Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt

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In this deeply revealing and engaging autobiography, Herb Silverman tells his iconoclastic life story. He takes the reader from his childhood as an Orthodox Jew in Philadelphia, where he stopped fasting on Yom Kippur to test God’s existence, to his adult life in the heart of the Bible Belt, where he became a legendary figure within America’s secular activist community and remains one of its most beloved leaders. Never one to shy from controversy, Silverman relates many of his high-profile battles with the ...
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In this deeply revealing and engaging autobiography, Herb Silverman tells his iconoclastic life story. He takes the reader from his childhood as an Orthodox Jew in Philadelphia, where he stopped fasting on Yom Kippur to test God’s existence, to his adult life in the heart of the Bible Belt, where he became a legendary figure within America’s secular activist community and remains one of its most beloved leaders. Never one to shy from controversy, Silverman relates many of his high-profile battles with the Religious Right, including his decision to run for governor of South Carolina to challenge the state’s constitutional provision that prohibited atheists from holding public office. Candidate Without a Prayer offers an intimate portrait of a central player in today’s increasingly heated culture wars.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An entertaining and informative look at America’s culture war from a writer who has been embedded in the front lines.”
—Steven Pinker Harvard College Professor of Psychology Harvard University, and author of The Better Angels of our Nature

“Herb Silverman’s autobiography is not an anti-theological treatise. It is, however, a warm, deeply personal, and inspiring tale of one atheist’s travels through life in one of America’s most religion-drenched regions. Silverman ‘plays well’ with believers and nonbelievers who share this core belief: no government official dare treat a person as a second-class citizen because of what she or he believes about God, gods, or the nonexistence of them.”
—Reverend Barry Lynn Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State


“Herb Silverman’s lively history of an atheist raised as an Orthodox Jew fills a real gap in the literature of the ‘New Atheism,’ in that it describes the emergence of a creed based on human goodness without godliness in highly personal rather than abstract philosophical terms. In an account that will resonate with people raised in all faith traditions who have made the same journey, 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 world.”
—Susan Jacoby author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

“It isn’t often that inveterate honesty and inviolable reasonableness are combined with such a sweet disposition and a wonderful sense of humor. Those who don’t yet know Herb will find in this wonderfully entertaining tale of how he became a fighting atheist a man of true wit, true warmth, and true wisdom.”—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction“Herb Silverman has long been one of the most important secularist activists in the United States. With this book, you’ll find he is a wonderful storyteller as well. Herb’s warm and thoughtful self-portrait shows what it can mean to be both Jewish and a Humanist. And 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 Harvard Humanist Chaplain and author of Good Without God

“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 Former President of the College of Charleston and Founder and President of the Charleston School of Law


“Iconoclastic atheist, humorist, and mathematician Herb Silverman takes you on an entertaining tour of his irreverent life, so far.”
—Wendy Kaminer Lawyer, social critic, and author of seven books

"Religious and irreligious people alike can learn from this book lessons about tolerance, freedom of expression, good manners, goodwill, and the importance of not stereotyping but the lessons are not presented in a holier-than-thou tone, as is often the case in the religion vs. science debate."

--Review:Foreword Magazine

Kirkus Reviews
A mild, witty memoir by an activist atheist and founder of the Secular Coalition for America. Retired professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina, a native Philadelphian and a nonpracticing Jew, Silverman delights in contradictions and provocation, such as debating the existence of God with fundamentalists in the Deep South. The author has advocated for years to help empower the non-theistic constituency, most of whom believe morality should be dictated by tried-and-true "human judgments" rather than biblical judgments--which, while fashioning the Golden Rule, he notes, have also been used to condone slavery, anti-Semitism, misogyny and horrendous violence. The only child of "cultural Jews," Silverman chronicles the not-so-small hypocrisies that he witnessed in adults around him, such as their conviction that the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953 was "good for Jews" and that the games their beloved Philadelphia Phillies played against the Brooklyn Dodgers weren't worthy of their attendance because "of undesirable people (blacks) who came to watch [Jackie] Robinson play." Once he mastered biblical readings as part of his bar mitzvah training, Silverman debated two thoughts with his young self: "either the God of the Bible didn't exist, or he could be as bad as and more powerful than Adolph Hitler." God and sex were forbidden topics in his childhood home, and his early years learning about girls and how to care for himself make for charming reading. Enmeshed in his teaching career, he became radicalized during the incendiary '60s and '70s and later ran for numerous offices, such as governor of South Carolina in 1990 (he lost). The book skips around erratically, somewhat thematically, and dwells at length on his atheist beliefs. A Woody Allen–esque tale of an uneasy conscience in Christian America.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780984493289
  • Publisher: Pitchstone Publishing
  • Publication date: 6/15/2012
  • Pages: 255
  • Sales rank: 1,438,283
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Herb Silverman is founder and president emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, and distinguished professor emeritus of mathematics at the College of Charleston. He ran for governor of South Carolina in the 1990s. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina. Richard Dawkins is an ethologist, an evolutionary biologist, and a writer. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and was formerly University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science. Among his previous books are The Ancestor’s Tale, The God Delusion, and The Selfish Gene.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Richard Dawkins xiii

