Would America be better off without religion? David Silverman thinks so. Convinced religion is a moral evil and that all religious persons are either liars or victims, Silverman, president of American Atheists, has committed his life to the task of extinguishing the “Lie of God” and liberating the victims of religion (3). In Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, he issues a call to arms to his co-belligerents in the atheist movement and pleads for closeted non-believers to join the struggle against religion.
The book is marked by the author’s passion and aggression. He relentlessly attacks religion and insists that it breeds bigotry and inequality. At the outset Silverman argues “religion is not just incorrect, it is malevolent” and wholly underserving of the respect conferred upon it (4). And since religion produces evil, the author insists that atheists fight against the immorality and intolerance of religion with truth, because atheists have “a monopoly on truth” (3). Armed with science, reason, and biting sarcasm, the author writes to “take religion down” for the common good (4).
The Battle Plan
Across eleven chapters, Silverman essentially accomplishes five tasks. He begins by imploring fellow non-believers to eschew ambiguous labels such as humanists or secularists and to unite under the banner of atheism (18). Silverman believes unifying as “atheists” sends a powerful message about the movement’s strength to America’s bigoted religious establishment and empowers others to join the effort. Second, the author calls for atheists to take up their true mantle—as the “good guys”—in the fight for equality and the separation of religion and government. Silverman laments the many ways that religion intrudes upon individual liberty and argues that instead of respect for their beliefs, what religious persons actually need and deserve is conflict. “They need to hear that their religion is not equal to atheism, it is far beneath it” (25).
Third, Silverman challenges the legitimacy of all religions. “The sum total of all scientifically valid proof supporting the existence of all the world’s gods, combined, is zero” (46). For Silverman, that millions of Americans continue to embrace religion absent any evidence reinforces his belief that they are victims of brainwashing. Fourth, he puts forward an apologetic for his effective and offensive “firebrand atheism.” According to Silverman, the end game of the movement is “atheist normalcy” and “the elimination of bigotry” against atheists (136). He explains that the shock and awe tactics he employs—putting up incendiary billboards, employing hostile rhetoric, and mocking religious figures and beliefs—account for one piece of a broader strategy to accomplish his ultimate goals. Finally, Silverman dedicates the concluding chapters of the book to chronicling past achievements, including legal victories and the historic Reason Rally in 2012, and casting vision for the movement’s future. He believes that truth is winning and its triumph will ultimately lead toward greater freedom and equality for all.
As an evangelical Christian, it was difficult to read a book so critical of my beliefs, but I did my best to read Silverman’s words objectively and to take his criticisms seriously. The author claims that he is writing to combat bigotry and promote equality. After reading Fighting God, I am appreciably more sensitive to the fact that non-religious persons may feel marginalized in American society and I believe Christians, as much as anyone, should promote a culture of openness and acceptance. Still, I found much of Silverman’s words to be disconcerting and overblown.
Though there are many, I will mention only two critiques. First, this book perpetuates the problem it seeks to solve. David Silverman is an atheist, and in defense of his atheism he makes stark claims and draws hard lines about truth and the nature of reality, but in his goal to combat bigotry (intolerance) he fails in spectacular fashion. Repeatedly, he assails religion as abhorrent, false, evil, unworthy of respect, meriting ridicule, and deserving of defeat. He derides proponents of religion as liars, victims, and brainwashed objects of pity. How someone may claim to be an enlightened or even thoughtful person and write a book protesting bigotry while demonstrating such intolerance and disrespect is mystifying.
Secondly, because Silverman dedicates ample time to discussing Christianity, it is regrettable that his words betray such an inaccurate view of the gospel. Doubtless, it would have been more respectable if Silverman were to engage with the actual beliefs of serious Christians. While any dullard will carry the day against the straw man, the Christian gospel is quite compelling and difficult to dismiss out of hand. The work of Christ certainly merits more than a casual dismissal of apologetic arguments, and I would dare say, adherents of other religions would likely share similar concerns.
Application for the Church
Multiple times, the author make reference to the words of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists:
An atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of a God. An atheist thinks that heaven is something we should work for now—here on earth—for all men to enjoy together. An atheist knows that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist knows that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. (1)
Those words represent a stunning indictment upon the church. As I read them, I found myself welling up with rebuttals and clarifications. But the truth is, even though Christian theology is actually robust and redemptive—it truly values life and creation—that isn’t what the broader culture sees. Christianity rejects the dualisms and false dilemmas in O’Hair’s statement. Christianity recognizes that those things aren’t mutually exclusive but instead fit together in the arc of God’s work of redemption. Yet, the culture sees a church that is unconcerned with community, poverty, and justice. The culture sees a church that worships money and loves power. So despite the fact that I take issue with the lion’s share of Silverman’s criticism, I find here a needed rebuke of the shallow, gnostic Christianity often reflected in our worship and practice.
Finally, Silverman and I do share a common goal: we both want Christians to read the Bible. He is convinced that doing so will lead adherents to abandon the faith. I am convinced that under the Spirit’s guidance, Christians, and the church more broadly, will “grow up into Christ” and faithfully display the compelling truth of the gospel to the world. May God grant us that grace. The world is watching.