Our Humanity, Naturally

A club for humanists

The Atheist Who Ran for Governor of South Carolina

Book review: Candidate Without a Prayer

If you didn't know better, you might think that an autobiography of a Jewish atheist living in the Bible belt would be of little interest to anyone other than, say, Jewish atheists living in the Bible belt. If you thought this, Herb Silverman will prove you wrong.

Candidate Without a Prayer gets its title from Silverman's 1990 run for governor of South Carolina. There's no need for a spoiler alert: Silverman lost that race, as would be the case for any open atheist, Jew or Gentile, in South Carolina, where "liberal" is considered anything to the left of Pat Robertson.  (The Palmetto State has a different way of looking at politics and history. When I was in Charleston a few months ago, a tour guide informed me that the "War of Northern Aggression" had nothing at all to do with slavery, but rather was a noble dispute over states' rights.)

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It might at first seem remarkable that Silverman has been able to endure such archconservative revisionism for over three decades, calling one of the most reactionary and religious states in the union his home. What one learns from Candidate Without a Prayer, however, is that Silverman not only copes with such adversity, but actually seems to thrive on it. His usual wardrobe of sandals, shorts, and a provocative secular T-shirt would seem more at home in Berkeley or Cambridge ("Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" is one that turns heads in Charleston, as is "Smile, there is no hell"), but one quickly realizes that Silverman would be bored out of his mind in such liberal bastions. There are many more feathers to ruffle in the heart of Dixie.

Not that he is incapable of ruffling liberal feathers. Anyone familiar with the modern secular movement knows that Silverman has been close to the action at every step, that he is behind much of its phenomenal success. His ideas and direction - from the emergence of the Secular Coalition for America (which Silverman co-founded and still leads as president) to the explosion of identity-oriented activism that has resulted in the secular community becoming a scrappy counter to the religious right - have often been opposed by the old guard, but they have proved effective.

Consider, for example, that the cooperation of secular groups that resulted in the Reason Rally - the largest secular event in history - would have been impossible in the days before the Secular Coalition, when the country's secular groups were incapable of such joint enterprises. Silverman has constantly emphasized the need for secular individuals to "come out" and secular organizations to work together for common, practical goals, and that vision was manifested in a big way on the National Mall on March 24.

A decade ago organized secularism was often perceived, if at all, as little more than cranky old men meeting in Unitarian church halls to argue about abstract and irrelevant issues, but today's movement is resulting in the emergence of diverse individuals, including many young people, joining together as a unified demographic - Secular Americans - and demanding to be heard. This transformation didn't come easily, but it did eventually come, thanks in large part to Silverman's leadershipCandidate Without a Prayer is not only Silverman's interesting personal story, but a glimpse at the historically important development of the modern secular movement - two narratives that are indeed tightly intertwined. Even the non-atheist and non-Jew and non-Southerner will enjoy the saga.

Though a math professor by profession (now retired), Silverman is an excellent writer who tells his tale without taking himself too seriously. He once took his shirt off while giving a speech at a fancy hotel (I can't even recall why he did it - only the shocked looks on the audience when he did), and he frequently pleads with believers to keep believing if they honestly think they will start committing felonies if they stop believing in God. Silverman approaches his writing, like his activism, with an eye toward having fun, and readers quickly discover this lighter side.

Just the tale of Silverman's failed gubernatorial campaign is enough to make Candidate Without a Prayer a worthwhile read. Stubbornly refusing to conform to the requirement that he acknowledge God-belief to hold a public office, Silverman launched a political campaign that would in turn launch his secular activism. The resistance he met to his simple demand that the state recognize the dignity of its secular citizens - and his tireless opposition to that resistance - makes for the kind of story that inspires those who seek change.

Given Silverman's likelihood of success as a South Carolina gubernatorial candidate, perhaps the sub-title of his book should have been, The Audacity of Hopelessness. Yet, although he'll never sit as the state's chief executive, his career has laid the groundwork for a secular movement that will likely change the face of America in the decades to come. 

Just imagine what he could have done if he had worn a tie.

 

The hardcover edition of "Candidate Without a Prayer" can be purchased at this link.  Ebooks are available here at this link.

 

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Pre-order David Niose's new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, here.

 

Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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