It was a bit of a challenge writing this book review without revealing or spoiling the number of anecdotal gems contained within. Herb Silverman, if you’re unfamiliar, is an atheist, activist, and the President of the Secular Coalition for America.
When asked to review Candidate Without a Prayer, I was at first concerned that it would be a three hundred page advert for the Coalition. It wasn’t.
This book doesn’t take off quickly; in fact, the first three chapters have a very slow pace. These pages, though, are packed with information that is vital to explaining the role Silverman’s home-life played in his development. Incrementally, the book progresses into an insightful look at the life of a passionate and wise gentleman.
We’re all shaped by our families. Herb Silverman’s thoughtful introversion was carved in childhood by a family shaped by the Great Depression and the Holocaust. While his mother appears a caricature, her controlling personality leads to several humorous tales.
I hadn’t realized how unusual my helplessness was. I partly blame my mother for not encouraging me to learn the rudiments of taking care of myself. However, I mostly blame myself for not being assertive or interested enough. I began trying as best I could to do things for myself. I followed Bill’s lead the first time we went to the Laundromat. I thought I was doing quite well until Bill said, “Don’t you think
you should put your clothes in the washer before putting them in the dryer?”
From an early age, Silverman questioned authoritarian leadership, and was actually “dishonorably discharged” from the Cub Scouts for such “rebellious” behaviour. Sometimes, it’s a simple question that can lead a person to begin questioning their faith; this was very true for Silverman. His telling of such experiences, throughout the book, is consistently concise; and it is the accumulation of these tales that gradually reveals the core of the whole man.
One of my best teachers asked, “Why does the Torah say ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ instead of the more concise ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’?” His Talmudic explanation was that each had a different god, and we must search for and find our own god. I took his statement very seriously and applied Talmudic reasoning to draw my own conclusion, rather than rely on the wisdom of ancient scholars. My search beginning at age twelve eventually led me to a god who wasn’t there. I was thrilled and a little bit frightened. I didn’t believe there was a god and I didn’t know if anyone else thought as I did.
Outside of activism, Silverman had an education and career based in theoretical mathematics. Scattered in a few places of this autobiography, his background reveals itself in dry language, but quickly recovers with rich tales of personal development. While I enjoyed learning more about the work that Silverman has championed throughout his life, the chapter I was most enthralled by was one about the global travels that he and his wife ventured on. From Israel to India, the pair experienced a broad range of cultures, and religious mandates; Silverman acknowledges these differences, and he retells each memory with precision and wit. This was one of the few autobiographies that I would pick up again; there is much to be learned from those, like Silverman, that have been actively and positively changing the world around them for so many years.
If a finite man created infinity, perhaps a finite man created God and gave him infinite attributes. Infinity is a useful concept to help solve math problems. Was God merely a useful concept to help solve human problems?
An interview with the author:
You say that you’re more interested in “converting” people from apathy to activism, rather than from theism to atheism. What, have you found, is the best way to inspire people to action?
I can identify with apathetic atheists, having been one most of my life. What inspired me was finding out that I was ineligible for public office in South Carolina simply because I was an atheist, and working to do something about it. Many atheists have been active in civil rights for African-Americans, women, gays, and other minorities. Atheists are now the minority that people in this country seem to feel most comfortable openly denigrating. That has to stop, and we need reasonable people to make it more of an activist priority.
What advice can you give to inspire and encourage potential and beginning atheist activists?
It’s been said many times, but the most important thing an atheist activist can do is to come out of the closet. It worked for the GLBT movement, and it can work for us. Negative attitudes will change when people learn that their friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even family members are atheists. Aside from that, follow your passion. You are more likely to join and stay active in the movement if you are having fun and meeting other activists with whom you can have fun.
Bertrand Russell’s Why I’m Not a Christian was an inspiration to you in your youth, what books have inspired you in your adult years?
