Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Herb Silverman: I was born in Philadelphia, where I lived for 21 years until I ran away from home to graduate school.
My family consisted largely of Orthodox Jews, though my parents were more cultural Jews motivated by anti-Antisemitism. Having had relatives who died in the Holocaust, they did not trust any Goyim (Gentiles), and had as little contact with them as possible.
We lived in a Jewish neighborhood and after public school I would go to an Orthodox Hebrew school. My mother was an authoritarian, who made all the family decisions.
My father worked in a warehouse his entire life, packing Hershey bars that were shipped to underground subway stands. In another era, my mother would have had a job (other than cleaning house and “taking care” of me), which would have made both of us happier.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Silverman: My formal education consisted of a Bachelor’s degree from Temple University in 1963 and a Masters (1965) and Ph.D. (1968) in mathematics from Syracuse University.
My informal education consisted of learning to think for myself and figuring out when to go along with conventional wisdom and when to step to the beat of a different drummer.
Jacobsen: You have a number of illustrious merits to the personal record. One is the founding of the Secular Coalition for America. Another is the founding of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry.
A third is the founding of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. This leads to some obvious questions. Why found each one of them?
Silverman: Regarding the formation of the Secular Coalition for America, I learned in the 1990s about national organizations that identified as atheists, agnostics, humanists, secular humanists, freethinkers, secularists, and more.
They all promoted causes I supported, like church-state separation and increasing respect for nontheists. However, each organization was doing its own thing without recognizing or cooperating with worthwhile efforts of like-minded groups.
I thought this was a shortcoming that needed to be addressed if we were to make a difference in our culture. So, I contacted all the organizations I could, and some agreed to meet at the Godless Americans March in Washington in 2002, where we decided to form a new coalition.
Regarding the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry in Charleston, South Carolina, whenever I received media attention I would get calls from people thanking me and saying they thought they were the only atheist in South Carolina. I took their names and we formed the SHL in 1994.
Regarding the Atheist/Humanist Alliance, a student came to my office in 1998 and asked about starting a student group at the College of Charleston similar to the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry.
I was thrilled and agreed to be its faculty advisor. Despite an attempt by a few Christian students in the Student Council to oppose giving official club status to the group, we prevailed.
Jacobsen: How have these initiatives, founded by you, grown over time?
Silverman: The Secular Coalition for America started with 4 organizations and no budget, and we have grown to 20 national organizations with a dedicated board and staff.
We were the first organization to lobby Congress, in Washington DC, for the rights of nontheists. Initially, I hoped just to have our organizations cooperate on the 95% we had in common instead of arguing about the 5% that set us apart, like which label to use.
We succeeded far beyond my expectations, since we’ve become a respected and productive lobbying organization in our nation’s capital.
The Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry has grown from a few people who met informally into a vibrant organization that meets regularly for lectures, book discussions, social and charitable events.
When the Atheist/Humanist Alliance first met, several students talked about friends or roommates who shunned them because of their nonbelief.
These atheist students came to meetings because they needed a supportive community. Gradually attitudes at the College of Charleston have changed and now students worry far less about becoming unpopular because of openly being atheists.
I’ve even heard students say they joined the club because atheist students are pretty cool. They are, but they were also cool in 1998. I’m encouraged by the younger generation’s wider acceptance of diversity.
Jacobsen: As a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston, how has acquired knowledge, developed skills, and recognized and nurtured talent in mathematics provided a foundation for secular humanist philosophy?
In that, I assume this produced a way of thinking apart from revelation, magical thinking, and assertions of a there-before or a here-after.
Silverman: My secular humanist philosophy started long before I became a math professor. As a teenager, I decided to take from my Orthodox Jewish background only what made sense.
The good works (secular humanism) remained, but not the irrelevant rituals and beliefs. Pretty soon, I realized that the God I once accepted made no sense.
When I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, I realized that there were others who thought like me. In fact, Russell might have inspired me to become a mathematician.
Jacobsen: Why did you run for Governor of South Carolina in 1990? What was the outcome? What are the lessons for others to learn from this experience?
Silverman: I had been a quiet atheist until a colleague at the College of Charleston pointed out that our South Carolina Constitution prohibits atheists from becoming governor. I knew the US Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office.
