Ask Dr. O 3 – Concerns of the Human Order: Humanists and Non-Humanists at the United Nations

by | November 20, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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 definitions of cultures, human rights, the United Nations, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, when we’re dealing with descriptions of cultures as such, and then the human rights violations that may follow from particular cultures or aspects of cultures, when can we draw that line firmly? How does this play out in some of the conversations at the UN?

Dr. David Orenstein: Here’s the thing, most people at the UN are not anthropologists. Most people serve at the UN for diplomatic reasons. They may or may not be there because they want to be there. For some, it is just a job.

For some, it represents a place to represent their group or their nation. But there is a general consensus that politics – from my time there – will always play a role in the ultimate decisions that are made those in power in the United Nations regarding what is violence, what is culture, and who gets to be protected.

It doesn’t always work out fairly. I’ll certainly give you an example. About 4 years ago, when I just started serving. There was a discussion on the rights of non-believers in some Arab and Muslim countries. 

It was made very clear. That one very large Arab state would not sign onto anything that gave shade to humanists, or atheists. In fact, they threatened to withhold something else that was much more public if they felt that the humanist cause was being taken up more seriously by the United Nations in general.

That is, or at least was, a big problem. I wrote about this several years ago for the AHA when I found out about it. But we talked about culture. We know, as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People have a right to their culture.

They have a right to express that culture freely without any harm, whether religious or not. But where the rubber meets the road is what mechanisms does the UN use to enforce its dictates or its mandate regarding the human rights and cultural violations. 

The UN tries to be the best it can be for everyone and, in that, it sometimes will make enemies. I think from a culture point of view. There is very much statement and are statements about minority rights, about religious and non-religious rights within the context of minority rights.

People should be harmed or hurt. Things like that. They have this small group of statements. But then there is the reality; people are harmed for expressing their independent thought.

The UN doesn’t, really, have a mechanism because it is fighting against itself, in many ways. Not necessarily fighting against its own self-interest, but wanting to find its right to speak.

The UN, of course, does not believe anyone has the right to oppress another person. Member states have to sign onto this. But in practice, it is clear that under of the guise of “this is my culture” things do occur; that would seem, in the West, very, very dramatically different, whether about atheist rights or humanist rights, or LGBTQ rights, and so on and so forth. 

There is a lot of – not hypocrisy but – more evidence that we can’t, as a species, get our act together, which is a shame. But I am also very, very hopeful that one day, we will. I would not want to see a world without the United Nations because no terrible how things are.

A world without the United Nations would be a thousand times worse in my opinion.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, David.

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

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 AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: David L. Orenstein.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.