Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about William Barr more, and gender equality.
*Interview conducted on March 2, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We are back with another session of Ask Jon without an “h.” Two prominent Johns I know from New York. One has an “h,” and one does not, in their name. So, you have some family background in some legal struggles. I think we kind of touched on some of those in some earlier interviews, but in this series, we are going to be going down that path. Before we do, you wanted to focus on some of the statements by a man named, William Barr. So, my first question is to kind of set a preference for that. Following as a primer from the last session, who is he?
Jonathan Engel: William Barr is the Attorney General of the United States. That makes him the chief legal officer in the United States, presiding over the United States’ Department of Justice. He was the Attorney General in the end of the George H. W. Bush administration. After Trump decided that Jeff Sessions was not enough of a part of a loyalist for him, he decided to bring in Will Barr as his attorney general (Jeff Sessions).
Now, a lot of people thought, Will Barr, he is a kind of what they call an institutionalist. So, he will defend the institution against Trump. He has not defended the institution’s Department of Justice against Trump, in fact. But one of the things that I can say this much; I followed Barr’s congressional hearing on his appointments, etc.
I never knew that he was a real religious fanatic, an extreme Catholic. It is said, I don’t know if it is true that he is a member of it. The reason that we don’t know if that’s true is that it’s a secret organization of right-wing institutionalist Catholics. People who want to turn back the Vatican to people who want to make sure that math is given only in Latin and not in English because having it in English; people might actually understand it.
Engel: He’s religiously oriented. Lately, he’s made several speeches, like the most well-known, was last year at Notre Dame University, in which he went after the idea of a secular person or a secular country, etc., of secularism, in general. It was the old, “We can’t have morality if we don’t have religion.” Talking about things like that, social dysfunction in this country.
Things like drug abuse, violence, and things like that, are a result of an increase in the secularism of the people and of the government. Arguing against it in any kind of way including looking at the constitution of the United States and founding fathers and what they thought of religion and government should be in this country, but also another thing, “Is he, right?”
I mean, he does not cite any research or any hard data on his views. So, the question is what there is, but there is research and some hard data out there. The question is, “Does it show he is right, or does it show that he is wrong?” I think, basically, that is wrong. I can go through a few things here.
First of all, it shows that in the United States, which is what he was basically talking about. The worst quality of life tends to be among the most God-fearing or God-loving, or the most religious, states like Mississippi and Alabama. While most states with the best quality of life tend to be among the least religious states like Vermont and New Hampshire, you can go to the Pew Forums of Religious Landscape Survey. They will show you that the correlation is clear.
The more secular tend to better than the more religious on a vast host of measures including homicide and violent crime rates, poverty rates, obesity and diabetes rates, child abuse rates, educational attainment levels, income levels, unemployment rates, rape and sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, etc.
On almost every sociological measure, you are most likely to find that the most secular states with the lowest levels of belief and the lowest rates of church attendance; they’re the best. The most religious states with the highest levels of belief and rates of church attendance; they’re the worst.
So, when we look at the actual statistics, when we look at the research, it shows that the states in the United States, regardless of what Attorney General Barr says, that have the lowest level of religion tend to be the states that have the highest level of social commitment and positive societal outreach.
Jacobsen: Do you think this matches international statistics as well when you go nation by nation and then you rank all of them among similar metrics of wellbeing?
Engel: Yes, I do. But not just because I am thinking, but also because, again, that is what the statistics show. If you look at the 10 countries with the highest percentage of religious people, which are countries like Columbia, Jamaica, El Salvador, Yemen, Pakistan, Philippines, you look at the 10 countries with the lowest with countries like Scandinavian countries, Japan, Australia, etc.
In the 10 countries with the lowest level of religious participation, the homicide rate is 5 times lower, life expectancy is 25% higher, infant mortality is a thousand percent lower. Not to mention the fact, that gender inequality is 400% lower, so you see that when we’re looking at these countries that are non-religious countries, they tend to have better social outcomes; now, they also tend to be richer.
So, that may be part of the reason why they have better social outcomes, but I do not know. Correlation and causation are not necessarily the same thing. I do not know if the countries that are poorer if religion is a factor in that. It may be; it may not be. I do not want to say if I do not know, but I do know that countries with the lowest levels of religious participation tend to have better social outcomes.
Jacobsen: What do you make of the one metric mentioned around gender equality? Places like Iceland are the most gender-equal in the world. They still have many individuals who self-identify as religious with the state religion; however, they have a lot of metrics around gender equality. They have Siðmennt (Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association), which is the ethical and humanist organization there – which is doing good work.
