Smile, There is No Hell (and Other Humanist Wisdom)

Photo by Scott Weldon

HERB SILVERMAN is the founder of the Secular Coalition for America and of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry in Charleston, South Carolina. He is Distinguished Mathematics Professor Emeritus of the College of Charleston and the author of Candidate without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (Pitchstone, 2012). His latest book is An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt. On June 10, 2017, Silverman received the American Humanist Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual conference in Charleston, South Carolina. The following are his remarks in accepting it.

I’m deeply honored by this award from the American Humanist Association, but I’m troubled that it’s a Lifetime Achievement Award, which makes it sound like my life is coming to an end soon. It’s not, Zeus willing. I don’t even think I’m old, except maybe when I see my picture.

For most of my lifetime I had expected to just teach and do research as a mathematics professor till death do me part. But my life changed dramatically in 1990 when I learned that the South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office. Governor Carroll Campbell unintentionally inspired me to become an atheist activist when he said that our state constitution was fine as it was because our country was founded on godly principles. With help from the ACLU (before there was an Appignani Humanist Legal Center), I engaged in an eight-year battle, beginning with a run for governor as the “candidate without a prayer,” which eventually led to a South Carolina Supreme Court victory that nullified the anti-atheist clause in our constitution.

The bad news about 1990 and beyond is that my mildly distinguished academic career became considerably less distinguished because I was devoting so much time to my new activities. The good news is that I discovered humanism, and these past twenty-seven years have been the happiest of my life. Best for me personally was that I met my future wife, Sharon. We met in church! It was the Unitarian Church in Charleston, the only church that invited me to speak during my run for governor. Sharon offered to help in my campaign, and she became my one and only groupie. After I lost the election I blamed Sharon because she was my campaign manager. (Sounds like something Donald Trump would say, except that he’d expect people to believe it.)

Prior to my political campaign, I didn’t know there were any organizations of non-God believers. After getting publicity, I heard from several, including the AHA, and joined them all. I also heard from folks here in Charleston who thought they were the only atheists in South Carolina, and some of us started the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, a vibrant humanist organization and host chapter for this year’s AHA conference. Because of our activism, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times came down to interview us about our activities and concerns. Her piece on April 26, 2009, “More Atheists Shout It from the Rooftops,” became the second most-viewed article that week in the Times. The takeaway message was that if it can happen in South Carolina, it can happen anywhere. With that in mind, please continue to promote humanist values in your state despite occasional or even frequent setbacks.

I began serving on the AHA board of directors in a different century. So, I’ll briefly describe my lifetime on the board. I was much more productive in my early years as a new kid on the block. The AHA board and staff considered me a troublemaker, which I often take pride in being. When a board member recommended that we provide hearing aids for conference attendees, I suggested we try to attract younger people. Someone mentioned a potential board member who was “only” fifty-five years old. I said it’d be nice to find board members who were not AARP-eligible. At fifty-six, I was the second youngest board member, Margaret Downey being the youngest. The board was focusing on issues like: What’s the best elevator definition of humanism? How can we improve the next Humanist Manifesto? How do we encourage people to call themselves humanists, rather than atheists? And should “humanist” be spelled with a capital ‘H’ or a small ‘h’? However interesting such philosophical questions, I pushed for the AHA to become more inclusive and activist.

SCA Advisory Board Chairman Woody Kaplan (left) presents Herb Silverman (right) with the Lifetime Achievement award at the 76th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association on June 10, 2017 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Scott Weldon)

Shortly after joining the AHA board I contacted the humanist and atheist organizations I knew and suggested we work together to counter the political and social threats coming from the religious right. People with considerably more experience warned me that getting freethinkers to cooperate was akin to herding cats. After delicate negotiations, leaders from several organizations began meeting in an informal alliance, which we called the Coalition for the Community of Reason. In 2002 this evolved into the more formal Secular Coalition for America, a political advocacy group that allows unlimited lobbying on behalf of secular Americans. The Secular Coalition began with four national member organizations, though unfortunately not the AHA, and has grown to eighteen. There was concern on the AHA board at the time about identifying too closely with atheists, rather than promoting unadulterated humanism.