Preface xix

Acknowledgments xxiii

1 In the Beginning 3

Family exclusionism, and how I was affected by it

2 God Thoughts 24

Becoming an atheist, and how a confession from a teacher changed my life

3 An Easy College Choice 33

Learning about different people, and developing some strange leadership skills

4 Leaving Home, at Last 44

Graduate school, and beginning to grow up

5 Teaching and Protesting 57

Skepticism and civil disobedience

6 Southern Exposure 70

Culture shocks galore, for me and for the South

7 The Candidate Without a Prayer 87

Running for governor, and falling in love

8 Local Secular Activism 107

How my modest fame turned me into an activist for atheism

9 National Secular Activism 118

How some local successes took me to the national scene

10 Discussions on Religion 130

From Billy Graham to Bible school

11 Debates on Religion 142

From formal debates in the Carolinas to Oxford University

12 Essays on Religion 166

Freethought writings

*14 Blogging for the Washington Post 183

Excerpts from my "On Faith" column

15 Mathematics and Teaching 187

You don't have to know math to appreciate what mathematicians do

16 Mathematics and God 198

Yes, there is a connection

17 Religious Travels 204

From India to Mount Sinai

18 Jewish Studies Atheist Brunch Talk 215

Jewish atheist is not an oxymoron

19 Family Revisited 221

Still dysfunctional, but I handle it better and begin to understand my childhood

20 Can This Marriage Be Saved? 235

Marital advice from an expert like me

21 Last Words 240

Ending a cliché

Index 241

About the Author 255

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 31, 2012

    In this funny, moving, and inspiring book Herb takes us on a won

    In this funny, moving, and inspiring book Herb takes us on a wonderful ride from his adventures raised as an Orthodox Jew in Philadelphia to his atheist activism living in the buckle of the Bible Belt in South Carolina. In situations that would anger most people, Herb not only sees the funny side of things but also manages to act in ways that even his opponents find reasonable. This highly readable and entertaining book contains gems on every page. I recommend this book without reservations, especially for people who have negative stereotypes about atheists.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 31, 2012

    by Donald B. Ardell I expected to enjoy this book, given that t

    by Donald B. Ardell

    I expected to enjoy this book, 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. The best is a five-page Foreword by the secular authority on god delusions, Professor Richard Dawkins. His first sentence is 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."

    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.

    It's quite a tour de force.

    Specific Takeaway Features

    The book is fun to read. 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.

    This book is enriched by charm and many 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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 30, 2012

    One Man's Battle for Secular Civil Rights, In many parts of the

    One Man's Battle for Secular Civil Rights,

    In many parts of the United States there are laws that you need to believe in God to hold office. Herb Silverman found that out when he moved to teach in South Carolina. In this entertaining book he tells of his election campaign to be Governor of South Carolina as the first step in what has become an ongoing campaign for Secular Rights.
    This is a book that I think Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Steve Colber, and other Reason Movement people would enjoy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 29, 2012

    In "Candidate", Herb Silverman matures from being a

    In "Candidate", Herb Silverman matures from being a young-but-scholarly geek to a mature math professor who sought equality for women and equal rights for atheists by running for governor in a state that required that candidates must believe in God. Silverman lost, BUT HIS BOOK - LIKE HIS LIFE - IS A WINNER!

    "Candidate", besides being a well written, fun read, also provides a bonus for many readers, that being an intinate look at a Jewish culture that too few know.

    George Erickson

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2012

    Can a book be both prophetic and prescriptive? On the first coun

    Can a book be both prophetic and prescriptive? On the first count, let's hope so. On the second, I'll say absolutely yes. Any reasonable person in the twenty-first century hopes for the best education for all, for evidence and reason in public policy, for true separation of church and state, and for the further erosion of the isms that plague humanity: racism, sexism, homophobia, ethnocentrism, theism, antisemitism, anti-intellectualism, and totalitarianism, just to name some of the worst offenders. And, above all, we hope our children and grandchildren will find enduring love. We all yearn that such progress can be accomplished with civility, humility, and humor. The arch of Herb Silverman's life contains what we desire for the coming generations. From humble and insular beginnings in a Philadelphia Jewish ghetto, he became a mathematics professor and the best advertisement for atheism and secular values in this country. The South Carolina Constitution, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, prohibited atheists from becoming governor. To challenge that law, Herb Silverman, a once apathetic atheist, ran for governor. Herb tells his story with characteristic modesty and wit. If our country and its politics move through a similar developmental trajectory this century as Herb's life has, all will be well with the world. If you fail to thoroughly enjoy this autobiography and see its relevance for your and our futures, it just might be diagnostic. So feel free to make an appointment with me. J A Thomson, MD, psychiatrist, Charlottesville, VA.

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  • Posted June 1, 2012

    Silverman's personal story is interesting in itself, but what ma

    Silverman's personal story is interesting in itself, but what makes this book even more compelling is its insight into the modern secular movement. Silverman has been central to that movement, which has emerged in recent years to stand as the key opposition to the Religious Right. Silverman is an excellent writer, and he tells the tale of his religious Jewish upbringing with a lighthearted tone and good humor, and he explains his drift toward religious skepticism in a way that many will relate to: He simply stopped believing and grew to see traditional religion as outdated. Of course, many Americans stop believing, but few launch themselves into secular activism as Silverman did - eventually running for governor of South Carolina mainly to prove an important constitutional point (that discrimination against nonbelievers is wrong). That political candidacy had no chance of success, of course, but Silverman did eventually succeed in challenging South Carolina's law against atheists holding public office, and from there he continued in his secular activism, becoming involved in most national secular groups. He eventually co-founded the Secular Coalition for America, and helped unify a secular movement that had previously been scattered and ineffective.

    Silverman's story is gripping, and the movement that he helped launch has become one of the most exciting areas of social activism in America. Anyone interested in the culture wars will want to read this autobiography.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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