Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Engel took the reins from John Rafferty who I have interviewed before, as we will see in this particular interview. This was an enjoyable interview with a funny, gregarious, and generous man, Engel. This, I hope, will give some insight into some aspects of New York secular humanism in the midst of an entertaining conversation.
Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Superhero stories are popular now with Thanos and the like. So, origin story, what is it?
Jonathan Engel: I was born in 1958 on Long Island. I was raised in a Reform Jewish household. But we had an interesting, more than interesting [Laughing], event. In 1962, I have an older brother who is 7 years older. In 1958, I was born. My father with some neighbour started a lawsuit against the local school district because the local school district has adopted a prayer in the morning in the school.
My father and 4 other neighbours started a lawsuit that was Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421. It went to the Supreme Court. It was the suit where the court decided that organized school prayer in public school was a violation of the Constitution. It was a pretty big case. I remember our next-door neighbour, the Roth family.
They were part of the suit too. When I was about 5-years-old when the suit was decided, there was hate mail, threatening phone calls. My father got a phone call in his office saying, ‘We have your kids,” to him. It was bad.
One of my earliest memories of my life, when I was 5-years-old, was hearing sirens in the middle of the night, and waking up and seeing flashing lights, and finding out someone burned a cross on or neighbour’s driveway, that was one of the earliest memories [Laughing] of my life.
Like I said, I was Bar Mitzvah’d. We started off pretty skeptical. I am not sure if my father really believed. There was once a quote from Golda Meir. The former Israeli prime minister, she was asked if she believed in God. [Laughing] she tip-toed around it. She said, “I believe in the Jewish people. And I believe the Jewish people believe in God.”
Engel: My father kind of liked that. It was a cultural thing. How much he really believed? I don’t know. This was more to the point; my parents are very committed to civil liberties. They were founding members of the Nassau County Civil Liberties Union. They thought “This is wrong.”
Larry Roth, our next-door neighbour, was an atheist. My father didn’t want his kids praying in the way that they said that they should pray. My father didn’t want Larry Roth’s kids to have to pray if they didn’t want to do it.
That was sort of a big part of my youth and upbringing, etc. But I didn’t really pursue that. I went to law school. I am a lawyer. I have had a general civil practice for a lot of years. Basic stuff, real estate, trusts, estates, and stuff like that; I decided that I didn’t want to do that anymore.
My brother, one of my brothers, came to me after our father died – about 10 years ago – and said, “One of us should be talking about the Engel v. Vitale case,” [Laughing], “People don’t remember it enough. And I think it should be you” [Laughing].
Engel: I said, “Okay.” I put together a presentation about school prayer in general and the Engel v Vitale case in particular. I was searching around for groups to give my presentation to. I have given it to a number of groups. The last time that I gave it. There is a high school in New York City, Stuyvesant High School, which is one of the best high schools in New York City. I gave a lecture to the AP History class on the case.
One of the groups that I happened to contact. It was John Rafferty at the Secular Humanist Society. He said, “Do you want to give the presentation?” I said, ‘Yes, sure.” When I learned more about Secular Humanism, I thought, “That sounds like what I believe.” What really solidified that for me, I was a History major in college. I studied, primarily, 20th-century European History.
I took classes on the Holocaust. I was always skeptical. After that, I thought, “That’s ridiculous. The God that they tell me about. He could have stopped it.” It is like the Epicurus thing. If God isn’t all-powerful, who is he? If he is malevolent, etc., it didn’t make sense to me. I thought, “This is ridiculous.” The horrors of this were mindboggling.
But also, supposedly, we were his Chosen people. Chosen for what?! It never made sense. A lot of it never made any sense to me. In any event, when I went and gave the presentation, I gave their materials too. Eventually, I joined as a member of the Secular Humanist Society of New York.
Then they asked me to be on the Board. So, I said, “Okay.” I have been on the Board for a few years. Last year, John, who has been the man for a number of years, said, “I am over 80. It is time for me to step back a little bit.” To me, it seemed like the right place. Then the Board, all of them lined up.
John said, “Who ever wants to be President step forward?” Everyone stepped back. So, [Laughing]…
Engel: …I am the President. I am really getting my feel for it, my feet wet. We had our first Board meeting where I presided over a couple of weeks ago. It seems to be the way it’s happening. I am getting into it. I am getting into meeting people, meeting people from other organizations. Things like that. We will see how we go.
Jacobsen: You were mentioning the legal case. You were also mentioning some of the experiences of doublemindedness, the cognitive dissonance, in being raised in a culture with one idea and then being confronted with the facts of the world about other ideas.
