Positive Atheism: Herb Silverman

By Herb Silverman


Life Member Herb Silverman,
a mathematics professor

Adapted from a “sermon” given to the Unitarian Church of Charleston on February 6, 2005.

A couple of weeks ago, our local TV Channel 5 asked me to be a guest on “Talkback Live” to comment on a legislative bill to place the Ten Commandments on the South Carolina State Capitol grounds. But when I got to the studio, the producer took one look at the T-shirt I was wearing, shook his head, and said that the bad word on my shirt was unfit for a family news show. He asked me to cover the T-shirt with a jacket so the viewers would be protected from the message on this shirt:

“Smile, there is no Hell.”

Isn’t it interesting that a family news show would censor “Hell,” a word of primary biblical significance to most fundamentalist Christians? “Smile, there is no Hell” is an important message of positive atheism. We don’t believe in hell or eternal punishment, and that’s worth smiling about.

Positive atheism sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? After all, atheism really is a negative word. It means not having a belief in any gods. We’re all born atheists.

But negative is not always bad. Other negative words with positive connotations are: independent, nondiscrimination, and antidote. Even religious people frequently describe their deity in negative terms (infinite, unlimited, infallible). And 80% of their Ten Commandments (the eight “thou shalt nots”) are negative. The two positives are honor your parents and remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, though they can’t agree on which day the Sabbath falls or exactly what holy means. And negative protesters founded what was to become the dominant religion in this country. They are known as Protestants.

Many atheists, however, are uncomfortable with the negative word, and not just because it’s been demonized in our culture. It says what we don’t believe, rather than what we do believe. After all, we don’t go around calling ourselves A-Easter Bunnyists or A-Tooth Fairyists. Other labels that some atheists prefer include humanist, secular humanist, agnostic, rationalist, freethinker, skeptic, and materialist. Though there may be fine distinctions among these words, which most of us like to argue about, I think it comes down more to a matter of taste than to deep theological or philosophical differences. I even know a number of atheists in this very church who proudly call themselves Unitarians.

I find it strange that so many religious people think atheists are either immoral or fools just because we subject religious belief to the same kind of scrutiny as any other belief. After all, the person making the claim is responsible for providing appropriate evidence for it. No disproof is required in order to reject or withhold support. For instance, suppose I tell you that the universe was created just five minutes ago, at 11:28 AM, and that a supernatural being planted false memories in all of you. You can’t disprove my claim, but you still think it is nonsense, right? Atheists have the same reaction to god beliefs.

Coming out as an atheist can be scary, a little like leaving the comfort of your parents’ home. Belief in a heavenly father who will always take care of you might be reassuring, but it’s important to distinguish between the world as it is and the world as we’d like it to be. Religion is a lot like politics–you get more followers by making big promises! Atheists, however, want to maximize happiness without compromising on truth. But happiness isn’t everything. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

Many former religious believers say how good it feels to be rid of unnecessary fear and guilt. They no longer see themselves as worthless sheep dependent on grace from a heavenly father. My wife, Sharon, says she wasted many years as an indoctrinated Catholic trying to know, love, and serve an imaginary being. She’s now much happier and more productive in knowing, loving, and serving real people.

But a viable alternative to theism must also meet our moral and emotional needs. Because this is the only life we have, we want to make the most of it. There may be no purpose of life, but we can find many purposes in life.

It’s not true that atheists believe in nothing. An atheist has a naturalistic worldview (without supernaturalism). There are plenty of mysteries in nature by which to be awed. Science shows us the wonders of the world every day.

How do atheists make moral decisions? I believe we should be guided by the expected consequences of our actions. We don’t consider acts to be right or wrong simply because they are found in holy books written a couple thousand years ago, unless we can justify the acts on real-life moral grounds.

We are committed to the application of reason, science and experience to better understand the universe and to solve human problems. We’re convinced that the plight of the human race, indeed, of the planet, is in our hands and that social problems can be solved by methods that we ourselves devise and test. No gods will do this work for us. Immortality, for atheists, is the good works that live long after we have disintegrated.

But when I die, I know exactly what will happen to me. I’m going to medical school, just as my Jewish mother always wanted me to do. I plan to use my body parts to their fullest while I’m alive, but hope others will make good use of them after I die.

I think the mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell summed up positive atheism nicely: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

When an atrocity is committed in the name of religion, Americans are likely to say that it was based on a gross misinterpretation of the tenets of that religion, and we must recognize the overwhelming good that comes with most of its followers.

I disagree. I think many such fundamentalists are not misinterpreting their religious texts. On the contrary, they are taking their religious faith very seriously. The “good books” of the world’s major religions really do contain passages that support violence and vengeance, with decrees by God that infidels must die.

I think the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg said it best: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Most of us grew up learning that it was rude to discuss politics, sex, and religion. Politics and sex are certainly no longer taboo, but criticizing a person’s faith is still socially unacceptable. It’s considered virtuous just to have religious faith, meaning a conviction that can’t be shaken by contrary evidence. Why should we automatically show reverence to someone of great faith? Respect for religious faith, whatever that faith might be, plays an important role in perpetuating human conflict. We must not be so open-minded that our brains fall out.

As social critic H.L. Mencken said:

“Even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights: the right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities, provided only that he does not try to inflict them upon others by force; he has the right to argue for them as eloquently as he can. But he has no right to be protected from the criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.”

Of course many people of faith are inspired by their faith to do good. Nevertheless, as one who favors critical thinking, I’m sometimes bewildered by their beliefs. For example, faith that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into heaven, and can now be eaten in the form of a cracker called Communion. A few Latin words spoken over a cup of wine and you can also drink his blood. Is there any doubt that if just one person held such beliefs he or she would be considered crazy?

Some may construe the mere questioning of faith or presenting alternatives to it as negative atheism. I disagree. Is it unseemly for the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry to have T-shirts describing us as “A Non-Prophet Organization”? (My favorite pun.) We also have license tags that say “In Reason We Trust.” Guided by reason instead of by faith or prophets is who we really are, and should be no more insulting to Christians than their wearing crucifixes is insulting to us.

Atheists live by principles that can change based on evidence, not by unchanging commandments. We don’t give credit to a deity for our accomplishments or blame satanic forces when we fail.

Along these lines, I’ve coined a more inclusive term, Functional Atheist: One who acts as if there is no god. These are people who do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because of future rewards or punishments. This would include deists and most Unitarians.

A talk-radio caller (who was definitely not a functional atheist) once said to me that as an atheist I probably feel free to go out and rape and murder and do anything else I think I can get away with. I responded: “With an attitude like that, I hope you continue to believe in God.”

I once debated a fundamentalist minister about whether people can be moral without a belief in God. One question I asked him during the debate was how he would behave differently if he stopped believing in God. He said he might cheat on his wife were it not for his love of Jesus, knowing how much it would hurt Jesus. I responded that my love for Sharon, knowing how it would hurt her, was all I needed to keep from cheating. Whether to base decisions on God’s needs or on human needs is the essential difference, in my mind, between a conservative religionist and a functional atheist.

I admire people (religious or not) who do what they think is right, without regard to rewards in this or an expected future life. Although an atheist, I’m regularly called to play the role of a judging god when I decide which of my students shall pass and which shall fail. My decisions are based on whether students learn the subject matter, not on whether they praise or flatter me. My grades for them are independent of their beliefs about me. If my atheist position is wrong and there really is a judging god, I hope she will judge me on my behavior rather than on whether I believed in her existence.

Freedom From Religion Foundation