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Free of Charge 12 – Foundation


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/12/22


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: Kurtz’s intention behind such a comprehensive statement of Secular Humanism; Kurtz; free inquiry; the separation of religion and state; critical intelligence; a moral education without supernaturalism; religion and supernaturalism; reason; evolutionary theory; an education broader than simply critical intelligence, moral education, and defining what is and what is not Secular Humanism; and to get right and appear to miss.

Keywords: ethics, Herb Silverman, Humanism, morality, Paul Kurtz, supernaturalism.

Free of Charge 12 – Foundation

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

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With the large number of manifestos on offer including the Humanist Manifesto I (1933), Amsterdam Declaration (1952), Humanist Manifesto II (1973), A Secular Humanist Declaration (1980), A Declaration of Interdependence (1988), Humanism: Why, What, and What For, In 882 Words (1996), IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism (1996), Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call For A New Planetary Humanism, The Promise of Manifesto 2000, Amsterdam Declaration (2002), Humanist Manifesto III/Humanism and Its Aspirations (2003), Manifeste pour un humanisme contemporain/Manifesto for a contemporary humanism (2012), I find the analysis of each by a distinguished and elder member of the community welcome, and enlightening, especially with the third Amsterdam Declaration coming from Humanists International with input from the global Humanist community. A document representative, insofar as possible within C-19 conditions, of the democratic aspirations of the practices of Secular Humanism. One of the larger documents is A Secular Humanist Declaration (1980). What was Kurtz’s intention behind such a comprehensive statement of Secular Humanism? 

Dr. Herb Silverman[1],[2]: Paul Kurtz’s Secular Humanist Declaration (1980) described why democratic secular humanism has been a powerful force in world culture, and what we can do to fight anti-secularist trends posed by religion. Kurtz explained why the separation of religion and government is essential and why we needed to oppose the shackling of any type of free thought. He supported trust in human reason and compassion, rather than in divine guidance or untested superstitious beliefs. Kurtz promoted following the best science available.

Paul Kurtz’s greatest strengths were his abilities to found and grow organizations, including the current Center for Inquiry (formerly named the Council for Secular Humanism). He will be remembered as perhaps the most significant force in the second half of the 20th century supporting secular humanism and the ability to live a good life without religion.

Jacobsen: Also, as a short aside, what was Kurtz like as a person – behind the curtain so to speak?

Silverman: I first met Paul in the early 1990s at a meeting of the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH), and I became a regional director of CSH. It was the only nontheistic organization I had known about, and its fine magazine Free Inquiry was the only publication I knew that supported living a good and reasoned life without religion. Prometheus Books, another creation of Paul Kurtz, was the only publisher I knew that was devoted to books about Freethought.

I think Paul’s greatest weakness was his less than enthusiastic willingness to play well with others he saw as competitors. Kurtz became upset with me when I joined the board of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Both CSH and AHA seemed to be fine organizations worthy of my support, but I soon learned about their divisive history. Kurtz had been on the board of AHA and was the editor of The Humanist magazine, published by AHA. After Kurtz and the AHA parted ways in 1978, on less than friendly terms, Kurtz founded the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry. When I helped found the Secular Coalition for America in 2002, Kurtz wanted no part of it. He tended to view with suspicion any organization he didn’t lead or create. Shortly after Kurtz left CSH, they joined the Secular Coalition for America.

I was pleased when, in 2007, the AHA, at its annual conference, presented Kurtz with its Humanist Lifetime Achievement Award, which I think he richly deserved.

Jacobsen: One of the main emphases of American Secular Humanism has been freedom of speech. In other countries and at the United Nations, this gets labelled as freedom of expression in legal documents and human rights stipulations. The fundamental idea here seems as if the free inquiry, which is the first idea presented in A Secular Humanist Declaration – a document founded well before I was born. Why is free inquiry the first point made in such a document by a pillar of the intellectual history of Secular Humanism?

