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Ask Dr. O 3 – Concerns of the Human Order: Humanists and Non-Humanists at the United Nations


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/11/20

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 definitions of cultures, human rights, the United Nations, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, when we’re dealing with descriptions of cultures as such, and then the human rights violations that may follow from particular cultures or aspects of cultures, when can we draw that line firmly? How does this play out in some of the conversations at the UN?

Dr. David Orenstein: Here’s the thing, most people at the UN are not anthropologists. Most people serve at the UN for diplomatic reasons. They may or may not be there because they want to be there. For some, it is just a job.

For some, it represents a place to represent their group or their nation. But there is a general consensus that politics – from my time there – will always play a role in the ultimate decisions that are made those in power in the United Nations regarding what is violence, what is culture, and who gets to be protected.

It doesn’t always work out fairly. I’ll certainly give you an example. About 4 years ago, when I just started serving. There was a discussion on the rights of non-believers in some Arab and Muslim countries. 

It was made very clear. That one very large Arab state would not sign onto anything that gave shade to humanists, or atheists. In fact, they threatened to withhold something else that was much more public if they felt that the humanist cause was being taken up more seriously by the United Nations in general.

That is, or at least was, a big problem. I wrote about this several years ago for the AHA when I found out about it. But we talked about culture. We know, as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People have a right to their culture.

They have a right to express that culture freely without any harm, whether religious or not. But where the rubber meets the road is what mechanisms does the UN use to enforce its dictates or its mandate regarding the human rights and cultural violations. 

The UN tries to be the best it can be for everyone and, in that, it sometimes will make enemies. I think from a culture point of view. There is very much statement and are statements about minority rights, about religious and non-religious rights within the context of minority rights.

People should be harmed or hurt. Things like that. They have this small group of statements. But then there is the reality; people are harmed for expressing their independent thought.

The UN doesn’t, really, have a mechanism because it is fighting against itself, in many ways. Not necessarily fighting against its own self-interest, but wanting to find its right to speak.

The UN, of course, does not believe anyone has the right to oppress another person. Member states have to sign onto this. But in practice, it is clear that under of the guise of “this is my culture” things do occur; that would seem, in the West, very, very dramatically different, whether about atheist rights or humanist rights, or LGBTQ rights, and so on and so forth. 

There is a lot of – not hypocrisy but – more evidence that we can’t, as a species, get our act together, which is a shame. But I am also very, very hopeful that one day, we will. I would not want to see a world without the United Nations because no terrible how things are.

A world without the United Nations would be a thousand times worse in my opinion.

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


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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