A lot of Jews are atheists. David Silverman is a professional one. A graduate of Brandeis University who was raised Reform in Marblehead, Mass., his main gripe with religion as a kid was the lame answers his tough questions elicited from Hebrew school teachers. Today, Silverman, 46, says he is fighting the same battle, only bigger. A longtime inventor with Bell Labs, he now works full time as the president of American Atheists, a Cranford, N.J., nonprofit of about 2,200 members. Most recently, Silverman went on television to argue with Bill O’Reilly, who was claiming that Christianity was a philosophy, not a religion. Next up: the installation of a $25,000 billboard in Times Square on Nov. 13 that will read, above a picture of Santa Claus and Jesus respectively: “Keep the merry. Dump the myth.”
How do you define atheist?
Atheism is the absence of a belief in a god, which includes the supernatural. This is why agnostics, who admit a lack of knowledge but still have no active belief in a god, are atheists … … Atheism has no intention of trying to convert Jewish people into being atheists; we don’t have that. The end of game of atheism is everybody is free.
When did you first know you were an atheist?
I had my first atheistic thought at 6 years old … I told my parents, and my parents didn’t care, it was very much an issue of keeping up with the Goldbergs … I went through my entire bar mitzvah as an atheist. It was a seminal event in my life because I stood up in front of every single human in my universe, and I lied … It made me feel very guilty.
Why did you attend Brandeis University then?
Brandeis was the best school that accepted me. I did not care one bit about the Jewish thing, but I became very friendly with a group of Orthodox Jews and I would eat with them. Many debates ensued.
Are you and your wife — also a Brandeis alum and Jewish — giving your daughter a religious education?
My daughter is 15. We made an agreement that she could be educated in Judaism, but she could not be taught that Dad was bad. She went to classes at the Workmen’s Circle for five or six years, and then she said she was done with it and we let her stop. She still has a fairly strong Jewish identity, but she’s an atheist, just like Daddy.
How did you come to be a professional atheist?
I found American Atheists when I went to a protest of theirs at a Promise Keepers (a conservative male ministry) rally. I heard what they said about women, Jews and atheists, and I was pumped … I went back to my wife and said I’m thinking of becoming an atheist activist … In 2010 I said I will quit everything, and do this solely, if you elect me president, and since then I have had the best job in the world because I get to do good.
Do you ever find that some atheists are religious about their atheism: that they believe it is the one true way?
Some atheists are anti-theists. They see the argument as rock-solid and that religion is bad, as do I, but they fail to recognize that religious people can be smart, only brainwashed, like my wife. I tell them religious people are not stupid. They are victims of the malevolent pox on humanity known as religion. All humans are susceptible given the right circumstances. (There but for the grace of dumb luck, go I).
What is the good you do?
I’m tolerant of everybody except people who want to control other people because their God says so. I see myself as on the front line of a very important war that we will win, and the ironic thing is that I’m going to benefit the people who hate me almost as much as I’m going to benefit the atheist. Theistic Jews need to be on my side. The separation of church and state guarantees freedom. Let’s be clear: the objective of the Christian right is to convert [the Jews of Israel to Christianity].
What do you think of Bill O’Reilly?
I think he is an excellent performer. I think he’s a smart man who plays a despicable person on TV. He’s grasping at straws to defend an indefensible position, the notion that Christianity deserves an advantage in this country. The Christian right is not interested in equality with the Jews. The atheist movement is. We are on your side.