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 founders and beliefs.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As you noted the anti-Catholic nature of some of the framers of the American Constitution, you provided some insight into the ways in which the nature of the deism of the brightest American minds of the time represented something more akin to non-religion or a nearly modern notion of secularism in America with the base separation of church and state.
My suspicion: if in an alternate universe in which Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) in the era of the framers of the American Constitution, then the established-as-deists would have identified and affirmed an atheist viewpoint of the world because biological, organic life must have seemed utterly incomprehensibly complicated and functional without the modern and fundamental theoretical basis for all life sciences.
You and I live as modern secular and freethought people with due credit to the deists and pantheists of the previous generations. I decline any sentiment or argument as anti-Catholics or anti-religious-people – to individual religious believers, hierarchs, intellectuals, scientists, theologians, or similars, but affirm anti-Catholicism and anti-religion – to abuses of power, belief structures, beliefs, ideological stances, institutional orthodoxy, institutions, purported authority and inspiration of holy texts, supernatural and magic powers, and the like – and also affirm non-religion as in secularism within a more modern interpretation.
When did anti-Catholicism and anti-religion wane amongst the framers or their descendants leading more into non-religion if there was any distinct set of moments or period in time? How were the seeds of modern atheist and non-religion movements set at the founding of America? How did the massive influx of religious immigrants change the landscape of America – its demographics? What amendments to the American Constitution have been important to the establishment equality of freethought and secular American citizens?
Dr. Herb Silverman: I agree with you that many eighteenth-century Deists might have been atheists had they been familiar with the work of Charles Darwin. However, Darwin’s theory of natural selection only explains that we have a variety of species, including human animals, because they adapted to their environment. Evolution says nothing about how life began. Many Deists would probably still have believed in a Creator who started the process, and then let nature take its course.
Later scientific discoveries would probably have turned these Deists into atheists. We now know that our universe did not begin with a Creator, but with a “Big Bang” approximately 13.8 billion years ago. We still don’t know how life began, although abiogenesis is a reasonable hypothesis. This is the natural process by which life has arisen from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds. It’s interesting that Bible believers refuse to believe this hypothesis about life arising from non-life, though they believe that the first human was made from dirt and the second human from the rib of the first. Did God run out of dirt?
Since we don’t know for sure how life began, I understand why some people attribute life to a Creator. I can’t prove they are wrong, but I can prove that those who regard the Bible as a scientific book are wrong. I’m an atheist because I see no evidence for the existence of any gods, not because I can prove there are no gods.
You mention that you affirm non-religion. I do, too, but I would rather say that I affirm nontheism, meaning no gods. There are religions without gods or supernaturalism. As an atheist, some people assume I must be anti-religion. Not so. By one measure, I might be the most religious person in America. You see, I have not one, not two, but three different religions: I’m a member of the American Ethical Union, with Ethical Culture Societies; I’m a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, with atheist rabbis; and I’m a member of the Unitarian Universalist Humanists. All three religions are nontheistic and are active participants in the Secular Coalition for America.
When our nation was founded, not just anti-Catholicism flourished. There were 150 attacks against Baptists in Virginia between 1760 and 1778, many by leaders of local Anglican churches. In the seventeenth century, Massachusetts hanged people for being Quakers. The first “War on Christmas” was initiated by Puritans because the Bible did not sanction the holiday, and they believed Christmas was invented by Catholics and pagans, who engaged in too much merriment and drinking. The Puritans promoted Protestantism, the religion invented to protest Catholicism.
At America’s founding, 98 percent in the colonies were Protestant, but the divisions among Protestant sects and between Protestants and Catholics were intense. Some people were Protestant in name only, while others were fervent believers in their sect. Only 17 percent in 1776 attended church, so not many were passionate about their religion. Such indifference might indicate a large number of freethinkers in the colonies, including Deists and maybe even atheists.
Some of our framers, including James Madison, wanted the “no religious test” clause in the United States Constitution to apply to all states. That failed to pass. Initially, eleven of the thirteen states had religious tests, stipulating that only Christians, or in some cases only Protestants, could hold public office. A notable exception was Pennsylvania, founded by the Quaker William Penn. He decreed that Pennsylvania would be a “Holy Experiment” in toleration. All sects, including freethinkers, were welcome. Penn also founded Philadelphia, my birthplace, which is known as the city of brotherly love. Philadelphia is Greek for “brotherly love.” Philadelphia had the only Catholic church in the colonies that was protected by the authorities.
The influx of immigrants throughout its history has made America more religiously diverse. For that reason, there has always been an anti-immigrant constituency who feared the religion of the immigrants, and how that could change the values of the country. Initially the opposition was to Catholics, and today it is to Muslims. We have an opportunity now to show the world how people of different faiths and none can coexist and thrive. Founder James Madison argued that the best way to promote religion was to leave it alone. Previously, those who wanted to encourage religion had enlisted the government’s help. Without government support, America now has 360,000 houses of diverse worship.
Today Protestants, Catholics, and other Christians put aside some of their theological differences to work together on important political issues, and grab media attention. I disagreed with everything the Christian Coalition, founded in 1989 by Pat Robertson, stood for (preventing women from having access to reproductive health care, promoting that evolution is just a myth, contending that our country was founded as a Christian nation, opposing LGBT rights, demonizing atheists and secular humanists). Nevertheless, they helped change the culture, and made politicians take notice. The Secular Coalition for America is a counter to the Christian Coalition and its successors, and SCA member organizations are working together to keep the country secular, not theocratic.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the right to practice any faith or none. Some people, including politicians, wrongly say that we have freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. This is, of course, nonsense. You can’t have “of” without “from.” Giving people the right to believe also guarantees the right not to believe.
Finally, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been important to secular Americans. It says that constitutional rights guaranteed by the federal government must apply to all states, regardless of state laws. The amendment passed in 1868, after the Civil War, and granted citizenship and equal rights to slaves who had been emancipated. This amendment was also the basis of my winning court case when I learned that the South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office, a clear violation of the 14th Amendment because the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.