Where, you have a supernatural world being proposed by wider culture and a naturalistic world, implied at least, by a more literate culture. How did you grapple in terms of interaction with others while having this cognitive dissonance? What was the reaction to you?
Engel: To be honest with you, I am not a really confrontational person, which is weird for a lawyer. It is one of the reasons that I didn’t like it. Mostly, I kept my head down. I wasn’t among people who were, actually, really believers. My parents, you go to Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. My mother likes music. That sort of thing of the Jewish ceremonies and services.
I didn’t come right out and say anything. It wasn’t in my face anywhere. None of my friends, growing up, were particularly religious. In college, a group of friends, I didn’t know anyone particularly religious or religious at all. I sort of stopped, too. One of the things, through high school, I would go with my father to services.
I didn’t really want to do it. It was mostly high holy days. If my father said to go with him, then I would go with him. When I was in college in Buffalo, in New York, when high holy days arrived, I wasn’t there. I was in school, not at home. That was the end of it. I just stopped going.
I got married. My wife and I, once we had kids, joined a local synagogue. Both kids were Bar Mitzvah’d. I had no problem with that. It is an interesting right of passage. To my way of thinking, it is tough to be 13-years-old and stand up there, and read the Torah to a bunch of people.
But in terms of actual belief in any of it, I didn’t have it. I’d go and listen to it. There are certain aspects of the service or the Bible stories, which really drove me out of my mind. I thought, “This is horrible. What in the world?” Yom Kippur [Laughing], one of my sons a few years ago.
He said he was going to fast on Yom Kippur. I said, “Why?” He said, “I want to test it.” That night, we went to breakfast. They had a bar. My son is of age. My son was drinking. My son didn’t realize that he was the only one fasting there. He drank and then got sick.
The next day, I said to him, “There are two things that I want you to learn here. One, never drink on an empty stomach. Two, fasting on Yom Kippur is for suckers.” Hopefully, he took that to heart. It is insane. If you want to make amends for things that you’ve done that are wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that. It is a good thing.
But do something! How is making yourself sick and depriving yourself of water going to do that?! If you feel like you need to take a day to do good deeds, how is not eating going to help anybody? It is not like the food that you’re not eating is going to go to anyone else. What is the purpose of this?
The more and more that I thought about it. I didn’t talk about it too much at home. It didn’t really matter. My parents weren’t that religious. We didn’t keep kosher. Basically, they belonged to a temple. On Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, they went to services. I think it was out of tradition more than anything.
I know mother never was. She is still around, 95, and is not a believer. It wasn’t that big of a deal. My older brother, my younger brother, my sister, none of them really are particularly religious. The weird part is that being Jewish is that the culture and the ethnicity intertwine with the religion.
It is like separating those things is an interesting thing to my way of thinking. I say, as an example, I have a friend who is of Irish descent, who was born in the United States with Irish ancestry and Catholic. If he decided that he didn’t want to be Catholic anymore, doesn’t want to go to church or believe in it, he would still be of Irish heritage.
You wouldn’t take that away. But with Jewish people, it is intertwined and intermixed a little bit. You are Jewish as indicating both culture and religion. It was an interesting journey for me to mix those things. I feel culturally and ethnically Jewish. But I cannot be considered religiously Jewish because I do not believe in God, the miracles, or the supernatural. Anything to do with that.
I think prayer is absolutely 100% useless. If something happens to me, come and rescue me, and if I am drowning, please don’t pray for me, come and rescue me, please! I do not believe in an afterlife or any of those things. But I am still culturally and ethnically Jewish.
When people come to dinner, I still serve too much food.
Engel: [Laughing] it is part of the culture. “You made all this!” What can I say? It is part of my culture. No one should go home hungry.
Jacobsen: Is there extra food on Yom Kippur [Laughing]?
Jacobsen: No one is fasting here. There should be extras.
Engel: For a while, I used to say, “I don’t fast, but I eat a little bit less. Because I figure my sins aren’t that bad. If a guy who was a murderer can be get rid of his sins by not eating at all, then, maybe, a guy who was a little grouchy every once in a while can get rid of his sins by just cutting down a little.” See, that’s logic.
But I do not think that goes with religion that well.
Jacobsen: Why did America in the 20th century harbour such strong religious commitments? We can watch the videos of Billy Graham and others.
Jacobsen: We can watch across the religious spectrum, particularly with the Christian denominations, in the United States. Why the high numbers of religious people? Also, why the high numbers of fervent belief, of the zeal?
