Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 13 – Everyday Bigotry and Prejudice: The Freethinkers Beneath the Spokespersons, Between the Headlines, and Below Equal Human Status


Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019).

Here we talk about fundamentalists.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In interaction with some of the literalist believers in the obscure and obscurantist fundamentalists of the Christian faith, one can gather a sense of feeling unheard in the midst of the conversation. These come from the university students to the professoriate, even into the higher-order leadership – not as character analysis, but as a way of thinking as simply thoughting in mechanical (rote) form.

In that, facts are scorned. Basic human compassion is thwarted for attempts at conversion in the hopes of a hereafter. Unreason is raised above or over reason. Attempts to correct misconception or illogic, or denial of baseless (faith) claims, gets the retort, “You lie. Those are complete lies” (because anything not of Christianity comes from the Devil, who comes to believers and unbelievers alike, supposedly, as the “father of lies”). Thus, anything one does or says gets met with suspicion, as, basically, essentialization of distrust in the individual (you).

These modes of unthought truly warp human mentation – to me – for the worse, much worse – leaving aside the six Jesuit intellectuals, and other similars, murdered for working for peace: Ignacio Ellacuria Beas Coechea, S.J., Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., Segundo Montes, S.J., Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., Joaquín López y López, S.J., and Amando López, S.J.

In Canadian society, we have a number of religious – Christian – universities and colleges, including Columbia Bible College, Heritage College & Seminary, Horizon College & Seminary, Prairie, Providence University College, Redeemer University College, Rocky Mountain College, St. Stephen’s University, Trinity Western University, Tyndale University College, Tyndale University College & Seminary, and Vanguard College.

These institutions of higher Christian learning espouse principles found at the start of this nation’s population dans l’ensemble. If not ‘by and large’ in some part, then, by and large, forced or coerced onto them in good time. One of these institutions, at least, harbours a previously mandatory covenant for all. Now, only mandatory for staff and optional for students. 

That is to say, an obvious – though not stated in this fashion – mechanism for the prevention of critical inquiry and scrutiny of the acts and thoughts within the institution to the institutional representatives or to the external community surrounding it. A clear operation of control through signage of the community pact because, apparently, the first two divine covenants did not suffice for the community of the faithful.

Similar to the United States of America, its history, as noted by you, jumps forward, bumps back, while showing a trendline towards a wider circle of inclusion and separation between religion and government with the current Trump Administration period as a bump back. 

All these prior sessions dealt with sectors without much status or consideration as people – simply as “unpeople” – in American law and policymaking, except over time. Marie Alena Castle – a late writing partner on some articles – whose commentary was on point and on time noted the center of the current battle exists in women’s bodies, reproductive systems, and their autonomous choices in either matter. 

What can build bridges of communication between fundamentalist religious believers and freethinkers? What underlies the ideational trance of not even listening to the other side by literalist interpreters of faiths? How many religious institutions exist in America? What political influence comes from them? How do the institutions of higher learning ground themselves in religious belief in the history of the United States and continue to exert control over the minds of the young? Why women’s bodies – ‘because the Bible tells them so,’ as Annie Laurie Gaylor might state the matter? How have these forms of misogyny, control of the rebellious positive curiosity and inquisitiveness of the young, and politicking played out and converged in the current American political imbroglio?

Dr. Herb Silverman: You ask how we can talk to Christian fundamentalists when their worldview is so different from ours and they don’t accept evidence. I’ve found that we can’t reason people out of a belief that they didn’t come to through reason, but we still might be able to find some points of agreement.

For instance, I might start with “Love your neighbor,” and point out varieties of the Golden Rule from Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism that predate Jesus. Another thing we could probably agree on is that all other faiths are wrong. I do say that every educated person should read the Bible, because it’s an important part of our culture. I also mention some secular books worth reading. If I’m asked for biblical quotes I like, I can mention Matthew 7:16: “By your fruits you shall know them.” I also like John 8:32: “The truth will set you free,” which it did when I became an atheist. If they tell me that they support blasphemy laws, I say I might, too, if the offended deity personally files charges.  

