Befriending Theists Benefits Atheists: Herb Silverman

By Herb Silverman


Herb Silverman, pictured during a debate in Oxford

We enjoy debating theists, though we recognize the value of forming alliances with them on issues of common interest. This, however, is a story about having your cake and eating it, too.

Between October 2, 2005, and December 4, 2005, a well-known local Christian and I had a heated exchange in the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper. It included, on one day, 14 letters to the editor taking sides in our debate. Then on April 23, 2006, we came to a mutual, published agreement that satisfied both of us.

The story actually began earlier, on April 3, 2005. The Post and Courier asked local leaders, including me, to weigh in on President Bush’s faith-based initiative. This was the last paragraph of my op-ed:

“The framers of our Godless Constitution (and I’ll give $1,000 to anyone who can find the words God or Jesus in it) had the foresight to establish the first secular country. They recognized that religious institutions must rise or fall through voluntary contributions, not through taxes imposed on all citizens. Forcing taxpayers to subsidize religions they may not believe in is no different from forcing them to put money in the collection plates of churches, synagogues or mosques.”

I knew my $1,000 offer would spark interest. I also knew my money would be safe. In the unfortunate words of a former CIA Director regarding weapons of mass destruction, it’s a slam dunk! The words “God” or “Jesus” are not in the Constitution. But I also knew people would disagree with me.

Skip Johnson, former religion editor for the Post and Courier, wrote an op-ed making his case for collecting the reward. He is now a freelance writer and author of the book The Gospel of Yeshua.

Here are Johnson’s three main points and my rebuttals:

Johnson: The Constitution was signed “in the year of our Lord.”

My Response: This was the standard way of dating important documents in the 18th century. Its use was conventional, not religious, just as today we may use B.C. (Before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for “the year of our Lord”).

Johnson: The Constitution contains the word “oath,” which is a call to God.

My Response: Oaths were not necessarily a call to God. Kings, at the time, would swear oaths by their crowns and knights would swear oaths by their knighthood. Had our founders wanted office-holders to invoke God, they could have worded the oath to accomplish that objective.

Johnson: The Constitution allows the president an extra day to return a bill if the 10th day falls on a Sunday, the day set aside to worship God.

My Response: In 1787, as now, people were sometimes given the day off. They were then free to worship, rest, or work.

Johnson then went outside the Constitution in an attempt to buttress his arguments, referring to the Declaration of Independence, coins, and statements by politicians. He also asked, “Does it really seem like the people who wrote the Constitution intended to keep God out of it?” I rebutted that they were a lot wiser than Johnson gave them credit for being. They were careful and thoughtful writers. Had they wanted to put God into the Constitution, they would have done so, specifically by name.

After my article appeared, the real fun began. The religion editor of the Post and Courier wrote, “Next week, we will tell you who, according to our readers, won the debate.” Knowing a little about the bible-belt readers of the paper, I told the editor I would pay the $1,000 if I became convinced that I was wrong about my assertion, but not because the majority of letters said I was wrong. The editor understood this.

To my pleasant surprise, eight published letters favored my position, while only six favored Johnson’s. Moreover, Johnson agreed with me privately that the letters on my side were more articulate and thoughtful. They were also longer. In fact, the eight letters supporting my position contained more than 85% of the words published on the topic.

Here, for example, are a couple of the letters favoring Johnson:

“Atheist Herb Silverman opens his big mouth insinuating that there is no GOD or JESUS in the Constitution. He needs to pay up!!”

When the public editor was asked about the choice of letters printed and omitted, she responded that the religion editor said he opted not to publish some letters because they were obscene. I then asked the religion editor if all the obscene letters were from Christians. He acknowledged that they all favored Johnson’s position.

Johnson claimed my rebuttal portrayed his argument unfairly, and asked for and received an opportunity to rebut my rebuttal. I was also given a chance to respond to his rebuttal.

I ended my response by talking about instances where I, and my local group, had worked with and discussed issues with Christians to promote mutual understanding. I then invited Johnson to have dinner with me, which turned out to be an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Our wives accompanied us to dinner, with my wife Sharon acting as dinner secretary. She wrote down points of agreement, many of which I put forward from the principles and values of my local organization, Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. We ignored numerous theological differences, like a comment from Johnson’s wife that she didn’t see how she could go on living without a belief in God. After dinner, I proposed to Johnson that we try to write a joint letter for the paper about our points of agreement.

I wrote the first draft. Johnson liked most of what I wrote, and we went back and forth several times before reaching agreement. Interestingly, Skip had no problem saying that we both follow a progressive and naturalistic life stance. To him, God is natural. 

The gist of the article was that we share many positions, whether we consider them part of the social gospel or secular humanism. We are committed to the application of reason, science and experience to better understand the universe and to solve human problems and we are committed to the separation of religion and government. We agree that personal theology is not as important as our behavior and that doing good is its own reward. We closed by saying that people spend too little time communicating in a positive way with those who have different points of view because it is easier simply to stereotype and demonize those who are different. And, finally, we announced that we have become friends.

The response from readers of the Post and Courier was impressive. Of course many Christians disliked what was said, but I heard more positive reaction from local residents about this joint statement of agreement than for anything else I have written. Johnson reported a similar reaction from his acquaintances. A number of Christians stopped me on the street saying what a wonderful idea it was to seek common ground. One writer to the paper said he followed our debate with interest, but found it to be little more than an academic exercise of little real consequence. In contrast, he found the joint letter to be “the most profound and uplifting to grace the Faith and Values section.”

Skip later told me that his nine-year-old niece saw the article and asked what an atheist was. When he told her that I didn’t believe in God, she said: ” He will when he dies and meets God.” I asked him to thank his niece, who sounds a lot nicer than many Christians who tell me I will never meet this loving God because the afterlife He has in mind for me is one of eternal torture as punishment for not believing in and worshipping Him. But I couldn’t resist telling Skip that my response would have been similar to his niece’s–when I was nine years old. I then mentioned one of my favorite quotes from Paul:

I Cor. 13: “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Foundation Life Member Herb Silverman is a Professor of Mathematics at the College of Charleston, where he is founder and faculty advisor to the Atheist-Humanist Alliance student group. He is President of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry in South Carolina and President of the Secular Coalition for America, whose newest member is FFRF. Herb has appeared in a number of debates, including one last year at the Oxford Union in Oxford, England, on the topic: Does American Religion Undermine American Values?

Freedom From Religion Foundation