Some on the board and staff questioned my loyalty, perhaps with justification. When asked whether my primary loyalty was to the AHA (a bylaws requirement), I said, No! My primary loyalty was to my wife Sharon, and then to a cooperative secular movement. I viewed such wider collaboration as the most effective way to change our culture and benefit all our organizations, including the American Humanist Association.

A few AHA leaders asked me to consider resigning from the board. I acknowledged my problem with the loyalty oath, and offered to resign if that were the will of the board. I then left the room so they could discuss and vote. The majority voted for me to stay on the board, and accepted my proposed bylaws change from primary loyalty to the AHA to non-conflicting loyalty.

The AHA joined the Secular Coalition in 2005 and became its most active and dedicated member, even providing an office in the basement of its headquarters for the Secular Coalition’s first lobbyist, Lori Lipman Brown. Credit for the turnaround goes to the new leadership at the time, with Mel Lipman becoming AHA board president and Roy Speckhardt executive director. They and others supported a cooperative secular movement and a more edgy and politically engaged AHA, which led to exponential growth in membership. And we slowly attracted a younger and more diverse board.

During my last couple of years on the board I mostly agreed with AHA positions and was no longer pissing people off, at least not in significant ways. So, it wasn’t as much fun as in my early years, and I had become the oldest board member. I knew it was time for me to go. My life is now over—as an AHA board member—but I continue to promote and support this fine organization.

Herb Silverman (center) is known for his extensive t-shirt collection, which includes the one worn here by a group of his admirers. (Photo by Scott Weldon)


Before learning about this wonderful Lifetime Achievement Award, I had been scheduled to give a plenary talk at the conference on my new book, An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land, which contains selected excerpts of mine from magazines and blogs. So, I’d like to share a few excerpts with you here.  This first, which appeared in the Huffington Post, was about last year’s AHA conference.

The Unitarian Universalist Association disaffiliated from the Boy Scouts in 1998 because of its discrimination against gays and atheists. Unfortunately, they re-affiliated in 2016 because the Boy Scouts ended its ban on gay leaders, though it continued to ban atheists. John Hooper, president of the UU Humanists and an AHA board member, arranged for a breakfast discussion at the AHA conference with UUA President Peter Morales, who said that the best way to change Boy Scout policy is from the inside. I asked Morales if he would support affiliation if they excluded Jews, Muslims, blacks, or any other minority but atheists. He side-stepped my question and said reasonable people can disagree about re-affiliating with the Boy Scouts. What most disheartened me was Morales’s attempt to placate humanists and atheists by telling us we could pass the Boy Scout religious test if we simply made up different definitions of “God.” What Morales failed to understand is that we want to end discrimination against atheists and humanists by unabashedly promoting that we are good without any gods.

You know about my failure to become Governor of South Carolina. Here’s what it takes to succeed:

Nikki Haley was raised a Sikh and converted to Christianity just before becoming a South Carolina gubernatorial candidate. Her website originally said, “I believe in the power and  grace of Almighty God.” That wasn’t good enough for constituents, so she changed it to: “My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life. Being a Christian is not about words, but about living for Christ every day.” A cynic might say, “Maybe it’s also about winning elections.” Governor Haley has since become UN ambassador, but you probably don’t know why. You see, Lieutenant Governor Henry McMaster was the first politician in South Carolina to endorse Donald Trump for president. As a reward, Trump picked Governor Haley as UN ambassador so McMaster could take her place as governor.

This next excerpt is about one of my more interesting experiences as a college professor.

Atheists are often accused of being “militant” because we passionately promote separation of religion and government. For instance, when the College of Charleston purchased a church building with a cross on top, I told President Alex Sanders that he should remove the “plus sign” from what had become a public building. Sanders eventually did, but not before describing our encounter in the Charleston Post and Courier, saying: “I will just assign the building to Herb Silverman as his office. A cross at the top and Herb Silverman at the bottom would be an equalizing force. I told Professor Silverman that if he kept quiet about the cross, he would not be nailed to it.” I wasn’t offended by this humor, but the community was outraged that I referred to the cross as a “plus sign.” Angry writers complained about my offending Christians, though nobody seemed concerned by Sanders’ remark about my being nailed to the cross.

