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Ask Jon 34: Vetting Process for Secularist Interviews


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/07/15

Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New YorkHere we talk about conspiracy theories and the substantial denial of the scientific method in American society.

*Interview conducted February 22, 2021.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: This is ‘Ask John 726.’ So, when you’re getting invitations for interviews, as I sometimes do, how would you approach vetting those? In particular, how would you approach vetting invitations to various religious groups, conservative, liberal, moderates, etc., for your community that you’re a leader of – in New York for the secular humanists?

Jonathan Engel: Well, my default going in is that, generally speaking; I’m willing to talk to anybody. I like the idea of discussions. But I also get the sense – because I can hopefully, I think, have a certain amount of charm – that it’s good for people who are religious to talk to somebody like me. Because afterwards, maybe, they come away with saying, “Hey, I now know an atheist who is not a really bad guy. He seems like he’s OK.” So, generally speaking, that’s just general. Generally speaking, I am open to conversation. But, of course, I want to make sure that the people I’m talking to have some sort of positive agenda in mind. I mean in this day and age, I think and say these words, but in this day and age; you’ve got to worry about your own actual physical safety.

But barring that someone’s going to get so mad at me and now they know who I am and they’re going to come after me, which is a concern, I think the other point that you want to look at is: Are you really looking to have a conversation with me, or is this like I’m going to be the featured event in a stoning? If you want to talk to me, great. If you want to yell at me, well, I have a fairly large family. I don’t need to speak to you to get yelled at. My brothers and sisters do it all the time. So, that’s the way I approach it from a general viewpoint. Generally, I’m positive about such things. I welcome speaking to anybody. But yes, I do try to be a little bit wary, just to make sure of safety concerns.

And again, what are your intentions? Do you really want to just have a nice talk and dialogue, where we can discuss our differences and, maybe, even hopefully, some similarities? Or are you looking for a bogeyman so that your parishioners can play pop the bear or something? If that’s what you’re after, then I’m not interested. But I also reserve the rivals; sometimes, you go into it and you don’t know. So, I reserve the right, if I go into it, and if that’s what it seems like it’s turning into, then I can say, “You know what folks, I don’t think this is productive. Good night,” just turn them off.

Jacobsen: Where would you draw the line on having a conversation? What groups would you not have a conversation with?

Engel: Well, any group that is in any way involved in violence, promotes violence in any way, shape, or form. I can’t see where I could find common ground with a group like that. It’s hard to say. There was a group called the Westboro Baptist Church. These people were as wild as you can get. they would go to funerals during the AIDS crisis. They would go to funerals for people who are homosexual and with signs up that say, “God hates fags.” I can’t imagine having a conversation with anybody like that, even if they’re not directly violent; it’s just there’s just no way that we can even say two words to each other without it becoming a brawl.

So, I think there are some limits. However, I don’t necessarily know that those limits involve just how religious you are. I guess even if you were really fundamentalist religious; I think that we could still potentially have a conversation. So, I wouldn’t cut that off automatically, but I would be wary about it.

Jacobsen: Where have you been in a situation in which you have had to actually do that?

Engel: I do know that I have. I’ve been in some interesting situations. I was at a high school, a little over a year ago. I was invited to a high school where they had all sorts of people from different religions, and they wanted a secular person to engage with students and things like that. Everyone, my comfort level there was medium. But the kids were great. That was the best part of it. Some of the religious leaders looked at me slightly askance. But it didn’t really bother me. They were, again, basically polite. So, that was an interesting day. But I don’t think that I’ve ever been in one before where I had to say, “Okay, I’m cutting this off because it’s gotten so far out of hand.” I think if anybody has got questions; I think I can handle them/

As I have mentioned before, I’m a lawyer. I’ve gone into court and had judges asking me questions that were completely out of left field. That hadn’t been briefed and whatever. So, I can think pretty quickly on my feet. I believe what I believe. Part of it is the confidence that comes from that, too. My position, to be honest with you, I think it’s a correct one. So, I don’t think I’m likely to be too much thrown by questions. I’ve kind of heard them all by now. A lot of them come down to the “no atheists in foxholes” thing. “What are you going to do when you’re in the final hour of life?”, “What do you think when you’re just about to die, when you’re on the death bed?”, “What are you going to say? What are you going to do?” I think I’ve handled that kind of stuff enough to go into something like that and be reasonably confident that it’ll come out okay.

Jacobsen: Yes, I’ve gotten some interview requests. Ironically, the one that I permitted was when I was writing for some fashion organizations. This is true, Jon. I was writing for them. An Icelandic fashion designer who’s now got involved with fashion design with artificial intelligence – really fascinating stuff. They asked, “Can I interview you?” I said, “Sure.” So, somewhere in Iceland, this fashion company, there’s an interview with Scott Jacobsen for her publication there now. But it seems more appropriate to send a recommendation to someone else who’s appropriate. So, for instance, what I received recently was from New York, that’s another country and on the other side of the continent. So, for me, I figured I can email someone like yourself and say, “Here’s someone appropriate. Would you be interested?” I think, maybe, that might be a reasonable policy because someone who lives in that area in New York City, the greater New York area, New York State, they can speak to those cultural concerns within an American secular New York context better than a Canadian, in a small village, in British Columbia. It’s just different, but they’re similar.

Engel: I could definitely see that. I’ll tell you. I think I told you this story before about a couple of years ago at a small dinner party with my wife and invited by people who live in my building. A couple in my building and the other people, some of whom also live in my building, but nobody I really knew. When someone asked, “Well, I think these people all kind of knew each other. We were sort of the new people who had been invited.” Someone asked me what I do. And I throw out the usual. Then I said I’m also the president of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. A woman who was there said like sort of half out of her breath, but I certainly heard it.

“I hope you’re not one of those God-haters.”

 I played it right.

I said, “Well, to be honest with you,” I said, “I don’t hate anybody.”

I certainly try not to hate anybody. I don’t think hates a good thing to carry around with you, for a person to have. The rest of that evening, the issues of secularism or religion did not come up. But I chatted with this woman. After that, every time she goes through the building, she’s like, “Oh, hi, how are you?” So, I hope that I accomplished with that. Something that I would want to accomplish with an upstate church or something, which is just show, “Here, you’ve just met an atheist. A nice guy, likable,” maybe you even like him. So, in a way that sort of normalizes our viewpoint, that’s just a different viewpoint. You have your people who believe in the Holy Trinity. You have your people who believe in Allah. You have people who believe in Buddha. You have your people who do not believe in any of those particular things.

And to be considered just another one of those groups, and that you don’t really know a person, I think any reasonable person would say, “This person may be a Buddhist. This person may be a Hindu, but I don’t know them until I get to know them. I can’t place a judgment on whether or not I like them and think they’re a good person.” It’s the same thing all along trying to get people to feel the same way about an atheist. That “he’s an atheist, but I don’t know him. Could it be that I would like him if he’s a good person?” If you can get just a few people to alter that way of thinking, I think that’s accomplishing something.

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

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

Jacobsen: Take care.


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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