Cause in Name Only
The bulk of the third Chapter focuses on the negative “consequences” of religion. Religion is the cause of recent violence, in name only. It is something far more fundamental that is the true cause. Yet, a fair amount of time is spent on Islamic terrorism. However, we must remember a few things. First, most people who are Muslim are indeed peaceful. Second, Islam is an excuse, not a cause. The terrorist attacks we see today are the result of turmoil in the Middle East, which was created by the United States and the USSR during the cold war. Humans fight each other. Religion, or really any collectivist system, just translates this violence from individual skirmishes into full scale wars. We see this with states all the time. Was the cold war about religion? No. World War II wasn’t even really about war, but empire building. In fact, the USSR itself enforced “secularism.” How many people died at the hands of Hitler and Stalin?
And then there is classism in Hindu tradition. Silverman doesn’t spend as much time on this topic than he does on Islamic terror, but given that it is less of an issue for his readers (Silverman 2015, 69 – 72), and less well understood for those in the west, that’s not too surprising. For those who are not familiar with the tradition in Hinduism, many Hindus utilize a caste system. They believe that we are reincarnated into various castes, based on our past lives, and what kind of karma we need to burn off in this life. Does this belief help enforce the power of higher castes? No; it’s an explanation. Class stratification is incredibly difficult to avoid. We have “castes” in America as well. The political dynasties such as the Bush, Clinton, and Kennedy dynasties are perfect examples. They belong to a different “caste” than the average person does. We do not rely on the reincarnation explanation of why one person belongs to one caste vs another. But these castes still exist. We just don’t rely on the same explanation.
It is so interesting then, that while Silverman attributes so many negatives to religion itself, he finishes the chapter on a discussion of “in-groups.” Yet he seems to only recognize that this is the case, when it comes to wrongs committed by atheists. Wrongs committed by religious people, he attributes to the religion itself. Yes; religion is used as an excuse, but it is just that, the excuse used. As Silverman himself points out “all people are responsible for their own actions.” (Silverman 2015, 75)
Cafeteria Religion or Brainwashing?
There’s just a bit of conflicting argument in Silverman’s discussion on religion. On one hand, Silverman addresses the idea of cafeteria religion, where people do not follow every aspect of a given religion. He demands that every religion is cafeteria religion, and gives various examples. He claims that “when it comes to specific beliefs, everyone is in the minority because everyone is making conclusions about their god and morality individually.” (Silverman 2015, 90) This is interesting because I’ve never heard of a form of brainwashing, in which the brainwashed person picks and chooses what part of the brainwashing to accept.
The next few pages actually contradict this assertion. Silverman, just 5 pages after saying that “people make their own determination, pick out the parts of their holy scriptures with which they agree…” (Silverman 2015, 91) claims that “you can’t ‘choose to believe’ something you really don’t… you can only choose to pretend to believe…” (p 96) Perhaps these two statements are not in conflict, but they certainly do seem to be. And quite frankly, I think this is just another attempt by Silverman to have his cake and eat it too. Or maybe it’s just a form of cognitive dissonance. I don’t really know.
Ontologicals Proof and The Problem of Evil
Silverman spends a fair amount of time on various proofs of god’s existence. I actually do agree with the issue regarding Pascal’s wager, and Silverman, through the description of “Silvermanity” did a good job of discrediting Pascal’s wager, perhaps. Can there ever be a most extreme punishment? If not, then Pascal’s wager falls short. (Silverman 2015, pp 95 – 100) Where is argument starts to break down is on “the” ontological proof. There is more than one ontological proof, and the one he chooses is incomplete, at best.
These proofs are often turned around and reshaped into proofs against the existence of god. This is the problem of evil. What is evil? Only if we can answer that, can we say that the world contains evil. And only if we assume that a god cannot, or would not, produce a world with evil, and yet there is evil in the world, could we demand that there is no god.
Gödel’s ontological proof seems to be able to work through those issues, through its various axioms, to ensure that anything that such a god would do, is not evil. The proof itself is not 100% complete, but demands that all proofs of gods are refuted and that none hold water (Silverman 2015, 101). Gödel’s proof can really only be attacked through an attack on its axioms, and that’s fine.
If the axioms in mathematics are incorrect, then the proofs that follow are indeed wrong. But they are axioms. We have no known way of knowing that they are true or not. But while Silverman might demand that this does not constitute the proof of the existence of god, he would not argue with the proofs that the square root of 2 is irrational. Yet this as well relies on certain axioms being assumed true.
I am actually finishing this summary after four chapters. I will finish the book, and maybe this will cause me to revise some of my views of Silverman and his works, but it is unlikely. I did not buy Fighting God because I wanted to have a manifesto for myself. While I am an atheist, I see little, if anything, in this book that resonates with me. I wanted to see what kind of person this advocate of atheism was, and in fact, I really do consider Silverman to be a “dick.” This is word that he keeps referencing in his text, so I figured I would use it.
Not only is this man ignorant on the nature of science, he is also ignorant on the nature of religion. I can forgive him for the former, as science is not his field of “expertise.” However, I cannot forgive his complete lack of understanding of religion, his equivalence of theism and religion, his attempts to place atheism on a pedestal, nor his assertions that religious people are “injured” or “brainwashed.” This places atheists, like himself, on a pedestal. And as Silverman says “Remember. placing someone on a pedestal means the person is constantly looking down on you.” (Silverman 2015, 84)
What’s sad is that his man, who thinks that he is opposed to religion, is actually quite religious himself. He does not want to admit that he does not know questions about the existence of gods and afterlives, and instead claims that they do not exist. This is quite religious. And between this point, and the false equivalence of theism and religion, the bulk of his actual argument against religion falls apart. This leaves only one thing: a manifesto of how to spread his religion.
After thinking about it further, I think that one of the things that I find most distasteful regarding Silverman’s book is that he tried lumping me in with his firebrand atheism. I am an atheist. I dismiss all claims made without evidence. But I certainly would never join American Atheists, I do not attack religion, and find religious quite interesting, I highly doubt that I could be represented as part of the same group as his firebrand atheists, and quite frankly, would not want to associate very frequently with such people. Yet because we have one thing in common, a lack of belief in gods, he somehow thinks that I would fit into his group? No thank you.
- Daniel Goldman, Religious or Secular: A Novel Definition of Religion with Profound Implications (Politicoid Publishing, 2016/2015 Draft)
- David Silverman, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto For a Religious World (St. Martin’s Press, 2015)
- Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (The Estate of Karl Popper, 2002)