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 minority religions and the American nation-state.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Christian mythology pervades so much of the American landscape in the present day. It does the same for much of the long-term history of the United States too. Our references in the series look at mostly Christians, deists, pantheists, or the indigenous, whether the leadership or the population. Numerous minority religious belief systems exist in America today.
Many minority religions existed in America in the past. They have had interactions with the dominant religion and must have influenced the secular and freethought community over time. Islam and Judaism have had impacts on the political and social landscape of the United States of America. What have been impactful or important minority religions in the development of religion in America?
How have those religions been positive for secularism in America? How have those religions been negative for secularism in America? What has been the interplay between the dominant religion, minority religions, and the secular and freethought communities in the ongoing struggle for motion towards the proposed ideals of the United States with equality for all – in this case equality for the religious and the non-religious, the secular and the non-secular, or the naturalists and the supernaturalists?
Dr. Herb Silverman: Religious freedom, guaranteed by the United States Constitution, allows individuals to practice and promote any religion or no religion without government interference. Our founders supported freedom of religion because they understood that such religious diversity would help our new country avoid the kinds of wars that had plagued Europe, where hundreds of thousands of people had been tortured and killed over religious differences.
I view the existence of many minority religions as a “blessing.” Christians are wrong when they claim America is a Christian nation. It’s a Christian nation in the same way that America is a white nation. The majority of Americans are both white and Christian. However, America is not now, nor has it ever officially been, a white nation or a Christian nation.
One of my favorite minority religions is the Satanic Temple. Its members are mostly atheists. These Satanists might be having a little fun with the name, but their primary purpose is to promote secularism. They hit on a clever name to get publicity for promoting rational thought and separation of religion and government. But these “Satanists” especially trouble some religious believers because the name engages in their own religious narrative. The Satanic Temple has gained international attention for asserting equal rights for Satanists when other religious privileges have been granted, primarily to Christians. They have successfully applied for equal representation when religious monuments are placed on public property, opposed religious exemption and legal protection against laws that unscientifically restrict women’s reproductive autonomy, exposed fraudulent harmful pseudo-scientific practitioners and claims in mental health care, and they have applied to hold clubs alongside other religious after school clubs in schools besieged by proselytizing organizations.
In addition to being an atheist, a humanist, an agnostic, a freethinker, and other labels (depending on definitions), I’m also a Jew. The definition of a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother. There is no requirement for a Jew to believe anything special. Many, if not most, Jews in America are atheists. I am a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, a nontheistic religion with atheist rabbis. Other religions consistent with being an atheist include Buddhism and Hinduism. Some Buddhists and Hindus believe in reincarnation, but that is not a requirement.
Many of us non-religious types like to collaborate with religious people to achieve common goals. An added bonus is that negative stereotypes might change when religious people and atheists get to know each other better. I’ve participated in a number of interfaith dialogues, though I would prefer a different term (perhaps “interfaith and values”). I think it’s terrific when interfaith groups invite atheists to join and work with them. These interfaith dialogues have mostly been with progressive religionists who are comfortable engaging with people of other faiths and none. They can more easily collaborate with us on good works than with conservative religionists, whose primary interest in those outside their narrow belief system is to proselytize. These interfaith religious believers seem to value behavior more than belief, and find in their holy books an obligation to advocate for social justice. The more conservative religious believers tend to place belief above behavior, and think of this life as preparation for an imagined afterlife.
Aside from deciding who allegedly goes to heaven, there have been countless claims by so-called experts about the specifics of an afterlife. How do we determine who the experts are? The number of experts on any given topic is inversely proportional to the evidence available on that topic. And by that criterion, we are all experts on the afterlife because there is absolutely no evidence for its existence. Anyone can make up stuff about heaven or quote stuff from books made up by others.
I think there is a lot of value even in religions I dislike because they help us maintain a pluralistic society. I’ll mention just two of many.
First, Islam. Given the high-profile atrocities committed by some Muslims in the name of their religion, a number of Americans oppose giving complete religious freedom to Muslims. They point to passages in the Quran that can be interpreted to justify atrocious acts. But the same can be said about passages in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. If you can find an interpretation in one holy book to justify an atrocity, then you can likely find a comparable interpretation and justification in the other holy books. These include genocide, holy wars, slavery, misogyny, death for crimes like blasphemy, homosexuality and worshipping the wrong god or even the right god in the wrong way. We need to distinguish between peaceful religious believers and those who are inspired by their holy books to commit atrocities. It becomes Islamophobia when we lump all Muslims into the same category.
Pope Francis once said that faith and violence are incompatible. Not if you read a comprehensive history of religion, including the history of the Catholic Church. Ironically, conservative Christians who seem most worried about Sharia agree with more tenets of Sharia law than do atheists like me. Sharia opposes abortion, contraceptives, and sex education, considers being gay a sin, has little tolerance for other religions, and treats women as subservient to men while claiming women are privileged within the religion.
I don’t much care for the beliefs of Mormons, now called Latter Day Saints, especially their effective political opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and to physician assisted suicide. For nearly 150 years, the Mormon Church had taught that all blacks were cursed, which was why a black Mormon male could not become an LDS priest or enter the Mormon Temple. In1978, LDS President Spencer W. Kimball claimed that God had removed the curse on blacks and that worthy black men could now become priests.
One amusing story about Mormons is that they baptize dead people. Many Jews, myself excluded, are upset that Mormons have sometimes focused on Jewish Holocaust victims (perhaps even my dead relatives) for posthumous baptism. This practice, however ludicrous, is fine with me. It does no harm to my deceased relatives or to me. In fact, I take this as an expression of good will, much like, “I’ll pray for you.” I believe in its positive sentiment, if not its efficacy.
In a debate I had in North Carolina with well-known Christian apologist William Lane Craig, I asked him during the debate what he thought of a different resurrection story believed by many Christians. After Jesus died, but before he went to heaven, Jesus stopped in the United States. This story was chiseled on gold plates in Egyptian hieroglyphics and buried in Palmyra, New York. In 1827, the angel Moroni led Joseph Smith to the gold plates and a magic stone. When Smith put the magic stone into his hat and buried his face in the hat, he was able to translate the plates into English. I asked Craig if he believed the Book of Mormon was true, and if he thought Mormons were Christians. Craig didn’t respond during the debate. But after the debate, I asked Craig if he thought Mormons were real Christians, and he said, “No. They are a cult.”
The word “cult” is not well defined. Christianity was once a cult of Judaism that eventually had enough members to rise to the status of sect. It became a separate religion when they added their own holy book, the New Testament. The difference between a religion and a cult seems to be the number of adherents. I once saw a cartoon showing a bearded guru at a table on the sidewalk holding a sign-up sheet. A giant thermometer in the cartoon marked off increasingly larger categories of religion, starting at the bottom with “handful of wackos,” and moving up the thermometer with “bunch of nuts,” “cult,” “faction,” “sect,” and at the top— “mainstream religion.” The poster next to the guru read, “Join us and help us reach our goal!”
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, once said, “The most unusual thing in my church is that we believe there was once a flood upon the earth, and that a man took a boat and put two of each animal inside the boat, and saved humanity.” Romney essentially said that his holy book is no more preposterous than other holy books. I think he has a point.
I’m just pleased that we tolerate all kinds of beliefs, as long as they are not forced on those who are not devotees or harm minors. I support the 1971 Supreme Court decision in the three-pronged “Lemon Test,’ named after the lead plaintiff Alton Lemon. It says that government action must have a secular legislative purpose, must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and must not result in an excessive entanglement with religion.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.