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Free of Charge 9 – All Things Ethical


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/08/15


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: current existential risks; the humanist orientation on life; pragmatic side of the humanist ethos; a complete rejection of the existence of gods; no regard for the tenets of Christianity; understanding human behaviour; the existential risks to the American republic; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the American educational curricula; make American education more humanistic; Republicans working to restrict African Americans from full voting rights and privileges; and a refined universalist morality.

Keywords: America, Christianity, ethics, Golden Rule, Herb Silverman, Humanism, morality.

Free of Charge 9 – All Things Ethical

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

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You made some great points about all religions, as an argument posed for the Golden Rule, having the same fundamental moral theoretic structure. They have the Golden Rule; therefore, they have the same moral philosophical base. Similarly, you stated, “And a version of this can also be found in almost every ethical tradition, with no gods necessary.” In other words, the Golden Rule exists pervasively and human beings use it, and build systems of moral philosophy on it. It can become tricky, as when the definition of the in-group leads to the Golden Rule only applying to one’s narrow ethnic and/or religious group. What can be the application of a humanist ethical orientation on the Golden Rule on current existential risks, globally? In short, how is humanist ethics, here, universal and universally applicable compared to parochial religious ethics?

Dr. Herb Silverman[1],[2]: The Golden Rule can mean different things to different people. Typically we think of it as treating others as we would like to be treated. Alternatively, it says do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated. One problem comes with the definition of “others.” Sometimes it means only how we treat others within a certain religion. A religion might require treating “infidels” with disdain, or worse. Treating others as we want to be treated might also involve trying to convert others to the religion of the believer. Many people don’t want to be treated as some people treat themselves. Universal human ethics has nothing to do with parochial religious beliefs. It requires empathy and reciprocity. We should try to find out how different people would like to be treated and try to treat them that way as long as such treatment doesn’t cause harm to them or to others.

Jacobsen: You described a shorthand of the humanist orientation on life. Also, as a side comment, you mentioned a progressive philosophy of life without a laundry list. Is a “laundry list” a bad idea? Simply for the fact, for any example or limited rule, you can find a counterexample to the example or the rule, because life is complex and, often, superficially contradictory. 

Silverman: A laundry list is not necessarily a bad idea, depending on what we mean by such a list. Regarding humanism, we say that knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis; that humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change; that humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships; that working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness; that we are guided by reason and inspired by compassion, and so on. If this is a laundry list, so be it. On the other hand, we assert that ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. This means we continually learn new ways to improve humanism.

Jacobsen: What about individuals who say, “I don’t care,” as in they do not care about others or appear unable to feel compassion? Where do these individuals fit into the pragmatic side of the humanist ethos?

Silverman: We can try to describe how showing compassion toward others can make you feel better about yourself. Failing to succeed, pragmatically we should try to keep such people (perhaps some of them psychopaths) from hurting others.

Jacobsen: Why can’t some individuals stomach a complete rejection of the existence of gods? What reasons have come forward for you?

Silverman: I’m sometimes asked how I can go on living without a belief in God. Such people often believe that the purpose of this life is to prepare for an afterlife. They see no other purpose for human life. Such god belief might be how they overcome their fear of death. There may be no purpose OF life, but humans can and should find many purposes IN life. We have only one life to live, and we should make the best of it.

Jacobsen: Individuals in the United States, White Christian Nationalists, want, in their dying demographic gasp, a complete control of the American republic without regard, or much, for freethinkers and other non-Christian religious Americans. Why? 

Silverman: It’s even stranger. Many White Christian Nationalists in the United States seem to have no regard for the tenets of Christianity. They appear to be worshiping Donald Trump, rather than Jesus. They applauded attacks by Trump on non-white immigrants, African-Americans, women, gun control, science, climate change, and other social justice issues. They seem mostly engaged with anti-abortion, about which Jesus said nothing. They hearken to the days of white privilege when they could discriminate against those of a different race and those who had non-Christian religious beliefs or no religious beliefs. They would like to turn America into their version of a Christian nation, not the secular nation we are. The good news is that many Americans are turning away from their fundamentalist religion, especially younger people, because of political stances that White Christian Nationalists have taken on. They include issues like women’s rights, abortion, immigration, LGBTQ, and other social justice issues, not to mention pedophilia. Some former or present Christians now believe that our humanist positions are more consistent with the message of Jesus than with the message of White Christian Nationalists.

