Interview with John Rafferty – Former President, Secular Society of New York

by | July 4, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

John Rafferty is the Former President of the Secular Society of New York.

Here we talk about his life journey and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start from the beginning, with regards to family and personal background in brief, what is it? Maybe what are some pivotal moments in the development of personal worldview in those?

John Rafferty: To begin, I am 85 years old. So, I grew up in a Catholic Church of the 40s and early 50s, which was far more rigid, backward, and reactionary than it is today. Not that it is all that great today!

I was growing up as a nominal Catholic, not a strict one or in a strict family. I didn’t like it, but my parents sent me to the usual catholic religious instruction etcetera, and I was expected to go to mass. But they didn’t push it. I did not have a real problem with it all until I had, as did so many kids, a confrontation at one point where I realized that it was all crap.

I was accused of doing something I hadn’t done. Even though I protested my innocence, I was made to go back to confession and confess it. I thought, “Here, now, everything’s going to get straightened out, because nobody lies in confession.”

The priest shouted, almost screamed at me, “Say that you did it. Confess. Say your penance!” That’s when I realized that people could lie in confession, could lie to God, and that this guy is just not listening to me. Turned me right around at age 11.

Subsequently, through a pretty good education, I lost all interest in religion.

I just didn’t pay much attention to it, it wasn’t important to me.

I married a Jewish girl. We both agreed that the kids would be brought up with no religion, which we did. My four sons have no religion, and their children have no religion. I did not pay much attention to it,

Then came another turning point was in the early 1990’s. I had not been politically active. I voted, I was aware of what was going on, but I was not doing anything since the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. I had been very active when I was young. I had written soapbox speeches for speakers during Bobby’s senate race. Not for Bobby himself, but for local speakers. But after the trauma of the assassination, I had given up on politics.

Then, one day in the early 1990’s, I am scanning through the New York Times in the morning. I see a picture on an inside page of 40 or so congressmen and congresswomen, senators, standing on the steps of the Capitol in Washington to honor the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Who was a lunatic and a convicted felon. I thought, “What the hell is going on with my government? What the hell was going with my nation?”

So, I started picking up on politics again. At about the same time, 1992, 93, 94, the Republican right was ascendant, and Newt Gingrich was saying that Secular Humanism was the worst possible thing that could happen to America. In fact, he simplified his whole message later, when he said that Secular Humanism was a threat to America worse than Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia ever was. I thought, “If someone as rotten as Gingrich feels that way about secular humanism, maybe I should find out about it.” So I did. I became active. Soon I joined the Secular Humanist Society of New York and began writing for its newsletter, which I still do. And I became more active politically.

That brings me up to date.

Jacobsen: Who have been some prominent and important humanists?

Rafferty: It is not like we are in church. Some of the biggest names in atheist and freethought circles include Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. Somecall themselves secular humanists. Humanism is a broad term that encompasses people who look for human-based solutions to our problems, our desires, our dreams. Humanism in general incorporates also religious humanists. But secular humanists kick out the idea of a supernatural answer, anything of greater power, or “the force”, or whatever.

Religious humanism, or people who tolerate religion and humanism, include Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture, and others like that. But secular humanists put aside the religious, or the supernatural.

Jacobsen: If we are looking at Secular Humanism in NY, what are some things of the community?

Rafferty: The Secular Society of New York is more a social organization than a politically active one. You come in to a meeting of ours, you’ll see either grey hair or no hair. We are superannuated, which is a problem throughout the freethought community. I have had conversations about this and about developing membership, and developing younger membership, with people like Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, and Tom Flynn, who is the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

It is always the same general feeling. Our problem is the typicality of my own story: a young person who in high school, college, early twenties, is active, involved, doing things. I marched in Washington against Vietnam three times, and even caught tear gas.

Or take my number two son, Colin, who has been in more damn marches than anybody else I know, has been arrested and been knocked down by cops. But now he has children, is on the board of his co-op, runs a group of people at work. He’s busy with life.

Politics, religion, social problems and ideas are important, and young people have the time for them. Then comes marriage, family, career. They’ve got more complicated lives.

Then their kids grow up. They are living it. Career is solid. They’re starting to look forward to “How long until I retire?” And then they start waking up again, just as I did.

Something triggers you in middle age. After the marriage-and-career years of the late 20s, early 30s, into the 50s, people start waking up again.

Our humanist organizational problem is that we try different ways to do outreach, to get people involved, and to get them to us. You’ve got to talk to Jon Engel who has taken my place now as the president of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Jon will tell you: he goes out, he talks, he badgers faculty at the colleges all around New York to come to them and talk about secular humanism. If he got an acceptance from a college in Arkansas, I am sure that he’d be on the next plane.

He goes and talks about humanism, and secular humanism specifically, to students, to college-age people. He works at it. They are interested. They are excited. They march. They petition. They work at it and all. But they do not come to our meetings because they have their own, with their peers. In ten years, they’ll be on their career fast tracks and getting married for the first and second time [Laughing].

