If Youth Knew, If Age Could 5 — We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, No-Time Soon: Supernaturalistic Traditions and Naturalistic Philosophies in the Future
Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), and Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020).
Here we talk about community formation in the future, similarities and differences.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Two trends seem apparent. One, as societies develop, they become more oriented to the technical, even mechanical and certainly digital. This affects the analog acceptance of the mystery orientation of traditional — most — religion. In that, as you note, traditional religion declines. Religions that change survive with a small number thriving.
Two, something follows from one. Although, as most of the world continues to develop, most of the young continue on rapid rejections of traditional religion. Another contingent appeared in the 20th century, even earlier, looking for similar patterns of life as traditional religion without some of the now-seen-as-baggage.
For those young humanists, who want some of the patterns of life of traditional religion without the excess cargo, how can they formulate some communities for themselves? Not merely joining those which take on the appearances of traditional religious communities with secular philosophy. What pathways exist for them? What roads have simply been grown over with scientific roots and overgrown with technological trees?
Dr. Herb Silverman: You ask how young humanists can formulate their own communities. Some might want patterns of life of traditional religion without the excess cargo (theism), some are more interested in a community with a secular philosophy that has nothing to do with religion, and some might want a community that actively opposes the excesses of religion. I’ll try to address all these concerns, and begin by describing the two communities I was involved in starting.
When I ran for Governor of South Carolina in 1990 to challenge the unconstitutional provision in our state constitution that prohibited atheists from holding public office, I got unsigned hate mail and anonymous phone calls. But I also received letters and calls of support and appreciation. Many had thought they were the only atheists in South Carolina, and most were closeted for fear of social and family disapproval. These isolated atheists needed a supportive community, so with my list of names I suggested meeting at the local library to see if there was interest in organizing a group. So in 1994 we formed a secular humanist group in Charleston, with a dozen founding members. Because a secular humanist group in the Bible Belt was so unusual at that time, we received considerable media attention. We would hear from people who disliked us and from people who wanted to join us. It was easily worth the trade-off.
In 1998, a student came to my office and asked about starting a group at the College of Charleston, where I was teaching. I was thrilled and agreed to be its faculty advisor. Despite attempts by a few Christian students in the Student Council to oppose giving official club status to the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group, the group prevailed. When they first met, several students talked about friends or roommates who now shunned them because of their nonbelief. These atheist students came to meetings because they needed a supportive community. Gradually attitudes at the College of Charleston changed and students worried far less about becoming unpopular because of openly being atheists. I’ve heard students say they joined the club because atheist students are pretty cool. They are, but they were also cool in 1998. I’m encouraged by the younger generation’s wider acceptance of diversity in our society.
As far as those who like some religious ceremony without the baggage, I was raised as an Orthodox Jew and stopped believing in God shortly after my bar mitzvah at age 13. I still like some of the Hebrew songs I sang as a child, but a line in the Peter, Paul, and Mary song “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” explains why I don’t sing them today. The line is “They got a good thing going when the words don’t get in the way.” The words of my Hebrew songs when translated into English were prayers to God, which definitely got in the way.
My wife Sharon was raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools, and as an adult became an atheist like me. She now wants nothing to do with Catholicism, but around Christmas time she enjoys going to performances of Handel’s “Messiah.” I kid her by saying, “Tonight you are going to see your Lord and Savior.”
Two good sources for starting a freethought organization might be the Secular Student Alliance with its membership of young people, and the British Humanist Association, located in a country where religious belief has been in disfavor for quite a while. I especially like some of the quotes on the British Humanist website, including:
George Orwell: “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Thomas Paine: “My country is the world. My religion is to do good.”
Stephen Hawking: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”
Voltaire: “Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.”
Bertrand Russell: If we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance that is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”
Mary Shelley: “Live and be happy, and make others so.”
Marie Curie: “Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Shappi Kohrsandi: “Doing a good thing is its own reward. It feels good in and of itself, and that’s enough.”
Rosalind Franklin: “Faith in this world is entirely possible without faith in another world.”
Benjamin Franklin: “There never was a good war or a bad peace.”
Terry Pratchett: “In ancient times, cats were worshipped as gods. They have not forgotten this.”
If you are interested in forming your own freethought community, there are many options. The simplest is probably to affiliate with one of the national organizations, which would help you get started locally. There are even atheist churches that you might want to join, or start one locally. There are also nontheistic religions that I’ve joined: Humanist Unitarians, American Ethical Union, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
Presumably you are interested in starting a group because there is none in your area, you want to make a difference in your community, you advocate for reason and science, and would like to end discrimination against secular people. You will need a core of committed volunteers interested in joining you to form an organization. One way to find such people is by attending meetings of organizations whose participants are likely to hold similar beliefs. Depending on your interests it might include science meetings, Unitarian churches, Ethical Culture societies, LBGTQ groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, etc. Find out how these organizations are run and talk to people who might be interested in affiliating with your organization. For those interested, find out if they have friends who might also be interested. You can also post fliers in bookstores, community centers, libraries, and nearby universities.
You should also have an “elevator speech” explaining why you want to start a group and what you hope to accomplish. This could include the importance of interacting with like-minded people because there are so few in the community or learning how to respond individually and as a group to political threats from the religious right who would like to impose their beliefs on all of society.
Once you have an interested community of volunteers, discuss details of the group. This could include how activist the group might be, what kind of social and charitable events you might have, whether you will have outside talks and educational opportunities, and what type of leadership structure you might have. Keep in mind that some of these things will change when you add new members with fresh ideas. Of course, you will eventually want a website, a Facebook presence, Meetup, Twitter, and other forms of technology.
Sometimes religious people claim to speak for the entire community, which marginalizes secular folks. Point out that this is discrimination. It helps to find common ground with religious people in your community, working together to perform good works. The individuals you work with and help are likely to become friends. These religious people will understand that we don’t think there is a purpose OF life, but that we find purposes IN life. They will see that we are not striving for brownie points in an afterlife, but looking to do good in this life.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.
Image Credit: Herb Silverman.