Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about The New York Times and reportage on the secular and the religious.
*Interview conducted on August 10, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So periodically, as this comes out in several of these sessions with you, and other (informal) conversations with you, you’ve talked about writing letters to the editor or sending in submissions to your “hometown paper” or The New York Times, otherwise known as the most influential newspaper in the English speaking world.
So, what was your recent submission to them? And why this area of focus based around all the conversations that are just simply taken for granted and happen all the time, especially in the exclusion of, at least, one viewpoint in very popular, mainstream, robust news coverage in the United States?
Jonathan Engel: Well, yes, it’s interesting. I wrote a letter to The Times this weekend. I submitted a manuscript to them. I also sent a separate letter along with my manuscript. And what I was telling The Times was that I was disappointed by the fact that The New York Times – and we’ll get to this, also much of the mainstream media in the United States even what was considered the liberal mainstream media – fails to consider secular points of view.
Now, of course, most of the articles that are written in The New York Times are secular in the sense that they’re not about religion at all. But I’m talking about something different. Because some writings prompted me to send that letter to The Times editorial board.
I was leafing through the paper, both the main news section and the reviews from Sunday, which has the bad in it. And I saw all sorts of things about people of varying religions and their points of view on things. There was an article, for example. There was an op ed in the review section, a woman who was African American, Catholic, talking about the need for Catholicism to acknowledge, sometimes, racism in the United States, and the need to be more welcoming to African-Americans and how important it is as part of Catholic theology to not be biased.
There was also an article by a woman who is Hindu about arranged marriages in an Indian culture. And again, this touched on Hinduism and various aspects of Hinduism. And of course, there was an article about Evangelicals because they’re always talking about evangelicals in this country, Evangelical Christians.
But as I was looking through it, I’m saying to myself. The New York Times, which is considered, at least to some, a liberal media outlet, and the paper of record, as they like to call themselves; they very rarely print anything from a secular point of view. So, I sent them that letter to encourage them.
So one of the things I mentioned to them is that there is now a Freethought Caucus in the United States Congress. But I found that out online. I never saw that in The New York Times. Why aren’t they talking about that? Why aren’t they talking about secular people at least once in a while?
I’ve never seen an article in The New York Times that says something along the lines of “What are secularists thinking about this election? How do they view? How do they view things in any way differently than a religious person?” And then again, I almost never see an article in The Times or an op ed in The Times that’s directly from a secular point of view on these issues.
And I’ll give you an example of a recent issue that’s come up that involves religion and public life. That was Donald Trump, who at this point is president of the United States. It’s like a fever dream. But apparently, Trump is saying stuff, antireligious stuff, about Joe Biden.
That antireligious stuff would say, “Joe Biden if he’s elected, he will destroy the Bible, who will hurt God,” which is kind of a funny thing. I didn’t realize Biden had those kind of superpowers. But of course, Trump is just babbling. But what I’m interested so much in there is Trump, who just wants to scare Americans, that if Joe Biden is president things will be even worse than they are, which is hard to imagine.
But the response of the media, especially when I was considering the response of what’s considered the liberal mass media in this country, or at least the somewhat liberal like The New York Times, like MSNBC, like The Washington Post. By my way of thinking, they missed the point and missed the mark.
Because a lot of the response was, “Oh, that’s an outrage that Trump should say this, because Joe Biden is a devout Catholic.” You see pictures of Biden in church and Biden on his knees praying, and “how dare Trump say that about Biden where Biden is a devout Catholic.”
Now, okay, I get that. It’s a lie about who Biden is, and that’s wrong and should be pointed out for what it was. But nobody seemed to point out the fact that it doesn’t matter. There is a provision of the United States Constitution.
It’s Article Six, Paragraph Three. And what it says, there shall never be a religious test for public office or any public trust under the United States. So, the framers of the Constitution specifically said there can never be any religious test for public office.
You don’t to have evolve. But a local state or counsel, whatever, says a person must swear to God. In fact, that same provision of the Constitution says that when someone takes an oath of office that it doesn’t have to be enough. That it could be an affirmation. The courts of the oath end with “so help me God.”
But an affirmation is “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” And that’s it or you can add to it: ‘And I make this statement with full knowledge of the penalties of perjury.’ But you don’t have to mention God.
And I felt like this would have been a perfect time for the time sought for MSNBC. Somebody on MSNBC took that it was like a teachable moment for the country. Yes, it’s wrong for Trump to lie about Biden’s religion. But let’s also keep in mind that the Constitution says that there’s no religious test for public office.
