Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about July 4th, public safety and health, religion (naturally), education, and more.
*Interview conducted on July 6, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We finished the July 4th celebration for America’s Independence Day. We finished Canada Day on July 1st. Some celebrate it. Others do not. I want focus more today on the American context. What is it?
Jonathan Engel: A quick thing talking about some people not celebrating Canada Day in Canada. In the United States, there are many people who do not celebrate July 4th in America. Frederick Douglass, the great philosopher and orator, talked about how the 4th of July does not represent freedom for black people in this country. That was pretty interesting. Yes, here in New York City, beautiful New York City, they were different than they usually are. I live near Union Square in New York City in Manhattan. I have lived in the same building for the last 35 years. Every one of those 35 years until this year, my wife and I, kids, and friends go to the roof and watch the Macy’s 4th of July fireworks. They didn’t do that this year. Primarily, they didn’t want people to watch them. New York was really the first place to get clobbered by coronavirus. One, it is the crossroads of the world. We get so many visitors from so many places. Before we knew what was happening, we were infected. Also, because we live on top of each other, we are millions of people [Laughing] living in a pretty small area. We jam together on buses, on subways, and jam together in stores. We live in apartment buildings that have people constantly in contact on elevators and hallways and lobbies. It was understandable that we got hit before anyone else did. But New York, right now, is one of the few places in the United States has really “flattened the curve.” That’s because we’ve done what we were supposed to do, what the science says you need to do.
What Europe found out, we should wear masks and practice social distancing. We’ve stayed inside. In fact, we are still not fully open. Many states opened up a month ago. We still don’t have indoor dining, indoor bars, allowed. Even though, we have flattened the curve. We are going to go very slowly to reopen these things, as we have seen what happened in other places. I got the sense of this on the 4th of July. There is a green market, a local farmer’s market, in the middle of New York City. Believe it or not.
Engel: Vendor from Long Island, Westchester, or New jersey, who come in 5 days a week and sell their stuff. My wife and I went into the green market to buy some stuff. They used to put out their stuff. If you wanted apples, then they would have crates. You pick the ones that you want and go out and pay for it. Now, they don’t let you do that anymore. You tell them, “I want 5 Granny Smith apples.” They put them in a bag. You pat for them. Everyone in the green market had masks. All vendors had a sign, “No masks, no service.” We have stayed pretty good. There have been a few times that I have seen people without masks on the street. For the most part, a solid 90% of people wear masks. I read something the other day. A guy from South Carolina, where it is spiking, the virus. He said that he lives near the resort area of Hilton Head, South Carolina and let him take a walk around. He didn’t go out for long, about 90% of the people were not wearing masks. So, we take it seriously here. New York is one of the least religious states in the country. New York City is not a very religious city, as cities go. Here in New York, we like to do what Tom Friedman said, which should be Biden’s motto: respect science, respect nature, and respect each other.
It requires a belief in science and nature, “No amount of prayer will protect anybody from it.” We need to respect science, and each other, when you live on top of each other. Paul Simon had a song, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor”:
It’s just apartment house rules
So all you ‘partment house fools
Remember: one man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor
One man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor
It’s true. You have got to respect people who are right next to you. You can’t say, “I can do whatever I want.” You don’t want to be blasting music and doing step-dancing at 3 o’clock in the morning because there is somebody underneath you. Our belief and freedom encompass responsibility to those around us. It is so necessary and required, but not in many states. Yesterday, in The New York Times, in Texas, it is much more religious and much more conservative. The governor of Texas who is a Republican and conservative recently put out an edict saying, ‘Everybody, you have to wear a mask outside in Texas.’ He is getting pilloried, “How dare you stomp on my freedom!”
