Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 1 – Knowing History and Making History


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 the beginnings of American secularism.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Herb, you made American history for the secular communities. This remains the fact of the matter. In the secular world, you exist as an icon and, in fact, a beloved one, as a mild-mannered liberal Jewish Yankee mathematician atheist who found his way, ironically, into the world of politics of Republican owned South Carolina. What is the feeling in the latter half of life in reflection of these facts, these achievements? When did American secularism start? What founding philosophy set this forth? Before America existed as a bounded geography, what Native American traditions seem to reflect secular ideals?

Dr. Herb Silverman: Thank you so much for your kind words. I don’t think of myself as an icon, just someone who stumbled into an unusual situation. When I learned in 1990 that our South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office, I spoke to a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union to see how this unconstitutional provision could be changed. He told me that an atheist would need to mount a legal challenge by running for governor, and he said that the very best candidate would be me. There was no competition, so after giving it some thought, I agreed to be the Candidate Without a Prayer. Finally, in 1997 the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled unanimously in my favour, nullifying the anti-atheist clause in the South Carolina Constitution.

All the credit for my Supreme Court victory belongs to my lawyers. I was just having fun giving talks and writing about my experiences. I also learned about and became engaged with the secular movement, leading me to help organize what became the Secular Coalition for America.

I’m optimistic about the future. The secular movement is growing, both formally through secular organizations and informally through “nones.” The “nones,” those who don’t subscribe to any faith, are the fastest growing “religion” in the United States, especially among young people. Some of the “nones” got fed up with their conservative religion that was anti-LGBTQ, anti-women’s rights, and anti-science, with little emphasis on loving their neighbour. Pedophilia has also discouraged people from maintaining their church affiliation.

On the other hand, religious fundamentalists continue to flourish during this period of increasing secularization. Influence of religion at the highest levels of government under Donald Trump has never been stronger. It is up to secularists working with all who favour separation of religion and government to counter the influence of religion in government.

Religious fundamentalists often claim that America is a Christian nation. It is, in the same way that America is predominantly a white nation. The majority of Americans are both white and Christian. However, we are not now, nor have we ever officially been, a white nation or a Christian nation. Those who believe America was once a Christian nation may be hearkening back to the first Europeans who settled here, before America became a nation.

Those Pilgrims and Puritans were religious dissenters from Europe who sought freedom of worship in America for their own religion, but most definitely not for other religions. They had no use for religious liberty. Most of the early colonies made blasphemy a crime, an offence that could be punishable by death. Those colonies were mostly theocracies, where people who believed in the “wrong” religion were excluded from government participation and persecuted. For example, the Puritans, who established the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, required all Massachusetts citizens to pay a tax to the Puritan Church. This church-state union led to the Salem witch trials of 1692, based on the biblical mandate: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

In the American Revolution that started in 1776, political leaders began to construct a new federal government. The soon-to-be United States of America not only declared independence from England, but also declared something even more radical—that “Governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Americans rejected kings crowned by bishops, who had been supposedly vested with a God-given authority to rule through “divine right.”

The framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted no part of the religious intolerance and bloodshed they saw in Europe. They wisely established the first government in history to separate religion and government. James Madison, affectionately known as the Father of our Constitution, said, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the endless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” Our founders understood the devastating nature of holy wars. They wisely established a secular nation whose authority rests with “We the People” (the first three words of the U.S. Constitution) and not with “Thou the Deity.”

Our founders were products of the Enlightenment. We can consider many of them freethinkers who felt that humans should not be governed by faith in the supernatural, but on reason and evidence from the natural world. Some were deists, believing in Nature’s God who set the laws of nature in motion and then retired as deity emeritus. Before Darwin and what we know of modern science, I, too, might have been a deist at that time.

The founders wrote the Constitution as a secular document, not because they were hostile to Christianity or religion but because they did not want the new federal government to have authority over religion or to meddle in it. Government must not favor one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. That’s why there are only two references to religion in the Constitution, and both are exclusionary. One is Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The other is in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This guarantees American citizens freedom of conscience, the right to practice any religion or no religion.

No one’s religious liberty should feel threatened when the wall of separation between government and religion is kept strong and high. There is only one “religious liberty” Americans lack: The freedom to enlist the government to force others to acknowledge or support specific religious ideas. Unlike what many religious fundamentalists think, government neutrality is not government hostility toward religion. Our secular laws are based on the human principle of “justice for all,” and our civil government enforces those laws through a secular criminal justice system. 

Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, might have foreseen what could happen if the religious right were to triumph in America. In 1939, he made this chilling statement after spending six months observing Hitler’s rise in Germany: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the American flag carrying a cross.” 

Beginning with Christopher Columbus, many Native Americans (then called savages) 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 to Christian settlers ready to work for God and Country. The majority of Native American tribes, many of whom were agricultural, had no concept of dominion over the land.

Most Native American religions did not distinguish between the spiritual world and the natural world. Few Native American religions were considered absolutely unchangeable. Traditions varied from group to group, making their spirituality much less rigid than Christianity. What I like about Native American religions is that they don’t try to convert anyone. They accept that people have the religious freedom to believe and practice whatever they want. That’s also true of some religions today, but the most troublesome religious denominations are those that feel they deserve special rights and that they are obligated by God to convince everyone else of their one and only “truth.”

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

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash


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