I’m so proud to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Humanist Association, but in my last excerpt I make a case for adding another title to my bucket list: Pope Herb.

The Catholic Church can look especially foolish when it makes up different rationalizations for its positions. For instance, it used to accept the “wisdom” of St. Bonaventure: “Since only the male was made in the image of God, only the male can receive the godlike office of priest.” After such claims became embarrassing, even to the church, the story became, “Only males can hold positions of leadership because all the apostles were male.” Since all the apostles were Jews, most of whom were married, I’m more qualified to be pope than celibate Gentiles. So, either the church must again change its reason, or I’d like future consideration as Pope Herb. My first act would be to declare ex cathedra (invoking papal infallibility) that all future popes must be atheists, turning Catholicism into an evidence-based religion.

Though I’m not yet a pontiff, this AHA lifetime award inspires me to pontificate, just a little. Here’s my “infallible” wisdom: You have the right not to remain silent, so be a vocal humanist. If you’re already an evangelist for humanism, look for additional opportunities to come out even more—in a friendly way, of course. Attitudes change when friends, neighbors, and family members discover that you’re a humanist who does good without a god belief. Also, consider running for public office as an open humanist, which some of you have done. It changed my life and community for the better, and it can do the same for you.

Finally, whatever I might have done for humanism is but a small fraction of what humanism has done for me. Since becoming actively engaged, I’ve had more meaningful and stimulating experiences than I could have imagined. I got to know lots of terrific and committed people, including many here in Charleston. I’ve enjoyed speaking around the country at wonderful humanist meetings and serving alongside extraordinary local and national leaders. I thank the AHA for this award, and I thank all of you for the many friendships that will last the rest of my long life.

Excerpt from the Q&A

Q: Since your run for governor was unsuccessful what advice would you give to those who might be inclined to run for a political office?

Herb Silverman: I ran for governor not to win but to change the state constitution. I would suggest—as great as you are—don’t start with the gubernatorial race. Start with local offices. Sometimes there are hardly any people running and not many people voting, so it’s cost-effective. One reason we gave the Secular Coalition its name was to piggyback on the success of the Christian Coalition at the time. They were effective in organizing and changing the culture for the worse, so I think we can borrow their ideas, for example taking over school boards and city councils. Run for those offices first. Maybe governor later, but start local, and organize groups of supporters in your humanist organizations, liberal churches, the ACLU—the better organized our community, the easier it’ll be to elect humanists to office.

Q: Could you estimate how many humanists you’ve recruited simply by wearing demonstrative t-shirts?

A: I don’t actually recruit humanists. I enjoy going around the country talking and getting people engaged with humanism. I think the problem isn’t so much about not having enough people who are atheists and humanists, it’s getting them to come out of the closet and become active in the community. It worked so well for the LGBT movement over the years.

Q: Being a mathematician, of course you know that the Pythagorean school in ancient Greece and also Max Tegmark a couple of years ago said that mathematics is the ultimate reality of the universe. Does that make you God’s voice on earth?

A: I feel I’m more engaged in humanism than mathematics, but I do think that learning mathematics and the logic associated with it, as well as science, is going to help change our culture to be more evidence-based. At an Oxford debate when they were talking about “One Nation under God,” I corrected: “We’re one nation under Canada.”  I then pointed out that, given how the religious right opposes the teaching of evolution and any scientific or social view that conflict with a literal interpretation of the Bible, we’re really becoming one nation undereducated. (Incidentally my debate was with Richard Lowry, editor of the National Review, and our side won.)

Q: What would it take for you to believe in God—would it be a burning bush or if they find where Pi starts to repeat itself? Is there anything you can envision to make you say that maybe there is a God?

A: During my run for governor I was asked that question, and I said maybe if I won the election. It would take that kind of a miracle.

Q: How would South Carolina be different today had you won?

A: If I had won, South Carolina would be very different than everyone else, including me, thought it was. And probably if I’d won it would’ve been because Russia hacked us and changed the voting outcome. In terms of policy, I wouldn’t be going after religious people as some would fear. I’d promote freedom of religion and freedom from religion.