Review: David Silverman Ignites at the Mark Twain House

Review: David Silverman Ignites at the Mark Twain House
By William Cooney

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American Atheists President and self-described “firebrand” for the cause David Silverman spoke at the Mark Twain House and Museum (MTH) in Hartford Thursday night (January 21, 2016). The evening’s presentation was nothing less than transformational. Mr. Silverman is the real deal for a real cause. Just like the organization he represents, he is forward, assertive, and unapologetic about his views on atheism and religion and why the latter needs to go away. His first book, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, appears destined to be widely read and seriously critiqued.

Silverman was introduced to the audience by American Atheists Connecticut State Director Dennis Paul Himes. The discussion was hosted by MTH Director of Communications and Special Programs Jacques Lamarre. Lamarre had his work cut out for him being point man for the interview as Silverman’s excitability became something of a challenge, albeit one that at nearly every turn was jocular—often to the point of hilarity.

Son of a very traditional Jewish mother and a closeted atheist father, Mr. Silverman emerged from his early childhood experiences more disenchanted than wounded. He rather ingeniously managed to keep his mother happy while at the same time surreptitiously forging his own skeptical views about God and religion. Silverman regaled the audience with engaging tales of duplicity as he kept his early atheism a secret while at the same time pretending to commit to and prepare for both his Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation.

At several points throughout the conversation, Silverman adamantly made the argument that “religion is the greatest scam ever conceived,” swindling people of their hard-earned money and taking advantage of a decidedly undeserved tax-exempt status. He also warned against thinking of religious people as stupid or delusional, suggesting instead that they are victims—victims of the great scam of religion. “This,” says Silverman, “makes them deserving of our help and support.”

Silverman gives his audience a preview of his book, indicating it is chock full of graphs and statistics, something he admits having a mild addiction to. A most interesting aspect of his data is that they reveal an America much more secular than one would think if one takes into account all manner of skeptics, doubters, posers, pretenders, and those otherwise closeted. By this measure the United States population is more than 25% “atheist,” and comprises a segment of society larger than even a number of religious groups. Silverman’s argument is that many Americans—if they could only get past their aversion to the term—are indeed atheists but for many reasons refuse to acknowledge it. Silverman says that atheists are winning the war to de-stigmatize the term, and that most notably people under the age of 30 are particularly skeptical and proudly embrace their atheism.

Silverman weighed in on topics such as presidential election politics, Islamic extremism, LGBTQ rights, the Overton Window of  political viability, the national motto (In God We Trust, and why it is a big “lie”), and many others. The evening ended with a spirited Q&A session followed by his lobby book signing which, judging by the long line, was a big success. In the end, Silverman provided precisely what was advertised: a no nonsense, firebrand presentation for the cause of atheism propelled by an enthusiasm like no other.

First Meeting!

First Meeting!
By Tim Thomsen

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“Hon?  I’m going to an atheist meeting tonight,” I told my wife as I got home from work.

“Really?  Sure you aren’t going to Hooters?”

I sighed.  My wife had a hard time believing that I would actually want to spend time with a bunch of middle aged white guys talking about how they don’t believe in god.  And no, I told her, the meeting of the Connecticut Valley Atheists wasn’t going to be at Hooters, it was going to be at a church.  Something that religion provides to many people is a large meeting place, a place for people to congregate and worship.  We wouldn’t be worshiping anything tonight, however.  In fact, I didn’t know what we would be doing.  Would we be talking?  Arguing?  Would there be a secret atheist handshake?  What if I couldn’t get in?  What if I had to recite a sassy Christopher Hitchens quote to gain entry?  I grew nervous.  I started looking up my atheist facts to prove I was an atheist.  My wife helped me pick out my outfit.  Long sleeve shirt, jeans, Converse.  Good paunchy guy clothing.

“All right, I’m off.  I’ll bring you some wings,”  I said.

“Ha ha.”

