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Tests and Trials


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): HerbSilverman.Com

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/03/30

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In life, our wills, characters, and true stances will be tested. This seems like an inevitability. I’ve had several myself. Many cost me, dearly. Some, I’m still paying the costs in different ways. Nonetheless, I don’t regret them, taking the stands. I doubt I ever will. You need to take a stand. It may cost you. No one does anything alone, though. However, you can make a change and an influence as an example for others. So, instead of avoidance of the issue, we best deal with them headfirst. What are the meanings of trials and tests in life, in hindsight?

Dr. Herb Silverman: Regarding trials and tests in life, here’s a paragraph from the preface of my book, Candidate Without A Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt: “When I was a graduate student in the 1960s, I occasionally took breaks from mathematics to write what I thought were clever stories. Then my roommate showed me a quote from Henry David Thoreau, ‘How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.’ So, prodded by Thoreau, I stopped my creative writing and focused on completing my PhD in mathematics. Now more than forty years later, I’ve written about a few of the times I stood up to live, about the times I couldn’t or wouldn’t, and about the times I stood up and should have remained seated.” Life consists of trials and tests, and we need to learn from them. Before committing to an action, we should think about whether it will make a difference and to whom. For most of my life, I was a mathematics professor. I think I made a positive difference with some students, and though my research was respectable, it was not significant enough to make much difference to the mathematical community, nor did it have an impact on people outside the world of mathematics.

Circumstances of my adult life in the Bible Belt turned me from apathetic atheist (as most atheists are) to passionate atheist. It became my “calling,” because I saw how I might make a significant difference in our culture. I became an accidental atheist activist when I discovered in 1990 that our South Carolina state constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office, and I challenged that provision by running for governor as “the candidate without a prayer.” In 1997 I won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, striking down the unconstitutional provision and giving atheists the right to hold public office in South Carolina.

This victory gave me a reputation as an atheist activist and I worked to increase the visibility and respectability of atheist viewpoints and to separate religion from government. I’m more interested in “converting” people from apathy to activism than from theism to atheism. I never regretted taking such unpopular stands in a state with so many religious people. As a tenured math professor, my job was secure. I also made many new friends, and I enjoy controversy if it comes from adopting positions on causes that I think are important.

I don’t think that gaining respectability for atheists is the world’s most important issue. It’s not even the most noteworthy civil rights struggle. If I had a magic wand, and believed in its efficacy, probably I’d first wave it to end world hunger. But there’s not much I can do about that, so my activity on this doesn’t go much beyond working on small community projects and contributing to worthwhile organizations.

Jacobsen: What were examples from life for you?

Silverman: I became chair of the College of Charleston Faculty Research Committee in 1978. After spending many hours deciding how best to award funds set aside for summer research grants, I received a call from the president of the college. He told me he was cutting our research budget in half and wanted me not to tell grant applicants. As chair of the committee, I felt it my duty to be honest with the applicants and faculty, and I explained to them why some deserving recipients would not be receiving grants. 

The faculty appreciated what I said, but President Stern definitely did not. I didn’t have to wait long to find out the extent of his displeasure. When a committee recommended me for the Distinguished Research Award, President Stern reluctantly presented me with the award at the spring graduation ceremony, along with the $500 that went with it (meaningful in 1978, when my annual salary was under $20,000).

As it turned out, I was fortunate that the amount in 1978 was only $500, instead of the $1,000 it became a couple of years later. President Stern also cut my recommended salary raise that year by $500 because of my research award, something he had never done with past recipients. My $500 research award was a one-time occurrence, but I lost that additional $500 per year for the next 30 years, along with percentage raises based on it. So, my award cost me over $25,000.

Was it worth taking such a stand? My conscience says, absolutely! Fortunately for me, President Stern retired the year before I came up for tenure, which I received through the new president.

Another example of my activism at the College of Charleston, a public institution, occurred at its Counseling Center, where one counselor’s “specialty” was Christian counseling. When a non-Christian student informed me that the counselor advised the student to overcome his difficulties by giving his life to Jesus, I spoke to the counselor. She did not deny the accusation. In fact, she named two students and asked if it was one of them who lodged the complaint. It wasn’t! Her response was so inappropriate at so many levels that I went directly to her boss and told him about our exchange. The counselor was quietly let go and the Counseling Center never again hired someone with that specialty.

Jacobsen: If a youth ‘fails’ a test, inasmuch as one can fail at trials and tribulations of life testing endurance, what should be the main points of reflection for them?

Silverman: I would say that failure is not the opposite of success; it’s part of success. We can expect many failures along the path to finally succeeding. When attempting something new, don’t be afraid of appearing to be different from others if you think you are doing the right thing. If unable to accomplish a task, instead of saying “I can’t do it,” think about adding “yet.” And slow progress is better than no progress. Finally, remember the words of American president Theodore Roosevelt, “Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right.”  


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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