David Silverman considers himself a conservative. Yet organizers of the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, a massive gathering held yearly in the nation’s capital, did all they could to make him feel unwelcome. They even took away his presenter’s booth.
It was not just that Silverman was an atheist. As president of American Atheists, a national advocacy group, Silverman was there to represent an organization that fights for the rights of irreligious Americans.
Silverman was not discouraged. Instead of sitting at a desk, he walked through the halls of America’s biggest convention of conservative activists and handed out fliers advocating separation of religion and state. The fliers reminded members of the group most closely identified with bringing God into politics that millions of American voters hold no religious beliefs.
“I thought I would enter a room full of hate, but I did not find hate at all,” Silverman said as he completed his rounds at the March 7 conference. “In fact,” he added, “more than once I met people that finished my sentences.”
Silverman is no stranger to debates. He is, in fact, always happy to engage in arguments about religious beliefs and his lack of them. It’s a skill he has honed from childhood, in arguments with his mother about having a bar mitzvah (she won, and he was called to the Torah) and at the lunch tables at Brandeis University, where the young atheist would strike up conversations with students at the kosher food tables.
Today, as he tries to translate the power of millions of irreligious Americans into a political voting bloc, Silverman relies on many Jewish troops within the atheist movement to help him reach his goal. “There are a lot of Silvermans in atheism,” he said
The decision by CPAC organizers to ban American Atheists from participating in the conference followed Silverman’s warning there that Christian right-wing organizations should feel “threatened” by the atheist movement when it comes to their hold over the Republican Party. But Silverman said his point was more practical than ideological.
The Republican Party, atheists believe, is making a mistake by alienating, or at best ignoring, conservative Americans who oppose religion, Silverman explained. Indeed, Silverman speaks of making atheists into a voting bloc that “both parties will want to solicit.”