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Ask Dr. O 1 – Neither O Magazine Nor Oprah Television: A Humanist Goes to the United Nations


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/11/01

Dr. David L. Orenstein is a Full Professor of Anthropology at Medgar Evers College of the CUNY (City University of New York) who has authored two books: Godless Grace: How Non-Believers are Making the World Safer Richer and Kinder (2015) and Darwin’s Apostles (2019). In early professional training, Orenstein was a  primatologist, he grew into a prominent national (American) and international humanist and freethinker with a noteworthy civil rights and human rights activist history through the American Humanist Association (AHA). He represents the AHA at the United Nations through the NGO/DPI program. Also, Orenstein is an ordained humanist chaplain who serves on the board of several local and national groups including The Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Hall of Human Origins/Smithsonian Institution, and the Center for Freethought Equality, and The Secular Humanist Society of New York.

Here we talk about the relation of American humanism and the United Nations.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: This is going to be focusing on human rights. To begin, you have been a representative for the American Humanist Association, the national humanist association for America, and a representative for the DPI/NGO program for it. What were some tasks and responsibilities with the position?

Dr. David Orenstein: It is a great question, Scott. I was invited by the AHA Executive Director, Roy Speckhardt, to support the organization, which is nationally focused. But I live in New York City. I represented at the United Nations. They asked me to serve as their representative. My goal has always been to be a fair, honest voice on one of the major issues, which is freedom of religion and belief. But also to serve on several other committees including the rights of women and the rights of the child, the goal being to ensure the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it applies, not only to secular people but, to all people.

It holds up. People have the right to freedom to speak and believe who they wish to be regardless of their national boundary or personal sentiment.

Jacobsen: How is freethought and humanism seen at some of the largest international organizations like the United Nations, when you are representing national organizations?

Orenstein: I think the freethought community has been seen poorly in the past and has gotten better. I have been with the AHA role for 5 years. I have been involved with the communities and focusing on the rights violations of ethnoreligious communities by other ethnoreligious communities. I gave a short trip for humanists, atheist, and the violation of their human rights. In the last year, I have seen more of a recognition that it’s not just sectarian intra- and inter-religious violence.

There is also a recognition among the special rapporteurs that – yes – in the name of religion; some horrible things have been done to atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. That atheists, humanists, and nonbelievers in countries where they are the minority have suffered harassment, murder, and other forms of social and economic violence. There is a change for the better. At the UN, it is not everywhere. Of course, the challenge of the work is to set the rational goals and be the voice of people who cannot express their goals.

Jacobsen: For those who may not know or know a bit, but not in full, what is a “special rapporteur” within the context of the United Nations?

Orenstein: There are several. These are human rights workers who work within the construct of the UN and ensure, or work to ensure, groups that they are representing – could be women, civil and human rights, the rights of the child – through an office or agency. They are the diplomat and the manager who speaks on the behalf of the UN.

Jacobsen: What have been some effective and concrete examples benefitting the humanist community at the level of the United Nations? Other than representation.

Orenstein: About two years into my tenure at AHA, I wrote their policy regarding the murders of Bangladeshi bloggers who were nonbelievers. That was read to the officials in the UN in Geneva. That we are to represent all people based on their beliefs. That humanism – or non-belief – is equal to religious belief. That is one concrete thing done.

The other thing is that on the Committee for Freedom of Religion. There is the American Humanist Association. Now, there is Humanists International, formerly IHEU. There are several groups that have positions on this committee. There is work that I do to educate everyone on the committee. You have Scientologists. You have Mormons.  You have Christian denominations. You have Bahai. You have Muslims. Everyone on that committee is servicing or trying to make aware that whoever is in power.

Their group is probably in the minority. Their group has probably suffered some type of human rights violation. We work in concert and say, “We understand them. As atheists and nonbelievers, we believe you have the right to your belief. But we cannot discount or disassociate with people who do not have religious beliefs from those human rights that everybody else wants for themselves.” So, we are serving as that kind of reminder. It is this heavily structured religious organization to have them be forced to acknowledge that non-belief locally, in whatever community, nationally, and internationally must be served like any other belief system.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Orenstein.

Orenstein: Oh! My pleasure.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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