Trying to get atheists out of the closet

When I was working on my book a few years ago — you know, the one about religious explanations for the tsunami — my editor suggested that I speak to some non-believers.

I wasn’t anxious to do so. I figured they would just crow about how something as awful as the tsunami was proof that there is no God or god.

But I went ahead and added a chapter on what non-believers had to say.

One of them was a fellow named Dave Silverman, who was then the communications guy for America Atheists, the most prominent atheists group (if there is such a thing) that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

I remember the talk well because Silverman was so eager to get at it. He was funny, bright and somewhat brash. He told me how much he loved to debate religious leaders on just about any godly subject.

When it came to natural disasters, Silverman skipped right over the central question of whether there is a God or god. He wanted to talk about why anyone would want to worship a god who made, or let, the tsunami happen.

I mention Silverman now because he has since become president of American Atheists and is the guy behind the controversial billboard that has gone up on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel.

It’s the one that shows the Nativity scene beneath the words “You KNOW it’s a Myth/This Season, Celebrate REASON.”

Judging from the AA website, Silverman is having a blast going on TV and radio to defend the move and take on his God-fearing opponents. He insists — as he did when he spoke to me — that there are plenty of atheists out there, but they won’t admit it.

The comments on Silverman’s blog are interesting. There is a lot of debate about the tone of the ad.

One person writes: “I have to say that I also don’t like the billboard. A simple message wishing everyone a Happy Solstice or something with the web site would get the message out. Everyone knows we believe the whole Christmas thing is a myth. Why get people mad at us? How about being more civil? Let’s be part of the holiday tradition.”

But another says: “If we put up a billboard that was all things to everyone and addressed every single concern we have, it would be a cluttered mess. This billboard is targeted toward a specific audience: it is not meant to be all things to all people.”

Well, ol’ Dave Silverman has got people talking, just as he wanted.

So here’s a big Happy Nothing to you, Dave.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.