Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York.
Here we talk about Reasonable New York, the Freethought Caucus, and Darwin Day.
*Interview conducted on January 27, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is Reasonable New York? Why was it necessary to found another organization apart from some of the other secular humanist organizations in New York?
Jon Engel: Reasonable New York is a consortium of secular organizations in the city. The members include the Secular Humanist Society of New York (of which I am a member and the President), the Center for Inquiry-New York City, the Center for Inquiry-Long Island, Feminist Freethinkers of New York, New York City Brights, New York City Skeptics, New York Society for Ethical Culture, Secular Coalition of New York, and the Stoic School of Life. Sometimes, it is funny. It sounds like the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where they are all arguing for the Judean People’s Front or the People’s Front of Judea. Sometimes, it sounds that way. One of the reasons that we started this organization, Reasonable New York, is to stay out of each other’s way. We check each other’s calendars to make sure that nobody is doing an event on the same day as somebody else. But also to exchange, “Where is a good place to hold an event?” This is a large reason as to why we did it. We do some things together. Twice a year, we do an event, a Summer Solstice party and a Winter Solstice party. It is a big get together to invite people from all the groups to talk and then exchange information.
Jacobsen: How does this extend into the political arena through the Freethought Caucus?
Engel: Reasonable New York is interesting. Some of these groups are very much non-political, but not us. We have some members of the Secular Humanist Society who are part of a national group that has created a PAC, political action committee, to help fund candidates who are either in or willing to be in the Freethought Caucus. The Freethought Caucus has 12 members in Congress. I think this is a fantastic thing. Religious groups are so represented. In April, in Washington, there is something that they call the Day of Prayer, which, actually, my group decided to counter with our own Day of Reason. But seculars, secularists, are not really represented very much in Washington. It is still difficult o get people to accept a nonbeliever and an atheist can be a good citizen. Of course, I know it’s true [Laughing]; I think you know it’s true.
Engel: The Freethought Caucus does a couple of things. One, it lets people know that we’re out there. Some members of the National House of Representatives include Jared Huffman (D-CA), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Dan Kildee (D-MI), and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). These are fairly normal people in the states. These are the people who you see on the T.V. if you watch the news shows. It is wonderful to have them out there. But also, they, from an issue point of view, have a mission statement through the Congressional Freethought Caucus to advance the use of science in Washington, which we could use more in the decision-making process, etc., for the government. They also champion the rights of freethinkers and nonbelievers to say, “They shouldn’t be discriminated against.” We have some contact with them. I have written a letter. Even though, it has not worked so far [Laughing].
Engel: Suggesting that my own representative join. I am going to try to get a meeting with my representative Carolyn Maloney, simply to remind her, “You have constituents who are not religious.” You want our votes. Also, you want the loyalties of all your constituents, including us. That’s the thing that I like about the Freethought Caucus. We vote. We are citizens. When they pass laws and say things, it is good to think of us, and not just the more religious members of the community.
Jacobsen: What is Darwin Day, by the way? What is Darwin Day Dinner?
Engel: Darwin was born on February 12th. I don’t have it in my head. Although, he was, interestingly enough, born on the exact same day as Abraham Lincoln. We celebrate his birthday with a dinner and a lecture about something to do with Darwin’s work. This year we are very pleased to have Dr. Isabel Behncke who is a primatologist, ethologist, who studies animal behaviour. She is one of the few people in the world who has followed up close great apes in the wild. She will talk to us about primate journeys, our primate origins. It is important that we celebrate Darwin. One of the greatest scientists who ever lived, of course, but also a person who put in motion in a lot of ways into where we came from. The religious idea, especially the Christian religious idea in the West, of how human beings came into being; that a deity shot some lightning bolts down and then caused human beings to come into being. That was considered science because nobody knew any better. With Darwin, of course, things changed. A literal interpretation of the Bible was no longer believed with science. This was controversial, even for some of the great thinkers of the day. It was very difficult for them to grasp the thing. To say, “Wait a minute, am I going to have to give up my religious beliefs to still be a scientist?” Because this was to contrast with the Bible, certainly the literal reading of the Bible. We are still going through that today. People who actually believe that the Bible is literally true. We feel that it is very important to celebrate Darwin and to celebrate the idea of freethought. As a concept, freethought, Darwin was the man. He grew up in a religious household. He, at one time, was studying for the ministry. But what he was saying, he found things in his research and in his science that contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible. He was a freethinker. That’s the definition of it. He didn’t say, “I can’t believe this because this goes against my beliefs.” He said, “No, I have to believe this because this is what my research shows. This is what the science shows. There was, a few years ago, the T.V. presenter, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” had a ‘debate’ with Ken Ham who started the creationist museum. The most telling question at the debate: What would get you to change your mind? Ken Ham rambled on about being a Christian and this is what he believes. Bill Nye said evidence. If enough, and if good evidence, then that would be enough. That’s the difference between a freethinker and a non-freethinker. A non-freethinker will always look at the evidence. A person with dogma will not, “This is what I believe. Frequently, it is religion, but not always.” It still comes into play today. That is why we have for the large part celebrate Darwin. Someone who was willing to stick his neck out and say, “This is the evidence. It doesn’t matter that the dogma around religion. I have to go with the science.” We have this fight, this argument. It is far from over. We still have them today. Sometimes, it feels as if it waxes and wanes. Sometimes, science is more pre-eminent, but there are backlashes as we are seeing now with the denial of the science behind climate change. Really, there’s been a decimation of the scientific community in Washington since Trump came to power because he is backed by Evangelical fundamentalist Christians who do not want to see the science. We celebrate Darwin for what he did then; we celebrate Darwin for what he means for us now.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for the opportunity and your time again, Jon.
Engel: You’re very welcome, Scott.
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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