Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about the need for the secular to stand up (and out).
*Interview conducted January 25, 2021.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, we had the inauguration with newly elected and appointed, or newly elected and put into a formal place, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Now, the language is different than the language of former President Trump. Yet the current language, especially the inauguration, has more reference still to a God in a proposed secular state or country, the United States. What are some of your concerns, even still with the inauguration of Joe Biden as a devout Catholic, making references to God in his speeches now?
Jonathan Engel: Well, it is concerning. First of all, let’s start with the fact, it’s a great sigh of relief when Joe Biden was inaugurated, he, I think, is a decent person. I think he’s reasonably smart. He’s surrounded himself with good people and considering where we were; I do think that if Donald Trump had somehow managed to stay president for another four years, then it could have been, seriously, the end of American democracy. So, I’m thrilled with Joe Biden like many Americans. But, yes, the references to God all over the place at the inauguration. It made me feel uncomfortable. I wish there would be some sort of reference, at least to the separation of church and state, and the right of secular people to be free from religious influence.
I know that he is a very religious person. But secular people in this country have rights, too. It’s not right that people like me should watch the inauguration with great pride in so many ways that we’ve overcome somehow, at least, for now, four years of horror. But I shouldn’t be meant to feel in any way unwelcome. Nobody should be meant to feel unwelcome at our country’s inauguration. This is an inauguration that’s supposed to be for everybody and the constant mentions of God. I don’t think from Biden’s part that he was intentionally trying to be exclusive or anything like that. I just think he probably didn’t think of it, which is an issue for secular people. There are a lot of secular people in this country.
There’s almost certainly more secular people in the United States than there are Jews, Muslims and Hindus put together. But I know that Biden would be careful to fight for the rights of Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists. Many members of the Democratic coalition are sure he would stand up for black people and Asian people and LGBTQ people and First Nations people. But what about us? And I think part of the answer to that is something I’ve been talking about with a lot of my secular friends, which is our need to be more open and forthright and to be more visible. I liken that in some ways to the gay rights movement where gay people, in council, they’d became visible. They were never going to get their rights without visibility.
In the Civil Rights era with black people advocating for rights and for the gay rights era, where gay people were advocating for rights, there were always others who probably meant well. But who said to them, “Go slowly, you don’t want to rock the boat too much. There are allies that we have in the white community or the straight community, depending on what we’re talking about, who are uncomfortable with militant agitation,” and stuff like that. The truth of the matter is until you stand up and come out, say who you are, and demand your rights; you’re just not going to get them. So, while many of us are very reluctant to press Biden at this point to make statements in favor of the rights of secular people, we should do it. Because he’s got so much stuff to do to try to save this country from ruin. On the other hand, I think that’s when we’re going to get that acknowledgement or our seat at the table – if we stand up for who we are and what we believe.
Jacobsen: Do you think that there’s a certain amplification effect based on the sounds of many secular people? So, maybe, one out of five secular people speak out and every one of three religious people speak out, as a hypothetical. Then, even though, there’s a growing number of secular people in the United States. The number of Christians who speak out and demand the rights more forcefully with more finances have much more of an amplification per capita because more people are active and more people are speaking for their particular religious freedoms than secular people in the United States.
Engel: Yes, absolutely, one of the things that I’ve been talking about, again, with my secular friends here in New York is that we’ve probably had a discussion with a bunch of people, recently, of Islam. We were talking about how someone brought up as anybody ever in a social situation felt uncomfortable, either because somebody said something about your secularism or somebody, or you were put into a position, “Okay, everybody, let’s pray.” Pretty much everybody in the group said, “Yes, that’s happened to me, at least once.” One guy that I know, a secular friend who has a hobby of cars, like vintage cars and stuff, he belongs to the Vintage Car Association and went to a meeting with like a national meeting of vintage car lovers.
When they started, the leader of the group said, “Okay, we’ll let start with a prayer.” He felt very uncomfortable about it. He said something to somebody. It was an uncomfortable situation. I understand that. I’ve had that happen to me, too, where I mentioned that I was a secular humanist.
“You’re an atheist…”
“…Oh my, you’re an atheist…”
This assumption that I’m a horrible person. So, it’s difficult to speak out. I don’t know why the word “atheism” or “atheist” is so frightening and negatively weighted for so many people. To many, it means “bad person.” Logically, why should that be a bad person? Well, Of course, it shouldn’t happen in mind, logically; it makes no sense. But yes, it does inhibit us. So, since we are inhibited from speaking out for our mates, I think that it does hurt us from achieving the things that we want to achieve from a secular standpoint.
There are a lot of things I would like to achieve in our society, which have nothing to do with secularism or religion. But other things, I’d like to be in a country in which they observe the separation of church and state, especially in the government, very strictly; in which there’s an understanding that not everybody is religious, therefore, when we have rituals like an inauguration, it should be inclusive of people like me. I got to tell you. As much as I felt a lot of good feelings about this inauguration, I also felt a little bit like the outsider looking in because of all the mentions of God. Which every day, anything we’re talking about, when anybody mentions God, they’re always talking about their own. But it’s not right. It shows that we’ve got work to do.
Jacobsen: John, thanks so much for your time, as always.
Engel: Ok, Scott, listen take care, make sure you keep getting some sleep. [Ed. This is a common comment from friends – ‘get some sleep and stop working so much.’ To all of them, I love you – much, and noted.]
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 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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