That would have been a perfect time to do it. But if anybody did either directly holding the Constitution or just talking about the spirit of it, “oh, I didn’t see it.” And I read The New York Times pretty much every day. And I listen to MSNBC a lot. I go on all kinds of liberal websites like Raw Story.
And I didn’t see anybody make that point. “What did Trump say?” Of course, again, it was a lie about Biden. But also, let’s keep in mind, Biden’s religious beliefs, the framers of the Constitution specifically told us that what Biden or anybody else running for public office believes regarding religion are not relevant.
There’s no religious test for public office and nobody said that. And that bothered me. You wouldn’t expect this view on Fox News, but you would think on MSNBC or The New York Times. Somebody would mention, “Hey, but either way, this isn’t supposed to be relevant.”
When John Kennedy was running for president, all those many years ago. There were a lot of people who were against him for various reasons, including his being Catholic. “John takes his orders from the Pope.” And he gave a fairly well-known speech in which he talked about, ‘No, I am just running for president of the United States and my religion doesn’t enter into it.’
And he affirms the separation of church and state in that speech. And, boy, all these years later, and nobody seems to have learned anything from it. So get getting back to my local hometown newspaper, The New York Times, which is kind of a funny way to think of it, I do live in New York. The New York Times should be including the secular viewpoint and for the most part they’re not.
Jacobsen: When it comes to other papers in the United States of a similarly prominent view, few even come close to staking that claim. Is the conversation the same?
Engel: I think so. As far as I know, and I don’t want to speak out of turn because, obviously, it’s a big country, a lot of viewpoints, etc. But in media outlets that we consider pretty mainstream, I would say, “Yes.” If they’re not printing a specifically secular point of view in The New York Times or talking about it on MSNBC, then I can’t imagine that there are too many outlets that are doing that.
And again, the reaction from looking all over the place about the Biden incident with Trump and calling him anti-religion was, “No, no, that’s not true. That’s a lie. Biden is religious.” And as far as I know, if it’s out there, I haven’t seen it.
I am looking for somebody to show it to me. Maybe, some small local newspaper somewhere printed something about, “Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t supposed to matter. The framers of our Constitution state that it is not supposed to matter.” But if it’s out there, I haven’t seen it. And again, this is New York. As America goes, we’re a pretty secular place.
So, I didn’t see this in The New York Times. And I didn’t see it in the Daily News. And believe me, it wasn’t in the New York Post. I write something about it. That’s going into my newsletter for the Secular Humanist Society of New York. But that’s hardly a mainstream outlet, which is read by, maybe, two or three hundred people every week.
And that’s it. And so, I haven’t seen that about this issue in particular debates. But generally, The Times, I’ll give you an example. There’s a Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, who writes every once in a while. He does a column, which is basically an interview with a faith leader.
And he makes very sure that he puts Muslims and Hindus and Jews and Buddhists and Catholics and Protestants and Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals into the interviews. To the best of my knowledge, he’s never had an interview with a secular leader to talk to them about secularism. It’s not considered.
One of the things I said to The New York Times in my letter was that The Times should not participate in perpetuating this particular form of discrimination by treating atheists and other secularists as if we didn’t exist. And that’s kind of the way they treat us, the way we get treated. And we’re a lot of votes; we’re a lot of people.
And the basic way of treating that in the mainstream media, even in The New York Times, is to ignore us and pretend that we don’t exist. It’s like when people say something like, “We all worship the same God.” Many liberals will say this. Of course, we don’t, because some of us don’t worship any gods at all.
But they say it because they think that’s a liberal point of view. And it’s just ignoring millions of people of this country, people like me. And it’s about time, I think, that stopped.
Jacobsen: When there’s some of the language used on interbelief panels or discussions on some of these similar issues, it’s hidden in the language, too. One thing I’ve noticed for a long time is the use of the term “interfaith.” To make this truly equal, it would be an interbelief framework. Some beliefs have few premises.
But particular beliefs, or in general, we’ll have some kind of framework. Some of those will require faith. A small minority of them won’t. So when I look forward to the future of these discussions, I try to pitch, sometimes, very gently about “interbelief” panels, discussions, etc., rather than interfaith.
Because interfaith, especially in the post Bush Jr. Era with “Faith-Based Initiatives,” implies religion in theism or deism rather than agnosticism or atheism or otherwise. So, do you notice this as well? Some of these other small terminological issues that do kind of belie a certain hidden culture.
Engel: Yeah, I, definitely, see that all the time. You can see “interfaith.” The whole point is curious, because the whole point where people say, “We’re going to have it,” and say it. An interfaith meeting to discuss police brutality or an interfaith meeting to discuss racism or something like that, they are leaving out seculars.
