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 United Nations and humanism.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, there is an older and, I believe, deceased humanist of modest prominence named Corliss Lamont. He talked about the United Nations and humanists as a community, and Humanism as a life stance or a philosophical worldview. [Ed. Also, Lamont invented a wonderful neologism: “Omniabsent.”]
Dr. David Orenstein: I think there’s a lot of ways The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is very strongly related to positivity in humanism at its most grandiose view of the world. If you look at the Preamble of the UDHR, it mentions the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.
That, to me, is the start of the humanist manifestos. If you look at the Humanist Manifesto III, by the nature of being born, we have social, livable rights. That not only should exist but can be impinged upon by another group.
The UDHR defends and declares that people have the right to live where they wish, to receive an education if they wish, and to continue on to be able to speak out freely. The Humanist Manifesto III says the same thing with respect to education and the trust for science.
I think it is doubtful that if you have a respect for education that you would not have a respect for science. I think both of them are human pursuits in order to make the world more livable, the cosmos more understandable.
Jacobsen: What about ideas of freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, and freedom of religion, as a set?
Orenstein: It is the UDHR speaking to those things. They mention freedom of religion. I believe, now; it includes religion or belief. It is the main committee that I sit on. Meaning that, if you choose not to believe that you have an equal right to all those other things, including freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, and to live free from fear of being harmed or harassed by another group because of those things or those belief systems as well.
Jacobsen: What about the freedom of speech or, more generally, freedom of expression, and humanism?
Orenstein: I think you see that. Here’s the thing, the UDHR has been updated several times. The Humanist Manifesto III is on its third iteration. It means that, as time changes, the rules that are applied in the most liberal form have to be re-engineered as we learn more about human nature and as we learn more about protecting the rights of all peoples for all things.
In the United States, there’s the Constitution, which is also saying, “All people are created equal… life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” It was an incomplete document. That is why you have amendments to the Constitution.
That’s why you see a liberal secular democracy, like the United States, was looking to be going through these changes as time moves slower. We see this in the UDHR. You see this happening to the Humanist Manifesto III.
They have in common the trying to find the sweet spot at the same time as being the guidepost as secular humanists; people who believe in the rights of living freely, and so on. The Humanist Manifesto III doesn’t focus on freedom of speech outright.
This document is an aspirational document, certainly. It talks about human beings having ethical values derived from human experiences, to have a life fulfilled by participation in culture. So, while it might not specifically say, “We have a right to free speech,” just like it’s afforded in the Constitution, at least, in the U.S., it does say almost the same thing.
If I can interpret a little bit, it says that this is an add-on.
Jacobsen: Are the American Ethical Union and the Unitarian Universalists represented alongside the American Humanist Association in the DPI-NGO?
Orenstein: Yes, they are represented alongside minority groups. Their freedom to believe or not, or freedom to express or gather, has been, in some way, impinged by another culture or another government, or another group.
So, they, certainly, exist in the U.N. mandate of the UDHR. In many ways, we are just degrees apart when we talk about humanism and some of these ethical culture folks, and so on and so forth.
Jacobsen: What is the status of majority faith – much of the Muslim, Hindu, or Christian – communities around the world versus most of the minority religions or belief structures – as found in Humanism, Unitarian Universalism, or Ethical Culture – afforded their rights within the context of the DPI-BGO?
How does this play out in real terms? When, in real life, majority religions hold a lot of sway and minority religions hold little sway.
Orenstein: We know people, because of their faith, will see any other religion or personal philosophy as a threat to their views, and their way of life. If you just read the most recent Freedom of Thought Report published by Humanists International, you find – lo and behold – in the same places where religious intolerance is most active; those who have non-belief face the same threats.
That is a cause of concern because these nations that are frequently called out in the Freedom of Thought Report are the Member States to the United Nations and are supposed to support [Laughing] the UDHR.
That’s why I say, in many cases, that these are aspirational documents. We know that we want to live in a world where people are treated equally and can live and express themselves as openly and honestly as we wish.
But we find that we’re not there yet. We are a species; that, in some cases, remains very, very tribal. We are a species of human that can, in our worse case scenarios, be very brutal to each other.
We see this time after time after time. However, we’re living in a time, in the 21st century, where the rise of secularism, atheism, and humanism are making leaps and bounds to such as extent that it can no longer be ignored.
Therein lies the threat, but therein lies the possibility to be more inclusive, if we were to look at not just those countries that fear humanists or atheist, certainly, even if you look at the United States, we have our own set of craziness under Trump.
More and more young people are non-believers. Some insane number, like 70%, of Gen Z-ers – 18-to-24-year-olds – do not go to church. We know the trends are on our side. The problem is, is that power does not relinquish itself easily.
So, you have situations where in these nations, especially those that are openly hostile to nonbelievers and will harm them, a real culture war is ongoing now. It is going around globally.
Jacobsen: “Nonbelievers,” in a global sense and in a regional sense, simply means rejection of the dominant faiths for the most part and the denominations of them, sects of them.
For instance, young people may identify as “nonbelievers,” but they may hold fast to other forms of supernaturalism in a more disjunct form rather than as a coherent philosophy.
Although, I would argue on my own point of a “coherent philosophy” [Laughing].
Orenstein: Look, you’re absolutely right. We can’t think everyone who is a “non-churchgoer” is a nonbeliever. There are people who are religious who are deeply secular who want to keep their religion private, and do not want to see this in the political sense.
I know a lot of people who fight for secular freedom and who have the same understanding that secularism is good for everybody [Laughing] because it is so darn inclusive.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Orenstein.
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.
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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.