I met some of the lead executives of that organization in May, June of 2019. So, if we’re looking at the countries that are most gender-equal like Iceland and many Western-European countries, can this treatment of women as full participants in society and as full human beings help with equal rights to men? Can women’s equality be considered a core metric, probably the most important metric, when looking at the wellbeing and health of societies? Those societies where these rights are the strongest, then you have the most secular-leaning and the free thought values truly inculcated.
Engel: Absolutely. The treatment of women around the world is a key factor in social development. I mean, think about it, you have countries in the world, many of them religious, where girls do not go to school and they don’t get advanced degrees and they don’t participate in the work force, etc.
When you have that, you are taking 50% of your brainpower, 50% of your initiative and just throwing it away and saying, “We’ll just operate on 50% brain capacity because the brains of women are not gonna be used in order to benefit in society. Things like inventions by women, discoveries by women, women starting new businesses, and things like that. Well, that’s out.”
I think that makes sense that countries who do not treat their women with equality will have lower standards of living and generally speaking, be less wealthy and be less healthy, and less wise, if you want to look at it that way. But I think that’s definitely the case. I think that correlates a lot, again, to religion. There is a lot of religious tradition that says that women are not equal, right?
The Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man, one of his prayers of the day is like, “Thank God that you didn’t make me a woman.” In terms of Christians in the United States who are religious and adhere to the Bible and what it says, etc., there’s a lot of people in this country who still believe that a woman’s place is in the home, the man makes the supervision, the man takes care of the woman.
“So, I will take care of you and in exchange for that, you don’t say anything, you don’t have any opinions, you just let me do all the thinking and you can do all the work.” Again, when that happens, you are taking half of the ability, half of the brain power. What kind of a message does it send to young girls in school who want to grow up to be a doctor, or an engineer, or a scientist or a teacher?
What does it say to her when in her own household, her own mother has to be quiet and just obey whatever the man says? It says to her that your abilities are not valued. You will not be valued to your abilities or intelligence like a man would. If he has the same brain as you, you would be thinking, “Oh, maybe I’ll go to medical school someday.”
But with you, “Oh, she’ll get married, and have children and she’ll do with her husband the same thing that her mother did with her father which is to obey unquestionably.” That could certainly lead to lower social outcomes that we think are important. Again, it just takes out from society; people who can contribute but do not because they do not see the value in their contribution to society based on religious doctrine.
Again, it is not that it is not a contribution to society to have people who are home taking care of kids or whatever it is. Of course, they contribute to society, but you can contribute in many ways and many can contribute in that way too. I have myself. Although, I do some things for a living, etc., but I work from home.
My wife is out. She is a teacher every day. I’m contributing to our household. I am contributing to her; the kids she teaches are getting a great education. I’m contributing to that because I’m at home taking care of the shopping and the cooking and the laundry and other things as well, but in a traditional religious household. Oh my god, I could never be “I’m a man. I can’t be doing those things. It should be the other way around.” But that’s not what suits me and my wife and you have to do what suits you and what is best for the world.
Jacobsen: When we are looking back then, in the United States situation, how is America leaning away from what we would see as secular humanist values, or at least humanist values, and more towards sort of William Barr’s vision of the world?
Engel: I am not sure where we are. Research shows that the fastest-growing religious denomination in this country when people ask what your religion is “none of the above.” So, I am not sure. I think what is happening is that the deeply religious in this country are now seeing that happening and they are using their power within society to fight it in a louder way, etc.
I think that is what is going on, becoming more religious in terms of each individual person in the United States, but I think the people with the power are using religion like the Orange Menace in the White house using religion in order to further their grasp on power because religion can be a potent concept for a lot of people. “Oh, come with us and we’ll respect your religious traditions and you’ll vote for us.”
I think there’s been a lot of that and, again, I think the people are seeing the rise of secularism among average people. It scares them and angers them. So, they’re trying to push religion even harder. I think you are seeing a more religious aspect in this country from its leaders hopping on it more, etc. I hope I am right, but I do not think necessarily that it means that, in general, American individuals are becoming more religious.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jon.
Engel: Okay, I just want to add one quick thing here.
Jacobsen: Go ahead.
Engel: There was a picture that went around recently on the news, etc., of the coronavirus task force praying in the White House. Of course, that is a violation of the separation of church and state. I mean, how can you assume that every person wants to pray or wants to pray to the same God or whatever it is? But also, what a useless waste of time and energy. That is not going to do anything to help us to be prepared and to fight against this pandemic. But that is for another week and it has been, as usual, a pleasure, Scott. I will speak to you soon.
Jacobsen: Thank you so much, Jon.
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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