Monday, March 10, 2014

David Silverman Goes To CPAC, Some Atheists Miss The Point

As soon as American Atheists announced they were going to CPAC, they got nearly as much fight from atheists as they did from the conservatives who got them kicked out.  Dave Muscato's personal (not in his official capacity with American Atheists) response to one such complaint is the best defense of the effort that I've seen so far.
If an atheist is being discriminated against for religious reasons, or is being intimidated such that s/he's staying in the closet about her atheism, or being forced to pray in a government space, or being forced to learn religious mythology in science class, etc, it is not our place, as an atheist-rights nonprofit, to treat that person any differently regardless of whether she was a conservative or a liberal. We still fight for her because that's what we do.
While there, Dave Silverman said something about abortion that resulted in some atheists getting upset at him.
“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”
Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.
I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”
People were upset over that for a variety of reasons.  JT Eberhard debunked them so well, I was compelled to tweet this about it:
It's well worth the read.  It says exactly what I was trying to explain some, that the argument against Silverman is not based in reality.  It was all I had to say about the matter until I read a few other pieces from the perspective JT was challenging.

On the blog Reasonable Faith, objection to even going to CPAC was repeated.
So, they’re closet atheists? “A lot of them, yes.” And beyond that, he says, “a vast majority of Christians here would support atheists being part of the movement.” Well, they need all the help they can get.
Iffy. There may be a lot of atheists lurking about. But ever since Edmund Burke the conservative tradition has emphasized the need for religious institutions and religious indoctrination to ensure social order. Even an atheist might endorse religion if they think it will keep the masses in check. I’m reminded of Emerson’s line that his aunt was not a Calvinist but wished that everybody else was.
They're much more likely to keep going with the religious line if the atheist community keeps telling them they're not welcome.  Why would they want to join us if we're telling them they're not welcome?  On the other hand, if we show ourselves willing to support them in their atheism (without necessarily supporting all of their politics), they'll be more likely be openly atheist around the Christian Right that dominates American conservatism.

I don't think it's unreasonable to say we can agree that bad arguments won't hold weight if they lose the protective veil of religion & the vagueness of gods.  Getting conservative atheists (who do exist) to be openly atheist is a step toward this end.  Shunning them just because they have different politics is a step away from it.

Jason Thibeault's response to the hullabaloo was much longer, and thus much more wrong.  I've generally liked what I've seen from Thibeault, but on this issue, he's so intensely wrong I simply cannot speak up.  If I addressed all the wrong things, this post would be way longer than it already is, but some the overall point needs addressing.
People are upset about this, and I strongly feel, rightly so. I’m pretty upset about it too. Not that Silverman is explicitly anti-choice, because he’s later apparently multiple times clarified that he’s not personally convinced by those arguments. I’m mostly upset that he raised the issue of secular arguments for conservative social causes, thus painting himself into a corner where he could be trapped into having to weasel out of a specific counterpoint that easily undermined what he was saying. I’m further upset that by hedging on this issue, he gives cover to people who think he means there’s a valid, cogent argument against the right of a mother to choose whether to be pregnant.
He knows Silverman isn't anti-choice, so he's just upset that Silverman admitted that there are secular arguments against abortion.  Those arguments do, in fact, exist.  The other option Silverman was to lie.  I tend to prefer honesty over lying.  I expect Thibeault has a similar stance, despite his inaccuracies here.

He claims Silverman hedged & painted himself into a corner.  Also nonsense.  Thibeault's post goes through a lot of mental gymnastics & hypotheticals to justify this stance, but it's all entirely unnecessary and done for reasons I cannot figure out.  It's especially confusing because he stated the plain truth in the middle of all of it.
He did not say that there was a valid, cogent argument against abortion. Only that there’s a secular one. 
That's it.  He only said there was a secular argument against abortion.  Because there is.  The quality of that argument was completely irrelevant to what Silverman was talking about there and counterproductive to his entire purpose for being there.  He was there to show conservative atheists that it's okay to be openly atheist.  Not to pick fights with them.  There's nothing wrong with saving the arguments for later, and doing so need not imply malice or incompetence.
But my criticisms are entirely predicated on the face value of what he said, without reading anything extra into it.
They're really not.  His criticisms are entirely reliant on reading more into it.  Entirely reliant on a pile of completely unnecessary hypotheticals, "what ifs", and the complaint that he didn't make a point to argue against abortion right then & there.  That last bit is the crux of this.

Silverman is accused of painting himself into a corner while simultaneously being accused of avoiding the argument.  It cannot be both.  But that incoherence fits the rest of it.  The argument against Silverman here is so bad and so desperate, it includes some blatantly inaccurate statements.
There’s even a secular argument for prayer in schools. But first you have to have a secular prayer, to eliminate the religion from the context of the consequence as well as the argument. When you do that, you’re left with, essentially, arguments for the American Pledge of Allegiance, which is still said in most states. It’s a vocal exhortation to an entity that is not a deity, said mostly to remind yourself and others around you that you are affiliated with that entity. Only in this case, it’s a country, not a god.
There, by definition, cannot be a secular argument for (school led) prayer in school.  Prayer is explicitly religious.  "Secular" explicitly means "without regard to religion".  The example of the Pledge of Allegiance is a huge stretch, to the point of just being flat out wrong.  The Pledge is not prayer.  And since 1954, it's not even secular. And even though, it's currently religious, it's still not prayer.  It's not TOO a god.  It merely references one.  My money, before I fix it, isn't praying either.

Silverman is accused of hedging because he didn't go off message by not going after abortion at that moment.  It's like his famous "Tides go in" encounter with Bill O'Reilly.  He got criticism for not correcting O'Reilly on the air.  I was among those criticizing him initially, until I realized why I was wrong.  Rather than letting O'Reilly derail the conversation, Silverman staid on message.  He wisely saved the argument for another time.  He did his job.

I'm sure I will end up criticizing Silverman at some point.  While quite good at his job, he's not infallible.  And I have a big mouth.  But if/when I do, it will be based on something he actually said or did.  And it won't be something as silly as an over-hyped complaint about one instance where he didn't do what I specifically wished he'd done in one fleeting moment.  Especially not one where he said something accurate and staid on message, like what happened in this instance.

So far, my only complaint about David Silverman since joining American Atheists is that he hasn't grown the devil beard back yet.

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