Engel: That’s an interesting question. When you look at the dynamic opposed to countries with official religions. You look at Europe. The Church of England is the official church of England. Yet, people in England tend to be less religious than the United States. But people think that since we do not have an official religion, then religions are competing for adherents.
Since they’re competing for adherents, it becomes a contest. There is a lot of outreach. There is a lot of proselytizing. There is a lot of “come on, come on, come on over here!” In England, people think, “Good old Church of England, the country Vicar,” and so on. People don’t really go to church.
Over here, people see, “This guy, he will do good for you,” especially in the mid-20th century and a little later onwards. The start of the Prosperity Gospel, “You will make money. You will do this.” People have fallen for this left, right, and center. But there seems to be more of it here. I think that’s part of it.
Today, a lot of this is the reaction to the times, to the people, to the times changing. That good old time religion isn’t what is used to be. Gay people used to know to stay in closet. Now, they don’t stay in the closet anymore. People think, “It is a lack of religion.” People can blame all sorts of social ills on it.
“People are getting away from religion.” And people are getting away from religion! Some people are crazy enough to think, “If we aren’t religious enough, we will get more earthquakes and hurricanes!” But that’s how people remember it always was. People were more religious.
As science advances, it makes sense that people tend to become less religious. Let’s face it: the Bible makes certain scientific claims about the age of the Earth. It is absolutely wrong! People learn, “That’s not right. The Earth is not 10,000 years old.” They think, “What else did they teach in religion class that was wrong too?” They worry about people becoming more secular.
It is that people are afraid of the change. I think that’s what is a lot of what is going on in our country with Trump. People – a lot of people – feel the world is changing. To me, to my way of thinking, a society has to change or the society dies. If society is static, it gets caught in a rut and never goes anywhere.
You lose out on what you had. To me, societies need to change. But a lot of people are afraid of it, especially white people. They are afraid that they are losing their status in society. They think back to the days in the 1950s when black people were in the back of the bus; gays were in the closet; and women were in the home cooking. That was it.
“That has comfort, to me.” That change scares them. It becomes, “Let’s be more fervent. The preacher Falwell telling us to be submissive to their husbands. Homosexuality is an abomination from God.” So, the idea is to go back to that. But the genie will never go back into the bottle. It will never happen.
More and more people in this country are identifying as having no particular religion. I think it is easier for people to say, “I have no particular religion,” rather than, “I am an atheist.” It is hard because it has been demonized so much. With Engel v Vitale case, one of the things that I mention is that religion got entwined with anti-Communism.
Because Communists were considered atheists. The Soviet Union was an atheist country. People wanted to differentiate themselves. Americans and Soviets, the Capitalists and the Commies were different. One was, “We are a God-fearing people.” I think that’s why the school wanted to bring the prayer into the school in the first place.
It was a reaction to the Cold War and the fight against those God-less Communists. I think the religion became tied up with nationalism, with American Nationalism “If you are American, a Real American, you are a Christian.” One thing that drives me insane. The idea: if you are religious, then you are more moral.
You see it. It is receding; I hope. But you see this all the time, “So-and-so was such a good kid. He always went to church.” 20 years ago or so, there was a spy who was caught named Aldrich Ames. I think he is still in prison. He was spying for the Russians. The New York Times did a front-page article on him.
After he had been arrested, it was national news. It was a background article called “The Paradox of the Pious Spy.” They wrote, ‘He came to church. No one can believe it. He spied against his own country. He was a Deacon in his church.’ I said, “Wait a minute – what difference does that make?”
They think that because somebody is up there somehow who controls the world and started this 10,000 years ago – even though, the world is over 4 billion years old; somehow, that makes them a better person. “How does that make you a better person than me? Are you kind to people? Are you charitable to people? Are you decent to people?” These are the things that matter to a person’s character.
How that matters, I have no idea. Nobody ever explained this to me. But boy, you still see it. Last year, 2018, there was started in the United States something called The Freethought Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives by 4 people. Now, there’s 10.
There are caucuses. There is the Black and Hispanic Caucus. There is the Freedom Caucus; these are the right-wing assholes (not the Black and Hispanic Caucus or the Freethought Caucus). Patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel.
So, they started a Congressional Freethought Caucus. They are up to 10 members. It is showing people. Because there are good people doing good for their communities who are not believers. I think that’s one of the things that I think is really important.
