Here’s where you can watch a debate I had on September 9 with Bill Clute, Director of Reasonable Faith in Greenville, South Carolina on whether the Christian God exists.
The Mathematicians Have Made a Covenant With the Devil
Review by Ed Buckner
An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt
Can anyone write an objective, reasonable review of an essentially autobiographical book about someone he knows well and admires? Perhaps not, but An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt makes it seem easy. Dr. Herb Silverman takes great pride in giving appealing talks, always laced with well-polished jokes and anecdotes, with crucial matters of timing developed and carried out with care. His wife, Sharon Fratepietro, gets credit for coaching and editing with a fine sense of what works. A superficial listener to one of his talks, like a superficial reader of this book, might incorrectly conclude that the entertainment is the point, because the entertainment is well crafted and successful. (I don’t know what the equivalent of “timing” is in written anecdotes, but Silverman assuredly does.)
As much fun as Stranger is to read, fun is ultimately not really the point: the point is a description, and by implication a prescription, of how a man (or in this case, more precisely, a couple) should live. Atheism, or at least a lack of theism, is certainly part of this, because Silverman’s humanism has always emphatically been of the secular sort. But justice, compassion, decency, respect, and perspective (including, of course, a sense of humor and the ability to avoid taking oneself too seriously) matter more. Silverman, more than any other atheist or humanist leader in the nation today (and that includes many of my favorite people on Earth), has shaped modern humanism and atheism in the direction of being cooperative as well as competitive. The Secular Coalition for America was developed by many people, but Silverman was the founder. His dogged, cheerful persistence made that happen when others—including me—were not sure it ever would. (Chapter 6 of Stranger, though way too modest in presentation, provides more detail.)
A June 24 story described an impressive unity rally at Marion Square calling for stricter gun laws and activism. The rally was inspired by the horrendous murders at Emanuel AME Church in 2015. One notable exception to this call for unity came from the keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant. He said of Christians who look the other way in the face of injustice, “You are just an apostolic atheist.” In other words, Rev. Bryant warned that apathetic Christians are as bad as atheists.
It’s sad to hear such talk from a Christian leader at a unity rally. We are not and never will be a united city and country as long as people denigrate atheists or any other minority while claiming their particular religion is superior. A significant number of atheists and humanists have always worked for civil rights and social justice, and they continue to be an integral part of this community. When I first heard about the shootings at the AME church, I was reminded of another racist shooting that moved a nation to action.
During the Freedom Summer of 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Mississippi for attempting to register African Americans to vote. Goodman and Schwerner were both atheists whose humanist principles inspired them to seek equal justice for all people. The month after their deaths, public outrage helped gain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As we determine how to improve conditions in our state, let’s all try to be more civil toward people with thoughtful, opposing views.
In columnist Noah Feldman’s May 15 op-ed, “Mormons’ breakup with Boy Scouts is disappointing,” he expressed sorrow that the long-happy marriage between the organizations ended in divorce. He praised the Boy Scouts for deciding to admit gays and allow girls to participate in activities in the renamed “Scouts BSA.” Mormons decided to disaffiliate. But to their credit, Mormons have evolved culturally in the direction of tolerance. Black men finally became eligible for the priesthood in 1978 after church leaders received a “revelation” on the issue. And on Dec. 6, 2013, the church renounced its doctrine that brown skin is a punishment from God.
Regardless, Mormons and Scouts still share an unstated bigotry against atheists. Scouts and leaders must agree that “no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God.” Many open atheists have been refused Scout membership, though those who pretend to believe are admitted. Even though our military allows atheists to serve openly and nobly, adult atheists with an honorable military discharge are not deemed morally fit to serve as Scout leaders. I hope that Scouts BSA will eventually evolve to be as tolerant as the Girl Scouts, who treat lesbian and atheist girls as equals. Who among you is willing to say that the Girl Scouts are not as morally straight as the Boy Scouts?
I would like to thank those six Upstate Republican House members who recently introduced a bizarre bill opposing gay marriage, while recognizing that the state is “prohibited from favoring or endorsing religion over non-religion.” The bill refers to secular humanism and atheism as a “religion” that is privileged and discriminates against Christians who oppose gay marriage. This gives me an opportunity to clear up misconceptions about secular humanism and atheism.
