Book Review: Candidate Without a Prayer
By George Erickson
Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,
by Herb Silverman
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 to being a very funny writer or of lacing his pages with wittily unconventional wisdom. Or even being just an exceptionally nice person. Fortunately, Herb Silverman ticks all these boxes, and more.
With these words, Dr. Richard Dawkins, yes, the Richard Dawkins, began the foreword to Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt, and Herb deserves every word.
I first met Herb in the nineties, when we served on the board of the American Humanist Association, where his humor, clear thinking, and thoughtful nature helped move our meetings along. However his attire and appearance, which trended toward the hippie end of sartorial splendor, explains why I was shocked to find (in the book) a photo of Herb dressed in an oversized tux for a presentation he gave at Oxford. For a moment, I thought Lincoln had arisen from the grave.
Before reading Candidate, I already knew of Herb’s efforts in behalf of Humanist and Atheist causes, and that he’d taught Mathematics at the College of Charleston, South Carolina. Still, the opening chapters were a revelation because we grew up in very different worlds – I in an average Northern Minnesota family where religion or ethnicity was never an issue, and Herb in a Philadelphia family where Jewishness was everything. Their Jewishness included a loving, “control freak” mother; her attentiveness to her son included ironing Herb’s shoelaces. Thus, when Herb arrived at college, his roommate had to tell him how to boil water and change a light bulb – skills I was practically born with.
I had expected Herb’s pre-college chapters to be a bit of a slog (because mine would have been), but instead, they provided a look into a culture I’d never had a chance to understand. Although the entire book is first rate, those opening chapters were, for me, among the best. This is good, because, as it turned out, Candidate is the most expensive book I’ve ever read. (More on that later.)
I was surprised to learn that Herb had joined a fraternity, then pleased that he’d been elected its president, but I was not surprised that he had been arrested for protesting the Vietnam War, that he had been an advocate for Women’s Rights, or that, on learning in 1990 that the South Carolina constitution prohibits atheists from holding public office, he decided to run for governor – which is how he met his future wife, whom he calls his first and only groupie. He lost, but, as Herb puts it, “with politics in my blood… I decided to try to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a notary public.” Herb won. Bigotry lost.
In the ensuing years, Herb founded the Secular Humanists of the Low Country, followed by the Coalition for the Community of Reason, which evolved into the Secular Coalition for America. His tireless work for reason and against bigotry makes inspiring reading in the chapters he titles “Discussions on Religion,” “Debates on Religion,” and “Essays on Religion,” before turning to his first love and his occupation in a chapter titled “Mathematics and God.”
Silverman’s Candidate Without a Prayer is, a candid, well-written, captivating read, but be warned: If you find Candidate as inspirational as I did, it might cost you – like it cost me – because, inspired by Herb’s remarkable story, I was moved to donate to the Secular Coalition for America.
Candidate Without a Prayer is available from the usual sources and is also an eBook.