Positive Atheism

On Sunday, April 3, 2016, the fourth annual Dr. Irving & Annabel Wolfson Lecture was held at the UU Church of Worcester in Worcester, Massachusetts. Funded by a gift from the estate of Irving Wolfson, this lecture is an annual opportunity to recognize and celebrate those whose work continues to promote humanistic values in liberal religion. This year’s honoree was Dr. Herb Silverman, whose adapted remarks appear below.

I’M HONORED to be giving the Wolfson lecture, especially after learning about the accomplishments of Dr. Irving Wolfson and Annabel Wolfson. The Wolfsons and I have a minor connection. I taught at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the late 1960s and early ’70s and like them, was active in civil rights and Vietnam War protests (though not nearly as involved as the Wolfsons, who were real heroes). In 1970 I was arrested along with other protestors for blocking a draft board. I spent a brief time in jail, where I shared a cell with one of my students. He asked me for math help, and we were let out just about the time he finished his homework. So for me, going to jail was a lot like holding office hours. Unfortunately, our actions did not stop the war.

I did, however, make one very specific civil rights contribution in Worcester. When a PhD student of mine passed her qualifying exams, I took her to a local bar to celebrate. But the bartender informed me that the place was for males only and that we would have to leave. So the next day, I brought another woman to that same bar who was African American. The bartender was more uncomfortable being viewed as a racist than a sexist, so he conferred with his manager and they served us. On the third day, I brought back my female graduate student, and this time we were served. And from then on that bar allowed women.

Herb Silverman

Herb Silverman

Not only does Worcester bring back fond memories, so does being in a Unitarian Church. Something extraordinary happened the first time I attended a Unitarian Church. It was 1990 and the church was in Charleston, South Carolina. I won’t call it a miracle, but it was definitely a life-changing experience. After becoming a gubernatorial candidate (the purpose of which was to challenge the anti-atheist clause in the South Carolina Constitution), my first speaking invitation came from the Unitarian Church. After my talk, a woman volunteered to help on my campaign. Sharon became my one and only groupie, and we’ve been together ever since.

I had assumed for years that I’d never get married, and it was unimaginable that I’d meet my future bride in a church. But that Unitarian Church changed my stereotype. One member there told me that a Unitarian is someone who believes in at most one God. Another defined a Unitarian in Charleston as an atheist with kids. The minister even joined our local humanist group, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, which is a chapter of the American Humanist Association.

Incidentally, the ACLU lawyer who’d been representing me in my challenge to the state Constitution eventually quit my case. In fact, he quit the entire practice of law—to enter the seminary. But it wasn’t what the religious right was praying for. Edmund Robinson went to Harvard Divinity School and is now a Unitarian minister in Chatham, Massachusetts. He continued to help in my case, along with his ACLU colleague, and we won in the state Supreme Court in 1997.

As an atheist, some people assume I must be anti-religion. Not so. By one measure, I might be the most religious person in America. You see, I have not one, not two, but three different religions: I’m a member of the American Ethical Union, with Ethical Culture Societies; I’m a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, with atheist rabbis; and I’m a member of the UU Humanists. All three religions are nontheistic and are active participants in the Secular Coalition for America.

Still, my topic, positive atheism, does sound like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? After all, atheism really is a negative word. But negative isn’t always bad. Other negative words are “independent,” “nondiscrimination,” and “antidote.” Religious people even describe their deity in negative terms (“infinite,” “unlimited,” “infallible”). And 80 percent of the Ten Commandments (the eight “thou shalt nots”) are negative. The two positives command you to honor your parents and remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, though nobody can seem to agree on which day the Sabbath falls or exactly what holy means. Consider too that the dominant religion in this country was founded by negative protesters. They are known as Protestants, or Protestants.

Some construe the mere questioning of faith or the presentation of alternatives to it as negative atheism, but being guided by reason instead of faith isn’t negative. Many people feel that atheists are evil because we subject religious belief to the same kind of scrutiny as any other belief, but a person making a claim is responsible for providing evidence. For instance, suppose I tell you that the universe was created five minutes ago and that a supernatural being planted false memories in everyone. You can’t disprove my claim, but you think it’s nonsense, right? Atheists have the same reaction to god beliefs.

