Herb Silverman reflects on his life, beliefs as a public atheist
Herb Silverman was born on June 14, 1942 — Flag Day, which perhaps accounts for his patriotism. He came of age in the turbulent 1960s, attending first Temple University in Philadelphia, then Syracuse University in the middle of New York State, earning degrees in mathematics.
In 1976, he moved to the Lowcountry to teach at the College of Charleston. Silverman published more than 100 research papers in math journals, as well as a couple of books on complex variables. He retired as Distinguished Professor Emeritus in 2009 and turned more of his attention to writing books and essays, not about math or academia but about atheism and America’s culture wars.
Looking back over his career, he does not relinquish his optimism. “It was nearly all good, and when it wasn’t good it was interesting,” he said.
Q: You are a well-known advocate of the First Amendment and a vocal atheist. What prompted you to “go public” with your arguments?
A: My political activism was triggered by the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, not by atheism. As a math professor at liberal Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, I assumed that atheism was the default of my academic colleagues. Despite many marches and protests (including a brief incarceration), I failed to end the war.
However, I did make one civil rights contribution. After my Ph.D. student, Evelyn, passed her qualifying exams, I took her to a local bar to celebrate. The bartender told me that the bar was for men only, and Evelyn would have to leave. The following day, I returned with another woman, a black colleague. The bartender was more uncomfortable being viewed a racist than a sexist, so he let us stay. The next day I brought Evelyn back, and they served us. And from then on, that bar admitted women.
Q: In 1990, you ran for governor as a way to challenge a provision in the state’s constitution that forbid nonbelievers from holding public office. Then you tried to become a notary public for the same reason. In 1997, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in your favor that requiring an oath to God was unconstitutional. Were you satisfied with the decision?
A: I’m certainly satisfied with the unanimous decision of the S.C. Supreme Court that the state constitution was in violation of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits religious tests for public office. The state wasted close to $100,000 over seven years trying to prevent me from becoming a notary public. Atheists can now legally hold public office in South Carolina, but the unfinished business is to actually elect open atheists.
We know through the Secular Coalition for America (of which I’m president) that there are many closeted atheists in Congress, and we are trying to encourage them to come out. Our goal is to change stereotypes and increase the visibility of and respect for atheists. I hope we reach a point in this secular country where candidates are judged by the content of their character and their political positions, not by their professed religious beliefs.
Q: You taught mathematics at the College of Charleston for many years. Do you think empiricism and religious faith are incompatible, or is there perhaps a way to reconcile the two?
A: I value empirical evidence to learn about the natural world. I’ve seen students pray before my math tests, but studying is more effective. Before making a decision, I like to have as much knowledge as possible. However, I sometimes take a “leap of faith,” as when I fell in love and married Sharon, a good choice and happy outcome.
I view religious faith as mostly evidence-free, though such faith can make people happy. I’ve had interesting discussions and debates with people who try to explain why their religious faith is reasonable, but I’ve not yet heard a convincing argument. On the other hand, there is not much to discuss if someone tells me he is “saved” because Jesus came into his heart. I prefer focusing on this life, rather than a faith belief in an imagined afterlife.
Q: You have written at length about your adventures and misadventures in your memoir “Candidate Without a Prayer,” and in numerous columns for the Huffington Post and other publications, now collected in a new book called “An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land.” What kind of reactions have you received from readers?
A: Many are surprised that atheists can have a sense of humor. Also, early on, I heard from people who thought they were the only atheists in South Carolina. I took names and a number of them helped start the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, now a thriving organization. ... Attitudes change when friends, neighbors, or even family members discover that you are an atheist and a nice person who does good without god belief.
I wasn’t out to my own family until 1990, when I got a call from a distressed woman in Philadelphia — my mother! The Associated Press picked up a story about me, and I had to admit that The Philadelphia Inquirer was not the best way to learn that her only child was a gubernatorial candidate — and an atheist. I knew my mother would be upset because she always wanted me to appear “respectable.”
Q: What is the status today of atheism and its treatment by nonatheists?
A: Among religious demographics counted today, there’s a category called “nones,” meaning people who are religiously unaffiliated, and it’s one of the fastest-growing segments. They are not all atheists or agnostics, but a significant percentage are — especially among young adults. As our culture becomes more diverse, there is more openness toward other points of view, and we are slowly gaining a place at the advocacy table along with religious groups.
The Internet has probably been the single most important factor in empowering young people with inquiring minds to learn about the many choices for religious belief or nonbelief. ... There is room for all beliefs and none in this wonderful country. Regardless of theological beliefs, I hope we can work together on social justice issues and make America even greater, while placing more value on deeds than on creeds.