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.
The international community goes much farther than the US in the permission for the widest possible definition of freedom in the transmission of communication with the "Freedom of Expression" as opposed to the "Freedom of Speech" enshrined at a national level for America. Why are these international rights and laws important for the protection of individual Americans who may, for example, take a knee in protest of brutality against black Americans in front of the Vice President of the United States?
I think you are asking, in part, about the distinction between freedom of expression and freedom of speech. In the broad sense, I view “expression” as a form of “speech,” non-verbal communication. Taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem is a non-verbal form of protest. Though it may be offensive to many, I support such a perfectly legitimate expression of dissent. I also support the free-speech rights of those whose actions appall me. Many did not want to allow the Ku Klux Klan to march in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, some years ago. I felt the Klan does a thousand bad things, and I didn’t want to deny them the right to do the one good thing they do—exercise their free-speech right to march. I also disagreed with a local school board that prevented a student from wearing a Confederate flag shirt to school.
The question of free speech often arises in the context of how offensive you are permitted to be, and the extent to which you may be harming others. I support the right of the American Nazi Party to march, even though it might lead to violence. For the same reason, I supported civil rights marchers in the South, which did lead to violence.
However, I am not a free speech absolutist. I agree with the old cliché that you can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. I don’t support the right of anyone to purposely incite violence. Anti-abortion activists should not be allowed to publish addresses of doctors who perform abortions, with pictures of targets on their heads.
I don’t think any specific words should be censored. I was appalled when several schools banned the great American novel Huckleberry Finn because one of Mark Twain’s characters was “Nigger” Jim. Of course, the novel was anti-slavery. In one important scene, Huckleberry Finn helps free Nigger Jim from slavery, and says, “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” referring to the belief he was taught about the biblical correctness of owning slaves.
Interestingly, it’s considered OK for African Americans to use the word “nigger” when talking to other African Americans, but it is not considered OK for whites to use the N word. Similarly, it’s acceptable for Jews like me to tell anti-Semitic jokes to fellow Jews, but it is considered wrong for Gentiles to do so. Here is one of my favorite anti-Semitic jokes.
Two Jews see a sign in front of a church that says “$100 to convert.” One of the Jews asks,“Why not? It’s an easy way to make a quick buck,” and enters the church. The other Jew waits outside to see what happens. After forty-five minutes the first Jew comes out and the second Jew asks, “Well, did you get the $100?” The first responds, “Is that all you Jews ever think about, money?”
COVID-19 is not the apocalypse many religious people have been expecting, when God brings about the end of the world in a battle between the forces of good and evil. Nevertheless, we are having an apocalypse. The original Greek word means a revelation, an unveiling of what was previously hidden. It also means a great catastrophe. This pandemic certainly qualifies as such. It’s striking the difference between those who fantasize about a religious apocalypse from a position of comfort and safety, and those who are experiencing real danger and hardship.
Scientific evidence shows that the pandemic will eventually pass, in part because of the courageous work of our health care and service workers on the front lines, and those volunteering to help them. It will pass when we distance ourselves from each other long enough so we don’t get the virus and then infect others.It will take scientists in many countries sharing knowledge to create a vaccine.
In the meantime, we can improve our country with selected rent and mortgage suspensions, a stronger social safety net, paid sick leave for essential workers and more companies allowing employees to work from home.
We can extend kindness and donations as we are able to those less fortunate and emotional support when needed. In short, we should use common sense, compassion, cooperation and collaboration, all the best parts of civilization and rational thinking. That’s what it takes to overcome an apocalypse.
I could not have had a more patriotic beginning, or so I was taught to believe. I was born on Flag Day (June 14) in 1942, during World War II, at Liberty Hospital in Philadelphia, birthplace of the nation and the flag purportedly designed by Betsy Ross. I wanted to believe family members who told me that flags were hung in honor of my birthday. My first public speech was at a fourth grade Flag Day ceremony. I was chosen to read my essay, “What the American Flag Means to Me.” I wrote about looking at the flag when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung at major league baseball games, hoping I would one day be a player on that field. I’m pretty sure my essay was picked because I happened to mention Flag Day was my birthday. Or maybe the other essays were even worse. My views on patriotism in general and Flag Day in particular have changed considerably over the years. Suffice it to say that the anniversary of my birth has become a day when opportunistic politicians regularly attempt to take away freedoms for which our flag is supposed to stand. On my twelfth birthday, President Eisenhower signed into law the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance saying, “From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.” President Eisenhower made no mention of the Constitution during this Flag Day ceremony in 1954 because the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office and says nothing about any almighties.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Herb, how is freethought represented in the secular communities now?
Dr. Herb Silverman: Freethought is represented in different ways in different freethought communities. When I first became engaged with freethought communities, I learned about several national atheist and humanist organizations. I joined them all because each was involved in issues I supported. But each group was doing its own thing and ignoring like-minded organizations, while competing for funds from what they viewed as a fixed pie of donors. I knew we needed to grow the pie to benefit all these organizations and the freethought movement as a whole. They were spending too much time arguing about labels (atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, etc.) and too little time showing our strength in numbers and cooperating on issues that affect all freethinkers. Here’s an interesting distinction between Christians and freethinkers: Christians have the same unifying word but fight over theology; freethinkers have the same unifying theology, but fight over words. At least our wars are only verbal. So in 2002, I helped form the Secular Coalition for America, whose mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government. Our 19 national member organizations cover the full spectrum of freethought.