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Free of Charge 10 – Theology Transcending Into Nothing, Various Privileges, and Points of Education


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/09/01


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), Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020), and Short Reflections on Age and Youth (2020). He discusses: theology; supernaturalism; “rational analysis”; maximization of happiness; an afterlife; agency of non-human animals; belief in God and fear of death; white privilege and White Christian Nationalism; white privilege, considerations; false rumours and wishful thinking; development of a humanistic outlook; American soft power waning; climate change; education in logic; Christian and private religious schools; and modern sex education.

Keywords: America, Christianity, ethics, Herb Silverman, Humanism, logic, morality, non-human animals, religious belief, sex education, supernaturalism, theology, Utilitarianism, White Christian Nationalism.

Free of Charge 10 – Theology Transcending Into Nothing, Various Privileges, and Points of Education

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Is theology a dead field, at this point? I mean in the sense of ethics connected directly to reality, so the natural sciences, and morality grounded in human concern. What is the point of theology at this point if any? Thousands of Th.D.s, presumably, or some ridiculously high number, must be published annually on the subject matter. To me, it looks as if an entirely farcical endeavour and an enormous waste of human time and talent. Smart people seemingly wasting their lives in fruitless considerations of the attributions of those objects so transcendental that they’ve transcended into nothingness.

Dr. Herb Silverman: I’m not opposed to theology if done right. Theology, to me, is the study of religious belief. I think it’s important to learn about religious and god beliefs that have influenced our culture. Theology is often taught in academic religious studies programs. Learning about different theologies that sound ridiculous to some students often makes them think about the religion in which they were raised, and why it might sound ridiculous to an outsider. It’s sometimes only a short step from thinking that their religion and god beliefs are also ridiculous. So, studying theology can create atheists.

Jacobsen: If supernatural, transcendentalist ethics can be rejected, and if theology seems like a dead field of enquiry in terms of moral truth, what would be the long-form and the short-form statement on a secular humanist Golden Rule? A comprehensive statement covering all relevant concerns mentioned before, by you.

Silverman: Supernatural ethics can certainly be rejected because we live in the natural world, and supernatural is a meaningless expression promoted by people who believe in so-called holy books. I would say a short-form statement for a secular humanist Golden Rule is that we should not treat others in ways that we would not like to be treated. This is not much different from the traditional Golden Rule as long as “others” means all other people, not just a favored tribe (as is the case with most religions). A long-form statement about universal morality requires empathy and reciprocity. We know that humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humans are social animals and find meaning in relationships, so we should work on improving our relationships. We need to learn how others would like to be treated as individuals. Since ethical values are derived from human need and interest and tested by experience, we must continually discover new ways to improve secular humanism.

Jacobsen: With “rational analysis” as part of the knowledge of the world considered in the humanist ontology, what about cognitive biases? Those anthropological truths hammering away at the idea of the “rational” individual humanist who makes the “rational analysis.”

Silverman: Cognitive bias is our tendency to listen more often to information that confirms our existing beliefs. We need to be aware of cognitive biases when we try to make rational decisions. Regardless of how rational we think we are, we are all subject to confirmation bias, probably an evolutionary characteristic. Some cognitive bias might have served our hunter-gatherer ancestors well. It likely brought about faster decision-making when speed was more valuable than accuracy.

Scientists are always concerned about confirmation bias, which is why they usually test a theory by first looking for examples that would show their theory to be false. If found, they either modify the theory or discard it. When mathematicians think they have proved a theorem, before submitting it for publication they look for a counter example that would show the proposed theorem to be false.

Religious people are particularly subject to confirmation bias, believing without evidence what their “holy” books say, listening mainly to others who hold those same beliefs, and not considering all the facts in a logical and rational manner.

Many people only pay attention to information that confirms their beliefs through selected news sources and social media. This includes opinions about issues like global warming, wearing masks during a pandemic, getting vaccines, following science, and gun control. This also happens on a governmental level. Witness the confirmation bias that the leaders of the United States have had for 20 years about Afghanistan.  

Jacobsen: Why is maximization of happiness important? Is Humanism, in this sense, a branch of Utilitarian philosophy (Millian more than Benthamite)?

Silverman: Utilitarianism, as I understand it, is a philosophy that aims for the betterment of society as a whole. Where happiness applies to Humanism, I can’t improve on the quote from Robert Green Ingersoll, known as the Great Agnostic: “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.” 

Jacobsen: Is “afterlife” an oxymoronic phrase? It’s extremely common as both a word and a sentiment. Does this word and idea modestly annoy you, too?

Silverman: I don’t know that “afterlife” is oxymoronic, since I can’t prove there isn’t one. On the other hand, I would bet my life that there is no afterlife. In fact, I am doing so. Since we don’t delude ourselves into thinking we will have an afterlife, we ought to decide what we want to accomplish in this, our one and only life. I am comforted in knowing that I can contribute something useful in the world. Sometimes our choices and their repercussions live longer than we do, impacting on family, friends, people we don’t know, and future generations. 

Jacobsen: If human beings have agency, and if non-human animals have a modicum of agency relative to human beings, should the meaning in life of other evolved critters be respected, too?

Silverman: Of course, we should show respect for other evolved critters, besides humans. That’s why I’m a vegan (except for ice cream). After all, humans are just fish plus time. 

Jacobsen: Is the belief in God based on a fear of death, generally? In my interview with the late James Randi, he considered this core to the whole enterprise of globally held falsehoods from religions and New Age beliefs (what he, in a neologism, termed “Newage”)?

Silverman: I think belief in God is largely, but not totally, based on a fear of death. Some people want to believe they will somehow go on after they die. God is an easy, though false, answer for them. Humans are pattern-seeking animals who like to know answers. When ignorant of why something occurs, some say “God did it,” which is known as the “God of the gaps.”  Of course science often comes up with real explanations, so the gap keeps shrinking. 

Jacobsen: Why is white privilege so tied up with Christian Nationalism in the United States now? 

Silverman: If I were to give a two-word answer, it would be “Donald Trump.” Despite Trump’s unchristian behavior and comments, white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for him and still support him. The “white” component is partly about stopping immigration of non-whites. White Christian Nationalists would like to return to the days when whites could easily and more legally discriminate against those of a different race and those who were not Christian. That is what they mean when they say, “Make America Great Again.”

Jacobsen: What parts of white privilege seem legitimate and illegitimate in the various presentations of it?

Silverman: It’s hard to come up with a legitimate part of while privilege, other than to say we should not blame all whites for discrimination against non-whites. I don’t favor reparation to all African-Americans regardless of status, but I do favor affirmative action programs and helping those who were deprived of a decent education. We should put more public money and quality teachers into poor schools, many of which are predominately African-American. 

Jacobsen: In either false rumors or wishful thinking, are the same mental mechanisms at play?

Silverman: I see some difference in that people can often show rumors to be false by providing contrary evidence. Wishful thinking might simply be hoping for a best possible outcome in a situation. It can also be holding to a belief, like in a god or an afterlife, that can’t be disproven.

Jacobsen: In personal experience, or based on research into it, what factors seem the most important in the development of a humanistic mentality and outlook on life, earlier in life rather than later? I am only part of the community for the last few years, very few in fact, but I have interviewed and talked to a lot of people, happily. I’m far more impressed with the secular humanist community than most others, while the non-theistic Satanists seem to do the best at provocative and creative sociopolitical commentary through protest. 

Silverman: I think encouraging young people to think for themselves and search for evidence to support their beliefs goes a long way leading them to secular humanism. Explaining why you accept a rational, evidence-based humanist philosophy that is guided by reason and inspired by compassion should be part of their upbringing. Though not everyone is comfortable with the name, I personally like the Satanic Temple, whose members are atheists and have no belief in Satan. They picked a catchy name to piss off the religious right and to protest against those who  try to use the government to support religion. 

Jacobsen: Is American soft power waning? Does this threaten the promise of increases in global democracy? I ask because America, in spite of ridiculous antics and interior flaws, represented an ideal of a largely free state of affairs for citizens in a democratic country in contrast to so many other countries. 

Silverman: I hope we can get to the post-Trump America, where we support human right and democracy at home and abroad, and no longer support autocrats elsewhere. That’s how we can make America great again.

Jacobsen: With climate change as another sword of Damocles to global society, what are the democratic alternatives to this state of affairs? What is being done? How can humanists cast their vote to edge the world towards constraining the runaway effects of greenhouse gases this late in the game? Many in the younger generations may not know old age because many in the younger generations may die before old age might happen for them, due to direct and derivative effects of climate change. 

Silverman: This is not easy to answer. Humanists follow the science about climate change and work with other groups, humanist or not, to try to lessen the effects of climate change. I hope we have not reached the point of no return on planet Earth.

Jacobsen: Why focus on an education in logic for students?

Silverman: Learning logic is a way for students to see fallacies constructed by others, and how to create a solid argument for a position.

Jacobsen: Why have private Christian and religious schools rejected or warped the correct teaching of the theory of evolution in their classrooms? How does this hobble students with an interest in learning biology and medicine, or in simply having an accurate idea as to the origins and development of life?

Silverman: A lot of religious schools reject the theory of evolution because it conflicts with their holy books. Students in these schools who are interested in science need to learn about evolution, perhaps by talking to someone who understands that evolution is an essential component of science or by reading legitimate science books on their own.

Jacobsen: Side note, with a rejection of the teaching of modern sex education, and with the known consequences to the life outcomes of more students on average in the negative, is this another example of the high negative cost of religion in public life?

Silverman: Yes. Schools that reject the teaching of modern sex education usually have an inordinate number of teen pregnancies.

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

Appendix I: Footnotes

 [1] Founder, Secular Coalition for America; Founder, Secular Humanists of the Low Country; Founder, Atheist/Humanist Alliance, College of Charleston.

[2] Individual Publication Date: September 1, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2022:


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


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