FEATURE STORY ‌ The Bright Revolution 

Atheists are people, too

Many people have their little rituals to start the new year. Televangelist Pat Robertson is no exception. Each January, he goes off on a little "prayer retreat," in which he talks to God and God talks to him. He returns from his Mount Sinai experience to share with his television audience the prophecies the Almighty has imparted to him.

This year was a dandy. The good reverend announced that America would be struck by terrorists in 2007 and millions would die. Yes, it sounds pretty grim, but before you go looking for a cave to crawl into, you should understand that Robertson's record in the prophecy business is not very good.

In 2006, Robertson said Jehovah had promised to strike the Pacific Northwest with a tsunami. In 2004, he said that George W. Bush would win reelection to the White House in a landslide. "I really believe I'm hearing from the Lord it's going to be like a blowout election," he said. If 50.8 percent of the popular vote is a blowout, then chalk one up for the old reverend.

For the three percent of Americans who declare themselves atheist, agnostic, or secular humanist -- and for the seven percent who remain in the closet -- there are no collective rituals for starting a new year. They just try to make the best they can of a crazy world in which George W. Bush is still in the White House; Christian fundamentalists are setting health-care policy and denying condoms to teenagers and people in AIDS-ravaged African nations; Islamic fundamentalists have pledged to destroy the Great Satan called America; and Jewish fundamentalists will not be satisfied until they have sparked another war in the Middle East.

Yet in the midst of this plague of religiosity, one can feel a subtle but strong current moving in the opposite direction. Atheism is more popular today than it has been in many years, making the covers of major magazines and appearing on bestseller lists.

Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, is author of The God Delusion, which has been riding high on the New York Times and Amazon best seller lists.

Two years ago, Sam Harris published The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the End of Reason, which focused public attention on the dangers of religious extremism and sold a quarter-million copies. Now he is back with Letter to a Christian Nation, a polemical blast at religion as the source of most of humankind's misery.

And then there is Daniel Dennett, the dean of the new wave of nontheists and director of Tufts University's Cognitive Studies Center, whose Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, continues to spark controversy nearly a year after publication.

Why the sudden interest in atheism in this country, where 90 percent of adults profess belief in some form of Supreme Being? Why would anyone wish to be identified as an atheist when a University of Minnesota study published last April reported that atheists are the least-trusted minority in America? In that study, researchers found that 39.6 percent of people selected atheists from a list when asked which group doesn't share their vision of American society. Atheists beat out Muslims (26.3 percent) and homosexuals (22.6 percent). One of the researchers theorized that the "findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good."

Intolerance of atheists rivals that of homosexuals in this country. Asked if he recognized "the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists," the first President Bush answered, "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."

Atheists may get a bad rap, but in the age of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, religion has gotten a bad name as well, and some say that there is a straight line between the moderate religious observances of billions of Christians, Muslims, and Jews and the kind of fanaticism that threatens the very foundations of civilization.

"As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers," Dawkins writes in The God Delusion.

This "New Atheism," as it is called, was the subject of a cover story in the November Wired magazine, where contributing editor Gary Wolf wrote, "The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking."

Herb Silverman couldn't agree more. Silverman is the founder of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry (www.lowcountry.humanists.net) and has the distinction of being South Carolina's most outspoken atheist. (See story, p. 23.)

"Tolerance enables fundamentalism," Silverman says, sitting in his office at the Department of Mathematics at the College of Charleston. "All holy books have horrendous violence and intolerance, as well as love and peace. The fundamentalists will always seize upon the dark side of religion .... Why should we give ludicrous beliefs a pass?"

Silverman and Dawkins both see the New Atheism as taking the critical step from "mere philosophy" to a political movement. Dawkins said this in the Wired story: "I'm quite keen on the politics of persuading people of the virtues of atheism .... The number of nonreligious people in the U.S. is something nearer to 30 million than 20 million. That's more than all the Jews in the world put together. I think we're in the same position the gay movement was in a few decades ago. There was a need for people to come out. The more people who came out, the more people who had the courage to come out. I think that's the case with atheists. They're more numerous than anybody realizes."

Silverman also goes for the gay analogy: "Forty years ago, I thought homosexuals were just child molesters, because I didn't know any homosexuals. That is, I didn't know any who were open about their homosexuality. They were all in the closet. Today it's possible to know gays as individuals and that's what I want for atheists. It's time to come out of the closet."

