Ask Dr. Silverman 13 — By the Godless Integers, People: Mathematicizing Secular Activism
Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of 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. Here we talk about secularism, mixing with mathematics, and studying effective methodologies in history, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When we think of social dynamics for the secular and the efficacy of forms of social change more in line with the ideals proposed by the secular community, and the founding of the United States, we tend to think of the separation of church and state, where some, though, while espousing the ideal to some public media and lay circles, return to their respective religious communities and proclaim the necessity of getting ‘God back into the homes, the schools, and the government.’ The secular communities require the separation of church and state for equality. Without it, the second-class status becomes a logical implication. If we want to make a modest heuristic science of the work for secularism in America, and Canada too, who studied the history of secularism? What were the conclusions from the research? Whether this has or has not been done, what might provide some interesting insight into the effective secular activism with a mathematicization of activism from the past? The examining and modelling the secular activism that succeeded and failed — in what ways and to what degrees. How might this be done?
Professor Herb Silverman: The concept of separating church and state is often credited to the writings of English philosopher John Locke. According to his principle of the social contract, Locke argued that the government lacks authority in the realm of individual conscience, something rational people could not cede to the government. Locke’s views were influential in the drafting of the United States Constitution. Though the separation phrase is not explicitly in the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson used the metaphor of the “wall of separation between church and state” in an 1802 letter to the Baptist Association in Danbury, Connecticut. This phrase, as the Supreme Court noted, has come to be commonly accepted as an authoritative declaration of the scope and meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Having seen the religious wars in Europe, our founders viewed religion as a private matter, without government involvement. The U.S. Constitution is a godless document, with no mention of any deities. It begins with the words “We the people,” not with “Thou the deity.” Secular government guarantees freedom to follow any religion or none. It allows people to explore religious questions according to individual conscience, but does not take sides itself. Those who wish to promote Christianity, other religions, or atheism, are free to do so — but without government assistance. All beliefs are protected, which is what guarantees religious freedom.
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Article VI was why I ran for governor of South Carolina in 1990 to challenge the provision in the South Carolina State Constitution that prohibited atheists from holding public office. After an eight-year battle, I won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, striking down this religious test requirement.
Despite the history of success with separation of church and state, some opponents of church-state separation are trying to rewrite American history to promote their assertion that the U.S. is an official “Christian nation.” Many of them claim that the founders formed a Christian nation, and they interpret the First Amendment prohibition against “establishment of religion” to mean that no single Christian denomination could be officially favored. They argue that official prayers, religious monuments, and participation by church bodies in government were all part of the “original intent.” But our founders were careful and thoughtful writers. Had they wanted the U.S. to be a Christian nation they would have mentioned it somewhere in the Constitution. Instead, President John Adams signed (and the U.S. Senate approved unanimously) the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which said in part, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.
Many Americans wrongly believe that tax dollars should go to support Christian symbols or beliefs. The First Amendment is constantly under attack by religious people — most notably, Evangelical Christians — who want the government to promote religion and, in many instances, give Christians special rights. It doesn’t bode well for separation of church and state that white Evangelical Christians currently have such influence over the government. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in 2005: “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
What can those of us who want to keep the wall between church and state strong do? An excellent national organization worthy of support is Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. However, I wish they would change their name to the more accurate and diverse Americans United for the Separation of Religion and Government. Government should also be separate from synagogues, mosques, temples, kingdom halls, and many more religious bodies. Of course, Americans United does use “church” as a metaphor to include all religions.
Separation of religion and government should prevent private citizens, when acting in the role of government officials, from having their private religious beliefs imposed on others. The Establishment Clause limits some free speech rights of public-school teachers, principals, and staff when communicating with students. Teachers can’t promote one religion (or atheism) over another to other people’s children. Local officials can’t require certain religious practices on the part of government employees, for example by hosting specific, approved prayers. Government leaders can’t make members of other religions or no religion feel like second-class citizens by using their position to promote particular religious doctrines. Tax-exempt houses of worship have been violating provisions of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits them from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.
Private religious organizations should not be able to act through the government by having their doctrines and beliefs codified into law or policy. The government must remain a government for all citizens, not a government favoring one denomination or one religious tradition battling for “their share” of the public purse.
Today, many people blame “secularism” for the polarization of politics and Americans, instead of blaming divisions over race, misogyny, immigration, income inequality, and President Trump’s Twitters. For decades, the Religious Right has been blaming secularism for what they consider social ills and have told Americans to embrace their brand of traditional conservative religion to set things right. It’s true that an increasing number of Americans are leaving organized religion, and have become more secular, especially younger people. In part, they are leaving because of church scandals and politicized houses of worship.
One reason secular activism hasn’t been as effective as it should be is that many well-known and admired secularists in the past have been in the closet about their secularism or did not promote it. For instance, leaders of the feminist movement, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were agnostics. Many, if not most, of today’s feminists are secular.
The civil rights movement has always been over-represented by secularists. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. was religious, he advocated for the separation of religion and government, and supported the Supreme Court’s decision to prohibit government-sponsored prayer in public schools. Bayard Rustin, who helped organize freedom rides, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was an atheist. So was A. Philip Randolph, who also helped organize the March on Washington, where King gave his “I have a dream” speech. James Baldwin, civil right leader and author, was an atheist, as were activist W. E. B. DuBois and Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. Actress Butterfly McQueen, who played a maid in Gone with the Wind, was an atheist, saying in 1989, “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.”
A disproportionate number of Jews were involved with the civil rights movement for African Americans. During the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were abducted and murdered. They had been attempting to register African Americans to vote. Both Goodman and Schwerner, from New York City, were secular Jews.
An excellent, comprehensive book to read on the history of secularism in the United States is Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.
I’m pleased that today so many fine authors write or blog about their atheism, and either inspire others to become atheists or inspire atheists to come out of the closet. I think people “coming out” is the most effective way for secular activists to change society. It worked for the LGBT movement and it can work for secularists.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Silverman.