Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about a recent dialogue between Jon and a Christian pastor in New York.
*Interview conducted April 5, 2021.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, here’s the ‘Cliff’s Notes’ of the story before getting into it, I got an email from a pastor in New York State. They wanted to do an interview with me. They had seen; I had been doing interviews with pastors in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and elsewhere as an educational effort, as an interbelief and dialogue effort. They liked it. Presumably, they approved of the effort. They reached out to me to get an interview with me. However, they were from another country. They’re from another side of the continent. They were from New York State. So, with very different cultures, countries, and sides of a continent, it seemed more apt to reach out to someone I know in New York State. That happens to be the wonderful Jon. So, I offered to get you two in touch. You proved it. You actually got together. I was on the emails to make sure things were respectful, and so on. The interview went forward. So, what happened?
Jonathan Engel: Well, it was very interesting. He was a very nice man. Our conversation was very cordial, so that was good. He had said to me in the emails that we went back and forth. He wasn’t really interested in anything confrontational or debate, the formal debate. Although, he did mention when we talked; he might be interested in the future in a debate. I’m not sure if I would be or not, but we’ll see. But in any event, this was not that. This was just a conversation. Again, it was very cordial. He was true to his word. It was not in any way confrontational. We did disagree on a few things. At one point, he talked about the Constitution of the United States being based on Judeo-Christian values. I disagreed.
I said at the heart of the Constitution of the United States is democracy. Democracy is not a Judeo-Christian value. Democracy is an enlightened value. Again, I was, at the time, when I said that, I thought to myself, “I don’t remember anything in the Bible about Jesus saying to the apostles, ‘OK guys, now we’re going to take a vote on what we do next.’” So, we had a few things. Obviously, we don’t exactly agree on the nature of how human beings came to be on this planet. We also disagree on the age of the planet, which I pegged at about 4.6 billion years, give or take a year or two. He believed that it was significantly less old than that, which is not all that surprising.
But there was something I have to tell you, Scott. It was something I found very interesting and surprising about our conversation. Which afterwards, I talked about it with my wife. She said: Maybe, the reason that I counted this thing – I came to this in a second, surprisingly, which is that I’ve never really spent a lot of time around a true fundamentalist religious person, which is basically true. But here’s what surprised me, it seemed to me that my worldview was a secular humanist, was much more positive, optimistic, and life-affirming than was his. That surprised me. Maybe, it may have been because I was a little around a fundamentalist believer.
But I thought that they were more in terms of God’s Gospel and Jesus Christ superstar when I was a kid or something. Because I thought Jesus was peace and love and all the rest of that stuff. But there seemed to be a very underlying worldview with belief in things like punishment and obedience to authority. I said, “You’ve got to question authority.” I wouldn’t say, “If a cop says, ‘It’s dangerous to go this way,’ go that way.” I’m not going to stand there and argue with him. But when it comes to things that don’t involve the immediate need to make a decision or something, I was talking about questioning authority. He was talking, “Well, it depends on the authorities.”
So, he was very big on obedience. He talked about Adam and Eve. Adam could have been perfect. Adam could have had this great life forever and ever and ever. But he took that apple. He disobeyed. In a lot of ways, I was talking about how he was asking me about what I think and what I believe in my worldview, etc., and what’s my purpose in life. I said, “Well, essentially, my purpose in life is to make myself in whatever small ways I can a better person.” Again, in whatever small ways I can to make the world a better place, I said, “We can do so much better than we do now if we care about each other more, if we love each other more, if we value each person like a secular humanist and are committed to each person reaching their potential.”
I said, “These are the things that bring you joy in life. That brings you to make the world a little bit better to help another person. These are wonderful things that bring joy to life.” I talked about how sometimes people who think that someone who’s an atheist like me, “Well, how do you feel wonder around and awe?” And I said, “I feel wonder all the time. I feel wonder just that there are people who are different than me and they’re interesting. The fact that we’re all here. I find it to be an amazing thing.” I think it was Richard Feynman, the physicist, who said, ‘Just because you know what makes a rainbow doesn’t make it any less beautiful.’ But I think one of the biggest things to take away from this is that; from my world view, human beings have to make the world a better place.
We have the ability to do it. This is something that needs to be our goal going forward. Being secular humanists, every chance we get to make the world a little better; that’s what we have to do. His world view on that kind of issue was more like, “We, as human beings… I’m not God and, therefore, I don’t have the power to do that. Instead, I know that Jesus will come back and he will make the world perfect.” So, he seemed more okay with just letting things be as they are. I pointed out to him. Robert Kennedy once said, “Some people look at things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I look at things as they could be and say, ‘Why not?’” I think that’s more of a secular humanist point of view.
But his point of view was more like, “Jesus is going to come and then everything will be perfect. So, it’s foolish for human beings to try and make the world better because they’ll never succeed. That’s not the way it works. Human beings don’t have the power to do that. Only Jesus does. When He’s ready, He will come back and make the world perfect,” which to me was fatalism of the way the world is today. That, for me, as a secular humanist is absolutely unacceptable. I just find that completely unacceptable. I don’t mean that he’s not allowed to think what he thinks. Of course, people have to believe what he believes. But for me, I find that unacceptable. That we just sit around and wait for somebody. That, in my view, is never is going to come to make the world perfect.
Forget about “perfect,” there’s an old saying in politics, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of good.” We can do better. To me, I have an obligation to every other human being to try to make it better and they’re more like, “No, it’s just a matter of what we must believe. We must obey. We must be obedient to authorities and our religious authorities and to what they believe, which is being obedient to God. Then when we’re really good and obedient, God will make things perfect.” I’m like, “Man, you guys are sitting around waiting for something that ain’t going to happen.” I’m not willing to wait for that. I’m going to try to make the world better right now as it is; and that’s part, again, of the secular humanist viewpoint that we have to work. That we can’t wait for somebody else to make this world better and that burden is on us right here and right now and what you do each day to make the world a better place.
