Ask Herb 14 – Secular Malcontents

by | August 15, 2019

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 secular issues in secular communities.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Secular communities, and community members and leaders and organizations, can make mistakes, as with any human institution. What mistakes have been glaring in the history of secularism in the 20th century? What errors continue to plague the secular communities into the 21st century? What are the taboos of the community needing more open, though respectful, logical, and evidence-based, conversation? Of course, some items are seen as taboo – left, center, and right – and simply aren’t, while some simply remain missed – except by a few who become instantly marginalized. Can’t rewrite the past, can rectify aspects of its effects now, even so, how can secular communities create positive progress on net and in all secular communities without creating new bigotries passing off as secular ideals, and so on?

Herb Silverman: Secularists often disagree about what we should be called. Many secularists are uncomfortable with the word “atheist” because it describes what we don’t believe, rather than what we do believe. After all, we don’t go around calling ourselves A-Easter Bunnyists or A-Tooth Fairyists. Other labels atheists use include humanist, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, rationalist, agnostic, ignostic, apatheist, and many more. If you don’t know what each word means, don’t worry. Even those who identify with such labels often disagree about their meanings. Parsing words might be a characteristic of folks engaged in the secular movement. Though there are fine distinctions, which many of us like to argue about, it often comes down more to a matter of taste or comfort level than deep theological or philosophical differences.

I pretty much view “atheist” and “humanist” as two sides of a coin. I’m the same person whether I talk about what I don’t believe as an atheist or what I do believe as a humanist. Atheists and humanists try to be “good without any gods,” though humanists might focus more on “good” and atheists more on “without gods.” The word “atheist” gets more attention and “humanist” sounds more respectable to the general public. My “conversion” from agnostic to atheist was more definitional than theological. As a mathematician, I couldn’t prove there was no god, so I took the agnostic position, “I don’t know.” But when I learned that an atheist is simply someone without a belief in any gods, I also became an atheist.

Here’s an interesting distinction between Christians & secularists: Christians have the same unifying word but fight over theology; secularists have the same unifying theology, but fight over words. At least our wars are only verbal.

Despite the growing number of secularists, we haven’t been nearly as influential politically as most other minority groups. That’s in part because we pride ourselves on being so independent.

Whatever labels secularists prefer, it improves our culture by cooperating on the 95 percent we have in common rather than arguing about the 5 percent that sets us apart.

We need to establish our legitimacy as a demographic. That’s why I helped form the Secular Coalition for America, currently with 19 national member organizations, covering the full spectrum of nontheists. Its mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints, and to promote and strengthen the secular character of our government. The Secular Coalition incorporated as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of secular Americans, with lobbyists in Washington, DC. So please check the website and consider signing up for action alerts.

One problem some secular organizations have is mission creep. For instance, all members of the Secular Coalition care about starving children, but that issue falls outside its mission. The Secular Coalition does get involved with issues like evidence-based education and science denial. Most secular organizations don’t have the resources to expand their mission.

While secularists certainly respect science, some also support scientism, which promotes science as the only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values. Scientism claims that the scientific method must be used to answer all important questions, and that science is the only reliable source of knowledge. Some (but not I) would argue that all moral questions can be answered through science.

While fundamentalists in all religions seem to have an “Us vs. Them” mentality, so do many secularists who put all religious people in the same category. We turn off potential allies when we assume all religionists are fundamentalists, and ask them to justify passages in their holy books that they find every bit as absurd as we do. Some atheists make the same mistake as religious conservatives, treating the Bible as either all good or all bad. While it contains many boring, anachronistic, contradictory, misogynistic, and repetitive sections, it also has passages with rich and diverse meanings. The same can be said for Greek mythology—fictional tales that were once religious texts.

Progressive Christians are as appalled as we are by the merger of Christianity and government, embarrassed by Christians who use their religion for political gain, and annoyed that this brand of Christianity grabs media attention. I think we must look for opportunities to bring moderate religionists to our side. They are concerned that too many Christians are neglecting the Christianity promoted by the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., who worked on behalf of the marginalized—the helpless, the sick, and the poor. Such Christians are more “us” than “them.” On most political issues important to secularists (separation of religion and government, LGBTQ and women’s rights, etc.), liberal religionists are usually our allies.