It is one of the things going forward; that I would like to put out there more, etc. We have to be visible. People who are nonbelievers. We have to be visible. I equate this with the Gay Rights Movement. It becoming visible was such a big part of the Gay Rights Movement.
People say, “This guy up the hall. Bachelor, never married… oh! He’s gay.” People have to know each other. People have to know us. I do not look… I may look occasionally goofy and am prone to hats. But no one can look at us and know that we’re atheists. They may think things. Like the woman at the party, ‘I hope you’re not one of the God haters,” one time, she was nice. She even liked me, a little.
I was hopeful. Maybe, she realized, “That guy does not believe in God and is a nice guy.” If I can create the cognitive dissonance in people, then this can be a good thing. The idea of being a good human being and being religious is from whole cloth. It is from nothing. It has no meaning.
Jacobsen: What are some community activities done in New York for secular humanists?
Engel: We have a bunch of things. There a bunch of different groups. There are the New York Atheists, Gotham Atheists, New York City Brights. A number of groups, we all do different things. For us, we have a number of monthly activities, where we have a Brunch and Conversation where we meet in a restaurant and meet for brunch.
Someone brings up the topic. We discuss it from a secular viewpoint. Also, once a month, we do Great Lectures on DVD. We have DVDs and lectures about Humanism that people come and see. Once a year, we do our Day of Reason brunch with a speaker. People come and have brunch, and listen to the speaker.
This is in response to the Washington Day of Prayer. We have the Freethought Day brunch. We have our Darwin Day Dinner in February. Again, it is with a speaker. We have a fiction book club. We have a non-fiction book club. We are always looking for things. One of the things that I am working on is one of the new initiatives as outreach to college students and general outreach to the community.
So, that’s the bulk of it. That’s most of what we do. We are always looking to start something new. Also, we partner with other people. Reasonable New York is an umbrella group of secular organizations. With Reasonable New York, we have Drinking Reasonably once at a bar. Come to a bar, sit, have a drink, and with, hopefully, reasonable people.
As part of the Secular New York Coalition, we have events on our Summer Solstice celebration and our Winter Solstice celebration. So, that’s most of what we do.
Jacobsen: What did the passing of Paul Kurtz do to the secular New York community?
Engel: I didn’t know him personally. You always worry. I don’t want to call this a movement too much. There is a fear – as the movement gets associated with one person – that the passing of the person can affect the movement. It is already hard enough to organize atheists. As they say, “It is like herding cats.”
Like they say, someone will have to enter into the breach and take up the banner. Of course, I am not saying the death is good. It is bad. But things decentralized. With the media, they go to the central people. In some ways, it was like, “What happens now?” We have carried on, basically.
Jacobsen: Is it similar when people who are known for another profession, like writing but identify as a humanist or an atheist (either or both), e.g., an Isaac Asimov, dies?
Engel: Yes, you do not want things to die out with the one person. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book of essays called A Man Without a Country before he died. He noted Isaac Asimov became the honorary president of the American Humanist Association. When he died, Kurt Vonnegut became honorary president.
When they had a memorial for Isaac, the first speaker was Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut walks up tom the podium, looks around, and says, “Isaac’s in heaven now.” In the book, he said that it was the funniest joke he’d ever told. He had the humanists rolling on the floor.
Also, you have to understand. This is not the type of thing that should be top-down. Individual people have their own foibles. We do not want to make the same mistake that other people do when they put so much or invest so much in one person. It turns out the individual may have had faults, etc. It doesn’t diminish the beliefs and the movement. Because I have seen that.
I was at a meeting, recently, of secular groups representing the Secular Humanist Society. Someone brought up Richard Dawkins, “Did you hear about disparaging remarks about women?” It is not something that I had heard before. But listen, for humanists, you don’t want to make Richard Dawkins a god. He is not.
He is a human being. Everyone is a human being. I read The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth and several other of his books. I think he is very bright and very smart. But he is a human being like everyone else. Whether someone’s passing away or fall from grace, you don’t want to place too much of the movement’s emphasis on any individual people because people are fallible, change their minds, pass away, and the ideas are more important than individual people.
Although, to have people in the public eye who are open about being an atheist, it is a very positive thing. It brings that knowledge, “I know him. Ricky Gervais is from the English version of The Office. He is such a funny guy. Oh, he is an atheist.” I think that is a good thing.
But we don’t want to put too much of what we’re doing and what the overall purpose is on any individual. That’s just my opinion.
