Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about religion as a political tool in the United States.
*Interview conducted March 8, 2021.*
Jacobsen: So, for New York State and some of its political contexts, insofar as religious pluralism and non-religion are concerned, how do individual people in politics, in the United States, in New York, try to violate that by calling for the “truth,” by quoting the Bible? Or how do they attempt to make a point using religious scripture where the context in a political situation should be a-religious – in that it’s politics, not religion?
Engel: Well, it’s used quite a bit. This is a very religious country. I wish it wasn’t the case, but that’s the way it is. So, frequently, we’re talking about elected representatives who will go onto the floor of whatever their legislature is, whether it’s the state legislature in Albany or the federal Congress and say, “This is the way this should be,” or, “We should vote against this bill,” or, “We should vote for this bill because…,” and then pull out some quote from a passage of the Christian Bible. Say, “Well, therefore… and therefore, since this is what God’s Word is,” which is just absolutely dumbfounding to me. But what happens is, you get a lot of quiet in response to that, where you frequently get counterarguments made biblically.
In other words, you are responding, “Well, wait a second, I know that that passage said that. But what about this passage from the Bible?” Of course, they’re always talking about the Christian Bible. This is still the United States; and then Muslims, we’re talking about what the Quran says, or didn’t say, or anything else like that. So, it’s about, “Look at this passage from the Bible that contradicts it.” They’re saying that they are having this theological argument, which is absolutely ridiculous and, more importantly, has no place in deliberations by a public body that represents all the people of all religions and no religion. So, what happened recently, there was a debate going on in the United States House of Representatives on the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
And the representative, Republican, from Florida, Steube, I don’t know how to pronounce the name. They got up and read a passage from the Bible saying, ‘A man must not wear women’s clothing. No man wears women’s clothing for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.’ Anyway, he went on to say, ‘Therefore, you’re not supposed to, if God assigned you. It is wisdom to be in particular sex or gender. That’s all you can ever be, because that’s what God intended.’ Again, there were reactions. Some people stood up and defended this as an assault on transgender people. ‘They have as much right as anybody to happiness.’
Absolutely, I agree with that. It’s nice someone said it. But somebody said something else, and that was Representative Jerry Nadler, who is a member of the United States House of Representatives from New York City. He’s chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. What he said was, ‘What any religious tradition describes as God’s will is no concern of this Congress.’ And, boy, I have to tell you, Scott; I’ve been waiting years to hear somebody respond to one of these so-called biblical arguments with something along those lines, ‘Hey, look, we’re not going to argue with you about what the Bible says and what the Bible means. And, of course, when you say the Bible, we’re only talking about your Bible, I understand, but I don’t care what it says. We’re not going to have that argument because what it says and what you think that dictates has no place in this Congress. It’s not a concern of this Congress. What you think your particular God’s will is?’ I thought that was fantastic and unusual, unfortunately, but I think it was just so great that he said it.
Jacobsen: How did the public react when this came out?
Engel: It was kind of buried a little bit. I found it online. I verified that’s what he said. But it really is in New York City where he’s from, especially on the west side, which is even thought to be more liberal than East sides. I live on the East side. But anyway, he’s not going to get blowback on that in New York City. People in New York City expect this to be the case. We’re not as religious as other places. There are plenty of religious people and small enclaves. There are enclaves of ultra-orthodox Jews in New York City. But for the most part, he’s not going to get any pushback here in the city for saying this. This is something that most people in New York City just accept as being a matter of course.
We have no choice in some ways, but to reflect on New York City. Because we’re the most diverse city in the world. We have lots of Protestants and Catholics and Jews and Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists and people of no religion at all – thank you very much, including me. So, in New York, you can’t really get away with it in New York City. I’m not talking about the rest of New York State. But New York City, you really can’t get away with that kind of thing very much. So, the only mention, I haven’t seen a lot of mentions of what Nadler said, but the only mentions I’ve seen of it were part of people being very appreciative of it, especially in the secular community.
But other people as well, being appreciative that he would say, “Listen, your Christian Bible has no place here.” Not that people can’t read it and follow it and do whatever they want with it in their private lives. But on the floor of the House of Representatives, “When we’re sitting here making law and making policy, what you think your God’s will is, is unimportant to what we’re doing. It is irrelevant to what we’re doing right now,” which was a fantastic thing.
Jacobsen: Jon, thank you so much for your time and we’ll talk to you next week.
Engel: Ok, Scott. Listen, take care of yourself.
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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