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If Youth Knew, If Age Could 1 — Freethought for the 21st Century


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/01/01

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).

Here we talk about youth freethought issues with an American lens.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have published several books, on mathematics, on personal history, and on secularism. We published two. One last year. One this year. We agreed on a series devoted to younger generations of freethinkers. Let’s begin: Who is the prime example of international vision and human values known in history to you? Also, what is the first principle of freethought for the 21st century?

Dr. Herb Silverman. It’s not easy to choose just one person to feature as a prime example of international vision and human values, when so many come to mind.

I thought about choosing Abraham Lincoln, who was responsible for ending slavery in the United States. However, he did not always have humanistic views of black people. During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, Lincoln said, “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.” He added that he viewed the white race as superior to the black race. Lincoln did not differ from most white males in the North and South at the time. Even though he was an abolitionist, and despite his many other good qualities, Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist.

Another I thought about choosing was Mahatma Gandhi, who employed nonviolent resistance to lead a successful campaign for India’s independence from British rule. Gandhi’s campaign inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. He supported religious pluralism and, though Hindu, himself, was sympathetic to Muslims when part of India was sectioned off in 1947 into Pakistan, a Muslim country. Gandhi, however, was not without faults. He opposed calling a caste of Hindus “Untouchables,” which he referred to as Harijans, or “Children of God,” but he still supported the caste system.

While Gandhi supported many rights for women, he did not support their economic independence or equal rights in all areas. At the age of 38, in 1906, Gandhi took a vow of chastity (without first discussing this with his wife). When Gandhi’s wife died in 1944, Gandhi decided to test himself by sleeping in the same room with other women (first in separate beds, then in the same bed with clothes on, and finally naked). Not a good example of human values.

My choice for a universal role model is Nelson Mandela, who was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist. He became involved in anti-colonial and African nationalist politics in 1943, joining the African National Congress (ANC). Its primary mission was to bring all Africans together as one people and to defend their rights and freedoms, including full voting rights for black and mixed-race South Africans. At the time, South Africa’s white-only government promoted apartheid, a form of racial segregation that privileged whites. Mandela and the ANC committed themselves to overthrowing apartheid.

Mandela was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and was unsuccessfully prosecuted for treason in 1956. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962 as a terrorist and for leading the then-outlawed ANC. With growing domestic and international pressure, and fears of a racial civil war, President de Klerk released him in 1990. Mandela and de Klerk then led efforts to negotiate an end to apartheid, which resulted in the 1994 multiracial general election in which Mandela led the ANC to victory and became president. Mandela’s 1994 book Long Walk to Freedom, describes his 27 years in prison, and rejection of bitterness after his release.

Mandela served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, the country’s first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. Presiding over the transition from apartheid minority rule to a multicultural democracy, Mandela saw national reconciliation as the primary task of his presidency. He emphasized reconciliation between the country’s racial groups and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses. Having seen other post-colonial African economies damaged by the departure of white elites, Mandela worked to reassure South Africa’s white population that they were protected and represented in the “rainbow nation,” a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

As president, Mandela said, “South Africa’s future foreign relations should be based on our belief that human rights should be the core of international relations.” Following the South African example, he encouraged other nations to resolve conflicts through diplomacy and reconciliation. Mandela declined a second presidential term, and in 1999 was succeeded by his deputy. Mandela became an elder statesman and founded the charitable Nelson Mandela Foundation to promote freedom and equality for all. It focuses on rural development, school construction, and combating HIV/AIDS. He also founded the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

Mandela was raised Methodist, and theologian Dion Foster described him as a Christian humanist. Mandela never had a strong religious faith. He was influenced by Marxism, and he advocated scientific socialism, a society ruled by a scientific government whose sovereignty rests on reason.

I’ll close this portion with some quotes from Nelson Mandela:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.”

“We must strive to be moved by a generosity of spirit that will enable us to outgrow the hatred and conflicts of the past.”

“You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.”

“As I am former prisoner number 46664, there is a special place in my heart for all those that are denied access to their basic human rights.”

“There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return.”

You also ask about the first principle of freethought for the 21st century. I don’t see why there should be anything special about the 21st century, other than that I’m pleased more people (especially younger people) are identifying as freethinkers. I like to see more people so identify, which is easier to do than when I was young and most people incorrectly equated religious belief with morality.

I like to put a positive face on freethought. We want to maximize happiness, which often involves making others happy, too. We have one life to live, and one chance to do something meaningful with it. The mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell summed it up nicely: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” But if I had to choose a first principle of freethought for any century, it would simply be the slogan on my wife’s T-shirt: “Be good, do good.” We really don’t need anything more complicated than that.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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