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 passing on the torch and learning from pain.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Any activism comes with costs, as discussed in prior parts of the interview. Performing leading activism, these come with a significant level of costs to carve a path through the brush of uncharted territory. As you carried the torch of secular activism forward and made necessary sacrifices for progress seen in the current moment, what were the wounds from the conflicts?
Time with the potential for being spent on more emotionally or intellectually satisfying material, as a modestly gifted and talented mathematician with a significant position in the academic world. Relationships destroyed; professional work missed; chaos imbued into normal life; tensions in intimate relationships over the stress of controversies, and so on. What can the wounds teach the next few generations of secular activists?
What tricks, deceits, and immoralities will the egregiously fundamentalist, literalist, and so on, utilize in, from their view, an eternal battle between Good and Evil to annihilate the Satanic forces of secular humanism, secularism, modern science including evolution via natural selection, progressive and Enlightenment ideals, equality of women, and the improved status of LGBTI+ and other undesirables and reprobates, including “fornicators,” who do not know their place? The work, again from their view – usually, Dominionist or Reconstructionist – as stated rather bluntly ad nauseum (to everyone else as far as I can tell), to fight for the forces of Good, God, nation, the Holy Bible, and, even in some cases, the dominance of the race for their rightful place.
Herb Silverman: My engagement with secular activism turned out to be more of a “blessing” than a sacrifice. I first got engaged with the movement in 1990, by accident, when I learned that our South Carolina State Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office. So I went to the ACLU to ask how this obviously unconstitutional provision could be changed. The legal director said an atheist plaintiff would need to run for governor in the current election year, and that I should become that Candidate Without A Prayer (later the title of one of my books). I ran and of course lost, so my case was ruled not ripe because I lost. However, in 1997 I won a similar case in the state Supreme Court because the state had not allowed me to become a notary public, and so atheists are now eligible to hold public office in South Carolina.
Through the publicity I received, I heard from many people who had thought they were the only atheist in South Carolina. That inspired me to start a secular humanist group in my hometown of Charleston, and that group still thrives. I also heard from national atheist and humanist groups that I had not previously known about, and I joined them all. This led me to help found the Secular Coalition for America, which currently represents 19 national, nontheistic organizations to lobby for secular rights in Congress.
Fortunately, the College of Charleston, where I was teaching, is a public institution that takes academic freedom seriously. It didn’t try to prevent me from engaging in political activity as long as I didn’t imply that the College endorsed my positions. Many of my colleagues told me that they were also atheists. I continued to teach and do mathematical research, though as I engaged increasingly in secular activism my research productivity began to decline. I retired from the College of Charleston in 2009 at age 67 to devote myself full time to secular activism.
As far as friendships go, I didn’t lose friends because of my activism. Those who were upset by my activities were not true friends. If I lose a friendship because I am being myself, then I don’t consider it much of a loss. I also made many new friends and long-lasting relationships in the secular movement. The best for me personally was that I met Sharon Fratepietro, who volunteered to help in my campaign for governor. We are now married and have been living happily together for 29 years.
I can’t speak for others who might worry about losing friends if they become engaged in secular activism, other than to quote from Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.” I think it’s better to be comfortable in your own skin than to hide who you are in order to please those you might not respect. Of course, caution may well be necessary when dealing with religious family members or employers. I’ve heard from people who mentioned their atheism to friends, family members, or coworkers and were pleasantly surprised by a “Me, too” response, or about the doubts some have about religion. While it is still a stigma in some places to be an atheist, it is less stigmatic than it used to be. The fastest growing national demographic in surveys about religion are the “nones,” people with no religion. They are not all atheists, but most are atheist-friendly.
Religious fundamentalists continue to be very active and politically influential, but I think they are beginning to lose some of their influence. Many young evangelicals and those in other religions are breaking away because they oppose the political influence their churches exert on issues like LGBT and women’s rights, not to mention the negative effect of hypocritical scandals like pedophilia. And there’s no doubt that the abundance of influential scientific findings even more marginalizes the outdated teachings in some religions.
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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