Jacobsen: Furthermore, in that light, why do, indeed, ideas matter, fundamentally, to understanding human behaviour? As the brain is not a black box, but consciousness or an individual mind can appear as if a black box – so probably is, we can only peer at the outward behaviours and the descriptions of inner experience described by an individual. 

Silverman: Human behavior is often irrational, so understanding it is not easy. It might be based on false rumors (think QAnon) or on wishful thinking (think religion). To understand an individual’s behavior, we should communicate with that individual and learn what motivated the behavior. Even then, the individual might lie or make something up. For instance, parents can say how much they love their children, yet beat them and not mind that the child is suffering. To understand present behavior, it helps to know the past history of the individual.

Jacobsen: What are the existential risks to the American republic now? How are these existential risks for global society, given declining American semi-hegemony?

Silverman: The greatest existential risk to the American republic is also the greatest existential risk to the global society—climate change caused by humans and the need to address this danger. Fortunately nations are listening to the dire scientific predictions and coming together to cooperate with the United Nations on landmarks like the Paris Agreement and the Climate Action Summit. A national risk to Americans was the attack on our democracy on January 6, with the storming of the Capitol building by Trump supporters. Those riots for the first time made me worry about what we need to do to keep our democracy. Another serious concern is that America sometimes supports authoritarian leaders for economic gain instead of pushing for human rights.

Jacobsen: In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you mentioned an important and oft-overlooked part – skimmed: “nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, colour, or religion.” If looking to a possibly more humanist future, would you add anything into it, in spite of its strengths?

Silverman: We should take all these into account for human rights. When I spoke of “gender,” I didn’t know all the implications. I would include transgender, but hadn’t before heard of gender fluid, bi-gender, and other terminology. Of course, regardless of a person’s pronoun, we should treat everyone with respect.

Jacobsen: What has been excluded from the American educational curricula? Those courses necessary for a more educated populace and necessary for a functioning democracy. 

Silverman: I think too much time is spent trying to instill symbolic patriotism, and not enough time spent talking about some of our faults. This is incorporated in what is called “critical race theory,” which does not denigrate whites but talks about what privileges we have had over the years, and what we might do now to help those who weren’t born with such privileges. People should better understand our real history, including the meaning of our godless Constitution. We should teach people how to think, not what to think. I would like to see critical thinking become part of our national curriculum, including a mandatory course on logic.

Jacobsen: What would make American education more humanistic? I read complaints about vouchers, private religious school financial and other privileges, and discrimination in hiring against atheists and others in America, as examples of issues on some fault lines. It’s unfortunate. 

Silverman: Unfortunately, some private religious schools don’t have to teach topics that every educated person should know, like the theory of evolution. Some of these schools rely on indoctrination rather than education. Conservative Christians are influencing many school districts by introducing legislation to bring back school-sponsored prayers and demand that sex education classes in public schools teach “abstinence only,” instead of preparing teens to avoid pregnancy and disease. Some religious schools often incorrectly get to use some of our public tax dollars to support them through vouchers and other ways.

I like what one of our founders, Ben Franklin, said: “When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

Jacobsen: The natural question: Why are Republicans working to restrict African Americans from full voting rights and privileges (e.g., easier, reasonable access)?

Silverman: This is an easy question to answer. Most African-Americans vote for candidates from the Democratic party. Of course, the right thing to do would be to make it easy for them to vote their conscience. Unfortunately, Republican politicians these days rarely seem to do the right thing. Their only interest seems to be to get elected and re-elected.

Jacobsen: If we can learn to become more accurate in ethical decisions through an approximation of objective morality through a refined universalist morality, is ethical truth, or are morally correct choices, a natural feature of the natural world if evolved critters are roaming around in it, whether or not they have the mental capacity to know and decide at a sufficiently advanced level? In short, are universalist (approximating objective) ethical truths a derivative feature of universes with evolved or engineered minds? That is, if no beings in a universe, then no ethics in a universe; if beings, then inevitably ethics. 

Silverman: Many people used to equate the Bible with objective morality, but not so much anymore. Throughout history, the Bible has been quoted to justify slavery, second-class status for women, anti-Semitism, executing blasphemers and homosexuals, and burning witches and heretics. Some actions deemed moral 2000 years ago are considered immoral today. Morality evolves over time as our understanding of human needs within a culture changes. Even those who believe in biblical inerrancy interpret some passages in a different way today than in centuries past, in a manner more consistent with many humanist principles. We make judgments about which portions of a sacred text to take literally, which to take metaphorically, and which to ignore completely. We may never reach what we consider objective morality, but we are a lot closer to it than in past centuries.

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: August 15, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 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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