"Coming out of the closet" is a pleasantly innocuous term. In the hands of Richard Dawkins, the New Atheism takes on a harder edge. "Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists ... Not a single member of either house of Congress admits to being an atheist. It just doesn't add up. Either they're stupid, or they're lying. And have they got a motive for lying? Of course they've got a motive! Everyone knows that an atheist can't get elected."

He's probably right, but Wendy Kaminer warns against hubris in the New Atheism movement. Kaminer is an attorney and former Guggenheim Fellow and the author of seven books of social criticism, including Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety and Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today.

Kaminer was in town last month to address the annual American Civil Liberties Union banquet and took the opportunity to speak to the monthly meeting of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry at the Unitarian Church.

She reminded the 40-plus in attendance that great intellectual traditions have come out of religion, including the Jesuits and Talmudist scholars. Furthermore, great social reforms have been spawned from religious ethics. In the United States, these would include the abolition and civil rights movements. The great slaughters of the 20th century were committed not in the name of religion, she said, but in the name of nationalism and secular ideologies. "Human nature is the problem, not religion."

She quoted Mary McCarthy in saying, "Religion is good for good people."

(Curiously, Kaminer said that she does not think there is more religiosity today than in earlier times, but the way the Republicans have gerrymandered electoral maps and use religion as a wedge issue has given religious voters more power today than at any time before.)

The challenge, Kaminer says, is to replace contempt with compassion and to preserve the ethics of religion, including the concept of sin and moral condemnation.

Silverman agrees. He has no use for religious ritual, though he tries to keep the ethics of religion in his own life. "It's the latter that are important to me," he said, "not the former ... I try to do the right thing because it is the right thing."

Deeds, not creeds, are the measure of a person's morality, Silverman says.

To those who say that people without religion would be released to commit mayhem, Silverman responds, "I do not consider it morality if you act purely out of rewards or punishments ... Morality is what you do when no one is watching." In a Universe without a God, that would be most of the time.

Another popular attitude that Silverman confronts at every opportunity is the sound bite, "Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion." This was a slogan of Sen. Joe Lieberman, a conservative Jew, during his vice presidential campaign in 2000.

"How can you have freedom of religion without having freedom from religion?" Silverman asks. "To defend only freedom of religion implies you must have some religion." Silverman prefers "freedom of conscience" as the proper understanding of religious tolerance.

Silverman does not think that atheists and agnostics will ever be a majority in this country, but he would like to see them receive the respect now accorded Jews, who were a safe object of public ridicule only a half century ago. He is not aware of any self-identified atheists holding elective office in this country but is working for the day when atheists can be elected to public office as readily as Jews.

Atheists and agnostics have an agenda for the new year. They want to raise awareness, reframe the issues, and change the language. More than 30 years ago, homosexuals redefined themselves and their movement by calling themselves "gays." As Richard Dawkins has written, "Gay is succinct, uplifting, positive: an 'up' word, where homosexual is a down word, and queer, faggot and pooftah are insults."

Why couldn't atheists -- another oppressed and closeted minority -- come up with their own word, which could do for them what "gay" did for homosexuals?

That's what Sacramento atheists Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell set out to do a few years ago. They were looking for a word, like gay, which they could steal from common English, an adjective they could transform into a noun with its original meaning changed -- but not too much. Like gay, it needed to be catchy, positive, warm, cheerful. It needed to be ... bright. And so "bright" it was.

Bright is the new noun many atheists have chosen for themselves. Brights are coming out of the closet and standing up. Brights are tired of being the target of cheap shots by politicians and religious demagogues.

Are you a bright and don't know it? How many readers of City Paper are brights? How many school teachers, doctors, politicians, police officers, businesspeople? Do you know any brights? You surely do, whether you recognize them or not. The website www.celebatheists.com suggests numerous intellectuals and other famous people are brights.

According to Dawkins, brights constitute 60 percent of American scientists; a stunning 93 percent of scientists elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences are brights.

As Daniel Dennett has written, "We are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters. Our colleges and universities teem with brights. Among scientists, we are a commanding majority. Wanting to preserve and transmit a great culture, we even teach Sunday school and Hebrew classes. Many of the nation's clergy members are closet brights, I suspect. We are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation: brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don't trust God to save humanity from its follies."