It helps in discussions with Christian fundamentalists to treat them with kindness and respect. We should assume that they believe what they say, even if it sounds like nonsense. I ignore personal attacks and stick with the issues. Usually the best I can hope for in talking to committed Christian fundamentalists is that some of their stereotypes about atheists will change and they will think I’m a nice guy with a sense of humor (even though I’m going to hell). Since I came to atheism by following what I consider to be a sensible evidence-based path, it doesn’t much matter to me whether others adopt my position, but I understand why it’s important for Christian fundamentalists to try to convert me: Eternal life is at stake. And for many of them, that’s more important than life itself. I find such a worldview odd at best.

That worldview can also be dangerous if conversion is forced on others. This brings us to your question about women’s bodies. The Bible was written thousands of years ago by misogynistic men. The punishment for a man who raped a virgin woman was that the man should pay her father 50 shekels and that she must marry her rapist because she is now damaged goods (Deut. 22:28). There are also passages in the Christian Bible about women not having authority over a man, that the man is head of the household, that women are created for man, and much more. Some Christians live this way, but have been unsuccessful in making it the law of our land. Unfortunately, they have been somewhat successful promoting their political issues. This includes in some places denying women contraceptives and the right to choose. Though the Bible is silent on abortion, preventing women from having this right has become the top issue for Christian fundamentalists, who also try to pass biblically-based laws against LGBT rights.

You asked about religious colleges and universities in the United States. There are many throughout the nation. In my home state of South Carolina, Furman University was founded in 1826 as a Baptist university, but has become more diverse, not requiring students or faculty to hold specific religious views. In 1992, Furman separated from the Southern Baptist Convention in order to exert more control over their institution. On the other hand, in Charleston, my home city, Charleston Southern University (formerly called Baptist College) is decidedly Christian, where it integrates faith with learning, and is in good standing with the Southern Baptist Convention. Its faculty are required to sign an oath of belief. In 2004, I debated a professor from that institution on the existence of God, though the debate was not allowed on their campus. The professor later invited me to speak to his class, but the invitation was rescinded because his administration refused to allow me on campus. So much for academic freedom.

Many religious schools have decent academic programs, but quite a few don’t. Even worse, some have political agendas, including the well-known Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., considers it immoral for evangelicals to not support President Trump, adding that Trump could do nothing to lose his support.

I’ll close with some questions I get from Christian fundamentalists, along with my answers.

Why do you hate God? I don’t hate God any more than I hate the Tooth Fairyand I didn’t become an atheist because something bad happened to me. I became an atheist because I find no evidence for any gods.

What is the purpose of life? I don’t need to believe in a god to find a purpose. There may not be a purpose of life, but we can find many purposes in life.

Why be moral? Personal responsibility is a good conservative principle. We should not give credit to a deity for our accomplishments or blame satanic forces when we behave badly. We should take personal responsibility for our actions. I try to live my life to its fullest — it’s the only life I have, and I hope to make a positive difference because it’s the right thing to do, not because of future rewards or punishment.

Why do you think science is more reliable than religion? Because we know how to distinguish good scientific ideas from bad ones. Scientists start out not knowing the answer and go wherever the evidence leads them. Science relies on experimenting, testing, and questioning assumptions critically until a consensus is reached, and even that is always open to revision in light of later evidence. This is why scientific truths are the same in Saudi Arabia, the United States, Israel, and India — countries with very different religious beliefs.

Don’t you worry that Heaven and Hell might be real and that you will be going to Hell? Here are questions I have for you about Heaven and Hell. Why is faith not only important, but perhaps the deciding factor about who winds up in Heaven or Hell? What moral purpose does eternal torture serve? If we have free will on Earth, will we have free will in Heaven? If so, might we sin and go from Heaven to Hell? If not, will we be heavenly robots? If God can make us sinless in Heaven, why didn’t he create us sinless on Earth? Can you be blissfully happy in Heaven knowing that some of your loved ones are being tortured in Hell? And what do you do for an eternity in Heaven without getting bored? Wouldn’t a loving God who wants us all to go to Heaven make it unambiguously clear how to get there?

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr Silverman.

Photo by Alabaster Co on Unsplash

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