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Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb Silverman

April 22, 2020

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 22.A, Idea: Outliers & Outsiders (Part Eighteen)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com

Individual Publication Date: April 22, 2020

Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 2,739

ISSN 2369-6885

Abstract

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: freethought, the distinction between Christians and freethinkers, secular organizations and political lobbying; definitions of freethought; and origination of freethinking.

Keywords: American Ethical Union, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Carl Sagan, Catholics for Choice, Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, freethinking, Freethought, Herb Silverman, Interfaith Alliance, Robert G. Ingersoll, Society for Humanistic Judaism, UU (Unitarian Universalist) Humanists, William Kingdon Clifford.

Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb Silverman[1],[2]

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

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Freethought seems like the most appropriate terminology for a general audience. Other terms one can find in some of the formal and informal literature include atheist, agnostic, New Atheist, agnostic atheist, freethinker, non-religious, Nones, irreligious, religious, militant atheist, Firebrand Atheist, adeist, aunicornist, anti-theist, Bright, secular humanist, rationalist, skeptic, Unitarian, Unitarian Universalist, humanist, and so on, including everyone favourite evasion: spiritual but not religious. A natural outgrowth of the philosophy and the cognitive stance. Many, many terms exist, as if a Seinfeldian statement of the matter, “So, yada-yada-yada, I’m a freethinker.” There are a lot, no doubt. Not all overlap completely or even mostly, while, at the same time, many merge in a rejection of the supernatural, the magical, the mystical, as in all bound to the set of the non-real. At the same time, if I reflect on historical statements by the late Dr. Carl Sagan, I can note the ways in which he spoke to science, as a phenomenon, was more of an attitude than a methodology or the findings, which makes sense. I would merely extend the idea to skeptical, rational, naturalist inquiry in a larger sense incorporative of scientific methodology and scientific findings. Focusing on the productions by us, we covered some of the philosophical and social aspects of this in Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy and Short Reflections on Secularism. In this sense, our notions in the freethought community enter into the boundaries of Rationalism and science, empiricism and reason. We’re free while benefitting from the past accumulated evidence and theories to bring them together, slowly and generation by generation. For this series, I want to touch and tap into the boundaries of freethought, as to the community dynamics, in terms of the breadth of inclusion, and as to the things out of the question in the philosophy now. Some of this will be reiteration. Some of this will be new. However, a lot of this will be more in-depth in addition to recommended resources for research and reading, and becoming involved. Herb, if I may, based on the previous conversations, and with references and footnotes throughout if you can, how is freethought represented in the secular communities now?

Dr. Herb Silverman: Freethought is represented in different ways in different freethought communities. When I first became engaged with freethought communities, I learned about several national atheist and humanist organizations. I joined them all because each was involved in issues I supported. But each group was doing its own thing and ignoring like-minded organizations, while competing for funds from what they viewed as a fixed pie of donors. I knew we needed to grow the pie to benefit all these organizations and the freethought movement as a whole. They were spending too much time arguing about labels (atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, etc.) and too little time showing our strength in numbers and cooperating on issues that affect all freethinkers.

Here’s an interesting distinction between Christians and freethinkers: Christians have the same unifying word but fight over theology; freethinkers have the same unifying theology, but fight over words. At least our wars are only verbal.

So in 2002, I helped form the Secular Coalition for America, whose mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government. Our 19 national member organizations cover the full spectrum of freethought.[3]

Here’s what the Secular Coalition members don’t do: They don’t argue about labels. People in the Coalition call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, whatever. Here’s what they do: They cooperate on the 95% they have in common, rather than bicker about the 5% that might set them apart. All the organizations are good without any gods, though some emphasize “good” and some “without gods.”

Interestingly, four of the member organizations are classified as religious (nontheistic). They are American Ethical Union (with Ethical Culture Societies), Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, Society for Humanistic Judaism (with atheist rabbis), and UU (Unitarian Universalist) Humanists.

All the Secular Coalition member organizations have strict limits on political lobbying, so they incorporated as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of freethought Americans, finally giving freethinkers a voice in our nation’s capital. But even as the Secular Coalition fights against religious privileging on the federal level, some of the most egregious violations occur at state levels (I know. I live in South Carolina). The Secular Coalition is hoping someday to have volunteer coordinators in all 50 states, working with local groups to make sure elected officials throughout the country hear our voices.