So, I went to the American Civil Liberties Union, and its lawyer told me that an atheist would need to mount a legal challenge by running for governor.
He said that the very best candidate would be me. I looked around, and didn’t see any competition. After giving it some thought, I agreed to be the ‘Candidate Without a Prayer.’
To the surprise of no one, I lost the gubernatorial election. But after an eight-year legal battle, I won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, nullifying the anti-atheist clause in our state constitution.
One lesson is that any individual can make a difference by going outside his or her comfort zone, especially when you have right on your side.
You also get to meet many interesting people. The best for me personally is that I met Sharon Fratepietro, who volunteered for my campaign, became my campaign manager, and my one and only groupie.
We have been happily together for 29 years, and she doesn’t mind being married to someone who never became governor.
Jacobsen: As an author in the secular humanist tradition, what is important, now, in the continual growth of secular humanist literature?
If you were a young person reading this, what authors or books would you recommend for them on secular humanism? If you were an advanced graduate student, what would you recommend for them, in terms of reading in the same genre?
Silverman: For young people I would recommend The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, and for even younger people I would also recommend Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics by Dan Barker. I wouldn’t distinguish books for advanced graduate students from books for all adults.
We have a disproportionate number of people in our movement with advanced academic degrees, and I hope we can significantly broaden our base.
A small subset of books I recommend are A Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby, and the History of God by Karen Armstrong.
And to be unabashedly self-promoting, I also recommend my two books Candidate Without a Prayer and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land.
Jacobsen: In an examination of the current fiascos of the Trump Administration, what do you see as the more important areas of work for the activists of secularism and humanism?
Silverman: Well, first the good news. Donald Trump has unintentionally become perhaps the best fundraiser for atheist and humanist organizations.
Many apatheists now realize the need to get involved politically and to promote our point of view instead of being demonized by the fake news coming from Trump.
Just as evangelicals have recently apologized for their support of slavery and segregation, I predict that one day evangelicals will apologize for their support of the “Christian” Donald Trump.
In the meantime, join and support organizations that promote our issues and are fighting to keep our secular democracy from turning into a theocracy.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Silverman: Start locally, and then think about becoming active nationally. Join a group if one is near you or perhaps start a local group. Check the Internet for national organizations that support forming local groups. Do what feels right for you and what makes you feel good.
It could be coming out of the closet as an atheist or humanist, writing letters to the editor, enlighten people who assume we are all Christians living in a Christian country.
Also, consider running for public office (not necessarily for governor). For all the faults of the Christian Coalition, they had a good strategy of taking over local offices and school boards.
We even chose the name Secular Coalition in opposition to the Christian Coalition. If you can, donate to organizations you admire. There is an expression “Give until it hurts,” which is better modified to “Give until it feels good.”
This usually means giving to organizations that do good and where you know your money will make a difference. That’s why I feel good about my largest donation going to the Secular Coalition for America.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Silverman: I’m cautiously optimistic about the future because the largest growing demographic are the “nones,” those who don’t identify with any religion. They are disproportionately large among young people. M
y goal as an old fart (76) is to help pave the way for younger people to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheists in our culture.
To those who are less optimistic that their actions will make a difference, remember that if you do nothing, then nothing will change. Find something to do, and do it!
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Silverman.
Silverman: And thank you for the opportunity to spout off.
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.
Photo by Ryan Loughlin on Unsplash
I arranged for Herb to speak between services at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Bethesda MD a few years ago. He was very well received and I continue to exchange ideas and mail with him. After his talk, I converted from agnostic to atheist.
I would like to recommend a book for your review: “Exception to the Rule”, pub. 2018, McGraw Hill. Scientifically based – 16 pages of footnotes. It is NON-RELIGIOUS guide for individuals and organizations on how to pursue a life of virtue = Integrity = “a life well lived”. It is easy to read by anyone over 12 yr. old. It is the best book I have ever read. I did not disagree with one word. It has 7 chapters on the components of virtue: Trust, Compassion, Courage, Justice, Wisdom, Temperance (balance), and Hope, each giving the major problems of that component and ways to correct them. IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE. I believe it can stand as a humanist ‘Bible’. My life “mission” now is to get its ideas disseminated as widely and as quickly as possible. I have no financial interest in the book.
I would be interested in your reaction.
Jan Polissar, M.D. (retired psychiatrist)