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Free of Charge 8 – Possible Futures for Humanism


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/04/22


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: some of the paths Humanism could evolve into the future; Humanism’s unification; Humanism and the rejection of the supernatural versus strict atheism; democratic ideals and issues; and limits of an empirical moral philosophy.

Keywords: empirical moral philosophy, future, Golden Rule, Herb Silverman, Humanism.

Free of Charge 8 – Possible Futures for Humanism

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

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I want to take an interlude session into unifying evolutionary ethical frameworks as exemplified in part, in Humanism. One widely touted claim by individuals with a leaning towards the secular and a sympathy for religious sentiments is a claim to unified moral principles or frames in every ‘great’ religion, as in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese traditional religions, and ethnic religions. One group of more superficial thinkers will point to a feeling or some loose intuition about religion, “All religions teach the same things.” I understand what they are meaning, but what they are saying, as a matter of fact, is false. Why have different religions if so? Another group will be selective about the observations. Ignoring the parts of brutality, cruelty, bigotry, and supernatural superstition, only focusing on the Golden Rule, saying, “Oh, it’s the Golden Rule. It’s in all of them. All of the religions teach this as the same basic element of their ethical teachings.” Generally, one can find passages. However, it seems both incredibly naïve and selective, because different formulations of the Golden Rule exist and different religions teach the Golden Rule unequally well. Still others turn into postmodernist philosophers, they ramble off into incoherency and don’t make any sense, while puffed up and self-proud as a cock (rooster) on a dunghill. Humanism is an advanced 20th-century philosophy. It’s about a deep dive into reflection on the depths of human depravity and reformulating, and formalizing, the positive, proactive ethics found in all periods of human history in which civilized advance society existed for those times, when naturalism and the humanities were the dominant discourse of the time. What are some of the paths Humanism could evolve into the future?

Dr. Herb Silverman[1],[2]: It may be true that just about all religions have some version of the Golden Rule about treating others as you would want to be treated. And a version of this can also be found in almost every ethical tradition, with no gods necessary. In my Jewish tradition, the first century BCE Rabbi Hillel was allegedly asked by a prospective Jewish convert to teach him the entire Torah (Hebrew Bible) while standing on one leg. Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. The rest is commentary.”

Some equate the Golden Rule with the rule about loving your neighbour as yourself. The problem arises with who we consider our neighbour. In the Hebrew Bible, neighbours were the “chosen” people, other Israelis. Jews were supposed to kill outsiders on their way to the Promised Land. Today in America, many White Christian Nationalists view only their fellow Christians as neighbours and so justify discriminating against non-white immigrants.

Another problem with the Golden Rule is that some people may not want to be treated as we want to be treated. Our values may be so different that the Golden Rule makes no sense. For instance, some fanatics have no aversion to death, so the Golden Rule might inspire them to kill others in suicide missions. For humanists to live by the Golden Rule, we must empathize with other people, including those who may be very different from us and might want to be treated differently.

When you mentioned “dunghill,” I thought of Thomas Jefferson, who in many ways (but not all ways) was a humanist. As he correctly pointed out, there are some words of wisdom in the Bible, but I agree with Jefferson when he referred to them as “diamonds in a dunghill.”

When you ask for paths where Humanism could evolve in the future, I think Humanism is a philosophy that is continually evolving. That’s why we have had three Humanist Manifestos, and will undoubtedly have additional “manifestos” as we learn more about how better to live ethical lives, along with new scientific discoveries.

Jacobsen: Continuing from the previous question, there are areas in which Humanism is a laundry list of principles rather than a unified ethical framework. Such a framework in which it can continually, dynamically evolve while maintaining its former evidentiary coherence, in fact, many of the declarations are such listings. Do you think that there are ways Humanism can be more compact, more unified, showing how its principles interact with one another to create a whole other than a simple titular stamp: “Humanism”?

Silverman: A compact way to talk about Humanism is to describe, without a laundry list, its basic principles, which serve as guidelines for how we should live. Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that also aspire to the greater good of humanity. We are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change, and ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience, along with a greater knowledge of the world. Humanists are guided by reason and inspired by compassion.

Jacobsen: Are there any parts of Humanism that you think should just go, not be there? I believe you had some qualms in earlier variations of declaration with the inclusion of supernatural versus atheist or non-theist as an appeasement to some who couldn’t quite stomach a complete rejection of the impossibility of the gods. 

Silverman: I know some good people who can’t stomach a complete rejection of the existence of gods. They may act in a lot of ways like humanists, leading ethical lives and aspiring to the greater good of humanity. I just don’t like the god baggage that might go along with it. I can’t prove there are no gods. An atheist is simply someone without a belief in any gods, and I think we should not claim to be guided by imaginary beings. That’s why my brand of Humanism is atheistic. I can’t prevent the Pope from calling himself a humanist because he supports immigration, opposes wars, and accepts that humans are partially responsible for climate change.

Jacobsen: Human rights and democratic ideals feature prominently in the humanist lifestance. Are there any particular weaknesses in the claims of human rights, as said in the formal documents of human rights, or in the principle of majority rule (adult age majoritarian voting rule)?

Silverman: The notion of human rights is a modern concept from the 18th century Enlightenment, not from ancient times when the Golden Rule was first quoted. Thomas Jefferson incorporated such “inalienable rights” into the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was a milestone for its universalist language, which recognizes that all humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights regardless of nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, colour, or religion.

I do have some problems with majority rule, especially if we have an uneducated populace, and leaders (dictators) decide who constitutes voters. After all, Adolf Hitler came to power in a democracy in 1933. Not that it is any way comparable, but democracy may not be working so well in the U.S. now, with many Republicans trying to make it difficult for some African Americans to vote. So, I must agree with Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Jacobsen: Are issues of an empirical moral philosophy found in the epistemologies informing the ethics? So, the ideas of the limitations of induction to give answers about the world – its scope and limits – and then the limitations by logical implication extended into the moral philosophy of Humanism, as in some things can never be known, others partially known now, while others known with a reliably high degree of accuracy. A sort of variation in accuracy of reality maps meaning variations in the reliability, and validity, of the application of humanistic ethics. Sometimes, there’s tons of informations; other times, there’s little; still others, we have, basically, none, and may never have any data to inform the ethic, which would make ethical decisions solely grounded in the lattermost equivalent to a base-level faith-based moral decision-making frame of reference (that which we try to avoid at all costs). 

Silverman: When it comes to what we know and don’t know with a reliable level of accuracy, I usually look to science. I recently read a wonderful new book by Jeff Hawkins called, A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence. It compares our old reptilian brain to our new mammalian brain (the neocortex), with implications for moral behaviour.

I’ve been in debates with Christians who insist that objective morality must come from God. My contention is that we don’t know if there is such a thing as objective morality but, if so, we are coming closer to it by learning more about human nature and what works best for individuals. We often learn this through science or experience, not through ancient “holy” books. We need to be careful when we talk about what we know, and, even more important, about what we don’t know. To quote Mark Twain: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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

Silverman: Thank you.

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: April 22, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2021:


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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