I don’t think any book can inspire me like Bertrand Russell’s did, because you only lose your virginity once. Russell showed me I wasn’t alone. He had as many “nots” as I did, and described ways in which godlessness could free people to be ethical and moral. Fortunately, atheism isn’t in the closet as much as it once was, and there are many fine and inspirational books by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and many others. I try to read as many as I can, and find inspiration from each I read.
I don’t think I ever believed the God rhetoric, but there was a time I would reflexively say I was a believer without knowing what that meant. I once went along with the family belief that Jews should stick to their own kind because all Gentiles were anti-Semitic. When I began to think about and question such views, it didn’t take long for me to break free from such indoctrination.
Relationships often play a large role in shaping our personalities and life experiences; it was clear that this has been true in your life, too. What advice can you offer about forming positive and beneficial bonds, even with those who oppose your activism?
Look for things you have in common with others, not just what sets you apart from them. There may be important issues on which people can work together even though they have very different theological views. We should respect the right of people to believe whatever makes sense to them, though we need not respect the belief itself.
What does it feel like to have put all of your history down?
Great! It felt good to come out of the closet as an atheist. I’ve now taken one further step and come out of the closet with my life. If I ever run for office again, my opponent will not have to do any opposition research. He or she will only need to read my book.
In the book, you take the position that atheists “should come out softly,” as religious people accuse us of arrogance. What are your thoughts about more aggressive forms of activism? Do you think that varied styles can co-exist in the ‘movement’?
Not only can varied styles co-exist in the “movement,” the movement will fail if we try to restrict it to a “one size fits all” approach. That had been the problem for too long. Secularists would spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about minor differences (like whether to call yourself an atheist, agnostic, humanist, etc.) and too little time cooperating on what we have in common and working on issues that would benefit all secular Americans. That’s why I helped form the Secular Coalition for America, which now has eleven cooperative national organizations that cover the full spectrum of nontheism.
Have you ever considered editing your own “Jefferson Bible”?
I think everyone who takes the Bible seriously and recognizes it as an important part of American culture should do some biblical editing. Jefferson called what remained in his edited version, “Diamonds in a Dunghill.” I’ve taken a slightly different approach. I have a section in my book about treating the fables in the Bible as we do Aesop’s fables. Both theists and nontheists can discuss what moral lessons they get out of the different fables. I do this with ten biblical fables from Genesis, with the hope of inspiring someone to write a complete book of such biblical fables.
What dangers do you foresee for the United States if we cannot maintain a separation of church and state?
To answer the question, look at any country where religion is mixed up with government and ask yourself if that’s the kind of country you would want ours to become. Look also at the first Pilgrims and Puritans who settled here and established Christian colonies, where those of the “wrong” religion were excluded from government participation and persecuted. Such church-state unions led to the Salem witch trials. The framers of our U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights wanted no part of the religious intolerance and bloodshed they saw in Europe or in our own early theocratic colonies, which is why they wisely established the first government in history to separate church and state.
Would you encourage other atheists to run for office, if only to challenge existing laws. (If so, what would your advice be to them?)
I would encourage other atheists to run for office, but not only to challenge existing laws. The more atheists that run, the more our issues will be discussed and the more stereotypes of atheists will be eliminated. I’m hoping for a day when political candidates are judged by their character and their positions on issues, rather than on their professed religious beliefs. Atheists running for office can help bring this about.
Lastly, after participating in numerous debates, what rookie mistake do you regret most and would advise others to avoid?
I would originally focus only on making the best logical and rational argument to “defeat” my opponent. I now understand that a debate is about the audience, not about the opponent. Your opponent is likely an experienced debater who will not change his mind, no matter how good the evidence you present. You want to give open-minded audience members something to think about that they have never thought about before. They may have only heard the atheist side presented from their fundamentalist minister. So show a sense of humor, and smile a lot. Audience members will be more receptive to you if they find you a likeable person. This was hard for me to understand, since smiling is important in debates but meaningless in my career of solving math problems.
Candidate Without A Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt is available online now and in bookstores soon.