’Tis the season when Fox News starts running stories about the alleged “war on Christmas.” And once again, as in holiday seasons past, one of the people accused of leading the charge is David Silverman, the brash frontman of American Atheists. Sarah Palin rails against Silverman and his group in the first chapter (“Angry Atheists and their Lawyers”) of her new book on Christmas, claiming that they “threaten to destroy every last bit of Christmas cheer we have left.”
Each year, Silverman’s organization deploys a flurry of strategically placed anti-Christmas billboards from New York City to San Francisco featuring unapologetic slogans like “Keep the Merry, Dump the Myth!” and “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason.” “We fight for the secularization or the equalization of the holiday and of the season,” Silverman told me recently at the American Atheists office in Cranford, N.J.
But while he’s still putting up Christmas-related billboards and arguing with the talking heads on Fox News, this season he has started to focus his atheist activism on a new target: Jews. Silverman wants Jews who don’t believe in God to assert their atheism and stop identifying as Jews. He believes that nonbelievers should “come out” to their families and friends and in some instances their work colleagues, identifying themselves as atheists. He argues that when religionless Americans avoid the word “atheist” to describe themselves for fear of sounding exclusionary, they are being dishonest. “Atheist is the correct word that has simply been made into a bad word by bigots,” he said, arguing that only the word “atheist” accurately conveys the proper meaning to people who are believers, “and telling the truth benefits everyone.”
The late Christopher Hitchens once observed that a great number of the most influential atheists throughout history, from Marx to Einstein, were Jews: “I think it’s a Jewish duty, since the curse of monotheism was first inflicted on us by the Jewish people,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg in one of his final interviews. “It’s very good that it should be repudiated by them to a great extent.” Silverman disagrees, but only slightly. “He used the word wrong,” he said. “They are not Jews, they are children of Jews. Just as I am not a Jew, I am a child of Jews.”
This is the conclusion Silverman came to over the past two years while writing his new book, I, Atheist: America’s Loudest Heathen Fires Back. (The book was due to come out in March 2014 from Pitchstone Publishing, but after a dispute over an image of a smiley face labeled “Muhammad of Islam,” the contract was canceled; Silverman is currently looking for a new publisher.) Previously outspoken about the compatibility of cultural Judaism and atheism, Silverman found that, in trying to write his chapter on Jewish atheism, he struggled. “I kept writing and writing and deleting and deleting,” he told me. Silverman ultimately concluded that Judaism is, at its heart, a religion—one that is incompatible with atheism.
He notes that much of what is defined as Jewish culture, such as music or food, is simply Judaism-the-religion “taking credit” for a geographically specific regional culture—Ashkenazic culture primarily being simply Eastern European, for instance. The only thing world Jewry has in common is the Torah, he says, and as a religious doctrine, the Torah cannot be reconciled with atheistic values.
“I see Judaism more malevolently than I used to,” he said. “Judaism is no better than any other religion.” And so, the man who was once America’s most prominent Jewish atheist now says he is no longer a Jew.
Silverman was born in a middle-class Reform family in Marblehead, Mass. When his oldest sister chose not to be bat mitzvahed, his parents put all their hopes in their middle child, Jodi, and little David to continue the faith. “My Judaism was about my mother keeping up with the social aspect so that ‘Hitler doesn’t win,’ ” he said.
Jodi describes David fondly as her loud-mouthed kid brother who questioned everything: “I was just more compliant than he was,” she told me. “Someone told me to do something, I did it. I didn’t ask why. I always say, as a kid, [David] had a really big mouth, and now he gets paid to have a really big mouth.”
Though he doubted God’s existence since childhood, Silverman went to Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed according to his parents’ wishes, an event that he points to as the defining moment of his life: The day 13-year-old David stood before his family and congregation and read his Torah portion was the day he became a confirmed atheist. “I got up in front of everyone in my universe and I lied to all of them,” he said. “I am a good speaker now and I was a good speaker then, and I lied. And everyone applauded and gave me money.”
Silverman’s father, who died in 2009, hid his atheism from his children until they were well into adulthood (though Jodi recalls their father’s passive aggressiveness streak, when, in temple, he would deliberately hold his prayer book upside down). David was saddened to learn that his father kept that side of himself hidden for a large part of his life. “I would have loved to know, as a teenager, that my father was an atheist,” he said.
In college at Brandeis, Silverman was an outspoken atheist, but he didn’t reject his Judaism. He was occasionally the 10th man at the minyan, though he didn’t pray. He sat at the kosher table at the cafeteria, where he would debate religion with Orthodox and Conservative Jewish students.
He met a young woman named Hildy at Brandeis. It was an unlikely match: A ba’alat teshuvah, she had attended a Chabad high school, and in college she was fully observant. They became “buddies” but nothing more. “For obvious reasons, we didn’t see there was going to be much of a future,” she said. But while Silverman was away pursuing a marketing MBA at Penn State, Hildy began to reconsider Orthodoxy. “I felt I was missing out on a lot of life and I wanted to talk to someone, but all of my friends were religious,” she told me. “So, I tracked Dave down, because he was the only one I knew who wasn’t observant.” Eighteen months later, they were married.
Silverman took a job at AT&T and later Lucent’s Bell Labs, where, as a professional inventor, he issued 74 patents related to telecommunications infrastructure. He also started a workplace atheist alliance for both companies, hosting meetings, staging debates, and penning articles on workplace tolerance for atheists, sometimes to the chagrin of his higher-ups. In 1996, he became the New Jersey regional director for American Atheists.
