Travelers heading west from downtown Charleston will get an eyeful over the next month thanks to the Secular Humanists' new billboard near Montague Avenue announcing "20 Godless Years in the Holy City!"
Yes, it's been 20 years since atheists and agnostics planted their flag in Charleston when they founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. Now they want to celebrate and help others discover the benefits of living honestly and godlessly.
The billboard is part of a larger celebration planned by the Secular Humanists, which includes a party at Cypress Gardens on Sept. 20. "Yes, there was some question as to whether or not we would survive here in the Bible Belt," says Secular Humanists President Amy Monsky. "But not only have we survived, we've thrived."
The founding father of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry is Herb Silverman, who struck his first blow for godless freedom in 1990. That year he ran for governor with the intent, not of becoming governor, but of removing from the state constitution the clause requiring state officials to affirm their belief in a "Supreme Being." As an independent candidate, Silverman took a few hundred votes on Election Day and lost a court challenge to the "Supreme Being clause" due to lack of standing in the case.
But he was not finished. A few years later Silverman was back in court, this time to get his notary public license. That's right — you had to believe in a Supreme Being to be a notary public in the sovereign state of South Carolina! This time the S.C. Supreme Court heard his case and threw out the Supreme Being clause in the state constitution. Now Silverman is a notary public, a professor emeritus of the College of Charleston, and one of the leading apostles of atheism in the nation.
During his foray into politics, Silverman was contacted by a number of closeted skeptics and atheists, expressing support and interest. "After that campaign, I thought it might be time to form a community like traditional religious groups," he said. As with followers of traditional religions, atheists enjoy the support and identity that comes from being part of a group.
Silverman considers the cause of secularism to be a civil rights issue and has long used the gay liberation movement as his role model. As long as gays were closeted, they were easily ridiculed and persecuted. When they started "coming out," they made it safe to be gay and turned public opprobrium against the homophobe.
Likewise, everyone knows at least one atheist, someone he or she probably likes and respects. What would happen if all the atheists were to stand up and declare themselves? How would that affect public attitudes? The creation of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry was an experiment in coming out.
But while it felt safe to be open around other atheists, some early members of SHL did not want their friends and neighbors to know their beliefs. In those days before email, Silverman said he wrote and mailed a monthly newsletter himself. Some members even insisted that he not use a return address that reflected the group's identity.
The first Secular Humanists meeting was held at Charleston County Public Library, and it drew about a dozen people, he recalled. Today the group meets monthly at the Unitarian Church's Gage Hall on Archdale Street and numbers sometimes swell to 80 or more.
Since 1994, SHL has educated people and dispelled myths about the non-theistic viewpoint by bringing prominent atheist speakers, such as Richard Dawkins, to Charleston for monthly meetings and special events. It has been involved in social action, raising money for charities and volunteering with local organizations to make the world a better and more tolerant place, and provided a supportive community for non-theistic individuals and families in the Charleston area.
The godless celebration at Cypress Gardens will start at 10 a.m., Sept. 20 and is open to the public. It will feature an information table, games and activities for children, food, a silent auction, and a forum hosted by The Post and Courier's Adam Parker, which will include Silverman. After 4 p.m., the event will turn into a private, catered dinner, with guest speaker Michael Newdow, an attorney, physician, and atheist advocate who has fought to have references to God removed from the Pledge of Allegiance and presidential inaugurations. To learn more about Secular Humanists' godless celebration and to order tickets for the dinner, go to godless20.org.
Those who happen to miss the Secular Humanists' sign over the next month can take comfort in the fact that the group will be back on Dec. 1 with a new billboard on I-26, this one celebrating the holiday season — or the "Christmas season" as they say on Fox News. Either way, it will be something for the godless and the skeptical to look forward to. Ho! Ho! Ho!