Ask Herb 5 – Background Noise and Individual Signal

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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 expectations in activism, mathematics, Judaism, and ethical values.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As the collective background of an individual remains an important consideration, not as an in-depth reflection but as a heuristic of what to statistically expect, in activism, how can knowledge of the background of a collective help explain larger scale phenomena of communities?

For example, as a logician and mathematician, you rejected the rituals and the god of Judaism but accepted the ethical values of the Jewish traditions. 

This reflects many ordinary Jewish people who reject the supernaturalism and the ritualisms of Judaism. Your individual flavor of non-religiosity differs in more nuanced and sophisticated respects than this. However, you get the thrust of the point. 

If an activist runs for office or wants to become active in community civic and political life, how can a demographic and collective background understanding of the community help with activist work in dealing with the community and in individual interactions with local American citizens – noting, of course, this can extend to other areas of our region or the world as a means by which to effectuate positive change?

Herb Silverman: I think activists who run for public office should not only describe their views on issues that affect the community, but also explain what led them to those views—religious or otherwise. We are all affected by our early influences. Some people change a little, some a lot, and some not at all. Activists should also be able to formulate good reasons to run for public office. I certainly had a good reason to run for governor of South Carolina in 1990—to challenge the provision in our state constitution that prohibited atheists from holding public office. I lost the gubernatorial race, of course, but won a unanimous decision in the state Supreme Court, thus nullifying the anti-atheist clause. Mission accomplished.

As an added bonus, my campaign turned out to be more educational than I had anticipated—for me and for other South Carolinians. People were curious about who or what turned me into an atheist and on what basis I could live a moral life. It was an opportunity for me to examine my religious beliefs, describe the difference between” evidence based and biblically based morality, and change some stereotypes people had about atheists. I didn’t indiscriminately bash religion, as many had expected. I talked about what I kept from my Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which includes an emphasis on education, promoting social justice, the idealistic aspiration of Tikun Olam (repairing the world), and questioning. This last one motivated me to abandon the religious teachings that no longer made sense to me, like meaningless religious rituals, unreasonable dietary restrictions, and God belief. Judaism does not require belief in God, and I’m comfortable being a member of the atheist sect of Humanistic Judaism.

Despite my quixotic “political” career, I don’t think atheists running for office should lead with their atheism or even talk about it unless the subject comes up. We should be able to justify our positions through the application of reason, science, and evidence, which is likely why most of us became atheists. At the same time, if asked about our religious beliefs, we should not hide our atheism. During the Q&A in a debate I had about morality, one person said I must be an honest person because I acknowledged being an atheist. Trying to avoid the A-word because you think it is a skeleton in your closet makes it become a skeleton. I think it’s better to openly discuss your so-called skeletons before others discover them. To the surprise of many, I revealed all my skeletons in my autobiography. For better or worse, no opposition research is needed on me.

Whether motivated by activism to run for office or work on important community issues, you will need support from others. It helps to seek common ground, sometimes with people you often disagree (perhaps because of their biblical beliefs). But if they are inspired by religion to treat others fairly and do good works, we can work with them on selected issues. Just about all religions and secular philosophies have grounded morality in some version of the Golden Rule. The good values a religion promotes are human values, not specific to any particular religion. And those are the values we should emphasize when working with religious people. We may differ about a future life, but atheists and theists can work together on concerns that matter in this life, like human rights, racial discrimination, the environment, poverty, peace, and other social justice issues.

In seeking supporters for your cause, it helps to support others in their causes with which you agree. I’ll illustrate with an example. The South Carolina Progressive Network is composed of 36 organizations, including the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. Most organizations either have no theological position or have members who are quite religious. All are outside the mainstream and opposed by the Religious Right. The rationale for the Progressive Network is that people are more likely to listen to a network of groups than to one lone group or one lone individual.

For instance, our secular humanist group sought Network support for a Charleston Day of Reason, coordinating with national freethought organizations across the nation. I expected opposition from some religious members because it was on the same day as the National Day of Prayer. I told them the day was picked because reason is a concept all Americans can support, and that we wanted to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship. To my pleasant surprise, the support was unanimous and the Progressive Network asked Mayor Joe Riley to issue a proclamation in support of a Charleston Day of Reason, which he did.

The Network and others joined in a local park to celebrate a day of reason, tolerance, democracy, and human rights. The celebration began with a member of Charleston City Council reading the mayor’s proclamation. Others, both secular and religious, then contributed freethought statements or comments in support of reason. When we associate faces with organizations, it is much easier for these groups to support each other’s causes. It’s also a great way to make new friends.

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.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Odin Aerni on Unsplash

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