American Atheists, a nonprofit that advocates for secularism and separation between church and state, was founded in 1963 by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, when her eldest son, William, was forced by his school to participate in Bible study. O’Hair won the landmark case Murray v. Curlett (consolidated into Abington School District v. Schempp), which ruled that prayer and Bible readings in public schools violated the First Amendment. In 1996—the same year Silverman became a regional director for the organization—O’Hair, her son, and her granddaughter were kidnapped and murdered by a disgruntled employee. The murderer and his accomplices had extorted $500,000 from the O’Hairs, and American Atheists took a huge financial hit. By the time Silverman became president in 2010, the organization’s funds were nearly depleted and it had only two employees: Silverman and an office manager.
Silverman’s notorious anti-Christmas billboards and subsequent TV appearances have breathed new life into American Atheists and are often followed by an uptick in subscribers and donations. In 2011, the group collected $1.4 million in donations and membership fees, according to the most recent IRS tax return, up from less than $250,000 in 2007. Today the organization has five full-time employees.
According to Silverman, the primary objective of the billboards is to get invitations to talk shows, giving atheists a presence and a voice on the air. (In one of his first appearances on The O’Reilly Factor, Silverman’s incredulous expression catapulted him to meme fame on Reddit.) The second objective is to reach closeted atheists “in the pews.”
Silverman is not afraid of conflict. Hate mail piles up, particularly after TV appearances, much of it railing against his “liberal Jewish agenda” to destroy Christmas, which he shrugs off. When hate mail turns to death threats, Silverman dons a bulletproof vest during public appearances. But despite his hardline—though amiable—approach to promoting atheism, those close to Silverman say that in his personal life he is quite comfortable around people of faith, including his sister Jodi and his magazine publisher wife, who, though she is now closer to Reform in practice, attends Orthodox services at Chabad on High Holidays. “She stops me from going too far,” Silverman said of his wife. “She is definitely a moderating force.”
“The odd thing is that we agree far more than we disagree,” Hildy told me in a telephone interview. “There’s a lot we agree on when it comes to religion and politics mixing. When people in the country try to make this into a Christian nation, it affects everyone.” She reflected on her own childhood in Indiana, where she was the only Jew in her school: “I know what it’s like to be the extreme minority, especially around the holidays. I still get the heeby-jeebies when I think about it. I don’t want my daughter to feel less than others around the holidays.”
Silverman’s work “protects everyone,” said Hildy: “It protects Muslims, it protects Jews, it protects Scientologists. As far as I’m concerned, he is a hero.”
A chapter of Silverman’s book is devoted to maneuvering a “mixed marriage.” The key to a successful interfaith relationship, he writes, is to refrain from trying to change each other and to define the rules in advance: “Once, she asked me to convince her of my position and I refused—she will get where she is going on her own. On the High Holy Days, she goes to a synagogue, and I go to work.”
Hildy told me that despite their core differences about religion, “I don’t force my views on him and he doesn’t force his views on me.” Their daughter Rayanne, now 16, was raised with a choice, attending the secular Workmen’s Circle Hebrew school, but she decided she was an atheist and quit the lessons before her bat mitzvah—though she still attends High Holiday services with her mom.
Silverman takes pride in the fact that his daughter came to the same conclusion as he did, but he claims he never tried to steer her in either direction, “I gave a Bible to my daughter,” he said. “I told her to read it. I think everyone should read the Bible— the Old and the New Testament—then read Dawkins, read Hitchens, and decide for yourself.”
Silverman’s rejection of his Jewishness fits together nicely with his longterm goal of creating a cohesive voice for the atheist movement, which is rife with ideological divisions. He laments the fact that of the American population, 20 percent say they do not believe in a higher power, but only 2 percent to 3 percent self-identify as atheists. “Some call themselves secular humanists, and many call themselves Jews,” says Silverman, a term he argues is particularly damaging to the cause. When atheists call themselves Jews, it implies theism, he says, which “makes atheists look small and negates a learning opportunity.”
He criticizes Jewish groups that take a gentle approach to secularism, such as his friends at the Society for Humanistic Judaism or the Workmen’s Circle, charging that they are afraid to present themselves honestly for fear of blowback. “No one knows what a secular humanist is,” he said.
Bonnie Cousins, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism—who served with Silverman at the Secular Coalition for America, which advocates for separation between church and state—disagrees. “We find value in Jewish culture and Jewish identity. It supports our humanism. It is not at odds with our humanism,” said Cousins. “He’s made a decision about how he wants to live his life, and it doesn’t include Jewish identity, but many, many Jews have made that same decision about evolution and the origin of the universe, but would feel bereft if they gave up their Jewish identity.” Cousins pointed to the recent Pew study on U.S. Jews, which found that 60 percent of American Jews believe that Judaism is mainly a matter of ancestry, culture, and values, rather than of religious observance.
Silverman aims to change that. Last month, he made his case about the incompatibility of Judaism and atheism to a crowd of about 75 secular Jews in Phoenix in a speech titled “I’m an Atheist and So Are You,” urging his audience to follow his lead and abandon the term “Jew.”
Responses were mixed. “Some used the phrase ‘paradigm shifting’ to describe my talk’s effect on them,” said Silverman. “Other reactions were … less positive.”
Not that Silverman’s renouncing his Jewishness has changed much for the mixed Silverman family. On Thanksgivukkah, the rare Jewish-American hybrid holiday, Jodi, her husband—who is also an atheist—and their two kids joined her brother’s family for the latkes and turkey. “Every holiday is pretty much identical, I mean, we just eat, it’s about the food,” said Jodi. “When my mother was alive, Thanksgiving was chicken soup and matzo balls.”
Silverman makes no apologies for his penchant for Jewish food. “I love latkes. They are delicious. I can eat them all day and all night. And matzo balls, and kneidlach, and kasha and varnishkas,” he said. “But it’s not Jewish, it’s location-based. And it’s good!”
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Rachel Silberstein is a writer living in New York.
Rachel Silberstein is a writer living in New York.