Religion is a lot like politics—you get more followers by making big promises. Belief in a heavenly father who will always take care of you might be reassuring, but it’s important to distinguish between the world as we know it and the world as we’d like it to be. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

I like to put a positive face on atheism. We want to maximize happiness, which usually involves making others happy, too. We have one life, and one chance to do something meaningful with it. And, contrary to stereotypes, most atheists have a good sense of humor. So here’s a joke about the kind of atheist I am—a Jewish atheist.

A Jewish atheist hears that the best school in town happens to be Catholic, so he enrolls his son. Things are going well until one day the boy comes home and says, “I learned about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” The boy’s father, barely able to control his rage, grabs his son by the shoulders and says: “Joey, this is very important, so listen carefully. There is only one God — and we don’t believe in him!”

Now, a viable alternative to theism must also meet our moral and emotional needs. It’s not true that atheists believe in nothing. An atheist has a naturalistic worldview (without supernaturalism). Science shows us the wonders of the world every day. As Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”

Conservative religions tend to think morality is more about belief than behavior, and view this life as preparation for an imagined afterlife. So how do atheists and humanists make moral decisions? We are guided by the expected consequences of our actions. We are committed to the application of reason, science, and experience to better understand the universe and solve problems. The plight of the human race—indeed, of the planet—is in our hands, and social problems can be solved by methods that we develop and test.

Our views change with evidence and we have no unchanging commandments. We don’t give credit to a deity for our accomplishments or blame satanic forces when we behave badly. We take responsibility for our actions. An atheist’s immortality is the effect of positive acts that live on after death. I know what my afterlife will be. I’m going to medical school, just like my Jewish mother always wanted me to do. I plan to use my body parts to their fullest when I’m alive, but hope others will make good use of them when I’m dead.

I think the mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell summed up positive atheism nicely: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

Many secularists are uncomfortable with the word “atheist” because it describes what we don’t believe, rather than what we do believe. After all, we don’t go around calling ourselves a-Easter bunnyists or a-tooth fairyists. Other labels include humanist, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, agnostic, ignostic, rationalist, naturalist, materialist, apatheist, and more. If you don’t know what each word means, don’t worry. Even those who identify with such labels often disagree on their meanings. Parsing words might be a characteristic of folks engaged in the secular movement. Though there are fine distinctions, which many of us like to argue about, it often comes down more to a matter of taste or comfort level than to deep theological or philosophical differences.

At this point, you might be asking what the difference is between positive atheism and humanism. And my answer is, “I’m not really sure.” I pretty much view them as two sides of a coin. I’m the same person whether I talk about what I don’t believe as an atheist or what I do believe as a humanist. Atheists and humanists try to be good without gods, though humanists might focus more on “good” and atheists on “without gods.” For me, positive atheism is in the Goldilocks zone of the “good”/“without gods” spectrum.

So which word is better: atheist or humanist? My answer is neither or, more accurately, both. Even more accurately, it depends on the context. “Atheist” gets more attention and “humanist” sounds more respectable to the general public. My conversion from agnostic to atheist (before I had even heard of humanism) was more definitional than theological. As a mathematician, I couldn’t prove there was no god, so I took the agnostic position of not knowing. But when I learned that an atheist is simply someone without a belief in any gods, I also became an atheist.

Despite the growing number of atheists and humanists, we haven’t been nearly as influential politically as most other minority groups. That’s in part because we pride ourselves on being an independent lot. But to gain significant influence we had to become more cooperative and establish our legitimacy as a demographic.

That’s why 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. The Secular Coalition has grown from four to eighteen national nontheistic member organizations, covering the full spectrum of the godless. The Secular Coalition incorporated as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of secular Americans, with lobbyists in Washington, DC. There are over 60 million in the United States without a god belief, and the Secular Coalition advocates for us.

Politicians think they’re tolerant when they express support for all faiths, ignoring our constituency. We want them to express support for all faiths and none, to promote freedom of conscience for all people. Atheists and humanists aren’t asking for special rights, but we expect and demand equal rights. As the Secular Coalition continues to grow and gain influence, I look forward to seeing an America that appreciates nontheistic viewpoints, and an America where the influence of conservative religion is mainly limited to within the walls of churches, not the halls of Congress.

In closing, I’d like to thank the Unitarian Church for being one of the few churches that would tolerate a “sermon” from me. I must confess (which I’m told is good to do in church) that I always wanted to be a preacher, but the god thing got in the way. That’s why I chose the next best calling. I became a professor, so I could profess—if only mathematics. But my favorite part of professing or speaking at public forums like this one are the questions, comments, criticisms, and lively discussion we are about to have.