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 activism and sacrifice.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Activism, by its nature – real active involvement in community civic and political life, requires sacrifices. How should secular activists gauge their ability to participate in the variety of activist efforts available to them, not only in terms of opportunity costs between different activist efforts but also the costs to aspects of their lives and liabilities to personal safety?
Herb Silverman: Perhaps the most important and effective thing for secular activists to do is to come out of the closet. Attitudes toward gays changed rapidly when people learned that their friends, neighbors, and even family members were gay. Attitudes about atheists are slowly changing as atheists are slowly coming out, especially among millennials.
You’ve probably heard there has never been an atheist president, but the truth is that there has never been an open atheist president. I expect there have been several closeted atheist presidents. Barney Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, only acknowledged that he was an atheist after he retired from Congress. I also doubt that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is the only Jewish socialist in the country who believes in God. A recent Harris survey showed that 52% of Jews (myself included) do not believe in God. https://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/jewsdontbelieve/
The bad news about coming out of the closet is that you might lose some friends, though I would question what kind of friendship it is if you can’t be honest about who you are. Of course, caution may well be necessary when dealing with religious family members or employers. The good news is that you will gain friends. I’ve heard from people who guardedly mentioned their secularism to friends and coworkers and were pleasantly surprised by a “Me, too” response. Better to be comfortable in your own skin than to hide who you are in order to please those you might not respect.
I think it’s counterproductive to come out as arrogant atheists. We should not gratuitously bash religion or become atheist evangelists, promoting atheism to those who have shown no interest in discussing religion. We can answer questions about our naturalistic worldview without trying to convince others to adopt it. If questioners are open-minded enough to consider our views thoughtfully, some may convince themselves that atheism makes sense, as many of us did.
We mostly want our worldview to be respected in a culture where many distrust us because we don’t believe in a judging God who will reward or punish us in an afterlife. When I hear such concerns, I ask how their behavior would change if they stopped believing in God. If it wouldn’t, then it doesn’t make sense for them to think we are less moral. If behavior would change because of God belief, what kind of morality is that? I like to emphasize behavior over belief, that we are good for goodness’ sake. Religious or not, silent evangelism might be the most effective approach for all of us. People are likely to respect our worldview more for what we do, than for what we preach.
Here are some things to do in our community, while respectfully (as appropriate) describing our worldview. Write letters to the editor, especially countering those that promote ridiculous or unfair religious ideas. Write letters to members of Congress and local politicians, even visiting them in their offices. Support candidates (including financially) who share your values. Those who want to commit more of their time and energy could consider running for public office. There are important offices that might not be too competitive—perhaps local school board positions in some communities.
Atheists need to reach out to and work with progressive religionists who support separation of religion and government, and who judge people more on their deeds than on their creeds. That includes organizations like The Interfaith Alliance, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Catholics for Free Choice, and other allies in liberal churches. When we meet people face to face, we are more likely to become friends and break stereotypes. Working with diverse groups provides an additional benefit of gaining more visibility and respect for our perspective. Improving the public perception of secular Americans may be as important to some of us as pursuing a particular political agenda.
My bottom line advice for atheists is to do what you enjoy doing, according to your comfort level. I understand why many atheists, especially in the Bible Belt, are quiet about their religious views so they won’t appear impolite or offend others. However, being polite by avoiding conflicts has never been a guiding light for me.
I think a top priority for most of us should be to fight (nonviolently) against those who try to force their religious beliefs on people who don’t share such beliefs. Especially politicians. Government must not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion. Religious liberty must include the right for taxpayers to choose whether to support religion and which to support. Forcing taxpayers to privilege and subsidize religions they don’t believe in is akin to forcing them to put money in the collection plates of churches, synagogues, or mosques.
Some secular activists may be disappointed because they haven’t seen change fast enough. But we are evolutionists, not creationists. Evolution takes a long time. Whenever you feel discouraged by slow progress, keep this in mind: If we do nothing, nothing will change. You don’t have to do it all, but I hope you will all do something. I hope we will one day see an America that respects secular viewpoints and an America where the influence of conservative religion is mainly limited to within the walls of churches, not the halls of Congress.
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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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.