On this page, when we use the term "women" we refer to all who identify as women. By "women's issues" we refer to not just reproductive rights and other political/social/economic concerns women face, but also the current debate about the secular movement's capacity to become safe, welcoming, and relevant to women.

Messaging is important. Women are furious. Stop being blockheads.

Our final statement on the David Silverman at CPAC controversy

No, the controversy hasn't gone away -- the one about American Atheists president David Silverman attending last week's Tea Party rave, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), then mentioning a "secular argument against abortion" to a Raw Story journalist probing the limits of conservatism. Secular voices have been duking it out online ever since, some individuals publishing multiple posts on the topic. Hemant Mehta gave an exclusive and unbalanced platform on his blog to the leader of a "humanist pro-life" group, causing one reader to speculate in a private group that Mehta will call his next book I Sold My Soul on Patheos. Philosopher-biologist Massimo Pigliucci sent mobs of seculars with uteri rushing to their pitchforks when he instructed them how to feel about their abortion decisions: "[it] should always be a very difficult and emotional step." At this point it might be difficult to overestimate the intensity of outrage felt by many secular women and their allies; blog posts like You made your bed, now burn in it (Stephanie Zvan on Almost Diamonds) and this excerpt (emphasis ours) from Having a reasonable debate about abortion (Greta Christina's blog) give the tiniest glimpse.

I am enraged about this ... As a queer person, I have come to expect full-throated support from the atheist movement for my right to have sex with whoever I choose — and either an outraged rant or a passionate horse-laugh aimed at any arguments against that right. I had assumed — despite the demoralizing debates about sexism and feminism that have been raging in the movement — that I could expect equally full-throated support, and equal rage and ridicule, for my right to not be forced to give birth. It is incredibly distressing to learn otherwise. Oh, and finally: If you ever cheered me on when I ranted righteously about the power of atheist anger, and are now saying that pro-choice advocates need to calm down and not get so worked up about abortion? Please go fuck yourself. Thank you.

We also now have Secular Woman's response, Rending the Tent: A Statement from the Secular Woman Community.

Our role in the controversy

On March 9th, the day after CPAC wrapped up, we published Courting atheist conservatives: a misguided strategy, statistically, in which we provided American Secular Census data countering Silverman's statement at CPAC that abortion is "maybe not as clean cut [for Secular Americans] as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage." Silverman appeared in comments on our page twice; his organization's treasurer, Ellen Wingrove, once. Silverman made several accusations about our work while offering some additional background about his CPAC outreach. We now address his key comments, respond to Wingrove's remark, and wrap up with some observations of our own about what went wrong.

Because we will then consider the matter settled with respect to our own role in the conversation, comments are disabled for this page.

First, let us say this: We do expect this to eventually blow over without lasting harm to David Silverman or American Atheists. We don't think Silverman is a misogynist and we don't think he intended anything malicious. We do think there has been some serious blindness here to the concerns and priorities of secular women and that the harm caused by that blindness hurts just as much and needs to be remedied. We are concerned that one negative incident after another involving women in the secular movement may be evidence that organizations are not learning from their own and others' mistakes and that they do not understand the issues well enough to anticipate and avoid future mistakes. We are especially concerned that women who've attempted to provide this perspective to organizations have often been ignored, criticized, or even vilified for trying.

We should be better than this.

Conservatives who don't pray: the hook?

First we address Silverman's data citation, the most objective of his claims on our page.

I have better data than you. According to Pew (quantitative), 20% of self-identified conservatives seldom or never pray - that's huge, and that's what interested me.

So Silverman saw a statistic that suggested (to him) that the conservative population may contain a "huge" cohort of religious skeptics or even nonbelievers; i.e., CPAC is "crawling with atheists."

The problem here is that prayer behavior is an unreliable indicator for (non)belief, as are religious affiliation or lack thereof, religious / secular self-identity or lack thereof, church attendance or lack thereof, and questions like "How important is religion in your life?" or "Is your worldview secular or religious?" When it comes to religion, survey respondents give complex and sometimes conflicting answers. Unchurched people can believe; atheists can attend church or call themselves Jews or Unitarians or any number of labels with religious associations; religious people can be apathetic about prayer and church attendance ... we even have a study claiming that 21% of atheists believe in God, coming from the very same polling group Silverman cites.

In fact, a major impetus behind the American Secular Census was the constant frustration of watching secular leaders twist themselves into pretzels trying to extract information about Secular Americans from studies that fail to adequately isolate us into our own data groups. (We are most often lumped with "Nones," the religiously unaffiliated, even though at least 2/3 of Nones believe in a supreme being.)

Prayer behavior is one of those things that (especially in absentia) doesn't tell us much about a person's religiosity.

Still: OK, let's talk about conservatives who don't pray. Because what we seem to have here is a great example of data that -- like the "Nones" -- on the surface appears promising for the secular movement, but on closer examination doesn't really tell us much.

