By Aaron Epple
If you're a tolerant, mind-your-own-business unbeliever like me, then you've probably often found your self-appointed public spokesmen to be insufferable.
Last week, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, talked about his organization's latest wave of billboard purchases to promote atheism and target "religious bigotry." According to Silverman, atheists need to organize because "there's an anti-atheist movement in this country that is set on making atheists second-hand people." As an example, Silverman cites a 2011 quote from Newt Gingrich, which went: "How can I trust you with power if you don't pray?"
Let's take these points one at a time. First, the so-called "anti-atheist movement." Is there a significant amount of distaste for unbelievers in America? Yes, but it's mostly because of guys like Silverman, who obsess over Nativity scenes and the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance. (Although the argument regarding the separation of church and state might be technically correct, I think we can all agree there's bigger fish to fry when it comes to misuse of taxpayer dollars). Although anti-atheist sentiment is very much present, I haven't seen it go much further than occasional, random venting, much less coalesce into a "movement." Last time I checked, I could still use the same bathrooms as everyone else.
The irony about Silverman's "second-class people" statement is that it demonstrates the exact same hyperbolic melodrama often espoused by, well, Newt Gingrich, this passionately felt persecution complex despite the fact that virtually no one in America as any clue what real repression is. (Hint: It's not being made fun of on the Internet).
Which brings us to Gingrich and his quote. Was it asinine? Yes, but it was made during a Republican primary debate, where asinine statements were required, where poor Mitt Romney had to pretend he hated gays, too. One also has to wonder if Silverman is perhaps overestimating the influence of Gingrich, a man who, like the Westboro Baptist Church, has the unique distinction of being detested by liberals and conservatives alike. (After 20 years of contradictory statements, I have no idea what the man truly believes, and that's not even getting into the way he has treated his wives).
This isn't the first time Silverman has made me shake my head. In 2011, he ridiculed the Christian community for trying to preserve a crossbeam that resembled a Christian cross found in the rubble of Ground Zero. He snidely asserted that it was "a reminder that their God, who could not be bothered to stop the terrorists or prevent 3,000 people from being killed in his name, cared only enough to bestow upon us some rubble that resembles a cross."
The palpable bitterness of this statement is curious. If you don't believe in God, why are you so pissed off at Him? And while I agree that canonizing a random T-joint (from the wreckage of a building comprised of prefabricated parts) is silly, so is interpreting any public show of faith as a civil-rights violation akin to the use of fire hoses in the 1960s. It plays into the stereotype that unbelievers are uptight, cold-blooded pricks, and many Christians are no more likely to distinguish between an unbeliever like Silverman and an average unbeliever like me than Silverman is to distinguish between Jerry Falwell and the average Christian who doesn't feel any particular hatred for gay people and women who've had an abortion.