a tippling philosopher

A Candidate Without a Prayer - Herb Silverman

As a British atheist, there are two questions that posed themselves when being given a review copy of Herb Silverman’s biography. Will this book be relevant for me? Will I enjoy it? Happily enough, the answer to these questions was yes.


With regards to the first question, there is no doubt that issues in the US are issues which often have ramifications for the rest of the world. If they don’t have ramifications, then they are all the more strange by point of fact that they stand in stark contrast to the rest of the world, or Britain in my case. For example, the idea that political candidates in the US must declare an affiliation to a church or an allegiance to a God is a very foreign, and somewhat scary notion. Presently, at time of writing, the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the main opposition party are all publicly confessed atheists (or their faith “comes and goes”, an euphemism for atheism if eve r there was one). It is incredible that the most powerful country in the world, and one that we look toward or up to in so many areas, is so dreadfully regressive when it comes to religion in the public sphere. Or lack thereof.


This is something which Silverman (I want to call him Herb, though not knowing him, that feels presumptuous!) has personally tried to set straight and he delights in recounting his many brushes with the electoral system in the book in his humorous and easy-going manner. I even repeated one of his stories to a colleague in which he tells of a candidate suing for defamation at being accused:


“What has generally been viewed as the most scurrilous activity of the 2008 campaign season occurred in North Carolina when an ad put out by incumbent Senator Elizabeth Dole’s campaign accused opponent Kay Hagan of associating with known atheists who held a fundraiser for her. The ad implied that Hagan herself might be “godless” and that she might have promised something in return for the support of such “vile, radical liberals.” Hagan’s campaign responded that she is not an atheist, and, in fact, is an active Christian.


That just sets the record straight; no problem so far. But then Hagan filed a lawsuit, claiming defamation of her good name and reputation in the community.”


In such a way, Silverman (in telling of this incident) illustrates how atheism is viewed in the States. To be accused of being an atheist in the public sphere is a defamation of character, such as being accused of being a racist or some such slur. As Silverman says, if “merely associating with nonreligious Americans is political suicide and being mistaken for one of us constitutes “defamation,”” then voting for either candidate is a non-starter. In this day and age, and in that hugely powerful nation, this is a terrible indictment of the state of progressive attitudes and open politics. The power of religion in controlling the political landscape in such an implicit manner is staggering.


This is, as mentioned, fascinating in its difference to Britain.


The book swings from talk of debate about the existence of God (delivered through Silverman’s reporting of his career in university and his work within secular organisations, in debating or engaging in other public media) to talk of his upbringing and family life. So, to move on to answering that second question, there is a warmth to his writing which makes reading the autobiography a breeze. I did gain valuable insights into (cultural) Jewish life, certainly how it used to be. This is something I know relatively little about and found it entertaining and interesting.


There is nothing particularly groundbreaking or new to read with regards to the ideas about theism vs atheism for those well-versed in researching, talking and debating such philosophical topics, but Silverman doesn’t profess to setting out to do this. It is a warm and encouraging book showing that there are people of influence and rational disposition who are willing to stand up for themselves and the wider ideals of a separation of church and state. With humour and some outright funny jokes (I loved the joke about the old Jew praying at the Western Wall), Silverman has succeeded in giving us a distinct flavour of what life is like being a Jewish atheist in the Bible Belt. I don’t envy him, but he’s done a damn fine job so far!


Jonathan M.S. Pearce, author of The Little Book of Unholy Questions and Free Will? 

About the Author

Herb Silverman graduated from Temple University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and received his PhD in mathematics from Syracuse University. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston. He has published more than one hundred research papers in mathematics journals and a couple of books on complex variables, and is the recipient of the College of Charleston Distinguished Research Award.

Herb ran for governor of South Carolina in 1990 to challenge its unconstitutional provision that barred atheists from holding public office. After an eight-year battle, he won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, which struck down this religious test requirement. He is founder and president of the Secular Coalition for America. He founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry in Charleston, South Carolina, and served as founder and faculty advisor to the College of Charleston Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group. He is a Humanist Celebrant and board member of the American Humanist Association, as well as advisory board member of the Secular Student Alliance and member of the Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Herb has participated in a number of debates with religious scholars, including one at the Oxford Union at Oxford University in England on the topic “Does American Religion Undermine American Values?” He has had many articles in freethought publications, and a book chapter titled “Inerrancy Turned Political” in The Fundamentals of Extremism. He also contributes weekly to “On Faith,” an online forum on religion produced by the Washington Post. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife Sharon Fratepietro.

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