Herb Silverman champions atheism with wit and warmth 

Making it Safe for Nonbelievers

Herb Silverman has been a busy man lately. When I caught up with him last week, South Carolina's leading atheist was just back from the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., where he addressed the thousands of people who had assembled on the Mall, calling for America's numerous non-theist organizations to maintain a united front in their ceaseless battle with the Christian right.

Last month also saw the official release of Silverman's book, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt. Two weeks ago, he did a whirlwind, five-day book tour around eastern North Carolina. On Tuesday, he was speaking at St. Joseph's Catholic Church — of all places — to a gathering of about 70 older Charlestonians at the Center for Creative Retirement. He was selling and talking about his book, and for the better part of an hour, he kept his audience laughing with stories from his colorful and controversial life, punctuated with a PowerPoint presentation.

Silverman single-handedly puts a lie to the popular slander that all atheists are angry, immoral, and pessimistic. He is one of the funniest, most ebullient people I know. His many friends will testify that he has led a courageous and exemplary life as a defender of the powerless and dispossessed and a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston.

Candidate Without a Prayer is the story of how a nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia landed in the buckle of the Bible Belt in 1976. It was a long and circuitous route.

Young Herb knew at an early age that he had a talent for mathematics. When he went into surgery at age six to have his tonsils removed, the anesthesiologist told him to count backward from 10 and he would be asleep before he reached one. When he awoke after surgery, the doctor told him he was the first patient who ever reached one.

"Easily the greatest accomplishment of my six years, I felt I must be mathematically gifted," he writes.

His sense of self-reliance, coupled with his early Talmudic training and passion for mathematics, led perhaps inevitably to the defining truth of his life: "My search beginning at age 12 eventually led me to a god who wasn't there. I was thrilled and a little bit frightened. I didn't believe there was a god, and I didn't know if anyone else thought as I did."

As it turned out, many do, and the number is growing by the year. As a leader of the secular movement in America, Silverman points to polling that shows up to 15 percent of American adults are atheist or agnostic. Of course, you would never suspect as much to observe American politics and culture in the last 30 years.

Nontheistic Americans can claim their proper power and recognition by taking a page from the gay rights movement, Silverman writes. They must come out of the closet and be counted, be recognized, be reckoned with. And they must challenge the bullying and arrogance of the Christian right wherever possible.

Silverman has taken his own advice, fighting to make atheism respectable in the public forum and in the Holy City. He famously ran for governor in 1990 in an effort to overturn a religious test clause in the state constitution, which required the governor to believe in a "supreme being." Silverman was not elected governor, and the state court sidestepped the issue of constitutionality, but he came back in 1991, challenging another constitutional clause that required any officer of the state to believe in said "supreme being." The pugnacious atheist applied for a state notary public license, filled out the paperwork, wrote a check for the filing fee, but scratched out the vow that said "so help me God."

It took four years, nearly $100,000 in litigation by the state, and an 86-page deposition by former Gov. Carroll Campbell, but the state Supreme Court ultimately upheld Silverman's application and struck down the religious test in the state constitution. Silverman still has his notary license and stamp, and as he sold copies of his book last week to seniors lined up at St. Joseph's, he officially notarized each copy.

Almost 70 years old, the distinguished professor emeritus of mathematics is the founder and president of the Secular Coalition of America. He spends his time at his Ansonborough neighborhood home with his wife, Sharon Fratepietro, blogging for the Washington Post and Huffington Post and furthering his life's work of making the world safe for nonbelievers.

Will Moredock is a South Carolina native with degrees from the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina. He is an award-winning journalist and short-story writer and author of Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach.


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