Ask Jon 30: Secular Humanism, Accountability, and the Scientific Method

by | July 7, 2021

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New YorkHere we talk about the cusp between administrations.

*Interview conducted January 18, 2021.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Ok. Let’s consider this a cusp interview between one administration and another. What would you have to say about the country coming together in the midst of its massive levels of separation on pretty much every metric?

Jonathan Engel: Well, it’s interesting. There are a number of people who are pointing out that you can’t have unity without, first, accountability, and that’s important. But I also think as a humanist, and this is something that’s important to me. I also think that there has to be some concept of the common good. One of the things that I have seen that has been most distressing, again, is this whole idea that we’re all in this for ourselves, every person for themselves. And I understand that there’s sort of a cultural history of that in this country, in the United States, with the ironic concepts of rugged individualism, etc. But there are certain things that just require community involvement and require looking at the good of everybody. I am sure that there are other countries where wearing a mask to prevent the spread of Covid has been at times contentious.

But this country has been saying it’s been really contentious, etc. And why would that be? And it’s one of the things as a humanist that’s frustrating to me, which is: Listen, if I knew you can do a blood test to tell me tomorrow that I knew that I was immune to Covid, but that I could still pass it. I would like to think that I would still wear a mask, even though I couldn’t get it. But I would, “But I’m going to wear a mask because I have to protect the people around me.” And just too many Americans don’t think this way. By the way, here in New York City, which has done better with the virus, probably than many other places in the United States. When I go outside, I wear a mask and pretty much everybody’s wearing a mask. But there are lots of parts of this country where that’s not the case, where people say, “I don’t want to,” and that’s it.

And for those people in that situation, one of the things as a humanist that distresses me the most is that lack of the feeling of the common good. Lack of saying, “Well, I don’t want to wear a mask. I don’t really think I need it, but I don’t want to potentially hurt somebody else. Because we’re all in this together. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just don’t want my actions to hurt anybody else,” as opposed to, “Well, I like my actions. I’m going to take them. And if they hurt you, too bad.” That is something I find very distressing. Again, as a humanist.

Jacobsen: What do you make of the amount of security, militarized security required for this upcoming inauguration? And what do you make of the effective seeing of this as a stolen election? Therefore, this inauguration is fundamentally ‘illegitimate.’ On the other hand, individuals who see this as a struggle since the November election coming to a head on January 20th with an inauguration that was punctuated on January 6th with what some have termed a “riot” or a “protest, while others have deemed it an attempted “insurrection”, which, I may add, came with open prayers right in the center of the Capitol building.

Engel: I want to address these things. Yes, that was what we saw there, which was white Christian nationalism. That’s what we saw. A belief that the United States is for white Christian straight men and white Christian straight women who are willing to be subservient to those men. And so, we’ve been seeing a lot more video coming out of them, “We do this in the name of Jesus Christ,” and things like that. So, I think that’s an important element of it. In terms of militarization, it is distressing. Yet I am in favour of it. For one thing, I think it’s critically important that we have an inauguration, as usual, that goes safely and proceeds the way it has always proceeded on January 20th. And if it takes this many troops to make sure that everything goes peacefully and smoothly, then I think that that’s what we need to do.

It’s very distressing. I mean this is not a country that’s used to do that kind of thing. We’ve seen it in other countries, of course. But we’re not used to it. But I would say if that’s what it’s going to take, then we should go ahead and do it. Just a touch, on one more thing we talk about, one of the things that I see as a long-term problem in this country is science denial. And I see that in a couple of different ways. But you look at one of the things about science denialism is a denial of the hard science like climate change. But another thing that I think is even more insidious in some ways is the denial of the scientific method, which is to say you have a hypothesis, you gather evidence to test the hypothesis. You try to see if it’s right or wrong.

And so, when you’re talking about the election and all those people in this country who are still saying the election is stolen, it in some ways as a humanist; I see that as a denial of the scientific method because of their beliefs and accusations are evidence-free. So, if you believe in science, when someone says this election was stolen, you’re going to say, “Well, what evidence do you have of that? What proof do you have of that? Why should I believe that? Have you really tested it?” And of course, the answers you get are, “Well, that’s where I think,” “That’s what I believe.” And to paraphrase the late great writer Isaac Asimov, ‘Democracy doesn’t mean that your ignorance is as good as my knowledge.’ If you want me to believe that, then you have to come forward with proof.

Trump wants all sorts of lawsuits. 60 lawsuits he filed to overturn this. And they were all thrown out of court. Why they were thrown out of court? Not on procedural matters. [Ed. Engel is a professionally trained lawyer.] They were thrown out of court because the court said, “Well, if you want me to entertain this, you have to give me some reason to think that this might be true.” And they didn’t give anything because they didn’t have anything. So, if there’s no evidence for it, a secular humanist will say, “Well, then I don’t believe it.” But there are so many people in this country who deny the scientific method for many of them, for religious reasons. Not all, but many of them for religious reasons. And for them, if whatever it is someone tells them or they hear or whatever, then it is ‘as good as my knowledge.’

And truth be told, it really isn’t that I see this as a great challenge for this country or society going forward. The two ideas are key, one that I mentioned before, the need for the common good; and the other, the need for the scientific method and not believing things, because they support your underlying beliefs or they support your dogma or whatever. But believe in things because there’s evidence for that. And that’s what I believe. And if there’s no evidence for it, then I’m not going to believe it.

Jacobsen: John, thank you very much for your time.

Engel: It’s always a pleasure, Scott. Listen, you take care now.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

*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 AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican AtheistsAmerican Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

About Canadian Atheist

Canadian Atheist is an independent blog with multiple contributors providing articles of interest to Canadian atheists, secularists, humanists, and freethinkers.

Canadian Atheist is not an organization – there is no membership and nothing to join – and we offer no professional services or products. It is a privately-owned publishing platform shared with our contributors, with a focus on topics relevant to Canadian atheists.

Canadian Atheist is not affiliated with any other organization or group. While our contributors may be individually be members of other organizations or groups, and may even speak in an official capacity for them, CA itself is independent.

For more information about Canadian Atheist, or to contact us for any other reason, see our contact page.

About Canadian Atheist Contributors

Canadian Atheist contributors are volunteers who provide content for CA. They receive no payment for their contributions from CA, though they may be sponsored by other means.

Our contributors are people who have both a passion for issues of interest to Canadian atheists, secularists, humanists, and freethinkers, and a demonstrated ability to communicate content and ideas of interest on those topics to our readers. Some are members of Canadian secularist, humanist, atheist, or freethought organizations, either at the national, provincial, regional, or local level. They come from all walks of life, and offer a diversity of perspectives and presentation styles.

CA merely provides our contributors with a platform with almost complete editorial freedom. Their opinions are their own, expressed as they see fit; they do not speak for Canadian Atheist, and Canadian Atheist does not speak for them.

For more information about Canadian Atheist’s contributors, or to get in contact with any of them, or if you are interested in becoming a contributor, see our contact page.

Image Credit: Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Category: Education Tags: , ,

About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.