David Silverman, the former head of American Atheists, will become the next Executive Director of Atheist Alliance International, once again giving him a formal position within a movement from which he was unceremoniously kicked out last year.
The announcement was made this morning. And while the organizations may seem identical to outsiders — or anyone who’s watched South Park — there’s a world of difference between them.
In case you need a refresher, Silverman had been President of American Atheists since 2010 and an employee of the organization since 2004. For a few years, when atheist billboards were making headlines across the country, Silverman made several appearances on FOX News, one of which was forever immortalized in a meme. In 2012, he was the public face of the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. which drew tens of thousands of people. He’s also the author of the book Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World in which he made his case for in-your-face “firebrand” activism.
In April of 2018, Silverman was temporarily suspended from his position, only to be fired days later.
Initially, the concern was a financial conflict of interest between his personal work (the book) and his public work (for AA). That’s why he was initially suspended by the AA board of directors as they investigated the matter. However, around the same time, the board learned of sexual misconduct allegations against Silverman, documented most extensively in an article for BuzzFeed by reporter Peter Aldhous.
There were two major allegations. One involved a student Silverman met at a conference who said he “used his position of power to pressure her into having sex with him.” She had asked him for a job (which he said he couldn’t provide) and said in her allegation that she was intoxicated during their encounter.
BuzzFeed also quoted another woman who said that, in 2015, Silverman “suddenly forced himself on her” at American Atheists’ annual convention during an afterparty. That meeting left bruises on her body. Silverman admitted to the sex, but said both encounters were entirely consensual. He did not think the student was drunk. He may have “violated good decision-making,” but he maintained that he wasn’t some sort of predator.
As for the financial issue, Silverman now quotes an AA board member (on his personal website) who says “David did not embezzle from American Atheists.” That, however, doesn’t address the conflict of interest issue. American Atheists hasn’t said anything publicly about the results of their investigation.
Nick Fish, AA’s current leader and the person who eventually replaced Silverman, told me in a statement:
Our Board of Directors fully stands behind its decision to terminate Mr. Silverman’s employment. After reviewing the allegations and materials presented, the Board concluded that there were violations of American Atheists’ policies that warranted termination. The results of a review completed by an outside investigator confirmed that decision.
In recent weeks, Silverman has been trying to stage something of a comeback.
After more than a year away from the spotlight, he’s been doing interviews with just about any YouTuber willing to speak with him, including some who regularly trash feminism and condemn “social justice warriors.”
If he’s trying to re-endear himself to progressives, it’s not exactly a wise strategy… though it’s not like he has other options. (It’s not like progressives are eager to give him a platform to blame the world for what he says happened to him.)
Silverman, in those interviews, portrays himself as a victim of an outrage mob. He rationalizes his actions. He trashes what various atheist organizations are doing (or not doing), suggesting that someone like him — a “firebrand” — is needed to fight religion. While he apologizes for being unethical and immoral, he insists he’s not a criminal or the guy depicted in the allegations or in BuzzFeed. To that end, he’s filed a defamation lawsuit against the women who accused him of misconduct, BuzzFeed, and American Atheists.
In addition, he has rebranded himself as a “firebrand for good.” He spoke to the Washington Post to tell his side of the story. He also began selling insurance to make money.
And now, after all that, he’ll be running an atheist organization once again.
Atheists Alliance International, which was founded in 1991, said in a press release that Silverman will be their new Executive Director. (I was sent an early copy of the release after agreeing to an embargo.)
It’s a paid position. As far as I can tell, he’s the first person to hold this title for the group and possibly the first salaried staffer they’ve ever had. (His salary is not public information.)
David will report to AAI President, Gail Miller. He will oversee campaigns and assume responsibility for growing AAI so the organization can do more to make the world a safer place for atheists.
Wishing David a very warm welcome, Gail Miller, AAI’s President said, “David is a well-known public atheist, a powerful leader and a compelling public speaker. He has proven management and organizational skills including leadership of national & local organizations in the U.S. He is a personality who makes things happen.
He will grow public awareness of AAI and our campaigns, he will help the board develop strategy and he will help manage campaigns to ensure they deliver for atheists everywhere.
I’m thrilled to have him on the team.”
There’s no mention of the misconduct allegations in the press release.
During a phone call with Silverman last night — the first time I’ve spoken to him since the allegations against him became public — he told me he was officially hired earlier this week, though it’s been in the works for roughly two months. He didn’t apply for the job, nor was there some formal announcement that AAI was looking for a paid director.