Silverman: First, Free Inquiry was the magazine that Paul Kurtz started, so you would expect his document to emphasize free inquiry. Commitment to free inquiry means we tolerate diversity of opinion and respect the right of individuals to express unpopular beliefs. Of course, all views should be open to critical scrutiny. The premise is that free inquiry is more likely to lead to truths with a free exchange of ideas. This applies to science, as well as to politics, economics, morality, and religion. Free inquiry also necessitates recognition of civil liberties, which include freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of and from religion. Neither states nor religions may impose a religious doctrine on people.

Jacobsen: With the Trump Administration over, another poignant point made by Kurtz was the separation of religion and state, what have been some more aggressive moves in various states in the United States of concern and hammering home the points made by Kurtz once more?

Silverman: Currently, one of the most aggressive moves against separation of religion and government is in the state of Texas, which wants to allow a woman who has an abortion or someone who performs an abortion to be charged with assault or homicide, a crime punishable by death in the state of Texas. Other states have passed bills that greatly restrict a woman’s right to an abortion. The Supreme Court is also imposing a set of religious views on the rest of the country, like insisting a fetus is a person from conception. Our courts and our democracy face a crisis of credibility.

The good news is that many Americans are abandoning organized religious institutions. The “nones,” people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular,” has risen to 29 percent in America. The Make America Great Again crowd appeals to the nostalgia of a 1950s-era White Christian America. Before he ran for president, Donald Trump favored abortion rights. He changed to get the support of White Evangelical Christians, who rely on the politics of grievance and resentment. Rather than trying to expand its base, the Republican Party is passing restrictive voting and voter suppression laws in different states, and looking for ways to allow Republican-controlled state legislatures to throw out the results of fair elections. This attempt to turn the United States into a Christian authoritarian regime is a grave threat to the secular democracy that Kurtz wrote about.

Other similar concerns include adoption and foster care service where taxpayer funding is going to some faith-based institutions that discriminate against same-sex couples. School voucher programs are funneling taxpayer money to private religious schools that can be exempt from civil rights laws protecting minority faiths, atheists, and LGBTQ students. Tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, including churches, are not allowed to endorse candidates. With Donald Trump’s “blessing,” during his administration many churches endorsed candidates with no negative consequences to the churches. Using public funds to support religiously based discrimination violates the Establishment clause of the US Constitution and the civil rights of those who are denied access to government services. To promote separation of religion and government, we need to ensure that government money is made available only to programs and institutions that provide religiously neutral services without discrimination.

Jacobsen: What is critical intelligence? How is this an important part of living an ethically good life via Secular Humanism?

Silverman: Secular humanists are much more than just atheists, those without a belief in any gods. A secular humanist generally has a positive outlook on life, the view that we can do good and make a difference in our one and only life. Secular humanists recognize that ethics was developed as a branch of human knowledge long before religionists created moral systems based on divine authority. Some early developers of ethics include Socrates, Democritus, Epicurus, Erasmus, Hume, Voltaire, and Kant. They felt that ethical judgments are independent of revealed religion, and that we can apply our intelligence, reason, and wisdom to achieve the good life. For secular humanists, ethical conduct should be judged by critical reason, and the goal is to develop autonomous and responsible individuals capable of making their own choices in life based on an understanding of human behavior.

As Bertrand Russell said, “A good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” I’ll close with two quotes from Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic: “The hands that help are better far than the lips that pray.” And, “Reason, observation and experience, the Holy Trinity of science, have taught us that happiness is the only good, the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”

Jacobsen: What should be the contents of a moral education without supernaturalism?

Silverman: The real question is: What should be the contents of a moral education with supernaturalism? I see no realistic answer. We live in a natural, not a supernatural, world. We can make up the supernatural, and somehow bring morality into it. But that is just a fantasy, and people have a wide variety of supernatural beliefs.

Moral development should be promoted in children and young adults by public schools dealing with these values independent of religion. Children should learn about the history of religious moral practices, but they should not be indoctrinated in a faith before they are mature enough to evaluate the merits for themselves. A moral education makes use of the scientific method, which is the most reliable way of understanding the world. Science and technology have improved the human condition. They have had a positive effect on reducing poverty, suffering, and disease in various parts of the world, in extending longevity, and in making the good life possible for more and more people. And while technology can be good, we should not accept what we see on the Internet without evaluating it critically.