Jacobsen: What were the parts that you agreed on fundamentally?
Engel: There wasn’t a lot. I got the sense that I certainly believe that he has the right to his beliefs. He believes that I have the right to my beliefs. So, I think that was a good thing. I mentioned to him. It’s the case. I’m a big believer in the Constitution‘s First Amendment, which includes both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. Listen, for me, it would be: I would demonstrate. I might talk to somebody just like I asked him if he was an evangelical. But then he laughed and said, “But I don’t expect that you’re going to join my congregation.” I said, “Well, listen, I also would like to persuade people to give up religion. But I would never force and never expect him to join the secular humanist society when the call was over either.”
But I would like to persuade people to give up religion. I said, “I would never coerce somebody to do so for two reasons. Number one, it’s unethical and simply wrong. Number two, it doesn’t work anywhere. You try to tell people not to do something, then they’re going to do it. If you said, “You can’t do this anymore,” then that’s the first thing they want to do. So, it’s ineffective and it’s wrong. We both agreed on that that people should not be coerced in religious beliefs in any way. We really didn’t get into what he felt was the role of religion in public life in government or politics. But I didn’t get the sense that he thought that that was where he was in terms of what he sees as God.
I respect that he wasn’t thinking that he was going to convert me; any more that I was thinking that I was going to convert him. So, I think that was one of the things we agreed on in terms of the ground rules. That we both have the right to our own beliefs and neither one of us would try to coerce the other one into changing what their belief system is.
Jacobsen: Do you have any recommendations for individuals who are going to have a conversation themselves in the future?
Engel: For a part of me, the second humanists are going to speak to someone who is a fundamentalist religious person. Personally, I would say to them, “One of the things I tried to do in this call, and I think that it’s important for us to do, is that I establish a personal thing.” We talked for about 20 minutes about stuff. I asked him exactly, “Where is your place located? Where do you live, your town?” I know a little bit because I went to college in Buffalo. I used to drive up through upstate New York and western New York to get there. my son went to college in Binghamton, which is not too far from where he is. So, we talked about that. He said he was going to some homeschooling, I think, conference or something like that in Buffalo.
I told them where to get the best wings in Buffalo. I think that would be one thing I would tell people. Establish just a little humanity and human communication that you would talk to any person that you didn’t really know and then would talk with, “Well, what’s life like in your town? I’ll tell you what life is like where I live.” He mentioned how he’s been to the city. He said that one of the things that he really liked about the city was all the different kinds of food. He said, “Up here, it’s like basic American food or Italian pizza places are Italian. But anything else, it’s really not too much.” I said, “Yeah, well, one of my favourite restaurants, which was unfortunately closed by Covid down here, was a Tibetan restaurant that I really liked.”
So, we established that. The other thing I would say is a given; that you want to establish a personal relationship and you want to be polite, as much as possible. I would also say, “Don’t roll over, frankly.” when he said something about, “Well, of course, you understand that the Constitution was based on Judeo-Christian values. I said, “No.” I didn’t say it nastily or anything. Never call them names or something because of a disagreement. But I also didn’t just let it slide. I say, “It’s okay when someone says something that’s fundamentally at odds with what you believe, to point that out.” That’s what I would recommend to somebody to establish a personal connection, be unfailingly polite. But by the same token, if you hear something that you just think is wrong, it’s OK to say, “Hey, no, I don’t believe that. I believe something different.”
Jacobsen: Jon, thank you so much.
Engel: It’s my pleasure, Scott, as always. Thank you for setting me up with this guy. Actually, it was interesting and illuminating for me.
Jacobsen: Yes, I thought it more appropriate with two New Yorkers rather than a Vancouverite and a New Yorker.
Engel: Yes, so, I appreciate it. It was interesting. I think, I learned something from it.
Jacobsen: Excellent, to me, that’s the end goal, was the ultimate goal.
 See Jacobsen (2018a), Jacobsen (2018b), Jacobsen (2018c), Jacobsen (2018d), Jacobsen (2019a), Jacobsen (2019b), Jacobsen (2019c), and Jacobsen (2020a).
Jacobsen, S.D. (2019a, December 26). Canada: Interview with Pastor Josh Loeve – Lead Pastor, Centre Church. Retrieved from https://www.newsintervention.com/loeve-jacobsen/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2018a, October 9). Conversation with Pastor Brad Strelau – Pastor, CA Church: Town Center. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2018/10/strelau-jacobsen/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2018c, July 26). Interview with Andy Steiger – Pastor, Young Adult Ministries, Northview Community Church & Director, Apologetics Canada. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2018/07/steiger-jacobsen/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2019b, September 28). Interview with Pastor Clint Nelson – Lead Pastor, Parkside Church. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2019/09/nelson-jacobsen/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2018b, September 22). Interview with Pastor Dave Solmes – Lead Pastor, Living Waters Church. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2018/09/solmes-jacobsen/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2019c, June 26). Interview with Rev. Helen Tervo – Vicar, St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2019/06/tervo-jacobsen/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2020a, September 1). Pastor Bob Cottrill on Christianity, Faith, and Intuition. Retrieved from https://www.newsintervention.com/pastor-bob-cottrill-on-christian-faith-and-intuition/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2018d, May 2). Pastor Paul VanderKlay on the Christian Reformed Church. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2018/05/vanderklay/.
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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