The Secular Coalition also collaborates with organizations that are neither theistic nor nontheistic, like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. It cooperates on some issues with theistic organizations, like the Interfaith Alliance, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and Catholics for Choice. Working with diverse groups provides the additional benefit of gaining more visibility and respect for our unique perspective. Improving the public perception of freethinkers is as important to many of us as pursuing a particular political agenda.

2. Jacobsen: Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Dan Barker, states, “free-think-er n. A person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. Freethinkers include atheists, agnostics and rationalists. No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth” (Barker, n.d.). RationalWiki (2018) states:

Freethought, or free inquiry, is a catch-all term referring to the variety of beliefs which, in general, reject authoritarianism and revealed or fundamentalist religion in favor of science and human reason. Hence the term “free” meaning “free from external dogma,” implying that their beliefs came from their own thinking and research. It is the basis for rationalism, secularism, and democracy. It overlaps with atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism, but may also according to some definitions describe some theistic beliefs such as deism.[4]

Robert G. Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, becomes the lightning rod for great oration and writing on the subject matter of freethought within an agnostic point of view. Susan Jacoby, who more people should know (alongside Rebecca Newberger Goldstein), places the Golden Age of Freethought at its height, arguable to me, with Ingersoll and then its end at the start of the First World War. Jacoby states:

Freethinker and freethought are terms that date from the end of the 17th century. Freethinker basically meant someone who did not believe in the received word of the bible or the authority of religion. Freethinkers have often been described as people who didn’t believe in God, but it’s more accurate to see freethought as a kind of a broad continuum, ranging from those who really didn’t believe in God at all to deists who believed in a God who set the universe in motion but afterwards didn’t take an active role in the affairs of men.

By the end of the 19th century, freethinkers even included liberal Protestant denominations and Unitarians. Even though they believed in God and in some form of Christianity, they did not believe in any hierarchy of religion…

 It looks for supernatural explanations whereas science looks for natural explanations. (BeliefNet.Com, n.d.)

Many different stances and attitudes in orbit on the central theme of capital “F” Freethought. A tendency in human activity, community, and thought to leave strictures on the mind, depart from limitations of thought, while grounded in that which corresponds to the real. Some will ground themselves in human rights and compassion first, as in Humanism. Others will, at least, garner reputations for browbeating and a certain haughty and aggressive attitude against sincere, even ordinary, religious believers, as in New Atheism with two styles reflected in Militant Atheism and Firebrand Atheism. How can we bring about change based on the knowledge about the rise and fall of freethought into a new era of it, a renewed era in which we remain in a crisis requiring precisely its arsenal?

Silverman: We can explain to some people why being a freethinker makes the most sense to us, and perhaps convince them to follow our lead. If they are interested, we can provide them with helpful freethought literature. We already know that the “nones” are the fastest-growing demographic, many of whom are freethinkers without knowing what the word means.

Whether people become freethinkers or not, what the world needs today (especially during the pandemic) is more respect for scientific viewpoints and rational thinking, and less respect for the irrational thinking found in ancient “holy” books. We can tell religious people that we may not share their beliefs, but that we hope they are willing to incorporate scientific findings into their lives and listen to reasonable explanations about the world around them. Unlike the minority of religious fundamentalists, most religious people are willing to act this way. We can point out to theists how our behaviour is similar to theirs in many ways, and how their everyday actions have nothing to do with god beliefs. Whether we try to be good with or without a god has little to do with behaviour.

To those who might try to convince you to choose a belief in God, we can explain that belief in God is not a matter of choice. I can pretend to believe, but I can’t choose to believe something for which I find not a scintilla of evidence. We can ask them if they can choose to not believe in God (it would be nice if the answer is “yes”).

To help bring about change, we need to keep governments secular. This is something all freethinkers want, and we need to convince some theists why moving closer to a theocracy (even their theocracy) is bad for everybody. I’ve heard some politicians in both parties say, “We have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion.” What can that possibly mean? That we are allowed to worship the god of our choice, but we can’t choose to be good without any gods? Politicians might think they are being tolerant when they express support for all faiths. Instead, we expect to hear them publicly express support for all faiths and none, to promote freedom of conscience for all people. Freethinkers are not asking for special rights, but we do insist on equal rights.

