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Ask Jon 32: To be Witnessed to Witness Change


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/07/09

Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New YorkHere we talk about the need for the secular to stand up (and out).

*Interview conducted January 25, 2021.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, we had the inauguration with newly elected and appointed, or newly elected and put into a formal place, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Now, the language is different than the language of former President Trump. Yet the current language, especially the inauguration, has more reference still to a God in a proposed secular state or country, the United States. What are some of your concerns, even still with the inauguration of Joe Biden as a devout Catholic, making references to God in his speeches now?

Jonathan Engel: Well, it is concerning. First of all, let’s start with the fact, it’s a great sigh of relief when Joe Biden was inaugurated, he, I think, is a decent person. I think he’s reasonably smart. He’s surrounded himself with good people and considering where we were; I do think that if Donald Trump had somehow managed to stay president for another four years, then it could have been, seriously, the end of American democracy. So, I’m thrilled with Joe Biden like many Americans. But, yes, the references to God all over the place at the inauguration. It made me feel uncomfortable. I wish there would be some sort of reference, at least to the separation of church and state, and the right of secular people to be free from religious influence.

I know that he is a very religious person. But secular people in this country have rights, too. It’s not right that people like me should watch the inauguration with great pride in so many ways that we’ve overcome somehow, at least, for now, four years of horror. But I shouldn’t be meant to feel in any way unwelcome. Nobody should be meant to feel unwelcome at our country’s inauguration. This is an inauguration that’s supposed to be for everybody and the constant mentions of God. I don’t think from Biden’s part that he was intentionally trying to be exclusive or anything like that. I just think he probably didn’t think of it, which is an issue for secular people. There are a lot of secular people in this country.

There’s almost certainly more secular people in the United States than there are Jews, Muslims and Hindus put together. But I know that Biden would be careful to fight for the rights of Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists. Many members of the Democratic coalition are sure he would stand up for black people and Asian people and LGBTQ people and First Nations people. But what about us? And I think part of the answer to that is something I’ve been talking about with a lot of my secular friends, which is our need to be more open and forthright and to be more visible. I liken that in some ways to the gay rights movement where gay people, in council, they’d became visible. They were never going to get their rights without visibility.

In the Civil Rights era with black people advocating for rights and for the gay rights era, where gay people were advocating for rights, there were always others who probably meant well. But who said to them, “Go slowly, you don’t want to rock the boat too much. There are allies that we have in the white community or the straight community, depending on what we’re talking about, who are uncomfortable with militant agitation,” and stuff like that. The truth of the matter is until you stand up and come out, say who you are, and demand your rights; you’re just not going to get them. So, while many of us are very reluctant to press Biden at this point to make statements in favor of the rights of secular people, we should do it. Because he’s got so much stuff to do to try to save this country from ruin. On the other hand, I think that’s when we’re going to get that acknowledgement or our seat at the table – if we stand up for who we are and what we believe.

Jacobsen: Do you think that there’s a certain amplification effect based on the sounds of many secular people? So, maybe, one out of five secular people speak out and every one of three religious people speak out, as a hypothetical. Then, even though, there’s a growing number of secular people in the United States. The number of Christians who speak out and demand the rights more forcefully with more finances have much more of an amplification per capita because more people are active and more people are speaking for their particular religious freedoms than secular people in the United States.

Engel: Yes, absolutely, one of the things that I’ve been talking about, again, with my secular friends here in New York is that we’ve probably had a discussion with a bunch of people, recently, of Islam. We were talking about how someone brought up as anybody ever in a social situation felt uncomfortable, either because somebody said something about your secularism or somebody, or you were put into a position, “Okay, everybody, let’s pray.” Pretty much everybody in the group said, “Yes, that’s happened to me, at least once.” One guy that I know, a secular friend who has a hobby of cars, like vintage cars and stuff, he belongs to the Vintage Car Association and went to a meeting with like a national meeting of vintage car lovers.

When they started, the leader of the group said, “Okay, we’ll let start with a prayer.” He felt very uncomfortable about it. He said something to somebody. It was an uncomfortable situation. I understand that. I’ve had that happen to me, too, where I mentioned that I was a secular humanist.

“You’re an atheist…”

“…Oh my, you’re an atheist…”

“…You’re what?”

This assumption that I’m a horrible person. So, it’s difficult to speak out. I don’t know why the word “atheism” or “atheist” is so frightening and negatively weighted for so many people. To many, it means “bad person.” Logically, why should that be a bad person? Well, Of course, it shouldn’t happen in mind, logically; it makes no sense. But yes, it does inhibit us. So, since we are inhibited from speaking out for our mates, I think that it does hurt us from achieving the things that we want to achieve from a secular standpoint.

There are a lot of things I would like to achieve in our society, which have nothing to do with secularism or religion. But other things, I’d like to be in a country in which they observe the separation of church and state, especially in the government, very strictly; in which there’s an understanding that not everybody is religious, therefore, when we have rituals like an inauguration, it should be inclusive of people like me. I got to tell you. As much as I felt a lot of good feelings about this inauguration, I also felt a little bit like the outsider looking in because of all the mentions of God. Which every day, anything we’re talking about, when anybody mentions God, they’re always talking about their own. But it’s not right. It shows that we’ve got work to do.

Jacobsen: John, thanks so much for your time, as always.

Engel: Ok, Scott, listen take care, make sure you keep getting some sleep. [Ed. This is a common comment from friends – ‘get some sleep and stop working so much.’ To all of them, I love you – much, and noted.]


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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