The Silverman Heresy

Templar Cross decorationMarch 18th in 1314, seven-hundred years ago, Jacques de Molay, and two other high-ranking Knights of the Temple were consigned to the flames after they retracted their confessions made under torture. Philip IV of France deemed the Templars too powerful and too rich and annihilated their order seven years before in 1307. Another motive for their annihilation was their intention to found their own Crusader State, inspired by the states of Knights Hospitaller, and the ur-stormtroopers, the Teutonic Knights.

Teutonic Knights in “Alexandre Nevski”

Teutonic Knights throwing insurgents in Sergeï Eisenstein’s “Alexandre Nevski” (1938) into the fire. Burning or getting burned wasn’t a matter of wearing the right symbol. The classic can be viewed here.

Officially, however, the Templars were indicted for heresy. Their recruits allegedly had to spit or urinate onto a cross, literally kiss somebodies behind and according to records of their trial, worship a satanic figure named “Baphomet”. The name Baphomet, in turn, was probably a French misspelling of Mohammed – the founder of Islam.

This was enough to jail the leaders for life. But as they retracted before a crowd right outside Notre Dame, an enraged Philip IV ordered to burn them at the stake on the same day on an island in the Seine.

It’s just like the blogosphere, isn’t it? – Stephanie Zvan, This is what a Witch Hunt looks like


In March 2014, almost exactly seven-hundred years later, American Atheists president David Silverman was also accused of kissing the false backsides when he attended CPAC (an annual gathering of conservative activists in the USA). PZ Myers wrote:

That’s what I don’t get about American Atheists courting CPAC. I could see it as an attention-getter, to highlight and criticize the right-wing religiosity of an organization of nutbags, but as outreach? No way.PZ Myers

As self-proclaimed progressives proper, the Social Justice League (PZ Myers and many more on FTB, SkepChick and the like) naturally disapproves of conservatives, and already had some displeasure with Mr Silverman.


A while ago, Mr Silverman was their hero when he called out alleged “harassers”. PZ Myers even rewarded it with a lifetime membership of American Atheists, and called Mr Silverman “a principled atheist”.

But over time, David Silverman apparently had this strange idea to be president of all American atheists. He started to build bridges again and recommended a few “wrong” people to follow on twitter (the ritual is called Follow-Friday, or #FF).

Last September, he ended up on the Social Justice League maintained Twitter “block bot”, a tool that allegedly protects people from harassers. Its actual main function is that of an online pillory that makes visible a list of “enemies” who in many cases didn’t even interact with them or did only when included by others into a conversation, much less “harass” anyone by any stretch of the definition. The block bot operators claimed Mr Silverman was added only by accident.

There was also the blacklist kerfuffle, where Sara Moglia (Social Justice League: SkepChicks) overheard a conversation between Silverman and Dawkins in 2011. She blogged about it years after the fact. Ironically, PZ Myers “not blacklisted” Abbie Smith and it was no issue to any of the Social Justice people, for PZ Myers is ingroup and Dawkins is not. However, according to American Atheists, Sara Moglia didn’t report on the instance truthfully. She then felt “thrown under the bus” by Silverman (who is president of American Atheists). Twitter conversations like this one show some of the situation. I know there are lot of different names here  but it’s quite interesting to see how they fit into a larger pattern. In the exchange you see Monette Richards, of Secular Women, stating:

“@Mowgli3 I think it has become apparent that the harassment doesn’t even hit @MrAtheistPants [Silverman] radar.” — Monette Richards (Secular Women), Twitter on February 7.

It’s thus fair to say that when Mr Silverman went to CPAC, there were already animosities toward him from the Social Justice faction. But Silverman’s attendance alone wasn’t yet enough to heat up the flak machine, until he asserted something that apparently was the last straw.

I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion […] You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage — David Silverman

To find out whether his critics were on a “witch hunt”, we would have to see how outrageous his remark actually is. Once we cleared that up, we can look into the nature of “witch hunt”-style persecution and compare it to the situation.

