Hiring of Accused Atheist Leader Is Reminder That #MeToo Is Still Needed in Organized Atheism

David Silverman giving a lecture at the Oxford Union in 2013 on the harm that religion inflicts on society due to its retrograde morality. Image credit: OxfordUnion/YouTube

It’s no revelation that the wages of whiteness are real, and that being a straight, white, well-connected male is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to job mobility and privilege. It’s also no revelation that white men can lie, cheat, steal, commit serial sexual harassment, and abuse with impunity and still land on their feet. This American-as-apple-pie regime didn’t begin or end with Donald Trump, nor with all the predator corporate executives, middle managers, and rank-and-file employees who weren’t brought down by #MeToo.

The global resonance of the #MeToo movement has obscured the degree to which it remains business as usual for scores of sexual harassment and abuse victims who rarely get second, third or fourth chances to rebound after the devastation of being victimized in the workplace. This pattern of victim silencing and of rehabbing alleged perps has been on insidious display recently as some prominent male leaders and execs have been able to creep back to “respectability” with new positions and roles in their respective industries, including, to take just a few examples, John Lasseter (formerly of Pixar), James Rosen (formerly of Fox), and Marcelo Gomes (formerly of the American Ballet Theater).

The recent decision by Atheist Alliance International (AAI) to hire the former leader of American Atheists, David Silverman, to its executive director position is yet another indication that this business-as-usual rehab strategy also applies to movement atheism, which can be just as corrupt, cronyistic, and swaggeringly hostile to women as corporate America. Last year, Silverman was fired from American Atheists after allegations of sexual misconduct and financial impropriety were made against him. The claims leveled against Silverman by two female accusers were extensively detailed by BuzzFeed‘s Peter Aldhous, whose 2018 article notes that one of the women was reluctant to use her full name “because of concerns about hostility experienced by other women who have made allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent atheists.”

As I wrote in a September 2018 piece for RD, Silverman was one of several male atheist leaders who’d been accused of sexual misconduct. According to The Friendly Atheist blog, AAI reached out to Silverman via a friendship with a board member, then created a paid executive director position expressly for him. Must be nice. While women of color in all sectors are routinely shut out of entry level, middle, and executive management positions, white males get carte blanche, have positions of authority created for and handed to them; then receive multiple breaks and opportunities for redemption when they screw up.

These disparities have driven women of color out of organized atheism, spurring the creation of secular humanist feminist of color initiatives like this month’s Women of Color Beyond Belief conference. The event was a collaboration between the Black Non-Believers organization, headed by Black atheist activist Mandisa Thomas, and the Black Skeptics Los Angeles organization, which I founded. Focusing on racial and gender justice, the conference was the first national gathering by, for, and about secular women of color. It was intended as a safe space and platform for progressive sociopolitical issues—such as the intersection of sexual violence, domestic abuse, reproductive rights, and the criminalization of Black and brown bodies—that are frequently marginalized in mainstream atheism and humanism.

At the conference, many women of color presenters spoke of being in the crosshairs of misogynistic, heteronormative religious traditions and racist, sexist atheist and humanist institutions. Far from being a refuge from religious tyranny, mainstream atheism is just another microcosm of American gender and racial hierarchies.

Defining ourselves, for ourselves, as Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde once said, we’re not content to sit back and let atheism be hijacked by gatekeeping patriarchs. But AAI’s appointment of Silverman foregrounds how the cult of charismatic white male atheist leadership makes mainstream atheism an untenable space for women of color, queer folks, and progressive white women pushing back against the ritual silencing of sexual abuse survivors and business-as-usual cosigning.