Our Constitution demands that the government must not favour one religion over another or religion over non-religion. Religious liberty must include the right of taxpayers to choose whether to support religion and which religion to support. Forcing taxpayers to privilege and subsidize religions they don’t believe in is akin to forcing them to put money in the collection plates of churches, synagogues, or mosques.

We need to encourage more freethinkers to run for public office. I’m pleased that we now have a national Congressional Freethought Caucus to promote policy based on reason, science, and moral values. The Caucus formed in 2018 with 4 members and now has 13, with more to come.[5]

I hope to see an America where the influence of conservative religion is mainly limited to within the walls of churches, not the halls of Congress.

3. Jacobsen: What do you think sparked the original formal movement of freethought?

Silverman: The term “freethinker” came into use in the 17th century. It referred to people who inquired into the basis of traditional religious beliefs, and freethinker was most closely linked to secularism, atheism, agnosticism, anti-clericalism, and religious critique. It promoted the free exercise of reason in matters of religious belief, unrestrained by deference to authority.

I like to promote British mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford from the 19th century, who, in his essay, The Ethics of Belief, said, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The essay became a rallying cry for freethinkers, and has been described as a point when freethinkers grabbed the moral high ground. Clifford organized freethought gatherings and was the driving force behind the Congress of Liberal Thinkers.[6]

4. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Herb.

Silverman:  Thank you.

References

Barker, D. (n.d.). What is a Freethinker?. Retrieved from https://ffrf.org/component/k2/item/18391-what-is-a-freethinker.

BeliefNet.Com. (n.d.). Freethought Revival. Retrieved from https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/secular-philosophies/freethought-revival.aspx.

Congressional Freethought Caucus. (2020). Congressional Freethought Caucus. Retrieved from https://secular.org/governmental-affairs/congressional-freethought-caucus/.

RationalWiki. (2018, August 9). Freethought. Retrieved from https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Freethought.

Secular Coalition for America. (2020). Secular Coalition for America. Retrieved from https://secular.org.

Wikipedia. (2020, April 19). Freethought. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freethought.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Founder, Secular Coalition for America.

[2] Individual Publication Date: April 22, 2020: http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020: https://in-sightjournal.com/insight-issues/.

[3] See Secular Coalition for America (2020).

[4] Some “Advocacy Groups,” according to RationalWiki:

  • Conway Hall Ethical Society established in 1793 making it the oldest in the world.
  • Center for Inquiry (should not be confused with its affiliate, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry)
  • Council for Secular Humanism, which publishes Free Inquiry magazine
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation, which publishes Freethought Today
  • The Freethinker, the world’s oldest surviving freethought publication.

See RationalWiki (2018).

[5] See Congressional Freethought Caucus (2020).

[6] See Wikipedia (2020).

Appendix II: Citation Style Listing

American Medical Association (AMA): Jacobsen S. Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb Silverman [Online].April 2020; 22(A). Available from: http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one.

American Psychological Association (APA, 6th Edition, 2010): Jacobsen, S.D. (2020, April 22). Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb SilvermanRetrieved from http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one.

Brazilian National Standards (ABNT): JACOBSEN, S. Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb Silverman. In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 22.A, April. 2020. <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one>.

Chicago/Turabian, Author-Date (16th Edition): Jacobsen, Scott. 2020. “Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb Silverman.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 22.A. http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one.

Chicago/Turabian, Humanities (16th Edition): Jacobsen, Scott “Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb Silverman.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 22.A (April 2020). http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one.

Harvard: Jacobsen, S. 2020, ‘Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb SilvermanIn-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 22.A. Available from: <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one>.

Harvard, Australian: Jacobsen, S. 2020, ‘Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb SilvermanIn-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 22.A., http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one.

Modern Language Association (MLA, 7th Edition, 2009): Scott D. Jacobsen. “Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb Silverman.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal 22.A (2020):April. 2020. Web. <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one>.

Vancouver/ICMJE: Jacobsen S. Free of Charge 1 – The “Free” in Freethought with Dr. Herb Silverman [Internet]. (2020, April 22(A). Available from: http://www.in-sightjournal.com/silverman-one.

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