They actually reached out to him.
For a while now, as AAI has become a more stable non-profit organization with a clear vision, they’ve been looking for a spark to take them to the next level. Their calculation seems to be that Silverman is the spark they need, both as an outspoken atheist and as a fundraiser for the group. Whatever the negatives are, the positives outweigh them.
Gail Miller, AAI’s current president, explained the thought process to me:
We are proud of what we have achieved. We have turned a corner and started to grow again. But despite these achievements, growth is too slow. There is a lot we want to do to help atheists but we need a higher public profile, more volunteers and more income to sustain the programs atheists need.
One of our board members, CW Brown, is friends with David Silverman and they came up with a plan that could change everything. CW proposed to the board that we should take on David as Executive Director.
“They knew I was available and I could deliver the growth,” Silverman told me, adding, “I don’t believe there was anybody else in consideration.”
He’s eager to take on this role because he sees it as a dream job. He’ll be working remotely, with a volunteer team of four other hand-picked individuals, to make AAI a “global atheist force for firebrand atheism.”
It’s not hard to imagine AAI working to end blasphemy laws or helping people persecuted for being open atheists in theocratic nations. What’s more difficult to envision is AAI, with Silverman now at the helm, working with other U.S.-based atheist groups. The people who run many of those organizations cut ties with him immediately after the misconduct allegations.
Yet Silverman says he hopes AAI will eventually become part of the Secular Coalition for America, the national group that lobbies in Washington, D.C. on behalf of church/state separation and other atheism-related issues. If that happens, Silverman could once again be in the same room as the people who shunned him. He’s not worried about that. People can keep their distance if they want, he told me, but that won’t stop him from speaking out.
He insists the truth is on his side, something he has reiterated in all those recent interviews. That’s also why he plans to continue with his lawsuit (and his fundraising efforts for it).
Throughout our call, he kept telling me what he’s said to the YouTubers: He never received due process from American Atheists. Everything was consensual with the women and they know it. He still considers himself a “feminist” (though that didn’t stop him from using the word “woke” in a pejorative sense).
Bizarrely, he said of the two women who accused him of misconduct, “They probably feel bad about it in the back of their minds.” After a lengthy silence from me, he added, “At least I hope they do.”
I asked him what he thought AAI would (or should) do if the same allegations that were made to American Atheists were ever made to them. He wasn’t worried about that. Having spoken to the current AAI board and answering their many questions, he believes “AAI would exercise due process.”
That’s also what Gail Miller told me:
We spent a month thinking about this. All our board members interviewed him. We did our homework as thoroughly as we could. We don’t know why American Atheists dismissed David, they made no public statement and David says he was given no reasons. No charges were ever brought against him. AAI takes the view that people are innocent until proven guilty and David has not been proven guilty.
We honestly believe David Silverman has learned from his experience and is a better person for it, so the board voted to give him a chance. If anything similar were to happen in future, we would respect due process but we have strict conduct policies that apply to everyone here and we will enforce them.
Maybe the big question is whether potential pushback against his hiring will sink the organization to the point that donors flee in droves. It’s also possible that Silverman’s hiring leads to more people giving to the group.
But while AAI is giving Silverman the benefit of the doubt, Sean Hannity wouldn’t do that. If Silverman were ever invited back to, say, FOX News Channel, no doubt they would hit him with the allegations regardless of the topic. They would use it as “proof” that atheists can’t be moral, right?
“If Hannity wants to bring me on to ambush me,” Silverman said, he would welcome it, adding that the reception he’s found in the comment sections under those YouTube interviews suggests he has plenty of support.
I don’t buy that. Think about whose videos those people are watching… It’s a lot of empty calories to me. Silverman might feel “extremely validated,” but getting validation from people who enjoy hearing right-wing talking points hardly seems like a win.
American Atheists is mostly taking a hands-off approach to Silverman’s new job, according to Nick Fish:
American Atheists has no comment about Mr. Silverman because he has chosen to file a frivolous lawsuit against our organization rather than move on with his life.
We will not allow this to distract us from our mission — protecting the separation of religion from government and ending discrimination against atheists in America.
Maybe it’s for the best, then, that Silverman will be focusing outside the country, where he plans to “get work done and save some lives.”
A year and a half after #MeToo allegations drove him out of the atheist movement, he’s back in. You could tell he was smiling on the other end of the line as he said he has a “positive outlook for the first time in a long freaking time.”
(Screenshot via YouTube)