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Ask Jon 30: Secular Humanism, Accountability, and the Scientific Method


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/07/07

Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New YorkHere we talk about the cusp between administrations.

*Interview conducted January 18, 2021.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Ok. Let’s consider this a cusp interview between one administration and another. What would you have to say about the country coming together in the midst of its massive levels of separation on pretty much every metric?

Jonathan Engel: Well, it’s interesting. There are a number of people who are pointing out that you can’t have unity without, first, accountability, and that’s important. But I also think as a humanist, and this is something that’s important to me. I also think that there has to be some concept of the common good. One of the things that I have seen that has been most distressing, again, is this whole idea that we’re all in this for ourselves, every person for themselves. And I understand that there’s sort of a cultural history of that in this country, in the United States, with the ironic concepts of rugged individualism, etc. But there are certain things that just require community involvement and require looking at the good of everybody. I am sure that there are other countries where wearing a mask to prevent the spread of Covid has been at times contentious.

But this country has been saying it’s been really contentious, etc. And why would that be? And it’s one of the things as a humanist that’s frustrating to me, which is: Listen, if I knew you can do a blood test to tell me tomorrow that I knew that I was immune to Covid, but that I could still pass it. I would like to think that I would still wear a mask, even though I couldn’t get it. But I would, “But I’m going to wear a mask because I have to protect the people around me.” And just too many Americans don’t think this way. By the way, here in New York City, which has done better with the virus, probably than many other places in the United States. When I go outside, I wear a mask and pretty much everybody’s wearing a mask. But there are lots of parts of this country where that’s not the case, where people say, “I don’t want to,” and that’s it.

And for those people in that situation, one of the things as a humanist that distresses me the most is that lack of the feeling of the common good. Lack of saying, “Well, I don’t want to wear a mask. I don’t really think I need it, but I don’t want to potentially hurt somebody else. Because we’re all in this together. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just don’t want my actions to hurt anybody else,” as opposed to, “Well, I like my actions. I’m going to take them. And if they hurt you, too bad.” That is something I find very distressing. Again, as a humanist.

Jacobsen: What do you make of the amount of security, militarized security required for this upcoming inauguration? And what do you make of the effective seeing of this as a stolen election? Therefore, this inauguration is fundamentally ‘illegitimate.’ On the other hand, individuals who see this as a struggle since the November election coming to a head on January 20th with an inauguration that was punctuated on January 6th with what some have termed a “riot” or a “protest, while others have deemed it an attempted “insurrection”, which, I may add, came with open prayers right in the center of the Capitol building.

Engel: I want to address these things. Yes, that was what we saw there, which was white Christian nationalism. That’s what we saw. A belief that the United States is for white Christian straight men and white Christian straight women who are willing to be subservient to those men. And so, we’ve been seeing a lot more video coming out of them, “We do this in the name of Jesus Christ,” and things like that. So, I think that’s an important element of it. In terms of militarization, it is distressing. Yet I am in favour of it. For one thing, I think it’s critically important that we have an inauguration, as usual, that goes safely and proceeds the way it has always proceeded on January 20th. And if it takes this many troops to make sure that everything goes peacefully and smoothly, then I think that that’s what we need to do.

It’s very distressing. I mean this is not a country that’s used to do that kind of thing. We’ve seen it in other countries, of course. But we’re not used to it. But I would say if that’s what it’s going to take, then we should go ahead and do it. Just a touch, on one more thing we talk about, one of the things that I see as a long-term problem in this country is science denial. And I see that in a couple of different ways. But you look at one of the things about science denialism is a denial of the hard science like climate change. But another thing that I think is even more insidious in some ways is the denial of the scientific method, which is to say you have a hypothesis, you gather evidence to test the hypothesis. You try to see if it’s right or wrong.

And so, when you’re talking about the election and all those people in this country who are still saying the election is stolen, it in some ways as a humanist; I see that as a denial of the scientific method because of their beliefs and accusations are evidence-free. So, if you believe in science, when someone says this election was stolen, you’re going to say, “Well, what evidence do you have of that? What proof do you have of that? Why should I believe that? Have you really tested it?” And of course, the answers you get are, “Well, that’s where I think,” “That’s what I believe.” And to paraphrase the late great writer Isaac Asimov, ‘Democracy doesn’t mean that your ignorance is as good as my knowledge.’ If you want me to believe that, then you have to come forward with proof.

Trump wants all sorts of lawsuits. 60 lawsuits he filed to overturn this. And they were all thrown out of court. Why they were thrown out of court? Not on procedural matters. [Ed. Engel is a professionally trained lawyer.] They were thrown out of court because the court said, “Well, if you want me to entertain this, you have to give me some reason to think that this might be true.” And they didn’t give anything because they didn’t have anything. So, if there’s no evidence for it, a secular humanist will say, “Well, then I don’t believe it.” But there are so many people in this country who deny the scientific method for many of them, for religious reasons. Not all, but many of them for religious reasons. And for them, if whatever it is someone tells them or they hear or whatever, then it is ‘as good as my knowledge.’

And truth be told, it really isn’t that I see this as a great challenge for this country or society going forward. The two ideas are key, one that I mentioned before, the need for the common good; and the other, the need for the scientific method and not believing things, because they support your underlying beliefs or they support your dogma or whatever. But believe in things because there’s evidence for that. And that’s what I believe. And if there’s no evidence for it, then I’m not going to believe it.

Jacobsen: John, thank you very much for your time.

Engel: It’s always a pleasure, Scott. Listen, you take care now.


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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