Oxford Union Debate on May 26, 2005


This House believes that American religion undermines American values


Herb Silverman


You just heard Richard Lowry (Editor of National Review) mention what it’s like to be a conservative in New York City. Now I’ll talk about what it’s like to be an atheist in South Carolina.


To illustrate how American values are being undermined by American religion, I’ll begin with a personal story. My local city council in Charleston, South Carolina starts its meetings with an invocation, usually by a Christian cleric. At my request, one council member invited me to give a secular invocation. But as I got up to speak, half the council members walked out because they knew I was an atheist.


One councilman justified the walkout by quoting from Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is not one who does good.” He then told me it was not personal. In other words, his religious beliefs compelled him to ignore or demonize an entire class of people he was elected to represent. Frankly, I would rather it had been personal.


Another councilman told the press, referring to me, "He can worship a chicken if he wants to, but I'm not going to be around when he does it." Ironically, those of us who stand politely during religious invocations believe that praying to a god makes no more sense than praying to a chicken. At least you can see a chicken.

And here is my “dreaded” Invocation, in which I promote American values, that several City Council members refused to even listen to.


Thank you for this opportunity to “invoke” a minority point of view. Each of us is a minority in some way. It might be race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, or however else we may be regarded as different. Each of us is also part of some majority. It is when we wear our majority hats that we need to be most mindful of how we treat others. We must pledge our best efforts to help one another, and to defend the rights of all of our citizens and residents.

What divides us is not so much our religious differences in this diverse country, but the degree of commitment we have to equal freedom of conscience for all people. We are gathered today, both religious and secular members of our community, with the shared belief that we must treat our fellow human beings with respect and dignity.

In this invocation, I don’t ask you to bow your heads, but to look up at what you can accomplish by applying your talents and experience to the issues that confront us. I don’t ask you to close your eyes, but to keep your eyes open to the serious problems that city government can solve or improve. As you work together on behalf of all who live in this city, may you draw strength and sustenance from one another through reason and compassion.

I closed my invocation in a bipartisan manner by quoting from two American presidents I greatly admire —one a Republican and the other a Democrat.

First, the Republican: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.” Abraham Lincoln

Then, the Democrat: “It’s remarkable how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Harry S. Truman


And I thank all of you for not walking out on my invocation.

Another councilman who did walk out argued that it was particularly wrong for an atheist to give an invocation when our military was fighting for American principles, based on God. And speaking of the military, a top Pentagon General (William Boykin) said that Muslims worship an idol, not a real God, and referred to the United States as a Christian nation doing battle against Satan.


But America has never been a Christian nation, and I have in my hand a Godless document to prove it— the United States Constitution.


(Point of Information from an audience member: Isn’t the “Creator” mentioned in the U.S. Constitution? My response: No, not in the Constitution. It is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, which is not a governing document but a call for rebellion against the British Crown. The Declaration refers to a Creator endowing people with inalienable rights to distinguish us from an empire that asserted the divine right of kings. Many of our founders were deists, believing in a deity that created the universe and laws of nature, and then retired to “deity emeritus.”)


James Madison, affectionately known as the Father of our Constitution, said "The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the endless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries." Our founders understood the devastating nature of holy wars. They wisely established a secular nation whose authority rested with "We the People" (the first three words of the U.S. Constitution) not with "Thou the Deity."


But American Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia disagrees. He maintains that the 10 Commandments are a symbol of the fact that government derives its authority from God. The previous speaker mentioned that Judge Roy Moore’s obsession with displays of the 10 Commandments in Alabama is of little importance because he is a marginal character. I’m sure Mr. Lowry would not say the same of Justice Scalia.