I try to find common ground with theists, even when it’s difficult. I was once asked if I could find any common ground with Jerry Falwell, and I could. Here’s how: Jerry Falwell once said, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of a Jew.” I agree with Jerry Falwell. But for very different reasons.

As far as taboos go for secularists, I think just about anything can be discussed and argued. Our local secular humanist group once had a meeting at which people could bring up views that other atheists would likely find objectionable. I spoke on “The joys of incest,” (and mentioning that for me the topic was purely theoretical). I said I saw nothing wrong if adult siblings wanted to have sex, as long as they took proper precautions to avoid having children. As did many in the audience, you should feel free to disagree with me about 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:

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5 thoughts on “Ask Herb 14 – Secular Malcontents

  1. Tim Underwood

    “Bible as either all good or all bad.”

    A good question about the Bible is, “Who does it benefit?” To answer this question you have to have some knowledge about who wrote it. More and more evidence points to Roman authorship, financing, publishing and dissemination.

    The fact that it contains good poetry is beside the point. We now privilege people who memorize scriptural propaganda and then use it to promote their political objectives. What we need to do is convince the free world that the evangelists’ mission: to persuade us to yield as much political power, as possible, to them, is not in our best interest.

    Just the fact that the New Testament does not have a Christian genesis should be a potent enough reason to dismiss Its legitimacy.

  2. Indi

    I generally agree with Silverman’s desire that secularists (to use the term as an umbrella term for secularists, humanists, atheists, and free thinkers in general) focus on our commonalities in order to have a greater political effect… but I still always bristle when someone actually makes that plea. The reason is because it always happens that the person making that plea is understating or – as in this case – completely ignoring that while we may only disagree on 5% of “stuff”… that 5% can sometimes be critical.

    When people make this plea – like Silverman in this case – they always demur from mentioning specifics. They always speak in vague generalities: “We’re 95% in agreement! 5% is small! So why should it matter?” Seems reasonable, right? But every time I ask for specifics – for particular examples of two secularist groups or individuals that aren’t interested in allying – and actually get an example provided (which is rare!), it turns out one of those groups has a damn good reason for refusing to associate with the other.

    I’ve written about this before. I generally agree with Silverman’s plea in theory. I want a big tent of progressive, secularist voices that can move as one to pressure politicians to put progressive, secular policies in action. But I refuse to ally with individuals or organizations that oppose human rights or promote regressive policies. And that’s not a hypothetical problem in Canada in 2019. While they may all be minor or fringe, there are a lot of nominally secular organizations that are virulently islamophobic or anti-immigrant.

    I do agree with Silverman’s plea for secularist organizations to come together for our shared goals. But I think it’s increasingly irresponsible to make that plea without tacking on the explicit addendum that that doesn’t mean allying with everyone who calls themselves secularist, regardless of what other foul and hateful beliefs they may espouse. Allying loses its value if you’re going to do with anyone regardless of their principles. You lose your moral authority; hell, we routinely mock American Christians for allying with Trump for this very reason!

    First filter out the groups and individuals who espouse foul and hateful beliefs… then get together with those who remain, to work toward our shared goals. That is how we should be making this plea in 2019. Skipping the first part, or pretending that it’s simply implicit, is no longer acceptable.

    1. Tim Underwood

      After the hopeful death of Abrahamic dominance, animosity towards “others” will remain, but hopefully at a less ugly intensity. We are atheists primarily because we reject coercive and vindictive foundational stories. The issue is how to effectively combat weaponized literature. As many of us as possible have to be literary critics of sorts.

    2. rj

      As a coalition shouldn’t we rank the issues we have in common. Then put our proposals forward. After that the coalition can break down and proponents find new partners to advance those issues in disagreement. Not sure if i’d want to be in a coalition with people who are anti immigration but want Canada to match the birthrate of exploding countries. And don’t want to pay more to support Canadas re-burgeoning original peoples population.

      1. Tim Underwood

        A good secular (rational) position on population would be we need a lot less of it.


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