Engel: “You can’t tell me what to do.” Government tells you all the time. It is good that it does. Government tells you to take a hunk of your money in the form of taxes. Government tells you you can’t speed in a residential area. Government says it’s not your right o drive if you’re blind drunk. Even the most elemental things, if you walk into the store, you can’t walk out of the store without stuff that you didn’t pay for, ‘What about my freedom?” No! If we are going to have any kind of civilized society with respect for other people, respecting each other, we are going to have to have certain rules. In a pandemic, one rule might be wearing a mask if you go outside. HERE IN New York, we have, for the most part, most people, not all, in New York City understand that. When I live in an apartment building with 30 stories and 270 apartments in it, there are signs when you walk into the elevator. One side says, “Two people per elevator only.” For a while, it was only one. The other side says, “Please respect neighbours and building staff and wear a mask in all common areas.” I have not seen a single person disobey that. I am pretty sure. People in New York City love freedom as much as people in Texas. Like Freidman said, though, “Respect science, respect nature, and respect each other.” That’s why I think even with the worst outbreak in the country; we have it under control. While in other parts, it has skyrocketed.
Jacobsen: What other factors are we not taking into account when we think about the impacts of religious faith on some of the issues within a pandemic? We were noting with Massachusetts. It is the most educated and the least religious; Mississippi, it is the most religious and the least educated. Those don’t seem like accidents or coincidences. Although, they are only correlations. We have situations in which people will replace knowledge of the world, facts, with sensibilities, with unevidenced belief structures. When crises happen, they will invoke them. When they invoke them, it leaves them adrift in dealing with the real situation. To take on the garbs of faith, it is, in many cases, equivalent, in terms of actual good, to doing nothing.
Engel: Yes! Absolutely, what they are doing is tending to their emotions and not to their intellect, because it might make them feel better to think, “God will protect me.” It is tending to the scariness, ‘I do not want to be scared anymore. So, I am going to fall back on the things that do not make me scared anymore.’ It is using the emotions and not the intellect. It is easier to just believe, but it is not going to help you. Yes, you see this. Some of this is anecdotal. I would love to see real research done on this. From the anecdotes, so many religious people have died or have had loved ones died because they said, “Of course, we are going to go to our church service.” By the way, church services are one of the biggest superspreader events. People are sitting close together, a large group of people. There’s a lot of singing and chanting, etc. Yet, the pressure to open up in so many parts of the United States has been from religious groups saying, “It is essential. We are an essential service. People need this. They need their comfort.” Of course, people need to be comforted and need to see positive things, but they need reality. They need to be told the truth. I finished reading a book by Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.
It is about Churchill and the Battle of Britain, when Churchill spoke to the British people. He told them the truth when the blitz was underway. Hi oratory was underway. ‘We will fight them on the beaches. We will fight them on the streets.” He inspired people while telling them the truth, ‘This si going to be really bad. This is going to be really hard. It is going to take all our resources, emotional and physical, to combat.’ But he told them the truth. People may need comfort. But when you say, “Don’t worry, go out there, don’t wear a mask, don’t social distance, sing out here in the choir, God will protect you.” They are not telling them the truth. So, people are dying. This country, now, is pitiable. It is really depressing. We really are pitiable because we don’t have the level of critical thinking and critical analysis that you need. That human beings need to make the decisions in order to protect themselves and protect everybody else from this illness.
Jacobsen: What do you think about this re-funnelling of finances to religious institutions in the United States instead of the intended good of public services to slow the spread of coronavirus?
Engel: Oh, it’s horrible. It is a never-ending fight. My father was one of the plaintiffs in the court case in 1972, which outlawed prayer in public school. It was a fight to maintain the separation of church and state ever since. To look back at the founding documents of the country, if you look at the people who founded this country, James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution; so, he wrote the First Amendment in which it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Back in the day, he said the separation of church and state is to keep forever from our shores the bloody battles that have poured blood on the soils of Europe for centuries. He said, ‘Here’s the reason for separation of church and state.’ People now say, ‘What are you talking about separating church and state? I don’t see this in the Constitution.’ These are, basically, Christian nationalists who want this to be an avowedly Christian country against our founders. Pouring resources into churches and religious schools, you can see how this hurts us in a situation like this because people don’t understand science. If you don’t believe in evolution, you can’t understand biology. If you can’t understand biology, then you can’t understand science at all. In a way, it is going backwards. It is a tremendous battle in this country. I belong to an organization called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. It exists because there are people who see: when government puts money into religion, society goes backwards.
Jacobsen: Jon! Thank you so much for your time.
Engel: Okay, Scott, speak to you soon!
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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