I'm agnostic. I'm one of those wishy-washy irreligious folks who doesn't quite want to claim the title of "atheist." Sitting down with College of Charleston math professor, author, former South Carolina gubernatorial candidate, and atheist Herb Silverman, I test an age old saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes." Silverman smiles and tilts his head, "Well, there are."
Silverman's latest book, An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land, features his writings from the past two decades, works that were published in the Huffington Post, The Humanist, the Post and Courier, and the City Paper. Divided into chapters with titles like Belief Versus Behavior, Bible Talk, and Godly Patriotism, the excerpts cover a lot of ground. We're talking about a worldview here — one that denies belief in God or gods. You know, a rare perspective in the big scheme of things.
"I'd like for us to be treated like other people," says Silverman. According to the Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 3.1 percent of American adults consider themselves atheists. And before we continue let's get another stat out of the way: Statistically speaking the majority of atheists are white, highly educated men. In case you hadn't noticed, white, highly educated men generally do OK in the U.S. Silverman recognizes the stereotype — that atheists can come across as entitled, arrogant and, well, holier than thou.
But Silverman is looking to change that perspective. "I just want us to be a part of the fabric of this country," he says. In his essay, "How Atheists can overcome a reputation of arrogance," Silverman writes, "I empathize with religious groups whose mission is to convert everyone, since I think the world would be better if everyone 'saw the light' of secular humanism. But rather than seeking converts, atheists mostly want our worldview respected in a culture that dislikes us."
Silverman grew up in a Jewish family and at around age 12 he says he started to question his religion. "This God thing just didn't make sense as I was thinking about logical stuff, asking questions when I was young. I stopped believing literally in the Bible and as I got interested in math and logic I thought I'll just keep the things that make sense to me, a lot of the ethical and moral things."
Silverman knows that he is not alone in his disbelief of a higher being — that's why in 1990 he decided to run for governor of South Carolina, a direct challenge to the state's constitutional provision that prohibited atheists from holding public office. After an eight year legal battle, Silverman won a decision in South Carolina's Supreme Court, nullifying the state's religious test requirement to hold public office. In general, Silverman urges atheists to "come out," following his example and letting people know that normal folks like, well, like me, don't believe in God.
"When I ran for governor, I was viewed as the village atheist and I got calls from people who said, 'Gee, I thought I was the only atheist,'" says Silverman. That response led to the creation of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, a group that is now about 150 members strong. Silverman doesn't want you to get caught up in the labels surrounding atheists and humanists; as he says, "The idea with both is 'good without any gods.'"
As Silverman writes in "Belief Versus Behavior," "Atheists and humanists try to make the most of it [life] in pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. This usually involves helping others to fulfill their needs, too." The Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry find common ground with a number of religious groups; most people can agree to work together to help others. The organization volunteers with Lowcountry Food Bank, Windwood Farm, and the Carolina Youth Development Center. See, all atheists aren't so immoral after all.
"Stalin was an atheist and not all atheists are good," says Silverman. "Not all Christians are good, either." For some people, a lot of Silverman's arguments seem like no-brainers. We're living in the 21st century, after all, and most open-minded people don't take all parts of the Bible literally. Even Silverman, who can, admittedly, come off as the aforementioned arrogant atheist stereotype in his writings, has changed the way he approaches religious people.
"I've backtracked from what I used to do. I would quote some ridiculous things from the Bible to religious people. But if it's someone who is marginally a Christian, and I point out ridiculous things, it doesn't mean anything to them. I'd rather have common ground with social justice," he says.
Silverman says that his book is for everyone — he loves it when he can get people to think about something they've never thought about before. While I can't imagine everyone picking up An Atheist Stranger, the book is a helpful guide for someone wanting to learn more about nonbelievers and how they can impact the social, political, and yep, religious fabric of our country.
"I try to get rid of the stereotype that atheists are angry people," says Silverman. "I want to put a kinder and gentler face on an atheist."