Skip to content



Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): HerbSilverman.Com

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/04/23

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Herb, how is freethought represented in the secular communities now?

Dr. Herb Silverman: Freethought is represented in different ways in different freethought communities. When I first became engaged with freethought communities, I learned about several national atheist and humanist organizations. I joined them all because each was involved in issues I supported. But each group was doing its own thing and ignoring like-minded organizations, while competing for funds from what they viewed as a fixed pie of donors. I knew we needed to grow the pie to benefit all these organizations and the freethought movement as a whole. They were spending too much time arguing about labels (atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, etc.) and too little time showing our strength in numbers and cooperating on issues that affect all freethinkers. Here’s an interesting distinction between Christians and freethinkers: Christians have the same unifying word but fight over theology; freethinkers have the same unifying theology, but fight over words. At least our wars are only verbal. So in 2002, I helped form the Secular Coalition for America, whose mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government. Our 19 national member organizations cover the full spectrum of freethought. 

Here’s what the Secular Coalition members don’t do: They don’t argue about labels. People in the Coalition call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, whatever. Here’s what they do: They cooperate on the 95% they have in common, rather than bicker about the 5% that might set them apart. All the organizations are good without any gods, though some emphasize “good” and some “without gods.” 

Interestingly, four of the member organizations are classified as religious (nontheistic). They are American Ethical Union (with Ethical Culture Societies), Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, Society for Humanistic Judaism (with atheist rabbis), and UU (Unitarian Universalist) Humanists.

All the Secular Coalition member organizations have strict limits on political lobbying, so they incorporated as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of freethought Americans, finally giving freethinkers a voice in our nation’s capital. But even as the Secular Coalition fights against religious privileging on the federal level, some of the most egregious violations occur at state levels (I know. I live in South Carolina). The Secular Coalition is hoping someday to have volunteer coordinators in all 50 states, working with local groups to make sure elected officials throughout the country hear our voices. 

The Secular Coalition also collaborates with organizations that are neither theistic nor nontheistic, like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. It cooperates on some issues with theistic organizations, like the Interfaith Alliance, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and Catholics for Choice. Working with diverse groups provides the additional benefit of gaining more visibility and respect for our unique perspective. Improving the public perception of freethinkers is as important to many of us as pursuing a particular political agenda.

Jacobsen: How can we bring about change based on the knowledge about the rise and fall of freethought into a new era of it, a renewed era in which we remain in a crisis requiring precisely its arsenal?

Silverman: We can explain to some people why being a freethinker makes the most sense to us, and perhaps convince them to follow our lead. If they are interested, we can provide them with helpful freethought literature. We already know that the “nones” are the fastest growing demographic, many of whom are freethinkers without knowing what the word means. 

Whether people become freethinkers or not, what the world needs today (especially during the pandemic) is more respect for scientific viewpoints and rational thinking, and less respect for the irrational thinking found in ancient “holy” books. We can tell religious people that we may not share their beliefs, but that we hope they are willing to incorporate scientific findings into their lives and listen to reasonable explanations about the world around them. Unlike the minority of religious fundamentalists, most religious people are willing to act this way. We can point out to theists how our behavior is similar to theirs in many ways, and how their everyday actions have nothing to do with god beliefs. Whether we try to be good with or without a god has little to do with behavior. 

To those who might try to convince you to choose a belief in God, we can explain that belief in God is not a matter of choice. I can pretend to believe, but I can’t choose to believe something for which I find not a scintilla of evidence. We can ask them if they can choose to not believe in God (it would be nice if the answer is “yes”).

To help bring about change, we need to keep governments secular. This is something all freethinkers want, and we need to convince some theists why moving closer to a theocracy (even their theocracy) is bad for everybody. I’ve heard some politicians in both parties say, “We have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion.” What can that possibly mean? That we are allowed to worship the god of our choice, but we can’t choose to be good without any gods? Politicians might think they are being tolerant when they express support for all faiths. Instead, we expect to hear them publicly express support for all faiths and none, to promote freedom of conscience for all people. Freethinkers are not asking for special rights, but we do insist on equal rights.

Our Constitution demands that government must not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion. Religious liberty must include the right of taxpayers to choose whether to support religion and which religion to support. Forcing taxpayers to privilege and subsidize religions they don’t believe in is akin to forcing them to put money in the collection plates of churches, synagogues, or mosques.

We need to encourage more freethinkers to run for public office. I’m pleased that we now have a national Congressional Freethought Caucus to promote policy based on reason, science, and moral values. The Caucus formed in 2018 with 4 members and now has 13, with more to come. See

I hope to see an America where the influence of conservative religion is mainly limited to within the walls of churches, not the halls of Congress.

Jacobsen: What do you think sparked the original formal movement of freethought?

Silverman: The term “freethinker” came into use in the 17th century. It referred to people who inquired into the basis of traditional religious beliefs, and freethinker was most closely linked to secularism, atheism, agnosticism, anti-clericalism, and religious critique. It promoted the free exercise of reason in matters of religious belief, unrestrained by deference to authority.
I like to promote British mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford from the 19thcentury, who, in his essay The Ethics of Belief said, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The essay became a rallying cry for freethinkers, and has been described as a point when freethinkers grabbed the moral high ground. Clifford organized freethought gatherings and was the driving force behind the Congress of Liberal Thinkers. See


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.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: