Skip to content

Free of Charge 11 – Interlude to the Freethought Finale


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/12/08


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 and Asimov; empathy and reciprocity; creationism and reciprocity; contributing to secular humanist culture; the God of the gaps; private post-secondary religious institutions; and equity.

Keywords: America, ethics, Herb Silverman, Humanism, morality, religious belief, supernaturalism.

Free of Charge 11 – Interlude to the Freethought Finale

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

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Your orientation on theology is intriguing to me. The stance from the previous session. Where, “if done right,” theology can be seen as the study of religious belief, which differs from standard definitions as the study of God. Other than an outcome of producing atheists with, for example, reading the holy texts. The idea of rational stances as an outcome of consideration of the broad range of the religious milieu, textual and otherwise. I am reminded of Isaac Asimov, “I prefer rationalism to atheism. The question of God and other objects-of-faith are outside reason and play no part in rationalism. Thus, you don’t have to waste your time in either attacking or defending.” It is about a scholasticism in the sense of coming to a rational comprehension of human irrationality, as found in the religions old and new. Are there any other positive outcomes in the study of the world religions, especially in the most sympathetic and objective light? 

Dr. Herb Silverman: As much as I respect Asimov, I disagree somewhat with his saying that objects of faith play no part in rationalism. It depends on what you mean by “rationalism.” To me, it’s about using facts and coming up with a reasonable conclusion based on those facts. For instance, a person could say the following. Fact: My goal in life to be happy. Fact: I can only be happy believing that I will have an eternity of bliss when I die, and therefore, it only makes sense for me to believe I will have an eternity of bliss. This person makes a logical and rational argument to maintain his belief. He will not suffer negative consequences in this life, nor will we be able to convince him that his afterlife belief is wrong.

When Asimov says he prefers rationalism to atheism, I would say atheism for me was a natural outcome of rationalism. I don’t think it is a waste of time to defend atheism when so many people attack it. I like to give thoughtful arguments defending my beliefs or lack thereof, and discuss with theists their beliefs and how they came to them.

In terms of positive outcomes in studying world religions, I think it’s important to learn what other people think, and why. Theists who study world religions might begin to question why  their religion is correct (usually the religion in which they were raised) and all the others are wrong. As well, while studying world religions, we might also see a lot of positives in them (like various versions of the Golden Rule), and a reason why we should treat all humans with respect, even if we think some of their beliefs are nonsense.

Jacobsen: How can empathy and reciprocity be improved in social relations at the individual level?

Silverman: It helps if we try to look at any situation from the other person’s point of view. As members of a highly social and cooperative species, we can recognize that our innate sense of empathy evolved as a survival mechanism. That, along with thousands of years of experience creating and maintaining complex societies, enables us to know what sort of behaviors best keep societies functioning smoothly. I must acknowledge that “tit for tat” is one of the most effective means for survival—treating others the way they treat you. This often encourages others to be as nice to you as they want you to be nice to them.

Jacobsen: To a scrolling creationist making criticisms of reciprocity in human life, as if against principles of selection in nature, so attempting to use straw men of evolutionary thinking to country evolutionary arguments empathy and reciprocity, any response? As I am sure, you must have come across these phenomena before.

Silverman: Many creationists are not interested in what you think because they claim to be so sure that they are right. They only wish to impart their “knowledge” to you. Some of them do not want to wear masks or get vaccines because they believe their god will save them from disease, despite so much contrary evidence. If we can find common ground with creationists on some issues, we might be able to encourage them to hear our point of view.

Jacobsen: What do you consider the most valuable contribution to the secular humanist community in your life?

Silverman: In my life, it was finding out that secular humanists exist and are now out of the closet. I had been a secular humanist most of my life without having heard of the term until people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson criticized it. So, I knew it must be a good thing. When I ran for governor of South Carolina in 1990 to challenge the provision in the SC Constitution that prohibits atheists from becoming governor, I heard from a number of atheist and secular humanist groups about all the worthwhile things they were doing. I proudly became part of that movement of people who are good without any gods.

Jacobsen: Will the gap ever completely close for God of the gaps arguments to stop?

Silverman: I doubt it. There will always be a “god of the gaps” argument because there will always be gaps in human knowledge. When science solves a problem, new questions often arise from that problem. Darwin’s Origin of Species answered many god of the gaps questions. When gaps are filled, the remaining gaps for God keep getting smaller. We now know that lightning is an electrical buildup and discharge in the atmosphere, and that earthquakes are shifts in the plates of the Earth’s crust. An interesting modern example of complete ignorance came from Bill O’Reilly on Fox News when he said that tidal movement was an unexplained phenomenon, implying that God willed the oceans to move. We have known for centuries that tides are caused by the gravitational interaction between the Earth and its moon, and we can say in advance when it will occur. One of my favorite quotes, long before the phrase “god of the gaps” was used, comes from the physician Hippocrates: “People think that epilepsy is divine simply because they don’t have any idea what causes it. But I believe that someday we will understand what causes epilepsy, and at that moment, we will cease to believe that it’s divine. And so it is with everything in the universe.”

Jacobsen: How are private post-secondary evangelical Christian universities contributing to this culture of Trumpism or a post-Trump administration, and the sense of besiegement against white Christians in America? A personal and collective sense, amongst themselves, of losing the country. When, as a Canadian looking onwards, America is meant, or should be seen as, for every citizen of the nation, so when one group sees themselves as losing, then everyone loses, because of seeing themselves as a group apart from the whole and deindividuating into a mass, and in resentment and hostility, which seems nationally self-destructive in the long-term (if kept up).

Silverman: When Donald Trump used the phrase MAGA (Make America Great Again), he was probably hearkening back to growing up in the 1950s when Blacks “knew their place” and white Christianity was privileged and viewed by many as America’s religion. Even though our godless U.S. Constitution prohibits favoring one religion over another or religion over non-religion, it was true that the majority of citizens at that time were white Christians. Times have changed, and Christian nationalists are upset by changes that have happened to the country.

We know that many religious universities do not teach subjects like evolution, which conflicts with their religious agenda. Even worse, some religious universities have political agendas, including the well-known Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Its former president, Jerry Falwell Jr., considered it immoral for evangelicals in 2020 not to support President Trump, adding that Trump could do nothing to lose his support. Falwell was later forced to resign the presidency because of a sex scandal. He hadn’t objected previously to Trump’s sex scandals.

Today, minorities are demanding and receiving some of the equal rights they deserve. We certainly are not yet where we should be, but I think we are moving in the right direction despite Trump and his followers. In the 1950s, in my home state of South Carolina, there were separate water fountains for white and black people. And black people were expected to step into the street to let a white person pass on the sidewalk.

Jacobsen: What specific programs and benefits can help poor schools attain greater equity with the rest of the nation, e.g., decent nutritional programs for kids to have energy and to be able to develop strong minds and to have clarity of mental life, etc.? I ask this as a practical example of secular humanist ethics for those who may benefit the most from it.

Silverman: No school needs to be deficient in any way—enough examples of successful schools exist throughout the country. Students and teachers need adequate resources. When state and local governments make having good schools a specific, primary goal, they allocate adequate tax funds, hire enough competent teachers for smaller-size classes, and have needed counselors. Residents of state and local communities choose what kind of schools they will have, by electing candidates who will or won’t support excellent education for all students, regardless of race or economic level. Education is the tide that lifts all boats and addresses most societal problems. 

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: December 8, 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


© 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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: