It has been almost five months since David Silverman, one of the nation’s most visible and outspoken public atheists, was suddenly terminated as president of American Atheists amid allegations of financial and sexual misconduct.
Since then, he has lost his job, longtime friends, sleep and weight.
“I certainly behaved sometimes in a manner that was unworthy of the office of president of American Atheists,” Silverman, 52, said in a phone interview this week, the first time he has spoken publicly about being accused of nonconsensual sexual contact with two women at atheist gatherings, one of them a student.
Silverman denies the women’s allegations that their relations were nonconsensual, and American Atheists says he was not fired due to sexual relationships.
But among the dozen or so national organizations that promote a strict separation of religion from American civic life, Silverman is the fourth male atheist or secularist leader to face serious charges of sexual harassment, assault or other misconduct regarding women. He apparently is the only one to lose his job.
Organized secularism — which includes atheist, humanist, skeptic and other reason-focused groups — is now grappling with issues of misogyny, sexual harassment and safety for women and minorities.
“There is finally a reckoning, there is finally a voice saying we are stopping this; this is enough,” said Kevin Bolling, the executive director of Secular Student Alliance, an organization at whose annual convention the sexual contact between Silverman and the student took place. “I think there are many people in the atheist community who are saying that women need to be believed, and sexual assault and harassment need to stop.”
Silverman’s suspension from American Atheists, where he worked in various roles for 22 years, was announced April 10 with the promise of an internal investigation. A spokesman for the group confirmed the move was based on allegations that Silverman had violated the organization’s code of conduct but refused to provide specific details.
Three days later, Silverman was fired. The next day, BuzzFeed News published allegations from two women active in the atheist community who said Silverman had unwanted sexual contact with them in 2012 and 2015. One of the women was then married to an American Atheists board member and the other was then a college student. Some aspects of both complaints were confirmed by others.
To the thousands of nonbelievers who attend atheist, humanist and secular events across the country, Silverman was a kind of rock star, with frequent appearances on cable television news and at rallies on the Mall. (He helped lead a march around Salt Lake City’s Temple Square in 2014 in a show of support for those leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in advance of American Atheists’ national convention two weeks later in Utah’s capital.) He also was widely considered to have done more than anyone else to raise the profile of American Atheists since its founder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, started the organization in 1963.
The first incident happened in 2012 at a Secular Student Alliance conference. Rose St. Clair, then a student and an atheist activist, told both BuzzFeed and American Atheists this year that she felt pressured by Silverman to have sex with him if she wanted a job in organized atheism. Her statement said she was intoxicated and did not “feel I could give consent.”
Silverman says before the encounter, St. Clair asked for a job, and he told her he could not hire her if they were going to have sex. He said “at no time” did St. Clair appear intoxicated. Silverman said when he learned she was upset about their encounter, he tried to contact her but was rebuffed.
The second incident involves an activist then married to an American Atheist board member. She told American Atheists that Silverman suddenly and without invitation began a sexual role-playing game with her that only stopped when she uttered a safe word which sexual role players sometimes use to tell a partner to stop.
Silverman said the role playing was mutually agreed upon ahead of time. He said many people witnessed their “flirtation.”
“I had absolutely enthusiastic consent which included precursory communication that established a safe word and set boundaries,” Silverman said. “Let me be clear: I don’t apologize for just some of the things I did wrong, I apologize for all of the things I did wrong. But I did not break consent, ever. I stayed within the boundaries of consent all the time, every time.”
But the woman, who spoke about the incident for the first time to The Washington Post, disputes much of that. “He definitely broke consent,” she said. “We did not have any prearranged safe words, did not prearrange any play.”
The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault.
Nick Fish, a spokesman for American Atheists, said the sexual allegations were not the reason that Silverman was terminated. “The board was able to review a lot of [documents] that allowed them to conclude Silverman violated its internal policy,” including staff management, conflicts of interest and violations of its general code of conduct, Fish said. “He lost the confidence of the board, and his contract allowed the board to terminate him for any reason. And loss of confidence is more than enough.”
On social media and atheist blogs, community members speculated that Silverman misused American Atheist money to promote his book, “Fighting God,” which was published in 2015. But Silverman said that the organization approved the use of its funds for his book tour on the conditions that he seek outside reimbursement and promote American Atheists.
“I am sure American Atheists made far more from my book in donations than I did as the author,” he said, citing an advance of $30,000. “My books were clean. I obeyed the letter and the spirit of every board motion, and no one has given me any specifics of what I did wrong.”
American Atheists declined to respond to this statement. Fish said an independent lawyer conducted an investigation, and both he and Silverman said there are no plans to pursue legal action “at this time.”
Organized secularism has been struggling with charges of misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment for almost a decade. The problem went public in 2011 when a then-little-known atheist blogger, Rebecca Watson, described unwanted sexual advances from a man at an atheist conference who followed her into an elevator and to her hotel room.
She was flooded with both supportive and haranguing comments. World-renowned atheist Richard Dawkins told her to “stop whining” and “grow up.” Dawkins — whose appearances at secularist gatherings can make or break attendance — has been called out multiple times for sexist statements but remains much in demand as a speaker.
Richard Carrier, a science historian and popular secularist speaker, has both apologized for and denied accusations of unwanted sexual advances at secularist and atheist events. He has been banned from at least one conference.
Michael Shermer, organizer of the popular Las Vegas Skepticon event, has denied allegations of sexual harassment and assault from several women, and remains editor of Skeptic magazine and a top speaker at secularist events.
Most recently, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, another star speaker and best-selling author, was suspended in the spring by Arizona State University for what it described as a decade of inappropriate behavior, some of it at secularist events.
The alleged misconduct of these leaders, “was tacitly co-signed by an atheist leadership that is largely hostile to social and gender justice and complicit in the marginalization of women’s issues,” said Sikivu Hitchinson, an activist who is often critical of organized atheism on the subject of women and people of color. “The atheist movement is no different from other male-dominated bastions in which sexual harassment and predatory behavior toward women are part of the culture.”
Some see Silverman’s removal as a sign that atheism may be ready to address its #MeToo issues. Many think the charges against him have damaged the movement in the eyes of the public, who rank atheists as among the most hated groups, according to several polls.
“Some organizations are eager to clean house and others are still digging their heels in, same as it has been,” said Stephanie Zvan, an organizer for Secular Women Work, a conference by and for women atheists, humanists and skeptics. “I hope it’s a rallying point. I hope it tells everyone: No figurehead is so critical that this movement will put aside its goals to serve them. No one is so important the rules don’t apply to them.”
As for Silverman, he said, “it is devastating to me that I have caused damage to the movement.” He described himself as “a different person,” due to three years of cognitive therapy.
“I was in a very adolescent place back then,” he said. “I objectified women. Other women may have been made to feel uncomfortable by me, and to those women, I am very sorry.”