Secular Argument

In his now infamous quote, Mr Silverman merely asserted that a secular argument exists and stated elsewhere he disagrees with it. In that sense, he is correct, even though there are a few thorny details in his communication.

There are indeed secular arguments against abortion. Some fall under “Pro-Life” and some that would (I think) even fall under “Pro-Choice”. I am not an American, so it was a bit difficult to find out what the “Pro-Choice” side really advocates (“Pro-Life” by contrast is easy, they’re against abortions in all cases and want to prevent them with often shady tactics).

It seems Pro-Choicers are generally content with the Roe vs Wade ruling which is similar to what is legal in most countries of northern and western Europe. Namely, abortion within the first trimester is no issue whatsoever. It’s legal, safe and covered by health care. As it should be. There are some strings attached after that and they thicken as time passes by. Which seems sensible to me provided essentialism is false and neither conception nor birth are good to determine what makes a human. At some point the unborn can survive outside the mother with advanced medicine, rendering arguments based on bodily autonomy moot (there are a couple of more details, but I’m not interested in laying them out now).

Late term abortions are morally difficult and nobody makes such decisions lightly. They are rare and arguments against these abortions would be neglible, wouldn’t there FreeThoughtBloggers suddenly make it an issue.

Zinnia Jones makes a case for infanticide, which is the killing of infants, and perhaps meant satirical. But it hits a bit too close to home when Dana Hunter of the same network posits that the unborn are “parasites” and it would be no issue to get rid of them. I take the silence of Stephanie Zvan, Jason Thibeault, Secular Women, PZ Myers and all the others who are otherwise very vocal in this affair as agreement to this position.

As we would expect, Sara Moglia deals with Silverman here, and Massimo Pigliucci responds to it. Greta Christina follows up by criticising Massimo Pigliucci for his assertion that abortions should be “a very difficult and emotional step”, but PZ Myers claims abortions were like disposing of “bloody towels” after an operation – just throwing biohazard waste way. Why not leave it to the people involved how to feel or not feel about this?  Since Social Justice League writers think in stark ingroup and outgroup categories as we see here, I doubt Ms Christina will make a point and lets PZ Myers know, too, that “it’s incredibly patronizing to tell women how to feel about their own abortions” – but maybe there are miracles after all.


When Mr Silverman referred to the secular argument, he perhaps thought of the late Christopher Hitchens. Let’s hear it from the horseman’s mouth himself:


Zinnia’s argument (in the infanticide post) that Mr Silverman made an exception with abortion was weak sauce as well, since no known secularist comes to mind who disagrees on the other positions, as opposed to the well-known Christopher Hitchens and his sort-of Pro-Life views.

There is also context. A certain “Dave”, who may or may not be Mr Silverman himself wrote a clarification on another blog:

[…] Rather than take the road to discussing abortion, I acquiesced to his correct counterpoint [whether a secular argument exists], returned to my point, and said that school prayer, LGBT equality, and Death with dignity were better examples of purely Christian positions (“it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage”), and we went on with the discussion on why American Atheists was there. – “Dave”, comment

Problematic in Mr Silverman’s communication was only that he gave the impression that a serious argument exists for the Pro-Life view (something a conservative might hear in his words) that regards a clump of cells fewer than in a fly’s eye already as a human being. Only a tiny minority of secular people believe this.

In any case, Mr Silverman’s words somehow caused an outrage. You already saw a couple of sources as a result and there are many more. To be fair, it’s not all due to Mr Silverman words directly. He somehow opened up the “abortion debate” allegedly nobody wanted to have. One fire accelerant was Hemant Mehta as he featured a “Pro-Life” guest post on his blog, and this led to another kerfuffle with Secular Women, who are part of the familiar group around FreeThoughtBlogs and SkepChicks. Here is one statement dealing with Silverman and Mehta, and even a follow up.

Kiss the cross, don’t spit on it. The outrage opened up another question: does this “calling out” of David Silverman count as a “Witch Hunt”? We will look into that one in part two.