Jacobsen: What about groups or collectives? If we are looking at some of the counter hammer blows to the election of Donald Trump or the Trump Administration with President Trump or Vice-President Mike Pence, we see the counter hammer blow and activism of women, especially in response to those who will be opposed to attempts at restrictions to reproductive rights.
What is important, in the current moment, for voicing women’s human and reproductive rights?
Engel: Here, it is very important. Aa day after the inauguration, that first major march was for women. Men were involved. Especially on reproductive rights, women are most highly affected by it. But men are too! It is not something that they can just walk away from. But frequently, they try to.
I think it is important that that takes a leadership role. I am pro-choice. I believe in women’s reproductive health rights. It doesn’t quite have the same resonance when I speak on the topic as when a woman talks about it. It speaks to the importance of our organization or what we try to be. That women take leadership roles.
We have the Vice-President of the organization who is a woman, Claire Miller. John Rafferty’s wife passed away last year, Donna Marxer. But she was the Treasurer of the organization. It is important. When we have the Sunday brunch, the person who leads the conversation is a woman.
She says the subject matter and moderates the conversation. I think that it is important. It is hard to describe. Women atheists, somehow, seem less threatening to people. They shouldn’t [Laughing]. But somehow, people think they are. Somehow, you wouldn’t want to stop them from believing.
Do I want people to stop believing in God? Yes, I admit that. However, I am a strong believer in the Constitution. I do not think you can coerce people. You can persuade people. First, it is unethical to coerce people to give up religion. People get the idea. If a woman’s face is on it, then it is less threatening.
Maybe, it is a stereotype of mine. But I think it’s true, where it is less threatening with a woman’s face on it. We are in the 21st century. Whatever good is done by religion can be done without it, let’s put it that way, if you want to be a kind person and help people, and if you’re charitable, and if you want to be neighbourly, you may say, “My religion teaches me to do that.”
I feel that myself. Yet, it has nothing to do with religion. I believe in the First Amendment. I believe people have the right to practice their religion, but not to impose the religion on me.
Jacobsen: Any recommended books or speakers?
Engel: Ooh! Books, books… Susan Jacoby, do you know Susan Jacoby?
Engel: She spoke at one of our Darwin Dinners a few years ago. I was a history major in college. I still love reading history. Her books on the history of secularism. I find them really, really interesting. Let’s see, who else’s books do I find interesting? I mentioned Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion was very good.
We have the Vice President, David Orenstein, who is a professor at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn here. He gave the Darwin Day lecture on evolution. It was really interesting. Speakers, speakers, speakers, I am not sure. It is interesting. I have a brother who is a scientist.
I was never interested in science. Now, I am older. I have an interest in science. As long as it is written for a layman, I have an interest in it. So, I like Susan Jacoby’s and Richard Dawkins’s books. There is probably more flitting around the back of my head. Oh! Another name is Rob Boston.
He is the Director of Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I am a member. I have written a couple of essays for Church and State. I like the stuff that he has written on the separation of church and state, which is part of my heritage, “Dad, I am doing it.”
I don’t know why I am looking up because he’s not there.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Engel: I’ll tell you. I am glad to meet you. Sometimes, it is easy to feel alone, insulated, etc. It is good to know there are other people in other places. One of the things that we do at the Secular Humanist Society of New York, which I probably forgot to mention. We have people active at the United Nations in the Committee for Religious Freedom.
They want to go out there and remind people that the freedom to religion is also freedom from religion, e.g., to be an atheist and to not practice. We have some communications going on with people around the world. Our news magazine, Pique, is sent to people in Europe and various places around the world. I do not know if John informed you.
It is good to know others are around with similar beliefs. It is good to feel not alone in a particular belief. I am happy to have spoken with you.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for the opportunity and your time.
Engel: It’s my pleasure. Anytime, people who know me. They know that I can really yack. It is like, “How do you want it to be?” I say, “How long can I make it? Because I can stand up here forever.”
Jacobsen: It is almost like a stereotype.
Engel: You get paid by the word when you’re a lawyer [Laughing].
Engel: I do not practice too much. New Yorkers can talk. We talk like this. I know that I have a fairly thick New York City accent.
Jacobsen: I am told that I have an admixture of an American and a Canadian accent.
Engel: Although, I am so embarrassed by who is President of this country. I was in England not that long ago, even in Canada. People ask, “Are you American?” I say, “I do. I live on a small island off the mainland.”
And I do. It is called Manhattan. People who live here do not really consider ourselves American. People live on the mainland really do not consider us Americans. So, we have an interesting relationship with America.
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.
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