Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about conspiracy theories and the substantial denial of the scientific method in American society.
*Interview conducted February 22, 2021.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: This is ‘Ask John 726.’ So, when you’re getting invitations for interviews, as I sometimes do, how would you approach vetting those? In particular, how would you approach vetting invitations to various religious groups, conservative, liberal, moderates, etc., for your community that you’re a leader of – in New York for the secular humanists?
Jonathan Engel: Well, my default going in is that, generally speaking; I’m willing to talk to anybody. I like the idea of discussions. But I also get the sense – because I can hopefully, I think, have a certain amount of charm – that it’s good for people who are religious to talk to somebody like me. Because afterwards, maybe, they come away with saying, “Hey, I now know an atheist who is not a really bad guy. He seems like he’s OK.” So, generally speaking, that’s just general. Generally speaking, I am open to conversation. But, of course, I want to make sure that the people I’m talking to have some sort of positive agenda in mind. I mean in this day and age, I think and say these words, but in this day and age; you’ve got to worry about your own actual physical safety.
But barring that someone’s going to get so mad at me and now they know who I am and they’re going to come after me, which is a concern, I think the other point that you want to look at is: Are you really looking to have a conversation with me, or is this like I’m going to be the featured event in a stoning? If you want to talk to me, great. If you want to yell at me, well, I have a fairly large family. I don’t need to speak to you to get yelled at. My brothers and sisters do it all the time. So, that’s the way I approach it from a general viewpoint. Generally, I’m positive about such things. I welcome speaking to anybody. But yes, I do try to be a little bit wary, just to make sure of safety concerns.
And again, what are your intentions? Do you really want to just have a nice talk and dialogue, where we can discuss our differences and, maybe, even hopefully, some similarities? Or are you looking for a bogeyman so that your parishioners can play pop the bear or something? If that’s what you’re after, then I’m not interested. But I also reserve the rivals; sometimes, you go into it and you don’t know. So, I reserve the right, if I go into it, and if that’s what it seems like it’s turning into, then I can say, “You know what folks, I don’t think this is productive. Good night,” just turn them off.
Jacobsen: Where would you draw the line on having a conversation? What groups would you not have a conversation with?
Engel: Well, any group that is in any way involved in violence, promotes violence in any way, shape, or form. I can’t see where I could find common ground with a group like that. It’s hard to say. There was a group called the Westboro Baptist Church. These people were as wild as you can get. they would go to funerals during the AIDS crisis. They would go to funerals for people who are homosexual and with signs up that say, “God hates fags.” I can’t imagine having a conversation with anybody like that, even if they’re not directly violent; it’s just there’s just no way that we can even say two words to each other without it becoming a brawl.
So, I think there are some limits. However, I don’t necessarily know that those limits involve just how religious you are. I guess even if you were really fundamentalist religious; I think that we could still potentially have a conversation. So, I wouldn’t cut that off automatically, but I would be wary about it.
Jacobsen: Where have you been in a situation in which you have had to actually do that?
Engel: I do know that I have. I’ve been in some interesting situations. I was at a high school, a little over a year ago. I was invited to a high school where they had all sorts of people from different religions, and they wanted a secular person to engage with students and things like that. Everyone, my comfort level there was medium. But the kids were great. That was the best part of it. Some of the religious leaders looked at me slightly askance. But it didn’t really bother me. They were, again, basically polite. So, that was an interesting day. But I don’t think that I’ve ever been in one before where I had to say, “Okay, I’m cutting this off because it’s gotten so far out of hand.” I think if anybody has got questions; I think I can handle them/
As I have mentioned before, I’m a lawyer. I’ve gone into court and had judges asking me questions that were completely out of left field. That hadn’t been briefed and whatever. So, I can think pretty quickly on my feet. I believe what I believe. Part of it is the confidence that comes from that, too. My position, to be honest with you, I think it’s a correct one. So, I don’t think I’m likely to be too much thrown by questions. I’ve kind of heard them all by now. A lot of them come down to the “no atheists in foxholes” thing. “What are you going to do when you’re in the final hour of life?”, “What do you think when you’re just about to die, when you’re on the death bed?”, “What are you going to say? What are you going to do?” I think I’ve handled that kind of stuff enough to go into something like that and be reasonably confident that it’ll come out okay.
Jacobsen: Yes, I’ve gotten some interview requests. Ironically, the one that I permitted was when I was writing for some fashion organizations. This is true, Jon. I was writing for them. An Icelandic fashion designer who’s now got involved with fashion design with artificial intelligence – really fascinating stuff. They asked, “Can I interview you?” I said, “Sure.” So, somewhere in Iceland, this fashion company, there’s an interview with Scott Jacobsen for her publication there now. But it seems more appropriate to send a recommendation to someone else who’s appropriate. So, for instance, what I received recently was from New York, that’s another country and on the other side of the continent. So, for me, I figured I can email someone like yourself and say, “Here’s someone appropriate. Would you be interested?” I think, maybe, that might be a reasonable policy because someone who lives in that area in New York City, the greater New York area, New York State, they can speak to those cultural concerns within an American secular New York context better than a Canadian, in a small village, in British Columbia. It’s just different, but they’re similar.
Engel: I could definitely see that. I’ll tell you. I think I told you this story before about a couple of years ago at a small dinner party with my wife and invited by people who live in my building. A couple in my building and the other people, some of whom also live in my building, but nobody I really knew. When someone asked, “Well, I think these people all kind of knew each other. We were sort of the new people who had been invited.” Someone asked me what I do. And I throw out the usual. Then I said I’m also the president of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. A woman who was there said like sort of half out of her breath, but I certainly heard it.
“I hope you’re not one of those God-haters.”
I played it right.
I said, “Well, to be honest with you,” I said, “I don’t hate anybody.”
I certainly try not to hate anybody. I don’t think hates a good thing to carry around with you, for a person to have. The rest of that evening, the issues of secularism or religion did not come up. But I chatted with this woman. After that, every time she goes through the building, she’s like, “Oh, hi, how are you?” So, I hope that I accomplished with that. Something that I would want to accomplish with an upstate church or something, which is just show, “Here, you’ve just met an atheist. A nice guy, likable,” maybe you even like him. So, in a way that sort of normalizes our viewpoint, that’s just a different viewpoint. You have your people who believe in the Holy Trinity. You have your people who believe in Allah. You have people who believe in Buddha. You have your people who do not believe in any of those particular things.
And to be considered just another one of those groups, and that you don’t really know a person, I think any reasonable person would say, “This person may be a Buddhist. This person may be a Hindu, but I don’t know them until I get to know them. I can’t place a judgment on whether or not I like them and think they’re a good person.” It’s the same thing all along trying to get people to feel the same way about an atheist. That “he’s an atheist, but I don’t know him. Could it be that I would like him if he’s a good person?” If you can get just a few people to alter that way of thinking, I think that’s accomplishing something.
Jacobsen: John, thank you so much for your time.
Engel: It’s always my pleasure, Scott. you take care now.
Jacobsen: Take care.
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.
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.