After having kids, they’ll be back. If we, the Secular Humanist Society of New York, are still around, and it’s a pretty good bet that we will be, then they will be with us. But we’ll be missing them for twenty to thirty years. That is the biggest problem, the biggest demographic problem that the movement faces — atheist, agnostics, humanists, secular humanists, skeptics, rationalists, naturalists, whatever the hell they call themselves.  

Jacobsen: What are the ways to deal with this demographic problem in the community around North America?

Rafferty: That is the 64,000-dollar question. I do not know. We reach out. We try. But the point is you can’t get people, when they are 20 years old or even 25 years old. There are lots of things that they can get involved in and get excited about. But when they are 35 and 45 years old, everything else comes after marriage/family and career/security. That is the natural order of things. We can’t do anything, really, about that. We can’t expect people, except for unusual people. We can’t expect 9 out of 10 people to say, “Yes, I’ll start devoting more of my time to the political or the social scene.”

All you have to do is to look at the pictures of any mass demonstration. Yes, there are middle-aged people in the crowd. But for the most part they are young.

[Pauses dramatically]

So, I do not have an answer for you. I do not know how to get around this problem.

Jacobsen: When it comes to individuals who devote their time to the social and political activities over and above family and career, how does the larger culture treat them?

Rafferty: We live within our little bubbles that are part of bigger bubbles, which are part of bigger bubbles. I live on the east side of Manhattan, in New York City. It does not get more liberal than that in America. So as far as the culture — immediate culture — that I live in, that the Secular Society of New York operates in and lives in, we do not have a problem. As a matter of fact, I have always said that one of the reasons why we do not get even bigger is that people in New York do not need us. If you are L-G-B-T-Q whatever, or politically extremely leftwing, or have some other thing that puts you aside from run-of-the-mill of humanity, you come to places like New York, or Chicago, or LA, because that is where you can live without pressure to conform.

New York is different from some small town where the main street, the two main streets in the town, have a cross and a church on each corner. You can live here.

When you go outside our little liberal bubble here in New York, into the larger bubble of mainstream America, you have to face the extreme right wing, who are a pain in the ass and who are a threat to our democracy … to our being and our life, for Christ sake.

But you have to keep it all in perspective. One of the first things I wrote for the Secular Humanist newsletter — I have been the editor of our newsletter since ’04, and I intend to continue until I die, frankly. But one of the first things I wrote. I wrote some woman who had been a member of the society far longer than me at that point. She wrote that ‘It’s hard to be a humanist, especially in America.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Rafferty: I wrote, “especially in America … it’s hard to be a humanist, huh?”  Especially harder than, let’s say Pakistan, or Uganda, Saudi Arabia, or anything like it. In spite of all our problems, America is still tolerant. Yes, we’ve got that one-third of our nation that is on Trump side. But even there, I do not think we have people who want to lock up humanists or atheists.

We can still write what we want to, say what we want and when we want. Assemble where we want to, for whatever we want to protest, or support, or whatever. Is there a threat from Donald Trump? You bet there is. There is a terrible threat from Donald Trump and the people who support him.


You got me talking.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Rafferty: I recommend highly, that you speak to Jon Engel. I served as the president of Secular Humanist Society from 2008 to just a few months ago. It was a great joy. Humanism is definitely the future of the country and of the world. That doesn’t mean it is immediately around the corner. Jon comes from a family that has been part of that. His father was the Engel of “Engel v. Vitale”, that ended school prayer. He is a dynamo. I am glad to be associated with him.

I was glad to be the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York, to be part of the humanist movement. And still now, part of the humanist movement in America. I stepped down from the leadership because it was time, I wanted other people to continue what I have done, which they are doing – which is great.

Consider that in the 1970s any poll of Americans would say that up to 80 percent or more of Americans identified themselves as Christians. And, of course, many of them lied that they were regular churchgoers.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Rafferty: Now we are seeing the rise of the “Nones”, N-O-N-E-S. We have seen a rise in the Nones from a few percent, now to over 20 percent of the general population, who, when asked what their religious affiliation is, say “None.”

Over 20 percent, in several polls, and when you’re talking about the younger generation, the 18 to 35s, you’re talking over 30 percent!

That isn’t going to change. Those young people are not going to send their children to religious schools. They are not going to bring their children up to believe that there is pie in the sky when you die. No, it isn’t going to happen. Their children are going to live secular lives, as I do.

Is that a yellow brick road to some secular utopia? Absolutely not!

We will have religious revivals again. Probably for as long as there are people. But generally speaking we will have a humanist and a secular society, and politically that is what the founders of this nation wanted. They specifically made it a secular society, and we are going to continue that way.

Ups and downs, ins and outs, back one step and two steps forward, and one step back. We are moving in the right direction. I am pleased, essentially, as well as disheartened and unhappy as I am about the current political scene in America.

I grew up in the far, far distant past of the 1940’s. Believe me, it’s getting better.

Jacobsen: Thank you much, sir, take care.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

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