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, safety, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the fundamental risk to normal livelihood for those who enter into a full life of activism through the founding of organizations devoted to church and state separation, or, in other countries, mosque and government division?
Herb Silverman: It’s a good question to think about before committing to a full life of activism, especially if you commit to what many view as an unpopular cause. I can mostly describe my own experiences along with what went right and what went wrong.
I expect my situation was less risky than for most, with little or no financial or personal safety concerns. When I began my secular activism, I was teaching at a public institution that prides itself in having academic freedom.
I ran for Governor of South Carolina in 1990 to challenge the state constitution prohibition against atheists holding public office.
Whenever I received publicity, I heard from people who thought they were the only atheists in South Carolina. I took their names and with them founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry (SHL) based in Charleston.
I became its president, newsletter editor, and wrote almost all the articles. In calling for others to take a more active role, I even wrote an editorial titled “Stop the Dictator!”
I encouraged new ideas, but looking back I wasn’t very supportive; I’d often respond with reasons why the new ideas would not work. Sometimes I’d ask whoever came up with an idea to develop it on his or her own, without any guidance or assistance.
Nevertheless, others gradually began assuming leadership positions. Since I was becoming engaged with national organizations and had a full-time job as a math professor, I was devoting less time to SHL.
So I worried about doing a half-assed job, but was reluctant to leave the position for fear that the organization I built would fall apart.
This is known as “Founder’s Syndrome.” One of the biggest mistakes leaders can make is to believe they are irreplaceable. I’ve seen many good leaders, whether in atheist or other organizations, outstay a welcome.
For an organization to flourish, I think a high priority for a leader is to make him or herself replaceable. Atheists, above all, should recognize that organizations must not give too much power to any one individual.
We have no “dear leaders” who communicate to us through a supernatural being. We pride ourselves on being independent, and we recognize the fallibility of all.
I left the presidency of SHL after 15 years, and it turned out to be beneficial to both SHL and to me. Not to sound too much like a vampire, but new blood is good.
My first national board involvement was with the American Humanist Association, where I (with considerable leadership objection) proposed that the AHA and other national organizations begin to cooperate in coalition. This eventually led to the Secular Coalition for America.
I left the AHA board after many years when they mostly began to agree with my positions and I was no longer pissing people off, at least not in significant ways. It was not as much fun as in my early years and I had become the oldest board member. It was past time for me to go.
As founding president of the Secular Coalition for America, I looked for and encouraged active participants and talented replacements. I’m still on the SCA board, not as president, and it’s a good feeling to know that were I to get hit by a bus tomorrow, the Secular Coalition would continue to thrive.
Now one hazard of having a devotion to a cause is that it might get you labeled a “zealot.” If you resent being called the “Z” word, I don’t blame you. The word has a sordid past because of the damage done by “religious zealots.”
I did not like, nor did I accept, the media-invented pejorative “atheist fundamentalist” because there is no atheist equivalent to religious belief in biblical inerrancy. But “zealot” is more flexible. While zealots are often described as fanatics or extremists, it’s not easy to come up with objective criteria for such terms.
What passes as extremism in some circles is viewed as moderate or mainstream in others. An accusation of “excessive” devotion to a cause says as much about the accuser as the accused.
Here’s the good and the bad news about zealotry. Zealots are the ones most likely to make a significant difference by achieving their goals and changing the world. Richard Dawkins and Osama Bin Laden are both known as zealots, and they are greatly admired (though never by the same people).
While I’ve talked about leaders with too much power, there’s the opposite danger of members in an organization who do nothing but complain about their leaders. We need to be careful about whether our criticism is constructive or destructive.
Some good leaders have left organizations because of too much micro managing. I have no magic bullet about how organizations should best be managed. It’s easier, though, if power is divided among competent people and if everyone has a sense of humor.
It also helps if members are working for the same goals, and if they genuinely like one another. And that brings me to one of the most important insights of all: People are more likely to stay active in an organization if they are having fun. And eating together. Let’s drink to that.
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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