Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 12 – Lessons From an Elder: Coming Into One’s Own


Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You – and as a term of endearment and affection, for me, at least – exist as an elder within the freethought community, where you harbour a certain general affability, acquired wisdom, and perceptiveness on issues relevant to all ages of the freethought communities. 

You have a secure place in America freethinker history. What is lost with age? What is gained with age? How does this change over time develop an understanding more rich in practical wisdom and perceptiveness via the experience of the times of the founders of the United States and the leaders of the different social reform movements in American history? 

People in their time but not of it, in the sense of a widened vision of the possibilities of human relations. I intend this as a collective reflection on some of the writings in this series so far, in order to transition into other items of historical import to the philosophical and historical foundations of American secularism.

Dr. Herb Silverman: Thank you for saying I have a secure place in American freethinker history. If true, it would be because I did two things.

First, I ran for Governor of South Carolina in 1990 to challenge the state constitution prohibition against atheists holding public office. I didn’t become governor, of course, but in 1997 the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled unanimously in my favor, nullifying the anti-atheist clause in the South Carolina Constitution. Credit for my Supreme Court victory belongs to my ACLU lawyers. I was just having fun giving campaign talks and writing about my experiences.

Second, during my legal battle, I learned about and joined several national atheist and humanist organizations that all promoted causes I supported, like separation of religion and government and increasing visibility of and respect for freethinkers. However, each organization was doing its own thing without recognizing or cooperating with worthwhile efforts of like-minded groups. I thought that these diverse organizations would accomplish more by showing strength in numbers and working together on those issues to bring about cultural and political change. So in 2002, I helped form the Secular Coalition for America and became its founding president.

The Secular Coalition started with 4 and now has 19 national secular organizations as members, covering the full spectrum of our movement. It also represents hundreds of local secular communities. It was the first organization to hire a lobbyist to take our issues to Congress.

Working with allies in the faith community, the Secular Coalition combines the power of grassroots activism with professional lobbying to impact laws and policies governing separation of religion and government.

You asked what is gained by age. Being involved with secular organizations for close to 30 years has given me institutional memory. When I hear suggestions about something we might try, I can often point to having tried that before and the outcome.

You also asked what is lost with age. On this, I am an expert. I’m 77 years old and like to think I can do whatever I used to be able to do, but I have contrary physical and mental evidence. Aside from age, longevity in a leader can become problematic. “Founder’s syndrome” occurs when leaders view themselves as irreplaceable. I’ve seen many good leaders outstay their welcome. For an organization to flourish, a high priority for a leader should be to make him or herself replaceable. Atheists, above all, recognize that organizations have no “dear leaders” who communicate to us through a supernatural being. We pride ourselves on being independent, and we recognize the fallibility of all. Not to sound like a vampire, but new blood is good. 

I think I managed to avoid founder’s syndrome at the Secular Coalition for America. I sought and encouraged active participants and talented replacements. I’m now happily retired as SCA president, but was asked to continue to serve for a while on its Board of Directors.

Looking back at the history of the freethought movement, changes in communication have been mammoth. At the time of the founders and early social reform movements in the United States, social media consisted of books, pamphlets, and word-of-mouth. Today, people can instantly reach each other around the world through online communication. Word travels fast, but so does miscommunication, lately known as fake news (some of it intentional). Both atheists and religious fundamentalists are able to spread information as never before, but of course they differ on what they consider to be “fake news.”

Speaking of fake news, the influence of religion at the highest levels of government has never been stronger than under President Donald Trump. He has appointed more than 150 judges, most of whom seem hostile to the separation of religion and government. He has ordered every department in the executive branch to work on faith-based partnerships, signing an executive order creating the “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative,” an office that undermines religious freedom by giving taxpayer money to religious groups and allowing them to discriminate, with little accountability and no transparency.

Not only are Trump’s cabinet members very religious, but they also seem to oppose the separation of religion and government. Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, referred to the separation of church and state as “crap” prompted by “political correctness.” Attorney General William Barr said, “The separation of church and state is for losers, liberals, and America-hating atheists.”

Christian Nationalists and evangelicals, with Trump’s blessing, have introduced legislation to teach the Bible in schools, display religious mottos in schools, discriminate in foster care and adoption, pass religious refusal in healthcare, and promote anti-science religious teachings. Whatever you think about Trump wanting to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, we must not let him tear down the wall between church and state.

Nonetheless, I’m cautiously optimistic about our future. It is up to secularists working with all who favor separation of religion and government to counter the influence of religion in government. The secular movement is growing, both formally through secular organizations and informally through “nones,” those who don’t subscribe to any faith. The “nones” are the fastest growing “religion” in the United States, especially among young people. Many “nones” broke from conservative religion because it is anti-LGBTQ, anti-women’s rights, and anti-science. Pedophilia has also discouraged people from maintaining their church affiliation. 

Based on surveys, the United States is becoming less religious every year. This is finally being reflected in politics. A Congressional Freethought Caucus, formed in 2018 with 4 members, promotes evidence-based public policy and is a forum for secular members of Congress. It now has 12 open members, with more likely to join. There has also been a 900% increase in the number of state legislators who identify with the atheist and humanist community (from 5 in 2016 to over 50 today).

And finally, thanks to the Secular Coalition of America and their Director of Governmental Affairs, Sarah Levin, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) this year embraced American nonbelievers for the first time, adopting a resolution that recognizes their contributions to society. At nearly one quarter of the total U.S. population, nonreligious Americans represent a sizeable voting bloc. This resolution marks the first time a major U.S. political party has specifically courted religiously unaffiliated people across the nation.

The resolution says that the DNC recognizes the value, ethical soundness, and importance of the religiously unaffiliated demographic, a group of Americans who contribute in innumerable ways to the arts, sciences, medicine, business, law, the military, their communities, the success of the Party and prosperity of the Nation; and that religiously unaffiliated Americans are a group that, as much as any other, advocates for rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values and should be represented, included, and heard by the Party.

And looking to the future of freethought, I hope that one day every political party at every governmental level will adopt similar resolutions.

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

Photo by Egor Vikhrev on Unsplash

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