Dr. David L. Orenstein is a Full Professor of Anthropology at Medgar Evers College of the CUNY (City University of New York) who has authored two books: Godless Grace: How Non-Believers are Making the World Safer Richer and Kinder (2015) and Darwin’s Apostles (2019). In early professional training, Orenstein was a primatologist, he grew into a prominent national (American) and international humanist and freethinker with a noteworthy civil rights and human rights activist history through the American Humanist Association (AHA). He represents the AHA at the United Nations through the NGO/DPI program. Also, Orenstein is an ordained humanist chaplain who serves on the board of several local and national groups including The Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Hall of Human Origins/Smithsonian Institution, and the Center for Freethought Equality, and The Secular Humanist Society of New York.
Here we talk about the relation of the issues of humanism and the UN, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s begin a little more on some concrete stuff. Some specifics on an American Humanist Association representative on American and humanist issues at the UN. What are some of the issues that come up when you’ve been there?
Dr. David L. Orenstein: I think some of the real controversy is trying to make sure that humanism, but, more importantly, secularism, not be denied as a human right. That is to say, the cause of people to be free of a group, to perform their lives – however they define their lives – in as secular a way as possible.
It doesn’t have to be in a humanistic way. We have to ensure freedom of religion and freedom from religion. If people want to live their lives without religion or without formal spirituality, then people should be allowed to do it, let alone be harmed by it.
Let alone be able to speak out when religion does something horrible like take away a woman’s right to choose or when people are vandalized because they are perceived as taking the name of “God” and blaspheming it, and being attacked because they have an alternative point of view.
Jacobsen: How is this received when you state these things or attempt to fight for these forms of human rights in action at the UN?
Orenstein: For the most part, in the past, there is almost an exclusion of the role of secularism in the past. There is more attention to it. We are constantly reminded by those of the Committee for Religion and Belief, and to make sure one’s spiritual group is not attacked by another’s spiritual group.
It is to make an equality of understanding between someone who espouses no religious beliefs and religious beliefs. People get it, at least in the public forum. What happens when people go back to their own organization? I couldn’t tell you.
But for those people of goodwill, they get it. They understand it. They see it as an equal protection. But I could not tell you right now that everyone on that committee privately agrees with it, but they might publicly agree with it.
Jacobsen: Religions posit a supernatural moral order. Humanism affirms a naturalistic one.
Orenstein: Assuming a materialistic order.
Jacobsen: How does an orientation within a naturalistic human rights framework differ from a religious, transcendental, traditionalist moral law framework? I mean “differ” other than the obvious ways.
Orenstein: It varies on the consideration on actions by the divine or the divine’s representative on earth as being the moral center of how people live within, not only the UN framework but also, their own moral framework.
There is no such pretext within the humanistic worldview. That is, a conclusion that the world has a material focus. It is not the same as belief in a spiritual or metaphysical world purpose, which, essentially, assumes some magic must be real because that is the only way the supernatural must work. It is another reality.
When you are talking about morals and their politics and policies within the UN framework, they do so based on, ultimately, how that belief is enacted. If you talk about Israel or the Arab states, or the Vatican, they are, certainly, looking at the world through the eyes of metaphysics before dealing with the material world.
That is indirect. What we do within the AHA framework within the United Nations, our morality is derived, and our empathy is derived, from common respect without the need for any individual personal belief in the divine.
Our trust and hopes in each other as humans. There is no intermediary between goodness and our actions. That’s not to denigrate people who believe that they need God to bring peace. But we do not need to use that stepping-stone to improve human life.
Jacobsen: Why do humanists seem more oriented within a human rights framework than some sectors of religious communities? Those “some sectors” of religious communities who simply want a leg up among everyone else, whether another religion or no religion.
Orenstein: It is a good question. Because there is no necessary monolithic answer to say, “Those people over there feel this way.” I think most humanists tend to feel is based on the fact that there is no other time other than the time that we are granted through the natural world.
The urgency is to figure out problems when you can be here to relish, or your offspring can relish, in those immediate fixes. If you are coming from a religious perspective, you’re thinking – or might be thinking, “Yes, there are some things that we can fix. But suffering is something people must do,” or, “It is okay to suppress another one’s views because I have the dominant faith and am openly, because of my religious belief, going to go to a special place later in another realm. That you don’t get to. Therefore, I don’t have to treat them necessarily very well because it won’t matter once I jump this mortal coil.”
This is not to slander anyone’s faith practice. Because there are people who because of their faith want to see people live more harmoniously. The urgency to see this happening in your particular life-time is there, in the way it is for humanists.
That there is only one material lifetime each of us have. So, we better make the best of it while we’re here rather than hope for a metaphysical lifetime and not care about what happens to the planet. There are those who deny climate change because God will never cause another environmental disaster.
Because He promised, after the Great Flood, that there won’t be any more disasters. I think there is a moral and ethical lapse of judgment there based on the supposition or belief that your particular god, and your very specific theology, is going to be responsible for the 8 and a half other billion people on the planet. That’s a leap.
Humanists take the other 8 and a half billion people and want them to live a healthy life at this time. Boy that was longwinded.
Jacobsen: And I’m out of questions. So, it is a meeting of times.
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: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist 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, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
Image Credit: David L. Orenstein.