Herb Silverman, a retired professor of mathematics who lives in Charleston, S.C., is founder and past president of the Secular Coalition for America, which defends and promotes atheism. He once ran for governor of South Carolina to challenge that state’s constitutional provision barring atheists from holding public office.
Openly being an atheist in the United States still takes moral courage, unless you’re in an academic or intellectual enclave shielded from society at large. Atheists are subject to religious discrimination and even, in some places, physical violence.
Silverman was here in Rochester, N.Y., last week to address the Rochester Russell Set and promote his new book, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt. One part of the book I liked was Chapter 12, in which he tells the moral lessons that he as an atheist draws from well-known Bible stories.
The Creation of Eve
Humans and other species are social animals. Solitude has its rewards, but do does the company of others. It’s good to associate with people whose values you share. Learn about other kinds, but recognize those with whom you can communicate well and trust.
Adam, Eve and the Snake
God makes blind obedience the supreme virtue, assuming ignorance is bliss. God either lied or was mistaken when he said humans would die on the day they received knowledge. So don’t blindly believe, even if you pay a price for independent thought. Better to have freedom without a guarantee of security than to have security without freedom.
Cain and Abel
The first worship ceremony is followed immediately by the first murder, which shows we must not put our love and worship of a God above our love for human beings, especially when God’s favoritism can be so arbitrary. Cain belatedly learns that humans should look out for one another, making each of us our brother and sister’s keeper. God recognizes his culpability in the first murder, and puts a mark on Cain as a sign to those he meets that they must now do to Cain what Cain did to Abel.
Noah and the Flood
God learns that his expectations for humans were unrealistic and genocide solves nothing. Never indiscriminately destroy the innocent along with the guilty. God should have been concerned about a compliant Noah who showed no empathy for the lives of others. Older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser, even with 600 years of experience.
The Tower of Babel
Leaders must not become as insecure as God, who prevented others from cooperating and moving upward together. Also, there is value in diversity. Each of us must decide when to go along with the crowd and when to set out on a road not taken.
Sodom and Gomorrah
Abraham is morally superior to Noah, since he tried to talk God out of mass destruction. It takes courage to stand up to authority, especially one bent on genocide. God teaches the value of looking forward to a fresh start without dwelling on the past, but what he did to Lot’s wife for a brief look backward was, shall we say, overkill. People in new and frightening environments are likely to act in ways formerly unthinkable. Lot’s motherless daughters, believing all other men dead, chose what they thought was the most practical path for the survival of the species—make love, not war.
The Binding of Isaac
God tests Abraham, who fails the test. Nobody should commit an atrocity, no matter who makes the request. Abraham’s willingness to kill his son creates a dysfunctional family. Neither Abraham’s son Isaac nor his wife Sarah ever speak to Abraham again in the Bible. It is better to do good than have faith.
Jacob and Esau
We shouldn’t prey on the weaknesses of family members, as Jacob and Rebekah did. On the other hand, a future leader should be a thinker and planner like Jacob, rather than prone to foolish choices, as Esau was. Esau makes the wise decision to forgive his brother, rather than seek revenge. Violence breeds violence.
Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors
As often occurs in families, Jacob picks up some of the bad habits of his father, and suffers for opening preferring one child over another. We learn about degrees of horrendous behavior, with Judas appearing the most reasonable brother because he favors selling Joseph into slavery instead of killing him. Joseph, similarly, feels the need to torment his brothers before eventually disclosing his identity and dropping trumped-up charges. We learn in this fable not to flaunt a favored status, as Joseph does, and not to overreact with envy, as Joseph’s brothers do.
Judah, Onan and Tamar
Marriages arranged by authority figures for the sole purpose of increasing property can lead to death and destruction. Couples should be honest with each other about their sexual relationships, which Onan was not. Judah, at least, is willing to admit his error when confronted with proof. Tamar is the most admirable character because she is not a hypocrite and attains her goal the only way possible in a culture ruled by men.
Click on Secular Coaltion for America for that organization’s web page.