Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 5 – Colonization and Its Aftermath


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 colonization and its aftermath.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If we look at the early American experiment apart from the leaders of the nation at the time and the framers of the Constitution, there still existed, and still remain extant, the Native American populations scattered throughout the bounded geography known as the United States of America.  

The same story playing out throughout the world amongst conquered peoples, whether by Europeans with Christianity or otherwise. In this massive instance, the wiping out of the indigenous population of North America. Charlie Hill, who had a set on The Richard Pryor Show, in later interviews before death spoke of “stuck on stupid” in terms of some of the mentalities of some of the white folks (culture and social attitudes in mind), of Euro-Americans (often associated with this American ethnic group).

Another time, Hill elaborated, “Americans are stuck on stupid. It’s not a skin color, it’s an attitude. And, the only way they’re going to get right with everything is to get right with Indians. The way it should be done–with honor and respect.” How did the project of colonization destroy the early possibility of relations between foreigners of the time, Europeans, and the original inhabitants of the land, the Native Americans? How did this get worse in some ways and better in other ways over time?

What seem like a means by which to deal on equal terms rather than Christian, Euro-American, or white folk terms and standards in modern relations? How can humanist and freethought communities provide a better ethical foundation for this? How has the project of colonization influenced the members of the freethought community who leave traditions or enforced religions if they have a Native American heritage insofar as you know as an American – as I am Canadian?

Dr. Herb Silverman: I think most Americans agree that in the past both European settlers and later generations of Americans treated Indians (now called Native Americans) very badly. Treaties between the U.S. and sovereign Indian tribes were unequal or broken. The government sought to replace the population of Indian territories with a new society of white settlers. As white settlers spread westward across America after 1780, armed conflicts increased between the settlers and Indians. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the U.S. government to enforce the Indian removal from east of the Mississippi River to the West, even though many tribes had extensive territories in that area. As American settlers kept expanding their territories, Indian tribes were relocated to specially designated territories.

This policy was known at the time as Manifest Destiny, the belief that the settlers in the United States were destined to expand across North America because of the special virtues of the American people and their institutions, including the Christian religion. This was nothing new. Beginning with Christopher Columbus, many Native Americans were enslaved and forced to convert to Christianity. They lost their land and were later forcibly put onto reservations, leaving the rich land they had lived on for Christian settlers ready to work for God and Country.

The Mexican-American War of 1846 resulted in the annexation of 525,000 square miles of Mexican territory, about half of Mexico. While not primarily about Native-Americans, Captain John Reid, from Missouri, was praised by the mayor of Parras in Mexico during the war for his “noble soul” and his determination to defend “Christians and civilized beings against the rage and brutality of savages.

Many of these actions probably come from so-called “American Exceptionalism,” the questionable notion that the United States occupies a special niche among the nations of the world due to its historical evolution and its political and religious institutions and origins. I wish it were about supporting human rights around the world, but now it seems more about promoting the perceived interests of America. Some Americans believe that God particularly blesses America and that we represent the biblical city on a hill. One of the many differences between evangelical Christians and atheists in the United States is that the majority of evangelicals believe that America is the greatest country in the world, compared with only 20 percent of those without religion who agree with that statement. When I think of American exceptionalism, I think of our being the first country with a godless constitution, governed by “We the People,” not “Thou the Deity.”

What seems strange to me is why so many Americans want all countries to emulate America, yet we currently (and in the past) have created so many barriers for those desperately seeking a better life here. Other than Native Americans, all Americans come from families who were immigrants. President Donald Trump has no good arguments for excluding immigrants, but had Native Americans initially known what European immigrants would do to them and their culture, they would certainly have wanted to keep such immigrants out. 

Few American are aware of the California Genocide of Native Americans (1846-1873). Following the U.S. conquest of California, the government waged genocide against the Native Americans in that territory. California state and Federal authorities incited, aided, and financed miners, settlers, ranchers, and people’s militias to enslave, kidnap, murder, and exterminate a major proportion of displaced Native Americans. The California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, enacted in 1850, provided for apprenticing or indenturing Indian children to Whites, and also punished “vagrant” Indians by “hiring” them out to the highest bidder at a public auction if the Indian could not provide sufficient bond or bail. This legalized a form of slavery in California.

United States federal law contains no statute of limitations on war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide, so lately some people have called for a genocide tribunal to investigate such past human rights violations and ethnic cleansing. In a speech before representatives of Native Americans in June 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom apologized for the genocide. Newsom said, “That’s what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.”

This is an indication that we may be ready to show some respect to Native Americans and treat them better. Many Americans read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, which includes the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, a massacre of several hundred Lakota Indians, mostly women and children, by soldiers of the United States Army.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) is a Native American grassroots movement that was founded in the United States in July 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. AIM was initially formed in urban areas to address systemic issues of poverty and police brutality against Native Americans. AIM soon widened its focus from urban issues to include many Indigenous Tribal issues that Native American groups currently face, such as treaty rights, unemployment, education, cultural continuity, and preservation of Indigenous cultures. Organization like AIM are helping to improve the lives of Native Americans.

Nevertheless, the situation for many Native Americans is dire, much worse than for African Americans. Approximately 90,000 Native American families are under-housed or homeless, and only 13 percent have a college degree. About 22 percent live on tribal lands or reservations.

I think the freethought community has always been supportive of rights for Native Americans. We mostly agree that Columbus Day is not a cause for celebration, and that we should reflect on what happened to Native Americans if we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. We are probably disproportionately represented among non-Native Americans at protests organized by Native Americans. Of course, we should all look for ways to volunteer and contribute to this beleaguered community.

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

Photo by Andrew James on Unsplash

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