Lip Service 

Secular Americans would be happy to get some

Herb Silverman did not vote for Linda Ketner for Congress two weeks ago. He agreed with the Democrat on almost all issues, but when he got to the First District House race on the ballot, he left it blank.

Silverman explained himself without apology in a recent guest column in The Washington Post. "My problem with Ketner," wrote South Carolina's leading atheist, "was a 30-second TV ad in which she proclaimed her love of God three times.

"I have gradually begun withdrawing support from otherwise acceptable candidates who make personal religious beliefs a focal point of their campaigns."

You may have heard of Silverman. He ran for governor of South Carolina in the 1990s to force the state to remove the constitutional requirement that all officeholders swear a belief in god. He sued the state a decade later over the "In God We Trust" license plates and succeeded in forcing the Department of Transportation to create a license plate for secular humanists. He is president of the Secular Coalition of America and sits on the board of the American Humanist Association. He founded Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry and the Atheist/Humanist Alliance at the College of Charleston. By day, he is a mild-mannered professor of mathematics at the College.

As Silverman writes in his column, some of his critics tried to downplay the influence of the Christian right on public policy: "The Religious Right may have been thrown a few crumbs by politicians, they said, but mainly all they have received in return for their support is lip service. When my companions asked if I, an atheist, would settle for so little, I replied without hesitation: 'YES! We'll take lip service!'

"I would be thrilled to see politicians court us by accepting invitations to speak at atheist and humanist conferences, as they do at religious events," Silverman writes. "I would love to hear them say we were founded as a secular nation, with no mention of any gods in our Constitution, and speak about the value of separating religion from government. I'd be delighted to hear them defend atheists and agnostics from our detractors, reminding Americans that freedom of conscience extends to citizens of all faiths and none.

"Yes, even if their words changed nothing about public policy, lip service would be a wonderful new dimension in the relationship between politicians and secular Americans — it would mean public acknowledgment that we exist."

It is that lack of acknowledgment that most offends Silverman, and the denial of so much of America's history. Many of the Founding Fathers of the Republic were non-theistic, as were other prominent leaders in the past. Silverman singled out Robert G. Ingersoll, the noted 19th century Republican orator, abolitionist, atheist, and attorney general of Illinois. Republicans in that state wanted him to run for governor, but they insisted that he would have to be more discreet about his anti-religious views. Ingersoll declined, saying it would be dishonest of him not to tell the voters his true feelings.

Consider how far the Republican Party has come in a century and a half, Silverman said. It was once the party of abolition, a big tent that could be the home of a prominent atheist such as Ingersoll. Today, it is the party of racial divisiveness and religious intolerance.

Before they can be respected, atheists, agnostics, and humanists must first be acknowledged. "More than 16 percent (over 50 million) of Americans are nontheistic," Silverman wrote. "There are more atheists and agnostics than there are Jews, Presbyterians, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Roman and Greek Orthodox combined in the United States."

Yet, secular Americans are invisible, Silverman said, because it can be political and professional suicide to be known as a non-theist in this culture. "Coming out of the closet is how we will get respect," he said. "That's how gays did it. They showed they had sufficient numbers and they would not be intimidated any longer. Now they are a force in politics and in culture."

Every minority group — blacks, women, gays — has undergone the transition from invisibility to political power, and they all started with acknowledgment. They all demanded to be heard, to be counted, to be taken seriously. Today, they all have caucuses within the two major parties. Silverman says it's time for non-theists to stand up and organize secular caucuses in the Democratic and Republican parties. But there can be no caucuses, no power, without first being acknowledged.

"Lip service is where it will begin," Silverman writes. "Perhaps, one day, respect will follow."

Will Moredock is America's newest blogger. Check him out at thegoodfight.ccpblogs.com.


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