I think their intent is to include everybody. But there’s just this blind assumption that interfaith includes everybody. And, boy, it sure as heck doesn’t. Because it doesn’t include me. And I think it doesn’t include you. But I want to tell you, something that gave me a little bit of hope.
In the beginning of this year, I participated in a panel in a high school, a public high school in New York City; they had a panel of religious people, religious points of view. And there was an imam and there was a rabbi and there was Catholic priests and there were several Protestant denominations and also like Universalist type things.
But they also included me. They had reached out to me. I guess they found the Secular Humanist Society, our website or something. And they reached out to me and I participated. And I was with the kids, high school kids. And I was able to express my points of view. And it was pretty cool, and it was very interesting.
But I thought that was a great step. It’s not the type of thing you see very much. But you got to hope for it, every once in a while. And that in that case, they didn’t just say, “OK, we have the Muslim, the Jew, the Catholic, the Protestant, the Hindu, the Buddhists, we’re covered.”
They also brought in an atheist speech and I thought that was a little bit of a ray of hope. But I do think you’re right. I think you see this idea of interfaith things all the time as being, “Oh, that’s such a good thing because it involves everybody. That’s the whole point. And the truth of the matter is, you and I know: if you’re doing an interfaith anything, it doesn’t involve us.
Jacobsen: And there’s always the critical question that comes to mind for me: “Why is faith a virtue?” By what you mean, why do most Americans consider faith a virtue? Or why are most Americans talked into the idea that faith is a virtue, belief without evidence is a virtue?
Engel: Boy, that is a great one. That’s one of the things that drives me a little crazy once in a while. The assumption that a person of faith and a religious person is what I would call that, because I have faith in something. And if I get into a cab, I have faith the guy knows how to drive.
If I go to the doctor, I have faith in the doctor that she’s a board certified physician and that if they’re looking at my eyes or they’re looking in my gut or whatever part of my body is looked at, I have faith that they know what they’re doing. So the word “faith” was turned into religion.
The word “religion” was turned into the word faith. I think it was in order to bamboozle open talk about the faith based initiatives. That if Bush wants to open up an office of religious based initiatives, somebody might have said, “Hey, you can’t do that.”
But faith based initiative, somehow, that’s okay. This is the idea that somehow because the person believes in something that isn’t there; they’re a better person than me. I’ll tell you. I always think about the movie Miracle on 34th Street. There’s a scene in the movie where the lawyer played by John Payne is talking to the little girl played by a very young Natalie Wood.
And she’s talking to him about common sense. And he said to her, ‘Don’t you see, faith is believing in something and common sense tells you not to.’ And whenever I see it on TV, I yell at the screen, “No, that’s delusion!”
One of the things that I talked about fairly recently, where did Americans learn not to believe in science? Because we’re having this terrible disaster with Covid, and a lot of it comes from people’s refusal to believe in science.
And I said, “Well, where did we learn? Where would Americans learn not to believe in science?” The answer to me is in church, in synagogue, in temple, in mosque. That’s where they learned that believing in something for which there is no evidence; it’s one of the best things a human being can aspire to.
Jacobsen: Yeah. I can echo that with the Canadian example. I wrote the most comprehensive article by a long shot. I’m examining pretty much every personality or organization or coverage of creationism in Canada. If you look at the “creation science” associations in Canada per province or otherwise, all of them or like 99% of the presentations that the individuals who are part of these organizations give, where do you think they have their all or 99%+ presentations? It’s in the churches.
So, this isn’t religious in general. This isn’t simply a religious framework of things, where people are generally believing with these faith-based belief systems. It happens in particular with one religion. It happens with the Christian religion. And I think that’s a pretty strong branch. It’s not all of it, but it’s a big branch of it.
But it’s not just the temples and the synagogues and the churches. Another branch, that is the New Age stuff, or “newage” as James Randi calls it to rhyme with “sewage.” And a lot of that stuff that just happens in general culture. In British Columbia, there’s the initialism about the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) people.
They are part of the formal academic repertoire now in terms of research. And they have a lot of the nonsense beliefs, but at the same time; they don’t have a formal religion.
Engel: I take this back to The New York Times. Many years ago, I suppose this is about 20, 25 years ago. A spy was caught. A guy name who is actually an American. This wasn’t a foreign spy; this was an American. His name was Aldrich Ames. And he was spying for Russia.
And if we catch the Russian spies spying, we usually exchange them for an American spy that we have over there. But you got an American spy for Russia and you’re going to prison for a long time. Everybody knows the guy’s still there. But the reason I bring him up is because after he had been caught, it was all over the newspapers.
