If you reflect on the Silverman v. Campbell of 1996/1997 through the South Carolina Supreme Court case, and other notable and similar cases - especially those that lost, what is the silver lining in this and other cases? Other positives around even some of the negative issues that may emerge from this, e.g., the reinvigoration of religious fundamentalists to push harder than before.
Winning is good, but sometimes losing is better—especially when a loss leads to much bigger wins. I’ll illustrate with a personal example. In 1989, a colleague at the College of Charleston pointed out that our South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from becoming governor. While I’m no constitutional scholar, I knew this violated Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits religious tests as qualification for any public office. I went to the American Civil Liberties Union office to ask an attorney there how this obviously unconstitutional provision could be removed. The lawyer said, “The best way is for an open atheist to become a candidate.” He added, smiling, “In fact, the very best candidate would be you—in a 1990 race for governor of South Carolina.” After giving this surprising suggestion much thought, I agreed to run as the candidate without a prayer. I assumed, in my political naïveté, that the state attorney general would then simply consent to bring South Carolina into compliance with federal law, and that would end the matter. My lawyer knew better. When a reporter asked South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell what he thought of my candidacy and constitutional challenge, Campbell said, “The South Carolina Constitution is fine just as it is because this country was founded on Godly principles.”
Like most authors, I’m pleased when readers ask me to sign a copy of one of my books. But, like other authors, I never sign books written by someone else. So, I was surprised to learn that President Donald Trump recently signed Bibles in a Baptist Church in Alabama. I understand that some devotees believe that God (apparently a Republican) intervened in the last presidential election to make Trump president. But even his most ardent supporters don’t believe Trump is God or an author of any part of the Bible. Some of us even suspect our president has never read the Bible, except for 2 Corinthians, which Trump referred to in prepared remarks at Liberty University as “the whole ball game.”
Here’s my take on why our president might have felt justified in signing Bibles. Donald Trump takes credit for the book “Art of the Deal,” written by journalist Tony Schwartz. Since there is much controversy over who wrote the Bible, perhaps President Trump is perfectly willing to take credit.
After all, a wrathful Donald Trump demands 100 percent loyalty, doesn’t admit to mistakes, blames others when things go wrong, never apologizes, claims to know more than any expert in any field, doesn’t recognize a power higher than himself and expects others to believe he is perfect or suffer grave consequences. That sounds a lot like the kind of god many people believe in.
It’s a good question to think about before committing to a full life of activism, especially if you commit to what many view as an unpopular cause. I can mostly describe my own experiences along with what went right and what went wrong. I expect my situation was less risky than for most, with little or no financial or personal safety concerns. When I began my secular activism, I was teaching at a public institution that prides itself in having academic freedom.
I ran for Governor of South Carolina in 1990 to challenge the state constitution prohibition against atheists holding public office. Whenever I received publicity, I heard from people who thought they were the only atheists in South Carolina. I took their names and with them founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry (SHL) based in Charleston. I became its president, newsletter editor, and wrote almost all the articles. In calling for others to take a more active role, I even wrote an editorial titled “Stop the Dictator!” I encouraged new ideas, but looking back I wasn’t very supportive; I’d often respond with reasons why the new ideas would not work. Sometimes I’d ask whoever came up with an idea to develop it on his or her own, withoutany guidance or assistance.
Activism, by its nature - real active involvement in community civic and political life, requires sacrifices. How should secular activists gauge their ability to participate in the variety of activist efforts available to them, not only in terms of opportunity costs between different activist efforts but also the costs to aspects of their lives and liabilities to personal safety?
Perhaps the most important and effective thing for secular activists to do is to come out of the closet. Attitudes toward gays changed rapidly when people learned that their friends, neighbors, and even family members were gay. Attitudes about atheists are slowly changing as atheists are slowly coming out, especially among millennials.
You’ve probably heard there has never been an atheist president, but the truth is that there has never been an open atheist president. I expect there have been several closeted atheist presidents. Barney Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, only acknowledged that he was an atheist after he retired from Congress. I also doubt that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is the only Jewish socialist in the country who believes in God. A recent Harris survey showed that 52% of Jews (myself included) do not believe in God. https://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/jewsdontbelieve/
The bad news about coming out of the closet is that you might lose some friends, though I would question what kind of friendship it is if you can’t be honest about who you are. Of course, caution may well be necessary when dealing with religious family members or employers. The good news is that you will gain friends. I’ve heard from people who guardedly mentioned their secularism to friends and coworkers and were pleasantly surprised by a “Me, too” response. Better to be comfortable in your own skin than to hide who you are in order to please those you might not respect.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are the pragmatics or the first practical considerations of secular activism?
Herb Silverman: What to do, when to do it, and how to frame it? Those are the questions. Since open secularists are still a minority, we must pick and choose our battles. We do not ask for special rights, as many religions do. But we deserve and should demand equal rights in a country with a secular (and godless) Constitution, which does not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion. We can focus on win-win situations, where we either gain equality or get sympathy for being discriminated against.
As a personal example, the Charleston City Council in South Carolina started its meetings with an invocation, usually a Christian one. Our local Secular Humanist group persuaded one council member to offer more diversity, and he invited me to give an invocation. But as the mayor introduced me, half the council members walked out because they knew I was an atheist. They didn’t return until it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance, and they turned toward me as they bellowed the words “under God.” Those who heard my invocation, including the mayor, thought it was fine.
I didn’t expect such defiance, but it was an opportunity for the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” A reporter from our local newspaper wrote about the incident, along with comments from those who walked out. One councilman quoted Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart there is no God. They are corrupt, their deeds are vile, there is not one who does good.” He then told me that the walkout was not personal. In other words, his religious beliefs compelled him to demonize an entire class of people he was elected to represent. Frankly, I would rather it had been personal. Another councilman said, “He can worship a chicken if he wants to, but I’m not going to be around when he does it.” I responded, “Perhaps the councilman doesn’t realize that many of us who stand politely for religious invocations believe that praying to a god makes no more sense than praying to a chicken.” (At least you can see a chicken.)
Here’s a discussion I had at a Cal Polytech Veritas Forum with Dr. Karen Pryor, from Liberty University, on the topic: Would Society Be Better Off Without Religion?
Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Herb Silverman: I was born in Philadelphia, where I lived for 21 years until I ran away from home to graduate school. My family consisted largely of Orthodox Jews, though my parents were more cultural Jews motivated by anti-Antisemitism. Having had relatives who died in the Holocaust, they did not trust any Goyim (Gentiles), and had as little contact with them as possible. We lived in a Jewish neighborhood and after public school I would go to an Orthodox Hebrew school. My mother was an authoritarian, who made all the family decisions. My father worked in a warehouse his entire life, packing Hershey bars that were shipped to underground subway stands. In another era, my mother would have had a job (other than cleaning house and “taking care” of me), which would have made both of us happier.