I belong to several humanist and atheist organizations, and not one person in these communities thinks they are part of a religion. If atheism is a religion, then baldness is a hair color and not collecting stamps is a hobby. Religions and non-religions are free to promote their principles privately and endorse public policy that does not privilege religion over non-religion. Secular humanists generally support marriage equality not because of any religious motivation, but because we think it is a human right. For the same reason, several decades ago secular humanists supported marriage between blacks and whites when religious conservatives in South Carolina were giving biblical arguments for why the mixing of races was against God’s will.
Some conservative Christians today are claiming religious discrimination because public schools teach evidence-based evolution, which these Christians refer to as “the religion of secular humanism.” You may call evidence-based science a religion, but that does not make it so.
Finally, I give credit to Chris Sevier, a co-writer of this bill called the “Marriage and Constitution Restoration Act,” for his perhaps unintended insight into what makes a successful marriage. Sevier once filed a lawsuit to recognize his marriage to a computer, claiming that such a union is no more unnatural than gay marriage.
Here’s my marital advice to Sevier and all others: Marriages, whether gay or straight, are happier when spouses spend more time with each other than with their laptops.
Defenders of President Trump say his comment about considering immigrants from Norway, rather than from Africa or Haiti, was not racist. They claim he just prefers well-educated immigrants who would be productive citizens. Putting aside Trump stereotypes, I wish he would espouse the policies that in a recent report ranked Norway the happiest country in the world, followed by Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. The main factors found to support happiness were caring about others, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income, and good governance. The U.S. ranked 19th in this survey. Norwegians don’t mind paying higher taxes for the right to universal public health care; universal public education through university and professional schools; paid parental leave; subsidized early childhood education; care for the elderly and disabled; and many other public services that improve the quality of life for Norway’s citizens.
Not unrelated, 62 percent of Norwegians are atheists or agnostics and don’t have religious disputes about secular policy. Not surprisingly, we don’t find many Norwegians who want to immigrate here. Were we to survey Norway and many other countries on their opinions of President Trump’s policies and behavior, I expect his unfavorable rating would be as high as in those places Trump disparaged in his comment.
President Franklin Roosevelt supposedly said about the ruthless, anti-communist dictator of Nicaragua Anastasio Somoza García: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” a statement subsequently attributed to a variety of presidential administrations. After the recent tax bill passed, I expect many Republicans could comfortably replace “Somoza” with “Trump.” When progressives talk about Oprah Winfrey for president, I hear in my mind: “Oprah may be an unqualified celebrity billionaire, but she’s our unqualified celebrity billionaire.”
I recently met some young atheists who told me that atheists did not convert them to atheism. Christians did. Not what Christian Evangelicals intended, but a welcome example of the law of unintended consequences. As a freshman at Temple University in October 1960, I was in the audience when Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy campaigned there. I appreciated the religious diversity he had advocated the previous month when he assured Protestant ministers in Houston that he believed in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. And true to his word, as the first Catholic president, JFK gave evidence-based secular arguments for his decisions. Since then, Catholic candidates have rarely been asked if they would take orders from the Pope. However, we don’t necessarily have a change for the better. When Catholic Rick Santorum was asked during his 2012 run for president what he thought of President Kennedy’s separation of church and state speech, Santorum said that after reading it he almost threw up.
I recently drove with my wife Sharon from our home in Charleston, South Carolina, to eleven locations in Florida in eleven days, covering over 2,000 miles. We were not on a vacation or sightseeing trip. Eleven humanist groups had invited me to talk about my recent book, An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land, and my earlier book, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.
Both supporters and opponents of President Donald Trump often say his frequent tweets are not “presidential,” a poorly defined word. I don’t think presidents must always follow presidential tradition. For example, I’m pleased that Theodore Roosevelt didn’t use a Bible when taking the oath in 1901. I’m fine with President Barack Obama not always wearing a coat and tie in the Oval Office. I also liked that Obama didn’t mention God in a Thanksgiving address; instead he expressed gratitude to US troops serving abroad and thanked volunteers at soup kitchens and shelters. Unfortunately, after much criticism from religious conservatives, he went back to ending speeches with the politically correct “God bless you and God bless America.”