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 finish up with an easy positive note and some summary reflections.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Freethinkers love to provide themselves with different labels to differentiate on the minutiae of differences in opinion for valid and invalid reasons. Regardless, a triplet value set comes in most of the groupings with compassion, reason, and science. Some minor squabbles about the meaning of each categorization. The general template of humanism here. What seem like the basic tenets for freethinkers? Why those values? How do those play out in everyday life? How would these impact the wider society if enacted in a broader way? What continues onward in their march as the impediments to this advancement fundamental freethinker values?
Herb Silverman: 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 freethinker, humanist, secular humanist, agnostic, rationalist, naturalist, skeptic, 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.
Here’s an interesting distinction between Christians and 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.
At this point, you might ask, “What’s the difference between atheism and humanism?” And my answer is, “I’m not really sure.” I pretty much view them 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.”
So which word is better: atheist or humanist? My answer is neither or, more accurately, both, or even more accurately, it depends on the context. “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.
Conservative religions tend to think morality is more about belief than behavior, and view this life as a preparation for an imagined afterlife. So how do atheists and humanists make moral decisions? We are guided by the expected consequences of our actions. We are committed to the application of reason, science, compassion, and experience to better understand the universe and solve human problems. The plight of the human race—indeed, of the planet—is in our hands, and social problems can be solved by methods that we develop and test.
Views of atheists can change based on evidence. We have principles and values written on paper, not commandments written on stone tablets. We don’t give credit to a deity for our accomplishments or blame the devil when we behave badly. We take personal responsibility for our actions. Immortality, for atheists, is the good works that live long after we have died. I know what my afterlife will be. I’m going to medical school, just like my Jewish mother always wanted me to do. I expect to use all my body parts when I’m alive, but hope others can make good use of them when I’m dead.
Despite the growing number of freethinkers, 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. But to gain significant influence, we have to become more cooperative and establish our legitimacy as a demographic. That’s why in 2002 I helped form the Secular Coalition for America, currently with 19 national member organizations, covering the full spectrum of nontheists. (Notice we say we are nontheistic, without any gods, so as not to offend those who prefer their special “word.”) The Secular Coalition incorporated as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of secular Americans, with lobbyists in Washington, DC.
Some may construe the mere questioning of faith or presenting alternatives to it as too negative. I disagree. Being guided by reason instead of faith is not negative. Religion is a lot like politics—you get more followers by making big promises. Belief in a heavenly father who will always take care of you might be reassuring, but it’s important to distinguish between the world as we know it and the world as we’d like it to be. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
Here’s an example of what I would consider inappropriate. Religious people sometimes say to me: “I’ll pray for you.” An inappropriate response would be, “O.K., I’ll think for both of us.” But this hurtful reply would only offend a presumably well-meaning person. I think the best response is, “Thank you.” However, if the opportunity presented itself, I might get into a discussion about the efficacy of prayer with questions like: Why would an all-knowing, all-loving, god change his mind because you asked him to? Or why would a god who ignored the prayers of millions of Holocaust victims take a special interest in a football game? But I would only engage a person who seemed receptive to such a discussion.
As an atheist, some people assume I must be anti-religion. Not so. By one measure, I might be the most religious person in America. You see, I have not one, not two, but three different religions: I’m a member of the American Ethical Union, with Ethical Culture Societies; I’m a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, with atheist rabbis; and I’m a member of the UU Humanists. All three religions are nontheistic and active participants in the Secular Coalition for America.
I like to put a positive face on freethought. We want to maximize happiness, which usually involves making others happy, too. We have one life to live, and one chance to do something meaningful with it. I think the mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell summed it up nicely: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” My wife has a T-shirt with a simple four-word message describing freethought. It says, “Be good, do good.” That’s really all you need to do.
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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