And off I was, headed to my first meeting of non-belief!  Into the night I drove, determined to prove my wife wrong, that I wasn’t headed into the arms of hundreds of buxom atheist waitresses.  Those thoughts kept me warm on my cold drive, but as I pulled into the church, those thoughts quickly evaporated.  Definitely a church.  And as I went inside, I was greeted with that church basement smell, a combination of construction paper, old carpet, and possibly myrrh.  I noticed a small group of people, and I quietly said hello.  Surprisingly, they all did not resemble me (a white male, if I haven’t made that clear).  There was an African American woman, the rarest of all atheists.  There was a former Muslim gentleman, both eloquent and intelligent.  There were other men and women there, both young and old, and all of us were gathered there for one thing: Pizza.

Yes!  This group had its priorities!  Four different pizzas, two heavily covered in meats.  Jackpot!  And it was free!  These atheists were my kind of people!  A true atheist will see the needs of his or her community, and give out all sorts of free stuff!  And then the meeting began proper, and, uh-oh.  What’s this?  They started passing the jar.  The kitty.  They expected me to “pay my dues” for some reason.  As I wiped the free pizza grease from my face, I thought about how this was another example of Big Atheism and the billionaire fat cats that wanted all of my money.  Typical.

But then another thing happened:  a lively discussion.  I thought I would naturally agree with what I heard that night.  But to my surprise, there were different opinions!  Different views.  Varying degrees of non-belief.  The conversation was getting heated, back and forth.  “Is prayer wrong?” “Does religion have its place in today’s society?”  “Has mankind evolved beyond organized religion?”  And I finally got to ask the burning question that has been tearing me apart: “Why the hell do I keep saying ‘God bless you’ after someone sneezes?”  The room lit up, everyone had their support for me, and reassured me that I was still an atheist if that happened.

And then, sadly, the meeting came to a close.  If I wanted more, I would have to attend the next meeting.  A member announced “We are having brunch at a local restaurant this Sunday.”  “Hooters?” I thought to myself.  He continued “We are meeting at the Cosmic Omelet.”  The Cosmic Omelet?  That place rocks!  Best eggs in town!  Place is always packed too.  Hard to get a seat.  If these atheist guys could get me in for brunch there, I suppose I could work out some type of membership fee arrangement.  Of course the reason I want to attend these meetings is further my ties to with the local atheist community, and to learn what atheists as a group can to for that community.  But if I could do this while eating pancakes, that really is a win/win, right?  I mean, I care deeply about being an atheist, I swear to God.

Is Prayer Harmful?

Is Prayer Harmful?
By William Cooney

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When the business portion of our last CVA monthly meeting concluded, former president Dennis Himes led a discussion on what turned out to be quite the provocative topic: “Is Prayer Harmful?” At first blush, one might think that, of course, most Atheists believe prayer is indeed very harmful. It turns out, however, there were many who cautioned against being too “dismissive” or “strident” when it comes to criticizing prayer or people who pray. Not because they believed in its potential for healing or otherwise procuring favorable advantages, but rather because in the service of spreading our secular vision, we should take care not to offend the sensibilities of others. Precisely because there is no more efficient way to drive religious people deeper into their own self-serving world view than to criticize or mock something very important to them, we should refrain from expressing anything that can possibly be characterized as an insult. The fine art of persuasion, it seems, demands a more nuanced approach.

As Richard Dawkins pointed out in his 2006 book The God Delusion, ridicule and mockery can be important tools in the arsenal of criticism, writing indeed, that no one has the right not to be offended by criticism, not the least of all, religious people. The onus is on the one being criticized to grow a thicker skin, and not on the critic to be more accommodating or less offensive—especially in the arena of religious polemics. It was long thought in polite society that one simply did not criticize religion. Why? Well, for no good reason, as it turns out. Religion simply enjoyed a privileged status in social circles—and conversation—if only because it was “the way of things” for so long.

And so it goes with prayer. Where’s the harm in praying for something or someone, so long as it is private and hurts no one? About all that can be said of prayer is that it benefits no one, with the possible exception of the one doing the praying, because they will often say it makes them feel better, as if they had contributed something meaningful in a difficult situation. In this sense prayer becomes a pitiable act of self-congratulatory gibberish. And even that benefit is meager at best. Praying can delude one into thinking, and believing, that one has done something real and positive for the cause of the day. It relieves one of the burden to actually do something substantial, kinetic, quantifiable, and life-changing. Doing right by each other is not always easy; in fact we know it to be difficult. And praying often gives people a reason not to have to do any of the heavy lifting.