Many Americans who want the 10 Commandments displayed in our secular schools and courts either don’t realize or don’t care that the first Commandment (Thou shalt have no other gods) conflicts with the first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, the right to worship one, many, or no gods. Even some of our liberal politicians, like former presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman, insist that we have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. So much for freedom of conscience! And quite a contrast from Thomas Jefferson, who said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

When I first began going to school, children recited a daily pledge of allegiance to one nation, indivisible. Then in 1954, during the shameful McCarthy era, “under God” was added to the pledge to distinguish us from those godless Communists. But American secular schools are no place for religious indoctrination. Some judges agree, but President George W. Bush (who nominates them) announced: “We need commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God.” But “rights derived from God” is a belief, not an understanding. And judges are supposed to make decisions based on the rule of law, not on their personal beliefs.

In the melting pot called America, we are one nation under the Constitution (or maybe under Canada), but not one nation under God. In fact, given how the religious right opposes the teaching of evolution, or any scientific or social view that conflicts with a literal interpretation of the Bible, we are really becoming one nation under-educated. And this is not an American value to be proud of.

Religion based-discrimination must never become an American value. Which brings me to the year 1990, and my brief political career. At the time, I was a just a university mathematics professor, blissfully unaware of what living in the “Bible Belt” really meant. One day, a colleague pointed out a clause in our South Carolina Constitution that barred nonbelievers from becoming governor. Since the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for any public office, I consulted an attorney. He agreed that the state had no good legal argument, but said the only way to challenge this unconstitutional provision would be for me to become a candidate for governor.

So I did. I certainly didn’t expect to win the election. As far as I can tell, not one open atheist has ever been elected to public office anywhere in the United States. In referring to how tolerant and diverse Christianity is in America, Mr. Lowry referred to a committed Christian like Howard Dean leaving one sect to join another because of a dispute over a bicycle path. I expect Mr. Lowry might feel as I do, that Howard Dean is not a committed Christian at all, but has to pretend he is in order to get elected.

I ran for governor not to be elected, but because I assumed it would force state officials to bring South Carolina into compliance with federal law. However, the existing governor objected, saying that the state Constitution was fine just as it was because America was founded on Godly principles.

When I received media attention during my campaign for governor, I was typically introduced as a “so-called” atheist or an “admitted” atheist. I wondered what the reaction would have been had another candidate been introduced as a “so-called” Christian, or an “admitted” Jew. People sometimes asked me if, as an atheist, I felt free to go out and rape, murder, or commit any other atrocities I thought I could get away with. My response to such questions was: “With an attitude like that, I hope you continue to believe in a God.” I soon recognized that even more important than changing the state constitution was trying to change the hearts and minds of my fellow South Carolinians.


I had my day in court, but the judge said he would only rule on the merits of the case if I won the election. To the surprise of no one, I lost. I then discovered that South Carolina’s Constitution prohibited atheists from holding any public office. So I applied for the only non-elective office, that of a lowly notary public (someone who stamps documents and verifies signatures). None of thousands of applicants had ever been turned down by the state—until me. To make an eight-year story short, I finally won a unanimous South Carolina Supreme Court decision in 1997 allowing me to become a notary public, and that nullified the religious test requirement in the South Carolina Constitution.

None of the political leaders opposing me, and certainly not the lawyers advising them, ever believed they could prevail legally. Yet they showed they would rather waste time and money (about $100,000 of taxpayer money) on a lost cause than risk the wrath and lose the votes of a well-organized religious right electorate.

Throughout American history, conservative religionists have selectively quoted from a book written some two to three thousand years ago by people living in a small corner of the Mediterranean world. They have used their holy book to justify American slavery. I disagree with a previous speaker who said that Christianity was a major force for abolishing slavery. It is no coincidence that the states in which slavery was legal were the ones with the highest percentage of Christians.

Some still use their ancient holy books to justify child beating, discrimination against blacks, women, gays, atheists, and any others who disagree with their narrow religious worldview. We now have a George W. Bush faith-based administration in the White House working closely with the religious right to push our secular democracy toward a creeping theocracy. This is a perversion of the American values I treasure. To understand the universe and solve human problems, America must be a country committed to the application of reason, science, and experience (not religion)— a country where our deeds are more important than our creeds.