Atheist shares views in book


CANDIDATE WITHOUT A PRAYER: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt. By Herb Silverman. Pitchstone Publishing. 255 pages. $22.95.

Those in the Lowcountry (and beyond) who know about Herb Silverman, an advocate for atheist rights, often don’t quite know what to make of him.

Why is he advertising his nonbelief so fervently? Why does he think it necessary to defend those — perhaps 16 percent of Americans, perhaps more — who don’t worship any gods? What’s with the shorts and T-shirt?

In a readable and gentle new book called “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” Silverman explains.

In it, he comes across as idiosycratic as ever, but with a certain appealing charm and spirit. He shares details about his Jewish upbringing in Philadelphia, his overbearing mother and quiet father, his odd-boy-out experiences, his early questioning and his social awkwardness.

These passages are perhaps the most compelling and interesting since they contextualize Silverman’s activism while humanizing the activist. But other parts of this book, essentially a collection of anecdotes, are just as fun to read.

He revisits his quixotic run for governor of South Carolina, a race he entered only to challenge a requirement in the state constitution requiring God-belief of all candidates for public office. That 1990 campaign ended prematurely with a whimper but led to another — his quest to become a notary public — that eventually did the trick, changing state law.

And Silverman talks animatedly about academia, the foibles of the South, women, friendship, his late, happy marriage to Sharon Fratepietro, his several public debates about religion and his approach to mathematics, which began to fascinate him as a kid and later became a career.

Unfailingly logical and rational, Silverman is also very funny, adding a soft charm and penetrating wit to nearly everything he writes about, no matter how weighty.

The book’s title is a little misleading. Electoral politics occupies only a chapter in the middle of the memoir, and the Bible Belt is hardly the only geography he describes. “Candidate Without a Prayer” might have benefitted from a tighter, more linear structure — a primary narrative that holds it together — but its failing is also its appeal.

It reads like Silverman talks, and it reflects a thoughtful and active mind that even a religious fundamentalist could find engaging. What’s more, he makes a lack of God-belief seem pretty normal. After all, it’s our secular society that enables such a diversity of views, and his, in the end, doesn’t seem very extreme.

During a period when some church folk are railing against secularism, chastising nuns who focus on the social gospel rather than bishops’ rules, bemoaning the decline of morals and criticizing sound science, it’s worth remembering that theocracy isn’t the answer. As Silverman points out, America’s Founding Fathers, whether religious or not, “established a secular nation whose authority rests with ‘We the people,’ ... and not with ‘Thou the deity.’ ”

In so doing, they left plenty of room for everybody.