There was an article, front page article in The New York Times that said “U.S. Charges Present a Paradox: the Pious Spy.” And they were saying, “Oh, he attended church every Sunday and he was a deacon in his church,” or something like that.
And they interviewed the church members and they say, “Oh, we can’t believe that our friend Aldrich Ames was spying for the Russians.” And the whole point that the article was how incredible it was that someone who could be so religious and still betray his country.
Why do you automatically think that a person who was religious wouldn’t do something that most of us consider really ethically wrong? Where is the connection between how pious a person is and how ethically and morally they act?
Because when you look at it and realize there is no connection between those things. And yet the article wasn’t even making the point that there is a connection. The article made the assumption that there is that connection, which is not only just factually wrong. But what’s going on is, you’re wrong in your own eyes.
But it also is denigrating to people like you and me, who I know – and I’m sure you know – like to consider ourselves as being good people and having morals and ethics. And yet the assumption is that somehow somebody who’s religious and has religious beliefs, that automatically they get the head start.
Or what we automatically assume there, they may find out that they’re not really ethical and moral. But we give them that head start that is not given to any secular person.
Jacobsen: I want to expand it a bit more to the idea of ethics as simply how one human being or operator interacts with another human being or operator. So, an ethic is by its nature social. Unless, one of the only creatures alive in the universe or the last person on Earth that one has to consider, then solipsism makes sense where only ego is ethical, so (Ethical) Egoism makes sense.
Outside of that, it’s a variety of other ethics being taken into account or it becomes pathological. So this is the old question about ethics as a larger framework on that idea, where it’s not about “if ethics…” It’s fundamentally a question of “What ethic?”
And so when it comes to even murderers or members of the KKK or members of the Nation of Islam, who will say or do egregious things in their own respective ways. They’re not going to define themselves as a bad person. They’re going to define themselves as, and the things they do generally as a, good. They won’t say, “I’m a murderer,” or, “I’m a white racist,” or, “I’m black supremacist.” These sorts of things.
They’ll put it in the best of terms in regards to how they see the world. So, they will see themselves as ethical people, as in good people. And I think that’s the generous view of looking at a religious person when they state, “I am a religious person.”
What they are trying to convey to people, who are not of their religion or who are non-religious, is, “I am a moral person. I am a good person.” So, I understand what they’re trying to say. I don’t think they understand how they are being heard and understood. That’s the big difference, I think.
But certainly I think you’re right on that other frame. It comes across as highly offensive to many people who define themselves as secular humanist or otherwise, when someone says, “I am a religious person,” as in “I am a good person.” Because the logical implication, non-religious people, secular people, etc., become non-moral, non-good, and that’s offensive.
Engel: Yes, absolutely. And there are also practical considerations for that. Someone who gets convicted of a crime. Maybe, we’ll have, at sentencing, someone speak for them. That now, “Yeah, he made a mistake. But we should be lenient because he or she really is a good person.”
The court generally will accept the kind of testimony that says they go to church every week. [Laughing] ‘they go to church.’
And we also know, and we’ve made a little progress in this area. But we also know that frequently when a crime is committed that involves drugs or alcohol. If you go to Alcoholics Anonymous, which is a religious organization, one of the steps is acknowledging a God, acknowledging a higher power.
They’ll say, “Okay, if you go to Alcoholics Anonymous, or if you go to Narcotics Anonymous, meetings, as long as you keep attending those meetings, I will meet you. So, that you keep your parole,” or something like that.
There are now some groups that have started around the country that are like, alcohol support groups or more narcotics support groups for people who are not religious. Now, I haven’t done the research, so I don’t know if courts will accept that.
But only as much as they would accept the traditional Alcoholics Anonymous. But again, you get that privilege. It is an area of privilege. It’s funny. We talk a lot about how it’s important to have the conversations that we’re having in the United States now about white privilege when it comes to race.
But there is a religious privilege to that, I think. And people think, “If, at least, some white people are looking at their privilege in the United States and saying, ‘Well, that really should be the case rather than this.’”
But it hasn’t shifted to religion, yet, where people who are religious are saying, “I have a privilege as a fact of being religious. Religion gives me a privilege in this country, which isn’t deserved.” And nobody’s talking about that, except, apparently, you and me.
Jacobsen: John, it’s been a longer session. And I have another session coming up.
Engel: It was a good one this week.
Jacobsen: Hey, thanks so much, sir. Appreciate it.
Engel: Take care now. Bye.
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.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
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.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
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.
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