The new word isn't for everyone. Herb Silverman does not use it to describe himself because some people take the word to be an adjective and assume it to be a denigration of theists. The mild-mannered atheist does not wish to offend or affront -- even accidentally. But brights are here to stay, by whatever name. They even have their own website (http://the-brights.net), and for millions of nonbelievers, 2007 is shaping up to be a bright new year.


click to enlarge Math professor and proud atheist Silverman, founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, fights for equal rights and respect
  • Math professor and proud atheist Silverman, founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, fights for equal rights and respect

An Activist Without A Prayer • Charleston's most famous atheist, Herb Silverman

Herb Silverman came to Charleston in 1976 to take a faculty post in the mathematics department at the College of Charleston. He did not know it, but he was starting a parallel career as South Carolina's most persuasive and outspoken atheist.

Silverman was born and raised as a secular Jew in Philadelphia, where his beliefs were never an issue. He became interested in logic as a child and began dropping from his young cosmology those beliefs which could not be proven logically -- including God. By the time Silverman was 14, he and God and had parted company forever.

"I was an atheist before I knew there was a word for it," he says. He encountered that word a few years later, on reading Bertram Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian.

On arriving in Charleston, Silverman immediately realized he wasn't in Philadelphia anymore. "It seems like the first thing people down here ask you is, 'What church do you belong to?'"

Still, it took years for Silverman to become an activist. His wake-up call came in 1990, when someone pointed out that the South Carolina constitution states, "No person shall be eligible for the office of governor who denies the existence of the Supreme Being."

The mathematician accepted the challenge and threw his hat into the ring in the 1990 gubernatorial race. Silverman had no delusions about actually becoming the next governor. The object was to use the campaign to make a court challenge to the state constitution.

Silverman's campaign gave incumbent Gov. Carroll Campbell and a number of state legislators the opportunity to declare their religious affiliations and belief in the Almighty. One radio critic called him a McCarthyite. Silverman was amused by the reference to the old Red-baiter and laughed at the image of himself waving a slip of paper and shouting, "I have here a list of 57 card-carrying atheists!"

Silverman's platform called for removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome and better public education: "I would argue that the nation's strength can be maintained by killing illiteracy and innumeracy, not by requiring pledges and prayers."

He presented himself as both pro-choice and anti-abortion. "I said that I favored sex education, birth control, prenatal health care, day care, and supportive systems for women wishing to give birth -- actions that would help diminish the need for abortions. I believe the religious right creates more abortions than it prevents by denying support for such programs."

He garnered nationwide publicity for his quixotic quest, including an endorsement from The Davis (California) Enterprise. But the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigated him and the State Election Commission ruled that he could not run for governor on the United Citizens Party ticket, though he had secured its nomination. He continued his campaign as a write-in candidate at the same time he was taking the state to federal court over the constitutional prohibition.

On Election Day, Campbell was overwhelmingly reelected. To this day, Silverman does not know how many write-in votes he received, because the method of counting was so sloppy and haphazard. Because he did not win the election, the federal district court ruled that the religious qualification for the office of governor could not be tested.

But Silverman ultimately had the last laugh. That same state constitution also says that no one may hold any public office who does not believe in God.

Fulfilling a lifelong dream, Herb Silverman applied for the job of notary public, the only office one may hold in South Carolina without election. In October 1991, he paid his $25 fee and filled out the necessary paperwork, conscientiously scratching out the phrase "so help me God." Of the 33,471 notary applications received by the Secretary of State's office from 1991 to 1993, Silverman's was the only one rejected. The spurned applicant was back in federal court with his trusty ACLU lawyer.

He forced former Gov. Campbell to give an 86-page deposition in his case and, in August 1995, the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court ruled that Silverman had met all legal requirements and requested newly elected Gov. David Beasley to grant his application within 30 days. Beasley, a born-again Christian who had come to office with the support of the Christian Coalition, appealed to the state Supreme Court. When that court slapped him down, the governor was forced to choose between wasting more state money on a fool's errand to the U.S Supreme Court, or acquiescing.