We had to rely on an analysis of prayer frequency published by the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) for our data. We were unable to locate Silverman's Pew resource, and Conrad Hackett, the demographer at Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project we contacted for help, told us he didn't know of such a study.

On the ARDA study, to reach the 20% figure (and slightly above) of non-praying conservatives, it's necessary to count not just "extremely conservative" and "conservative" respondents, but also "slightly conservative" ones. We're skeptical that many if any of the folks who showed up at CPAC to cheer the likes of Wayne LaPierre and Paul Ryan would fall into the "slightly conservative" category, so we ignore them. That leaves 9.4% of conservatives in the ARDA study -- less than half Silverman's figure -- who never pray. (And remember, we still have no idea if they never pray because they think no one's listening, or because they're just lousy at religion.)

Interestingly, this is not far from the polling figure given by some studies for nonbelief in American society at large, so even if every single one of these prayer-avoidant conservatives is a nonbeliever, and that's quite doubtful, it looks as if Silverman could have just hung out at his neighborhood shopping mall last weekend and had about the same chance of meeting atheists and agnostics. (Admittedly, CPAC is probably a better venue for talking about religion and politics than the Orange Julius counter.)

But wait: Silverman stated he was also looking at those who "seldom" pray, which would enlarge the sample, right? It would -- but we can only express confusion why these respondents would be at all relevant to an atheist organization. To us, "seldom" praying is praying.

Wrapping it up: we're not feeling the "hugeness" of the data about conservatives who don't pray. We have nothing to correlate it with nonbelief or participation in conservative organizations, for starters, so it really doesn't make sense to use it as a rationale for reaching out to conservatives at CPAC. And unless the study that interested Silverman is markedly different in both findings and methodology than ARDA, we're doubtful it's "better" data for our purposes than what we published on the page where Silverman made that comment. The best way to understand Secular Americans is to look at data about Secular Americans, not infer it from data about a more diverse population's religious behavior.

Regarding Ellen Wingrove's "There are always gonna be haters" comment on our page

We'll just get this out of the way and move on. For the treasurer of the nation's largest atheist organization to use a sophomoric social networking slur to publicly malign a serious project like the American Secular Census -- and/or to insult its president and/or supporters and/or those opposed to American Atheists' presence at CPAC -- should be an embarrassment to American Atheists and the entire secular movement. Members of the secular community have every right to expect professionalism, maturity, and diplomacy of the secular identity organizations representing them. We hope American Atheists will use this opportunity to institute social networking standards for its staff, officers, board, and prominent volunteers.

Regarding Silverman's complaint that we painted him negatively, as "anti-woman or anti-choice," and have an ethical obligation to correct such content

Our article was about our data, using the reference point of two organizations attending CPAC for reasons that appeared inconsistent with our findings. Zero percent of our article was about David Silverman's personal views, which are irrelevant to the topic we covered because we do not equate any single individual, not even the president, with American Atheists the organization. Mission, not the personal opinions of a leader, is supposed to be the driving force behind a nonprofit's activities.

This might be a good time to point out that Silverman himself has not always kept the distinction clear, such as when he told Raw Story that he wanted more choices at the voting booth and then laid out his conservative credentials. Silverman was there to represent his organization; his personal political views were somewhat irrelevant in that role. But it may explain why he interpreted our article from a personal standpoint rather than the organizational one that was clearly intended.

Regarding Silverman's charge that we misrepresented American Atheists' reasons for being at CPAC and lack journalistic integrity.

It's tempting to simply link to Steve Ahlquist's blog post Silverman at CPAC: My interpretation stands as our own response, since our situation and thoughts are so similar to his.

Silverman's claim is that we didn't research, not even to the extent of reading American Atheists' press release. He says we were presenting a "fictional strategy" when we said

The American Atheists strategy at CPAC was apparently to present abortion as an opening for conservative groups in search of atheist supporters

and that we should have given him an opportunity to verify before publishing our piece.

As a matter of fact, we did read the American Atheists' press release (as well as the Secular Coalition for America's e-mail announcement) about CPAC. Silverman should realize that, since we quoted both organizations verbatim in our own piece. We also read media coverage of American Atheists' presence at the event, looked in vain for the elusive conservatives-not-praying study, and queried our own database for the relevant statistics. All in all we spent the better part of the weekend doing nothing but researching and writing our piece. It is possible, apparently, to disagree with David Silverman's interpretation of a situation and still have done the homework. It is even possible, apparently, for two researchers (Steven Ahlquist and the American Secular Census) who don't know each other and are each unaware of the other's research to come to the same conclusions simultaneously -- suggesting that there's more going on than a lack of "#journalisticintegrity."

What is that something? We'd call it muddled messaging. Here is a more complete excerpt of quotations from both Silverman and American Atheists public relations director Dave Muscato from their February 25th press release Atheists March Into Lions’ Den at CPAC: Organization Confronts Conservatism's Religious Image.

