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A REVIEW OF HERB SILVERMAN'S BOOK,
This review is from: Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (Hardcover)
First things first: don't spoil your enjoyment of this book by starting with the Foreword, which gives away some of the author's best punch lines. This is a book which grew out of Herb Silverman's clear, rational and humorous perception of the human condition, so the bon mots (which are plentiful) are best enjoyed in the context of the author's journey. I will try to convey to you the joy of reading it without stealing his material in the process.
And another thing you need to know: full disclosure; I am a personal friend of Herb's and therefore am biased in his favor. But I'll try to be objective.
As depicted in this book, Herb's journey is divided into three distinct phases. Phase 1 is a boyhood trapped in an insular Jewish community in Philadelphia (and you know what W.C. Fields said about Philadelphia). His family was isolated from mainstream American life not so much by religiosity as by ethnic clanishness, a deep suspicion of "goyim" and a refusal to recognize our common humanity. Herb was a quiet kid, not one (yet) to stir any revolutions, lest he risk the ire of his dominant mother, who tolerated no dissent. So he kept his own counsel throughout phase 1.
As far as I can tell, the only significant initiative Herb displayed during the mother-dominated phase of his life was during his career as a teenage "hustler" selling refreshments to patrons at sporting events. There he fomented a minor labor rebellion, and also seized on an almost legal way to make extra money by upgrading spectators to better seats. No, I won't tell you how he did it; you'll have to read the book.
But despite his silence, in young Herb's breast beat the heart of a rebel (and still does). He was apparently born with a built-in B.S. detector. He knew when something did not make sense, and he refused to buy the conventional wisdom he saw around him when he was growing up. He developed an uncompromising ability to see things as they really are. Then at some point in his life, away from home ("Free at last, free at last") he released his powers of expression, and began to say exactly what he believed: that there is no god and that it's OK to say so.
The liberation from his nuclear family was the beginning of phase 2: college, graduate school, teaching, writing a couple of textbooks on mathematics (complex variables), and a professorship at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. That is where Herb had his rendezvous with the humanist hall of fame, challenging the state constitutional prohibition against office-holding by atheists. He famously ran for governor, then, thwarted by an uncooperative judge, for the exalted office of notary public, finally winning a legal decision that the state of South Carolina could not flout the U.S. Constitution by requiring a religious test for any office.
Herb tells the story of his Quixotic quest with his characteristic sense of humor. If a book can have a twinkle in its eye, this one does. Every punch line is unexpected, a little sly, and right on target as it punctures conventional wisdom with gentle humor, clarity and irrefutable logic. He has the gift of making every issue he tackles seem clear-cut and simple, without insulting anyone. I'd vote for him for governor of any state.
But something was missing from Herb's life during his college, graduate school and professor days (phase 2): love. He did some dating and even had some extended relationships, but experienced no emotional involvement until Sharon came along. She was Herb's reward for putting his Jewish Yankee atheist non-red-neck on the line politically in the Southern bible belt. They met when he was campaigning for governor, and she became a plaintiff in his lawsuit against the state of South Carolina. But their "relationship quickly grew beyond friendship" and the two of them "were beginning to think of staying together forever." Now you're talking my language, Herb. In the book he says: "I had never thought about anyone that way before."
Herb, there is life beyond complex variables. Of maybe love IS a complex variable, and it just took a while for the solution to appear.
See the wedding picture on p. 105, of Sharon, with Herb dressed in his formal T-shirt and shorts. This is his invariable attire even in the coldest weather. Herb does own a jacket, but the only time I ever saw him wear one was at the White House.
Sharon is not only charming, but she has more common sense than Herb does. On pp. 119-20 read about how Herb was tempted to become the candidate of the Natural Law Party whose platform purported to be science-based; but he was dissuaded when Sharon pointed out the party's decidedly unscientific roots in mysticism, and told him she "would not vote or campaign for any NLP candidate, including" him!
Phase 3, and the reason why Herb is now a public figure whose autobiography commands our attention, tells how his atheism and activism took on an organizational form. He helped form the Secular Humanists of the Low Country (the Low Country is the South Carolina seaboard). Imagine how important it is for the secular minority in that area to know that they are not alone, and to have a social group within which they can speak freely. Thank you, Herb. See Herb in his SHLC t-shirt on p. 112.
He became a director of the American Humanist Association. Then he joined with the leaders of that and several other humanist and atheist organizations to form the Coalition for the Community of Reason, which later evolved into the Secular Coalition for America. (Full disclosure: I am president of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, a member organization of the Secular Coalition, and a director of a couple of other member organizations.)
Herb became, and still is, the president of the Secular Coalition, which to my knowledge is the only lobbying organization for the atheist/humanist viewpoint on the national stage. But Herb's special brand of humor comes through even when he is running Secular Coalition meetings or writing about his role in the Secular Coalition in this book.
I liked this book a lot, but the next time I see Herb I am going to play a trick on him. I'm going to ask him if he will autograph his book for me, and when he says "yes" I will hand him a copy of his earlier book "Complex Variables."