Today Silverman has a sign in his office notifying all who enter that the occupant is, indeed, a notary public of South Carolina. In that capacity he has performed 10 weddings over the years. But most importantly, his court battle over the lowly office of notary public struck down all religious qualifications to holding public office in South Carolina.

In 2002, the General Assembly passed a bill creating the special license plate with the motto, "In God We Trust," available on demand. Silverman and his organization, Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry (www.lowcountry.humanists.net), lobbied for their own license and -- after more than a year of jumping through bureaucratic hoops -- received a plate with the motto, "In Reason We Trust." Silverman's car carries the first plate in the series: FT1.

In 2004, Silverman delivered a secular invocation to open a meeting of Charleston City Council, prompting several council members to walk out (see story, p. 22). Along with his duties as full professor at the College of Charleston, Silverman is founder and president of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. He has organized a student organization, the Atheist-Humanist Alliance, at the College of Charleston; and a national organization, the Secular Coalition of America (www.secular.org). SCA has recently hired a Washington lobbyist to work on church-and-state and other issues of concern to secularists.

At 64, Silverman is affable and witty, with a high-energy personality, a slight physique, and a wardrobe of T-shirts that seems to satisfy his every business and social occasion. Apparently you don't have to dress up to be South Carolina's Most Famous Atheist. —Will Moredock


Rude Religion
Public prayers, Christmas parades, and spurned invites

Perhaps it was once only misunderstanding that led people to open secular meetings with prayers and expected everyone to bow their heads, regardless of their religious beliefs -- or lack thereof.

Today, there is no excuse. We live in a pluralistic, multicultural society, with tens of millions of non-Christian and nontheist citizens. To expect them to supplicate themselves for a Christian prayer is, well, just plain rude. Ask a group of atheists or agnostics about their experiences at the hands of Christians, and you will hear stories of ridicule, of their children being ostracized by neighborhood children, of Christians trying to "save their souls" by luring them into a group encounter with other Christians, under false pretenses.

Bowing to political pressure, the City of Mount Pleasant last month changed its annual Holiday Parade to a Christmas Parade. For Mount Pleasant resident Alex Kasman, a mathematics instructor at the College of Charleston, the change felt like a snub. "I took it to mean that non-Christians were not invited to participate," he said. "I don't know how else it could be intended." His family attended the Holiday Parade a year ago and his daughter even rode a float. This year the Kasmans sat out the Christmas Parade.

When Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry president Herb Silverman delivered the invocation at a Charleston City Council meeting in 2003, several council members stood and walked out of the chamber rather than hear the secular invocation of a voting, tax-paying citizen who happened to be an atheist. When they returned to the chamber for the Pledge of Allegiance, several of those same council members turned to Silverman and mouthed the words "under God" directly at him.

But perhaps the rudest Christian in Charleston County is Roberta Combs, former president of the Christian Coalition of America.

Last June, Silverman, president of SHL, called the local headquarters of Christian Coalition to invite Combs to be the guest speaker at the group's October meeting. Through her daughter and communications director Michelle Combs, Roberta accepted.

By mid-August, Combs had not gotten back to Silverman with a title and abstract for her talk, to be published in the SHL newsletter. As related in the November issue of that newsletter (www.lowcountry.humanists.net), Silverman called the Christian Coalition headquarters numerous times, leaving messages on Michelle's answering machine and cellphone. But the messages went unanswered. The deadline passed, and there was no information from Combs.

Notice of the talk was published twice in The Post and Courier as well as the SHL newsletter, but three days before the scheduled event, Silverman had received no confirmation or other information from Michelle or Roberta Combs or the receptionist at CC headquarters. Silverman made more frantic calls to the headquarters. Finally, at the end of the day, the receptionist called to say that Roberta Combs would not be speaking to the meeting of Secular Humanists. No reason or apology was given.

A good crowd turned out for the October meeting -- including a number of Christians -- drawn by the public notices of Combs' appearance. They received an entertaining program that evening, but it wasn't from the head of the Christian Coalition.

"This is the first time in our 12 years of inviting speakers that we have received such inconsiderate behavior," Silverman wrote in the newsletter. "We have had numerous speakers who represented a variety of faith-based communities. Though some of their ideas may have been challenged at our meetings, they have always come away feeling they have been treated with respect." —Will Moredock



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