Herb Silverman is a native of Philadelphia. He received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Syracuse University and has been a Professor of Mathematics at the College of Charleston since 1976. He has published over 100 research papers in mathematics journals, and is also the recipient of the Distinguished Research Award.
In the 1990s, after learning that atheists were ineligible, by law, to hold elected office in South Carolina, he ran for office and pursued overturning the law in court, succeeding with this effort after a eight-year battle and a unanimous decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court. He currently serves as President of the Secular Coalition for America, and publishes, lectures, and debates. He has also published a chapter entitled “Inerrancy Turned Political” in The Fundamentals of Extremism.
Herb Silverman, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’d like to ask you first about the Secular Coalition for America, as you have been a creative force behind the organization and now serve as its president.
Q: Tell readers about the genesis of the Secular Coalition. How did the idea for this project come about, and whom can we thank for bringing the organization to fruition?
A: You say “genesis” and I say “evolution.” Many fine national nontheistic organizations had for years been doing their own thing with little backing for worthwhile efforts of other organizations. So in 1998, I sent a letter to leaders and suggested we could have a more significant impact if we began cooperating.
A couple of years later, several national leaders agreed to meet, exchange ideas, and focus on the 95 percent we had in common rather than the 5 percent that set us apart. This led to the “Coalition for the Community of Reason,” which met periodically. Though talk is good, some of us were hoping to see such talk lead to joint action and activism. Instead, an inordinate amount of time was spent on process and debating whether we should be a publicly visible organization or simply a forum to exchange ideas.
When these differences became irreconcilable, it turned out to be a “blessing” in disguise. In 2002, four of the ten organizations meeting as the Coalition for the Community of Reason evolved into the Secular Coalition for America. Those four founding members were Atheist Alliance International, Institute for Humanist Studies, Internet Infidels, and Secular Student Alliance. Instead of a loose confederation, the Secular Coalition became a formal organization with an activist mission: To increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all. Since then, three more national organizations joined the Secular Coalition: American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Society for Humanistic Judaism.
Q: It seems the Secular Coalition has developed fairly rapidly, considering that it now has several member organizations supporting it, and employs a full-time lobbyist, Lori Lipman Brown. How hard was it, to give a structure to the organization and to bring together various groups, to form a non-profit? Give us a sense of what the coalition member organizations contribute, and the kind of work Lori has done and continues to do.
A: Member organizations are committed to making a political difference in our culture. That is why we filed under a section of the IRS code that allows unlimited political lobbying. Our primary initial focus was to raise enough money to hire a lobbyist to Congress and finally give the freethought community a voice in Washington. All seven member organizations are actively contributing as best they can. Donations include money, significant dedicated time of professional staff, promotion through fundraising events, mailings, and/or advertisements, and office space and support.
On September 19, 2005, Lori Lipman Brown became our first Director/Lobbyist, and the first and only registered lobbyist for freethought in Washington, DC. We also hired Ron Millar as Associate Director. We are all impressed by how much they have accomplished in a short time. It is a pleasure to see how well they interact and complement each other. We are especially grateful that, despite taking significantly lower salaries than they were used to, they agreed to accept positions in a cause to which they were so committed. In a short time, Lori has done an excellent job of increasing the visibility of nontheism in the media and working in coalition with other D.C. groups on issues of common concern.
Q: I’ve seen Lori’s appearances on FOX, notably with Bill O’Reilly. In fact, FOX seems to be most interested in giving non-believers air time, either on television or radio. Are we non-believers foils for conservative media personalities? Why do you think we lack media coverage by mainstream networks and cable offshoots?
A: Lori did a terrific job on O’Reilly! They may invite us hoping for a food fight, but it gives us a chance to get our message out and surprise others by showing how reasonable we sound. I think some mainstream networks are so concerned about the so-called “liberal bias” that they avoid giving us a forum. They often prefer countering voices from the religious right with voices from the religious center or left, ignoring those of us whose moral choices are based on evidence rather than faith.
Q: Let me ask you a few questions about yourself. I hope you don’t mind. Many atheists are children of religious families. Tell us a bit about your childhood. Did you have a religious upbringing? When did you realize that you were an atheist? Did family and friends affirm your decision?
A: I was born and raised a Jew, who had a Bar Mitzvah in the Orthodox tradition. I now support Secular Coalition member, Society for Humanistic Judaism. I stopped believing in God before I had even heard of the A-word. At 15, when I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, I learned there was a word (atheist) to describe my lack of god beliefs. My family was disappointed that I stopped performing rituals, but we never discussed theological views. Here is the only prayer I ever recite, and then only to tease my wife Sharon: “Thank God I was not born a woman.” Really, this is a daily morning prayer of Orthodox male Jews! There is no comparable prayer for women.
