A Candidate Without A Prayer – A Book Review

I think secular Israelis and secular Palestinians might be able to resolve the Middle East crisis. Unfortunately, land for many religious Jews, Muslims and Christians is more important than peace because of God’s ‘promise.’ God shouldn’t be in the real estate business, especially since he promised the same territory to different people.

Herb Silverman during a visit to the Middle East as part of a College of Charleston-sponsored Hebrew Bible study trip in 1999.

Introduction: High Expectations

I expected to enjoy Herb Silverman’s autobiography, given that the author and I have much in common besides non-belief in gods and active devotion to separation of religion and government. We both grew up in Philadelphia, rejected family religion, lived for years in Charleston and sought public office while under the influence of non-belief. These personal connections seemed appealing at first, but soon into the reading of Candidate Without A Prayer, I found more compelling attractions.

My expectations were also raised from scanning the high encomium in blurbs by freethinker luminaries, such as:

  • the autobiography is … an inspiring tale of one atheist’s travels through life in one of America’s most religion-drenched regions. Barry Lynn
  • An entertaining and informative look at America’s culture war… Steven Pinker
  • Silverman captures the essence of what it means to realize that you think differently from those around you–including the people who brought you into this worldSusan Jacoby
  • honesty and … reasonableness are combined with … a sweet disposition and a wonderful sense of humorRebecca Newberger Goldstein
  • His story of running for governor of South Carolina as an open atheist is laugh-out-loud funny and worth reading for anyone who ever loved and/or hated the bizarre but hopeful theater that is American political life. Greg Epstein
  • Dr. Silverman is certainly unique for Charleston, maybe even unique for anywhere. When he came down here as a fine math professor but a cultural fish out of water, he simply created a flood of reason in which his newly discovered fellow infidels could swim. Herb presents a rational and persuasive alternative to those of faith, both with his words and his behavior. Judge Alex Sanders
  • Iconoclastic atheist, humorist, and mathematician Herb Silverman takes you on an entertaining tour of his irreverent life, so farWendy Kaminer

Herb Silverman

All promising, indeed, as is a five-page Foreword by the secular authority on god delusions, Professor Richard Dawkins. The first sentences seem to offer the best of all the blurbs: If a man is going to publish his life story, he had best take the precaution of leading an interesting life first. Or at least of being a very funny writer or of lacing his pages with wittily unconventional wisdom. Or even of being just an exceptionally nice person. Fortunately, Herb Silverman ticks all these boxes, and more.

Overall Impression

I can summarize my assessment of “Candidate” by noting that not a single word in the dust jacket kudos or in Professor Dawkins’ Foreword were over-the-top. “Candidate” is everything these distinguished Herb Silverman admirers attest it to be.

Highlights

The book contains 21 chapters (the 21st being a two-paragraph reflection on death, legacies and last words), plus an index. Surprisingly, only a single chapter concerns Silverman’s decision to run for governor of South Carolina. “Candidate” is, after all an autobiography and there is a great deal more to know about and learn from the life and philosophy of Dr. Silverman than his quixotic quest to bring reason to the state best known for hosting the first shots of the Civil War, or what folks down there call the War of Northern Aggression. But, the chapter entitled Candidate Without A Prayer is a very compelling and enlightening part of the book. It seems hard to believe that an American state, even a Bible Belt Southern outlier province with the sorry history of South Carolina, could have had such a benighted, grotesque and obviously unconstitutional provision as late as 1990 when Herb learned about it. Yet, it did. Specifically, the South Carolina Constitution excluded eligibility for the office of governor to any person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being. In retrospect, this absurdity became a watershed career opportunity for the author, albeit not as a gateway to one in public office.

This title episode in Silverman’s life story (to date) does not appear until chapter seven. When readers get this far, they know a lot about Herb’s parents (especially his mother), what it was like growing up Jewish in Philadelphia in the middle of the 20th century and how the author’s interests, skills and morals were influenced by jobs/girls/and family—and that’s just the first chapter.

The other chapters leading to the run for governor are devoted to religion (God thoughts), college life, leaving home (at last) and attendant encounters with the real world (e.g., politics, dating), learning important lessons while teaching and protesting and the transition to life in the American south (Southern Exposure). At this point, the reader learns why and how Silverman dealt with the South Carolina Constitutional obstacle to his becoming governor of that state. It’s a delightful tale, as is the story about his fallback strategy. This concerned a challenge to another South Carolina atheist exclusion. Realizing this goal proved to be almost as daunting. However, it had a more satisfying outcome—fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a notary public.

The rest of the book, the longest part, is devoted to chapters about local and national secular activism, memorable discussions and debates with believers, excerpts from Silverman’s commentaries on the subject, travels for research and discovery and, for good measures, a short course on the nature and uses of his erudite field—mathematics.

It’s quite a tour de force.

Specific “Takeaway” Features

The book is fun to read and, as Dawkins remarked, Silverman is witty and wise, has a wonderful sense of humor and has done much for the cause of reason and secularism. Some features I most enjoyed included:

  • The advice to closeted or otherwise quiet (i.e., polite and deferential) secularists to come out of the apathy closet. If more of us do so, the negative attitudes will change and the faithful will recognize the presence of non-believers in their midst as kind and ethical as those under divine supervision.
  • Silverman’s propensity to question what passes for normal. Initially sensed in college, this skepticism about normalcy grew over time from personal observations of normal people taken in by charlatans guiding folks to learn about their past life experiences, gaining advice from channelers of the dead and evangelists performing at revivals and crusades.
  • His pithy assessment of lessons to be found drawn from one experience or another. In one interview, he said:  I couldn’t resist pointing out that the state considered me qualified to be a professor of mathematics at a public institution (the College of Charleston) but deemed me lacking enough ethical and moral standards for the office of notary public. Perhaps the value placed on religious indoctrination over reason and scientific inquiry might help explain the dismal condition of education in South Carolina today, where SAT scores have been among the lowest in the nation for many years.

In an interview, Silverman was asked a question about debating with religionists, something that gets a lot of attention in the book. He advised a focus on the audience rather than the debater (whose mind is made up), to give the open-minded in attendance a few new perspectives to ponder and to exhibit a sense of humor. It helps to be a likable person in debating about religion, though he admits that charm is meaningless in his chosen career—solving math problems.

This book is loaded with charm, along with wonderful speeches and other reflections by a very good man leading an interesting life of importance to our prospects for a more effective democracy that protects the rights of all.

Highly recommended.

One thought on “A Candidate Without A Prayer – A Book Review

  1. Illuminating and enjoyable review, Don. For some unknown reason, I had just barely heard of Silverman despite his prominence in the atheist and secular communities. Now that you’ve brought him to my attention, he comes across as a helluva good guy we can all learn from. I plan to read the book soon on your recommendation.

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