In comparing religious and secular morality, we should ask whether it is right to stone homosexuals and disobedient children to death or whether it’s okay to beat people you own as property. If you don’t think it’s moral to do these things, then your moral principles do not come from holy books.

Jacobsen: Kurtz synonymizes religion and supernaturalism in the point about religious skepticism. How are they the same? Are they different? If so, how so? 

Silverman: Religion and supernaturalism have much in common. Most religious people believe in a supernatural deity. However, not all religions believe in the supernatural. I belong to three different religions: American Ethical Union, with Ethical Culture Societies; Society for Humanistic Judaism, with atheist rabbis; and the UU Humanists. All three religions are nontheistic and active participants in the Secular Coalition for America. I’ve also met people who claim not to be religious, but believe in supernatural things like astrology, psychics, and crystals.

Jacobsen: What is reason, properly defined, in a secular humanist philosophy?

Silverman: Reason, for secular humanists, is the use of the rational methods of inquiry, logic, and evidence to develop knowledge and test truth claims. Since humans are prone to err, future corrections sometime need to be made. There are no dogmas in secular humanism. Though our reasoning isn’t infallible, we think reason and science make major contributions to human knowledge and intelligence. Reason has led to the emancipation of hundreds of millions of people from a blind faith in religion and has contributed to their education and the enrichment of their lives.

Jacobsen: How does evolutionary theory present a robust support for a secular humanist philosophy and ethic compared to religious ethics based on interpretations of holy scriptures or holy books?

Silverman: The theory of evolution is under attack by religious fundamentalists, who would like to see creationism taught in schools. A scientific theory like evolution or gravity is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through observation and experimentation. From Darwin on, countless peer-reviewed scientific papers have supported evolution. We wouldn’t have expected scientifically ignorant writers of so-called holy books who lived thousands of years ago to have described the theory of evolution, DNA, or any discovery of modern science, and they didn’t. Evolution is controversial, but the controversy is religious and political, not scientific. Some religions feel threatened by evolution because it contradicts the creation story in Genesis. Even though there is a Flat Earth Society, we don’t teach the flat/round controversary in science class. Creationism should no more be taught as an alternative to the theory of natural selection than “stork theory” should be taught as an alternative to sexual reproduction. Creationism is an alternative to Zeus or Krishna, not Darwin.

As secular humanists, we recognize that we are a highly social and cooperative species. We have evolved to have an innate sense of empathy as a survival mechanism, coupled with thousands of years of experience creating and maintaining complex societies. We have learned what behaviors are best at keeping our species functioning smoothly.

Jacobsen: What might an education broader than simply critical intelligence, moral education, and defining what is and what is not Secular Humanism, to encapsulate Kurtz’s ideas of a “melioristic” form of educational mindset?

Silverman: Meliorism is the belief that the human condition can be improved through concerted effort, and that we have an inherent tendency toward progress. This fits in well with Kurtz’s view on democratic secular humanism, where we look forward with hope rather than backward with despair. We are committed to extending the ideals of reason, freedom, individual and collective opportunity, and democracy throughout the world. The problems we will face in the future, as in the past, will be complex and difficult. Secular humanism places trust in human intelligence rather than in divine guidance. Secular humanists approach the human situation in realistic terms, holding human beings responsible for their own destinies. We believe it is possible to bring about a more humane world based on reason, tolerance, compromise, and negotiations of difference.

Jacobsen: What does this 1980 document seem to get right and appear to miss?

Silverman: I agree with just about everything in the document, possibly with one minor exception: “This declaration defends only that form of secular humanism which is explicitly committed to democracy.” While I certainly favor democracy, I can picture a country with a benevolent dictator who is a secular humanist and supports human rights. Since secular humanism continues to evolve with new information and evidence, an update to the 1980 document should probably address climate change, racism, sexism, and LGBTQ rights. I would also add suggestions on how secular humanists can improve the quality of their personal life, which includes physical activity, a good diet (perhaps vegetarian), getting enough sleep, reducing stress, and having a sense of humor with lots of laughter.

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 22, 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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