I just re-discovered an old article about me in our local paper, from 1998.
I’d like to say that atheist activists deserve the credit for people leaving religion, but lately I think White Evangelical Protestants deserve lots of credit, too. Donald Trump has inadvertently exposed the hypocrisy of many White Evangelicals who voted for him and continue to support him despite his deplorable behavior in office, including his unapologetic sexual harassment, adultery, and overall dishonesty. Do they now suggest that a president’s religious beliefs might not matter? Many seem driven by Trump’s attacks on abortion, immigrants, African-Americans, women, gun control, science, climate change, and other social issues.
Some White Evangelicals recognize the dangers of climate change and welcome it as the biblically predicted Apocalypse. They believe that God is using climate change to enact his wrath on the world. They quote 2 Peter 3:10:
“The day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.”
Catholic League president Bill Donohue recently called Humanists for Biden anti-Catholic bigots. That sounds a bit strange, since Humanists for Biden are supporting a Catholic for president. Joe Biden’s opponent calls himself a Christian, but that seems unlikely, since I can’t picture Donald Trump believing in a power higher than himself. On the Catholic League website, Donohue claims Humanists for Biden believe in nothing and are religiously confused. Not true. Humanists believe in the worth and dignity of all human beings and follow scientific evidence. We are not religiously confused. Most of us rejected the religious beliefs in which we were raised because those beliefs were confusing and made no sense to us.
Scott Jacobson: Over the course of a Jewish life, of a secular humanist life in particular, how has the individualized Humanism changed for you?
Dr. Herb Silverman: I grew up in an Orthodox community and had an Orthodox Bar Mitzvah in 1955 when I was 13. My family mainly instilled in me that I shouldn’t trust goyim (gentiles) because of what they did to us in the Holocaust, and that I should marry a nice Jewish girl. (My wife, Sharon Fratepietro, is not Jewish.) In Hebrew school, my rabbi refused to answer my question, “Who created God?” He told me the question was inappropriate, but I assumed he just had no answer. One of my best teachers in Hebrew school asked, “Why does the Torah (Hebrew Bible) say ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,’ instead of the more concise ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’?” His explanation was that each had a different god, and we must search for and find our own god. I took his statement seriously and my search, beginning at age 12, led me to a god who did not exist. I decided to follow all the things in the Torah that made sense to me, like performing mitzvahs (good deeds), but I stopped doing things like fasting on Yom Kippur, the day that God allegedly determines who shall live and who shall die in the coming year. Perhaps that is when I became a humanist without having even heard the term.
As an adult, I first learned about Humanism from the American Humanist Association, and later became a board member of that organization. I still considered myself a Jew because there is no requirement for a Jew to believe in God. I eventually found a proper home for myself in Judaism when I learned about and joined the Society for Humanistic Judaism (https://shj.org), with its atheist rabbis. SHJ is a member organization of the Secular Coalition for America and has an active social justice program known as Jews for a Secular Democracy.
In 1976, at the age of 34, after living in the Northeast my entire life, I moved to Charleston, South Carolina to teach mathematics at the College of Charleston. A few weeks later, I was shocked to learn that the Confederate flag flew atop the State Capitol in Columbia. I considered that flag a symbol of white supremacy, hatred, and slavery. It might rate space in a museum along with other artifacts of the Civil War, but deserves no greater respect. When I questioned Southerners in my community about the flag, I often heard the H-word (Heritage). But some heritage is hateful or worse, including what the Confederate flag and swastika represent to most of the world. One of my math students belonged to an all-white fraternity that flew the Confederate flag, and he said it meant "rebel" and defiance of conventional behavior.
An Aug. 23 article “Mississippi ponders new flag designs” is about the removal of the state’s Confederate symbol on that flag. Commissioners will choose a new design, and voters will decide whether to agree on that design. Unfortunately, by state law the flag must display the words “In God We Trust,” a provision that persuaded some conservative Mississippi lawmakers to retire the Confederate symbol. “In God We Trust” became our official U.S. motto only in 1956 at the height of the Cold War, as a means to separate us from “godless Communism.” The de facto motto established by our founders had been E pluribus unum, Latin for “out of many, one.” This phrase affirms American diversity is our source of strength, a country of people with many faiths and none.
Our secular government must remain neutral with respect to religion. A government that feels entitled to tell you to trust in God also can feel entitled to tell you there is no God. Mississippians practice a variety of religious faiths and none, with approximately 14 percent identifying as nonreligious.
More recently, “In God We Trust” has been adopted as a rallying symbol by white Christian nationalists, who push for it to be included on license plates, schools and elsewhere. While I support the removal of the Confederate flag, replacing one divisive symbol of exclusion with another solves one problem, but creates a new one.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The fundamental tenets proposed in the outdated and historical document Humanist Manifesto I does not speak to freedom of speech, free speech, free expression, or freedom of expression. It focuses on Humanism as a religious philosophy. First question, why was freedom of expression in general not emphasized at the time?
Dr. Herb Silverman: To me, freedom of expression must include freedom of speech, as well as freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble. So my answer to this question will include my answer to your second question about freedom of speech.
Perhaps freedom of expression was assumed because it is included in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Humanist Manifesto I (1933) is so-called because it was the first attempt to describe a formal humanist philosophy without any gods. The framers knew there would be additional manifestos as we increased our knowledge and cultural attitudes changed. The document spoke of social justice and scientific optimism. It referred to "socialized and cooperative economic order" and "equitable distribution of the means of life." Though it wasn’t explicit, it seemed to favor socialism. There was no mention of racism, sexism, minority rights, or environmentalism.
Humanist Manifesto II (1973) promotes democracy, civil liberties, human freedoms, separation of church and state, and elimination of discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age, or national origin. It also refers to ecological damage and overpopulation.
I was on the American Humanist Association Board in 2003 when we approved Humanist Manifesto III. We defined Humanism as a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. (I hoped to get “atheism” into the definition, but had to be satisfied by “without supernaturalism.”) This document also says that humanists are guided by reason and inspired by compassion. It adds that humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change and that ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
“If God had decreed from all eternity that a certain person should die of smallpox, it would be a frightful sin to avoid and annul that decree by the trick of vaccination.” So said Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University from 1795 to 1817. He was speaking passionately against Edward Jenner’s new medical invention called vaccination. It was not then a particularly extremist view. Vaccination and inoculation, though highly successful, were denounced by many religious leaders. Today, during the pandemic, religious fundamentalists will not say that God changed His mind and no longer condemns medical interventions that can save lives. Most, but not all, will simply find interpretations of their holy book that oppose those of previous generations. It isn’t hard to do. You just focus on one particular passage and ignore a contradictory passage.
There are religious reasons to decline a vaccine, there are valid reasons to decline a vaccine, but there are no valid religious reasons to decline a vaccine. I think an adult should have maximum decision-making freedom on issues that involve him or her, alone. However, since all viruses are contagious, ethical considerations demand taking into account how declining a vaccine may affect others. This includes COVID-19, should a legitimate vaccine be found.