Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt, by Herb Silverman (Charlottesville, Va.: Pitchstone Publishing, 2012, ISBN 978-0984493289) 255 pp. Hardcover, $22.95.
Herb Silverman is quite well known to all insiders of the secular humanist, atheist, freethought, rationalist, Brights, Ethical Culturalists, and Humanistic Jewish movements. His autobiography—Candidate Without a Prayer—is entertaining, lively, instructive, witty, engaging, and readable. I recommend it to anyone—inside or outside the above movements and organizations—who cares about and is interested in American secularism.
Silverman enlightens and delights the reader with rich details and insights of the sort that can be brought to life only by someone with a long, significant personal history—and by someone unafraid to be corny when it is really, really needed. Those of us who know him anticipated his answer when he was running for governor of South Carolina and was asked in media interviews what his first action would be: “Demand a recount.” And we knew why he answered that way (as readers of his book will learn). And we also know enough about Silverman and South Carolina to know why he began his book with an 1860 quote from Congressman James L. Petigru: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
Many stories and good lines are worth retelling, and in this book Silverman obliges. It is focused heavily, as one would expect, on atheism and humanism. But he describes many other aspects of his life and our society as well. The cultural “enrichment” that befalls a Yankee Pennsylvanian who takes root in South Carolina gets full play, playfully. His family life, especially his marriage to Sharon Fratepietro and the life they have shared, is depicted with passion, humor, and joy. His sartorial good taste (not!) is savored and explained. (The photographs of Silverman in formal attire debating at Oxford or in a suit and tie at the White House are both jarring and shocking to any who know him at all.) His role as a mathematician and college professor gets short shrift, but enough of it is described to make one want a whole book from him on that matter alone. His battles alongside his wife on behalf of peace, civil rights, and, especially, thoughtful social tolerance are stirringly recounted.
But Silverman’s autobiography is not flawless, and the key problem is not an omission but more of a failure to include enough information about a major effort in his own life that has proved to be of prime importance to secularism. Silverman has often cited one of his favorite quotations from Harry Truman: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I fear that he has taken Truman’s bromide too seriously. Silverman has led a fascinating life, full of fun and serious accomplishments, and he touches on most of them here. But his most important, singular achievement—his legacy that will, I hope and I think, outlast all of us in atheism/humanism/freethought—gets too little attention. The eventual formation of the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) was a victory that he wrought with help from hundreds of others, but no one would have come close to succeeding if he had not invested thousands of hours and effort (and not insubstantial sums of money as well) and exercised his legendary dogged persistence.
Silverman liked to say, “my two cats put aside personality differences, past grudges, and turf protection when I feed them cat crunchies out of one bowl.” During this battle, he visited and spoke to dozens of gatherings of us irreligious “cats” who refused to be herded. He always mixed his sermons with wit and geniality, but preach he did. He easily and quickly persuaded the great majority of his listeners that he was right, but a key subgroup—most national leaders, including me, at least at times—resisted at every turn. We had, or claimed to have, good, strong, practical, or philosophical reasons why Silverman’s vision was positive but “just not practical” or sounded good but “glossed over somehow impossible-to-bridge crevasses.” Silverman bucked this tide and wore us down, pointing out (maybe it was the mathematician in him) that baking a much bigger pie is far better than fighting your friends and natural allies over who gets which piece of the tiny pie you have now. Herb Silverman, not quite single-handedly but quite single-mindedly and against big odds, succeeded.
His book does describe the development of the Secular Coalition for America and touches, although too obliquely, on his role in bringing it about. But reading the two or three pages about its origins makes it sound as if it were a straightforward, natural, maybe even inevitable process led by many. Harry Truman’s ghost apparently kept Silverman from risking being seen as boastful. The truth is simple (but deserved at least several chapters of details): no Herb Silverman, no Secular Coalition; no Secular Coalition, no astonishing progress for secularism and steady increases in the numbers of openly, consciously, proudly irreligious Americans.
Silverman’s book is well worth getting and reading, even without as much on the development of the SCA as I would have liked. He does share with us in this book what he expects his last words will be (see my above comment on his willingness to be corny). But perhaps he can relay his experiences between now and then, and more details on the SCA, in a sequel—titled My Life Goes On, perhaps? I hope so.