Q: A few years ago, you wrote the sermon “Positive Atheism” and delivered it at a UU church; you also submitted the sermon for a contest sponsored by the UU Infidels and won the Robert Ingersoll award for best sermon on atheism. I read that sermon, and it is quite memorable. What inspired you? What are the origins of “positive atheism?” How do you balance rightful criticism of theism with your message to remain positive, as atheists?
A: I used the term “positive atheism” because I was so often asked why atheists were so negative. I even had people tell me they didn’t think they could go on living if they stopped believing in God. At my sermon, I wore a T-shirt that said, “Smile, there is no Hell.” I pointed out that this is an important message of positive atheism. We don’t believe in hell or eternal punishment, and that’s worth smiling about.
Critical thinking about politics or religion is not negative. Most people agree when it comes to politics, but believe it is rude or disrespectful to criticize religious beliefs. Respect for religious faith, whatever that faith might be, plays an important role in perpetuating human conflict. I mentioned in my sermon that “we must not be so open-minded that our brains fall out.” I think the best way for atheists, or anyone else, to remain positive is to have a sense of humor.
Q: You once ran for office in South Carolina, where you live and teach, to test the law stating that no atheist could hold public office. You then spent 8 years in court to overturn this religious test requirement. What was that experience like? Did you receive a great deal of support? What did the general public have to say, about your challenge to the law?
A: The experience changed my life in many wonderful ways. Before 1990, I was an apathetic atheist. It didn’t seem any more important for me to say I was an atheist than to say I was a round-earther. It just seemed like the sensible default position. When I learned that atheists in South Carolina could not hold public office, I became committed to this civil rights issue.
As an educator, my campaign to change the law by running for Governor was an opportunity to educate the public about discrimination against atheists. I think most South Carolinians now believe atheists should be allowed to hold public office, but I hope to see in my lifetime the day they will actually be willing to vote for a well-qualified candidate who happens to be an atheist. The best thing that happened to me during my gubernatorial run was that I met my wife Sharon—in Church. She heard me speak at the Unitarian Church and offered to help in my campaign. She then became my one and only groupie.
Q: Returning to your roll as a spokesperson for non-believers, I’d like to ask you about your debate on the topic “Does American Religion Undermine American Values?” The debate was held in Oxford, England. How did the debate come about? Who was your opponent? What was the outcome? What did you gather about the way the English regard America’s latest “religious awakening?”
A: I was invited because I was president of the Secular Coalition for America. My opening line received a nice laugh: “You just heard Richard Lowry (Editor of National Review) mention what it’s like to be a conservative in New York City. Now I’ll talk about what it’s like to be an atheist in South Carolina.” Here is where I received the most applause: “In the melting pot called America, we are one nation under the Constitution (or maybe under Canada), but not one nation under God. In fact, given how the religious right opposes the teaching of evolution, or any scientific or social view that conflicts with a literal interpretation of the Bible, we are really becoming one nation under-educated.”
If we weren’t such a powerful country, I think the English would regard our “religious awakening” as quaint and amusing. Instead, they regard us as scary. After the debate, the audience members cast a vote by choosing which door to leave from. It was a bit unsettling as we watched them leave, but I’m happy to report that our side won the debate.
Q: Lastly, what do you forecast, in regards to American politics and religious influence? What are the greatest problems we non-believers face? What hopeful indications do you see?
A: I’m more comfortable working for change than prognosticating change. I don’t think of us as non-believers. We believe in a lot of things. We just don’t believe in any gods. Christians are also non-believers in all gods, except for one (or maybe three). I think we can become more influential if we promote a positive evidence-based agenda. We need to minimize whining about past injustices or unhappy religious upbringing. We won’t win friends and influence people on the basis of victimhood. I expect we will be viewed in a better light when more atheists come out of the closet. While just about everyone personally has friends who are atheists, most probably don’t know they have atheist friends.
Finally, I am hopeful that we can become more like the Christian Coalition. (Got your attention, didn’t I!) Though we disagree with everything they stand for, they had a terrific model. They brought people together who had common interests and made the nation take notice. We must build and sustain coalitions among freethinkers, as well as between freethinkers and liberal religionists. We must show our strength in numbers and work for opportunities to get a place at the media and political tables.