Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 15 – Scientific Skepticism and the Emergence of Modern Secularism


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 scientific skepticism and modern secularism.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Some of the pillars of American freethought have been individuals including H.L. Mencken, Carl Sagan, Paul Kurtz, or Martin Gardner, or in the everyday world of needed problem-solving in Parade Magazine with Marilyn (Mach) Vos Savant. 

Whether in the acerbic and sardonic writings of Mencken or in the ordinary American household language of Vos Savant, the wide-ranging philosophizing by Gardner or Kurtz, or the popularization of advanced scientific concepts to a lay audience in the case of Sagan, a delivery of wide-ranging scientific skepticism as a retort to the wide-spread irrationalism in American life. 

How have some of the larger figures of American scientific skepticism been helpful in providing another area of critical thinking for the public against common supernaturalisms? How have those, in turn, helped the cause of furtherance of secularism in the United States?

Dr. Herb Silverman: You mention famous American freethought individuals, some of whom might be acerbic, sardonic, read by ordinary Americans, philosophers, popularizers of science, or debunkers of irrationalism. I think all such people are useful to a freethought movement because they often represent different constituencies. I’m a “big tent” atheist who welcomes all to come out of their atheist closets to help normalize freethought in America.

I’ll describe my personal journey to atheism with four examples.

As a youngster, I was influenced by the movie The Wizard of Oz, where the gatekeeper told Dorothy that nobody had ever seen the great Wizard. Dorothy replied, “Then how do you know he exists?” The curtain is later pulled back to reveal that the “Wizard” is an elderly man operating machinery and speaking into a microphone. So the Wizard didn’t exist, and Dorothy was on her own. That sounded to me a lot like what I was beginning to think of God.

I was also influenced by the Bible. I “knew” as a trusting child that the Bible was God’s word. But after many of my biblical questions went unanswered, I became an example of what Isaac Asimov observed, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

At age 16, in 1958, I hadn’t told anyone that I no longer believed in God, thinking I might be the only one in this country with that opinion. Then I discovered Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian in the public library. I felt better about myself after learning that Russell was more than just not a Christian. He was as many “nots” as I was, and brave enough to say so. Russell transformed the lives of many in my generation. For the first time we heard articulate arguments that confirmed and gave voice to our own skepticism and doubts. Even some true believers were led on a thoughtful journey toward altered religious states. Learning that Russell was a logician and mathematician at least partially inspired me to become a mathematician.

When I read George Orwell’s 1984, I thought the character “Big Brother” appeared to be an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, authoritarian figure who demanded absolute obedience. I didn’t know at the time that Orwell was an atheist. Here’s what Orwell said about Big Brother: “In 1984, the concept of Big Brother is a parody of God. You never see him, but the fact of him is drilled into people’s minds so that they become robots, almost. Plus, if you speak bad against Big Brother, it’s a Thoughtcrime.”

You also asked why there might now be more critical thinkers in America, helping to further the cause of secularism in the United States.

In “The Last Taboo: Why America Needs Atheism,” published in the New Republic in 1996, Wendy Kaminer wrote, “Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles. But, while pedophilia may at least be characterized as a disease, atheism is a choice, a willful rejection of beliefs to which vast majorities of people cling.” I have one slight disagreement: Atheism is not a “choice.” For me, the only choice is whether to be open about my atheism or pretend to believe in a deity for which there is not a scintilla of evidence.

The situation in the United States has improved significantly since Kaminer’s piece appeared twenty-three years ago. Much has been written about atheism, including best-selling books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Susan Jacoby, and others. A number of popular blogs now promote atheism and secularism. In the Internet age, people hear about many worldviews, not just the one in which they were raised. Every new national survey shows a rapid increase of atheists, agnostics, and those who claim no religious affiliation (called “nones”). 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. 

Fivethirtyeight, which takes its name from the number of electors in the U.S. electoral college, is a website that focuses on opinion poll analysis. A recent piece, “Millennials Are Leaving Religion and Not Coming Back,” pointed out that 40 percent of millennials are religiously unaffiliated. And there’s mounting evidence that today’s younger generations may be leaving religion for good. Changing views about the relationship between morality and religion also appear to have convinced many young parents that religious institutions are simply irrelevant or unnecessary for their children. A majority (57 percent) of millennials agree that religious people are generally less tolerant of others, compared to only 37 percent of Baby Boomers.

The Christian conservative movement warns about a rising tide of secularism, but the strong association between religion and the Republican Party may be fueling this divide. And as more members of the Democratic Party become secular, the rift between secular liberals and religious conservatives will be exacerbated. I’m hoping we will return to the day when Republicans identify as economic conservatives who want less government interference, rather than identify with the Christian religion as so many now do. I would still be a Democrat, but at least I’d understand that the Republican Party had a legitimate point-of-view.

When it comes to voting, 60 percent of Americans say they prefer a candidate who believes in God and only 6% say they prefer a candidate who doesn’t.  However, this preference for candidates who believe in God nearly disappears when policy positions are included in the question. The percent who say they would vote for a well-qualified atheist has steadily risen from 18 percent in 1958 to 58 percent in 2015. The Congressional Freethought Caucus, formed in 2018 with 4 members, is a forum for secular members of Congress who promote evidence-based public policy. It now has 12 open members, with more likely to join. There are also more than 50 state legislators who identify with the atheist and humanist community.

While our community is growing rapidly, we are still severely underrepresented in politics. We need to encourage more members of our freethought community to run for public office, and also encourage elected officials to acknowledge their nonbelief. Here are some of our important issues: protecting a strict separation of religion and government, addressing climate change, advancing human rights and civil liberties (including disparities in incarceration rates, easy access to register to vote, women’s rights), health and safety (vaccines, death with dignity), and promoting religious freedom abroad (opposing blasphemy and apostasy laws). We need our atheist and humanist community to become more visible and welcomed by participants in the electoral arena. I hope for a day when every political party at every governmental level will embrace our constituency.

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

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

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