"'Conservative' isn't a synonym for 'religious'," said American Atheists President David Silverman. "In fact, a fifth of conservatives seldom or never pray, and the same number state religion is not important in their lives."

"If conservatism doesn't embrace religious neutrality, its influence will wither and die," Silverman said. "Atheists are a growing constituency—an increasingly united constituency—and conservative legislators ignore our vote and our voice at their own peril. We demand equality and fairness—nothing more—which is the very foundation of American values. Imposing religious dogma on its citizens should not be the role of the small government advocated by conservatives."

"We are the fastest-growing religious demographic in all 50 states, and our growth is coming in large part from young people," said Public Relations Director Dave Muscato. "Twenty percent of Americans are not religious**; this climbs to ⅓ for those born after 1980. Atheists are everywhere, including the conservative right, and elected officials who refuse to listen to atheists won’t remain in office for very long."

There were so many competing themes in this press release that we still can't tell what American Atheists intended as its one, big takeaway point.

  • Being conservative and being religious are two different things
  • The principle of small government is inconsistent with legislating religious values
  • Conservative legislators ignore atheists
  • They should stop doing this, because we're growing in numbers in every state and getting more organized and can vote them out
  • They should also stop doing this because we are demanding it for equality's sake
  • The health of the conservative movement is jeopardized by the influence of religion
  • There is data suggesting that the religious influence on conservatism is greater than statistically warranted
  • There is data suggesting that young people are less religious than older people
  • There are atheists who are also right-wing conservatives


Despite the jumping around, we do think a concise, cohesive message could have been crafted and stuck to like glue by the time CPAC rolled around. Something like:

Hey, conservatives. You're looking for votes, right? Well, we have some folks that are conservative economically but can't support your social agenda one little bit. You might want to reconsider your obsession with restricting abortion rights and marriage equality, for starters. Atheists see those positions as archaic, religiously oppressive, and unAmerican. Give it some thought, will you? (And no, we won't debate those things with you. They're human rights.)

We've already pointed out that our statistics show a liberal bias, so the promise of hordes of right-wing atheists pulling the stone back from conservatism's tomb is probably a hollow one -- but at least this message, repeated over and over, would have opened the dialogue without alienating secular women and their allies. The deviation from "conservatism =/= religion" to "secular argument against abortion" in the Raw Story interview is where things went epically wrong for American Atheists, because it gave new context to everything else that had been said beforehand. It added the wrinkle of a possible point of negotiation, intended or otherwise.

Yes, we know media interviews are hard and journalists are unpredictable. Yes, we still think a group with American Atheists' resources should be able to pull it off. You really get just a few chances to promote your message -- writers aren't going to chase you around from blog comments to blog comments looking for clarifications and corrections once they've already published.

[**Again, note once more the erroneous and misleading statistic from the "Nones" study that "Twenty percent of Americans are not religious." To most people "not religious" and "nonreligious" mean "nonbelieving;" yet only 1/3 of the 20% we call the "Nones" agree with atheists on the god question.]

Final thoughts about learning the hard way

Earlier we talked about learning from mistakes. Part of that process means anticipating reactions and planning around any problem spots before they occur. We clearly need more of both in the organized secular movement, judging by our history of events that have rubbed women raw, layer by layer, until our collective nerves sit right on the surface:

  • Elevatorgate, with a prominent woman blogger being publicly chastised by a renowned male leader, followed by years of harassment and abuse by others
  • The ridicule and obstructionism experienced by secular women requesting anti-harassment policies for conferences
  • The hiring of Edwina Rogers, a Republican strategist, by the Secular Coalition for America, with no apparent readiness to address the secular population's completely justifiable misgivings about her appointment
  • Amy Davis Roth's abuse at The Amazing Meeting, despite her history of support for the event
  • Ron Lindsay's opening speech gaffe at the 2nd Women in Secularism conference, and the Center for Inquiry board's failure to respond effectively to the resulting firestorm


Reaction to David Silverman's abortion comment, Hemant Mehta's guest blog, and Massimo Pigliucci's analysis did not occur in a vacuum. Without the previous incidents as context, Silverman's interview might barely have been remarked upon. But the previous incidents did occur, and the fact is that many secular women are deeply entrenched in pro-choice activism, some with a far longer history or deeper commitment than their freethought involvement. Secular women (many!) serve as clinic escorts, lead campaigns to fund abortions for needy women, volunteer with pro-choice organizations, and lobby their state representatives to protect access to abortion. Secular women and their daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives also have abortions, use contraception, seek sterilization, and -- in some cases we are aware of -- have been among the victims of oppressive laws intended to keep women from receiving needed reproductive healthcare. Secular women network extensively and are keenly aware of these everyday realities in their community. For secular women, the issue is not one of mission creep; i.e., do we or do we not include it in our work. It is a deeply intimate matter of survival, and until secular leaders get that -- really. get. it. -- we are destined for gender wars in the secular community, even with the advances some groups are making in their policies and programming.

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