Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. Here we talk about secularism and activism.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are the pragmatics or the first practical considerations of secular activism?
Herb Silverman: What to do, when to do it, and how to frame it? Those are the questions. Since open secularists are still a minority, we must pick and choose our battles. We do not ask for special rights, as many religions do. But we deserve and should demand equal rights in a country with a secular (and godless) Constitution, which does not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion. We can focus on win-win situations, where we either gain equality or get sympathy for being discriminated against.
As a personal example, the Charleston City Council in South Carolina started its meetings with an invocation, usually a Christian one. Our local Secular Humanist group persuaded one council member to offer more diversity, and he invited me to give an invocation. But as the mayor introduced me, half the council members walked out because they knew I was an atheist. They didn’t return until it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance, and they turned toward me as they bellowed the words “under God.” Those who heard my invocation, including the mayor, thought it was fine.
I didn’t expect such defiance, but it was an opportunity for the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” A reporter from our local newspaper wrote about the incident, along with comments from those who walked out. One councilman quoted Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart there is no God. They are corrupt, their deeds are vile, there is not one who does good.” He then told me that the walkout was not personal. In other words, his religious beliefs compelled him to demonize an entire class of people he was elected to represent. Frankly, I would rather it had been personal. Another councilman said, “He can worship a chicken if he wants to, but I’m not going to be around when he does it.” I responded, “Perhaps the councilman doesn’t realize that many of us who stand politely for religious invocations believe that praying to a god makes no more sense than praying to a chicken.” (At least you can see a chicken.)
Several days later, six favorable letters appeared in the paper criticizing the improper behavior of council members. I can’t tell you how unusual and satisfying it is for Christians in South Carolina to side with atheists against other Christians. Movements are most successful when they appeal to folks outside the group.
It helps to establish a relationship with a religion reporter, who often looks for different kinds of stories. For example, a reporter once asked if atheists in our local group celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday when Americans thank God for their blessings. Here is the answer from one of our secularists that appeared in the paper: “We gather with friends and family, just like most Americans, and know whom to thank for our Thanksgiving meal. We thank the farmers who cared for the plants and the migrant workers who harvested them. We thank the workers at the processing plant and the truck drivers who brought the food to the grocery store. And finally, we thank our friends for helping prepare the meal and for being present to share in the festivities.”
The newspaper got some angry letters about our members not thanking God, but several secular humanists heard about us for the first time and joined our group. That became a pattern. Whenever we received media attention, we’d hear from people who disliked us and also from people who wanted to join us. It was easily worth the trade-off. Almost all publicity is good.
One of the difficulties in getting independent-minded secularists to cooperate revolves around labels. An atheist is simply someone without a belief in any gods, while a secular humanist focuses on being good without gods. These are two sides of the same coin. Many secularists are uncomfortable with the word “atheist” because it describes what we don’t believe, rather than what we do believe. After all, we don’t go around calling ourselves A-Easter Bunnyists or A-Tooth Fairyists. “Atheist” gets more media attention and “humanist” gets more respect from the general public. Other labels include freethinker, skeptic, agnostic, ignostic, rationalist, naturalist, materialist, apatheist, and more. If you don’t know what each word means, don’t worry. Even those who identify with such labels often disagree on their meanings. Parsing words might be a characteristic of folks engaged in the secular movement.
Certainly word choices can be important, but our special designations are sometimes nothing more than a matter of taste or comfort level rather than deep theological or philosophical differences. We are more effective when we let each person use the word with which they are most comfortable, rather than try to “convert” secularists to their favorite word.
Here’s an interesting distinction between Christians and secularists: Christians have the same unifying word, but fight over theology; secularists have the same unifying theology, but fight over words. At least our wars are only verbal.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Herb.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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