To be fair, we must form a consensus around a definition of prayer that lends sensible parameters to this debate. If we can agree—in principle—that active prayer involves the summoning of a deity for the purpose of attaining some favor or outcome, then prayer quickly reveals itself an enemy of reason. And this is where much of the real danger of prayer lies: in teaching our children not to use their intellectual, problem-solving, critical-thinking skills to respond to not only everyday situations, but also to more challenging things like human suffering. To us firebrands of atheism, prayer holds the potential to dehumanize people in their time of need. Pain and hunger, homelessness and despair, grief and loneliness—these things remain abstractions so long as prayer is held up as a viable action plan to mitigate their effects. Praying keeps too many of our hands too clean; keeps too many of us out of the trenches of misery, and just far enough away from the blood, sweat, and tears of the sufferers so as not to soil our blouses. And while we’re at it, perhaps the politicians could stop shamelessly pandering to religious people by telling us how much they all pray and “consult God” about his divine plans for them and their campaigns or offices.

In the long run, prayer is very harmful to humanity because in practice it puts someone other than ourselves at the helm of our predicament. Praying also lends credence to the notion that we are broken beings in need of an overseer to provide us moral tutelage. And finally, prayer is a fictitious conduit to an even more fictitious being who wants us to believe that we are not good enough or smart enough to find meaning and purpose for our own lives.

2016 Will Be Even Better

2016 Will Be Even Better
By William Cooney

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Judging by the continued expansion of secularism here in the United States, it’s safe to say that 2015 was a good year and that 2016 will be an even better one. It may be hard to believe because the religious zealots—especially in the Republican Party—seem to be soaking up all the oxygen in the popular media atmosphere. Let’s face it, controversy sells. Let’s not forget, however, that what’s popular isn’t always what’s best.

Though secular ideas are gaining traction throughout much of the world, it often comes at a high price: atheist bloggers have been hacked to death for criticizing religion and promoting secularism in Bangladesh; Islamic extremists continue to terrorize Western standards of free thought and expression in Europe; and recent attacks in the US suggest that home-grown sympathy for radical Islam may be taking hold here. Despite these troublesome trends, the arc of this moral universe is indeed bending toward justice—to steal a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr. Enlightened principals, including even entrenched adversaries such as Russia and the US, agree that however complex the causes of this uprising may be, terrorism is not justified.

This doesn’t mean that Russia and the US should be let off the hook for instigating strife in the Middle East. George W. Bush and his neoconservative allies have much to answer for when it comes to the caustic cult of exporting democracy by force of arms; President Obama has much explaining to do for his profligate, and sometimes extra judicial, use of drones; and Vladimir Putin needs to decide whether Syria’s Bashar al Assad is a leader truly worth defending in this fight.

What has all this to do with the struggles of atheists you ask? Much, to be sure. Religious sectarianism is at the center of so much of the world’s unrest. But isn’t it also political? It may be, but throughout much of the world, politics and religion are inextricably linked. Israel is not just a secular state in the modern meaning; it is also a religious state. Many of the Middle Eastern states’ constitutions place God—or Allah—at the zenith of both social and governing order. This is precisely why separating church and state is so important. Keeping each free from the influence of the other is the best way to protect the integrity and viability of both. The late Christopher Hitchens offered some poignant analysis when he noted the irony of some of today’s Americans longing for the very thing they were fleeing when our country was founded: religious persecution.

The battle over whether our government’s founding was religious or secular is a battle worth having. It’s funny, but for a supposedly free country it’s amazing just how little freedom some of those who are not Christian enjoy. The Religious Right in America does not want freedom for everyone; they want the continued cultural dominance of their own Christian heritage. It is up to us atheists to lead the assault on this dangerous and tyrannical vision. Ironically, it is the secular perspective that is more conducive to true religious freedom. 2016 will no doubt be even better than 2015 for the cause of atheism.