Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. New Yorkers are great conversationalists. Here we talk about prayer in the time of coronavirus.
*Interview conducted on March 16, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: This one is a little more time stamped. So, it is March 16th. The reason for the time stamp is because of Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2. We are going to see a rapid trajectory around the world as we are, especially in the United States, with the level of mitigation. So, you wanted to talk about the inefficacy of prayer against Covid-19. So, what are some of your thoughts along these lines? Give some examples.
Jonathan Engel: I am not sure. It is an interesting question about, whether anybody is going to learn anything from this, but we will get there in a minute. One of the first mass type gatherings, where it was reported in the United States that people were contracting the virus was the CPAC Convention. That is the Conservative Political Action Committee Convention where they are all religious. They are virtually all Christians, not all, but virtually all Christians. They are all religious and this is where it hit, at CPAC. So, you wonder, “Well, why didn’t God protect CPAC?”
Engel: These are God fearing people. A few members of Congress including Senator Ted Cruz. Representative Mark Meadows who is now going to be the Chief of Staff in the White House. Representative Ted Collins, they have self-quarantined themselves after CPAC. They are doing the responsible thing; I do wonder why they do not simply pray the virus away. I would love for them to be able to do that. If they do, I will say, “I was wrong.” But it does not seem to be happening. Although, one person should be singled out, specially; Representative Matt Gates from Florida, big Trump supporter. When the news of the coronavirus first started coming out, he thought he would mock people who were nervous about this by going on to the floor of Congress with one of those big gas masks [Laughing]. See? I am joking about this. But he is now self-quarantining after being at CPAC. It is not something that looks so funny now. These people are all true believers and so it makes you wonder. Their own well-being is at stake. Suddenly, they are following the science. It is a good thing, but it also makes you wonder, “How much did you believe?” Which brings me to the Bethel Church in Redding, California, it is a mega church with over 6,000 members. Bethel Church followers believe that prayer can heal the sick and raise the dead. I am not sure I believe that, but okay.
Engel: So, members of the church go to local hospitals, pray for patients’ recoveries. That is a shame. They are people minded, community minded. They want to help people. They spend time doing something that is not going to help anybody. They have now suspended this practice. They are not going to the hospitals anymore. I am glad that they are not because they should not be. But I must wonder, “Why?” If they honestly believe that God heals people from whom prayers are said, why are they afraid of this coronavirus? I mean, they should be afraid of it. The reason is because God does not heal people. There is no God and what heals people are either naturally recoveries or it is a medical intervention. So, it makes you wonder. Now, I know there are some true believers. People who attend some church in Indiana saying, “We are all going to show up and we’re all gonna be here because Jesus will protect us.” It is something. Good luck with that. I do not think I am going, but alright. There are some true believers, but there seems to be a lot of people who talk about it. They talk, but they don’t necessarily mean it. I have always wondered about that. How many of the people, who are saying that they are believers who say, “Of course, prayer cures people,” believe that? Now, it is coming to show. We are seeing that, at least, some of them don’t. I am not sure. Is that a good thing? Because they do kind of believe in science and not in superstitions. Or is that a bad thing because it shows you what hypocrites they are? I am not sure I know the answer to that.
Jacobsen: Do you remember the George Carlin line about prayer? If God has a divine plan, and if you’re a rundown shmuck with a two-dollar prayer book, trying to come around and fuck up his plan, then don’t pray in the first place because it’s part of the divine plan.
Jacobsen: God will do what he wants to, anyway, and so your prayer will be wanting to intervene in that divine plan. So, A, it is arrogant and B, people often say, “Well, that’s God’s will. Thy will be done.” In other words, God is going to do what he wants to do. He has this divine plan. Therefore, why bother praying in the first place?
Engel: That is right. It is gonna happen, anyway, whatever it is that his plan is. It is going to happen. Now, that you mentioned it. I remember that it was when Carlin talks about somebody in a driveway and hit the kid accidentally and the kid dies and people say, “Well, it’s God’s will. He envisions the town’s people taking up pitchforks and torches,” and saying, “God’s will? God did this? Go get that God guy.”
Engel: It is an interesting phenomenon that does not have any logical explanation or logical endpoint because logic is not what they are all about, reason and logic, but boy, we need it now more than ever. I mean, we are in a medical emergency.
Jacobsen: In a pandemic emergency.
Engel: Yes, a pandemic emergency. We need reason and logic. Again, it’s a good thing. I suppose to some people who say they believe that they can pray this whole thing away or who actually are taking steps to make sure that they stay healthy. Real steps, but, it also points out the hypocrisy. Also, you got some people who are going to believe that God is going to help them. This is one of the things I thought was funny. In France, the town called Lourdes where people go to pray for miracles or medical miracles, go there. If you are sick, God can heal you. They closed it down to all visitors. Now, that make sense from a medical point of view, but from a religious point of view; it does not make any sense at all. It is a place that heals and must close because people get sick? Unless, of course, you believe that, maybe, it doesn’t heal anybody. Maybe, that water from Lourdes, or whatever it is, doesn’t work. It’s an interesting phenomenon. I would hope that it would force people to maybe question their supernatural and superstitious beliefs to say, “Look, I didn’t rely on praying, but, maybe, that’s not a safe thing to rely on.” But I will not hold my breath. Because the human capacity for hypocrisy seems to be endless so, I am not going to hold my breath. But maybe, a couple of people will realize that this type of thing does not work. It does not mean anything. From now on, I am going to follow the science instead of the superstitions. But again, I am not that hopeful, but, maybe, at least a few people.
Jacobsen: What do you make of the, let’s say, strong reactions many individuals within, not all, but certainly several, dominant religious communities have to critical and, sometimes, harsh humor about things they think work but do not in any empirical sense? So, those who pray, think it is efficacious. If they go to Bethel Church, they think it raises the dead. If a secular humanist from New York comes along and asks a critical question, “Does this work?”, or maybe changes the tone like, “Does this work?” It is meant as a joke. What do you make of the sometimes-aggressive reactions, even bullying reactions, in response to that? Because it almost seems like a ‘tell’ in poker language, as to a not-insignificant proportion of believers in the efficacy of intercessory prayer that it does not work, but they still want to believe. In Daniel Dennett’s terms, it is that, “They believe in belief,” in intercessory prayer.
Engel: Yes. I mean, there was a line from Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel, when asked whether she believes in God, she replied, “Well, I believe in the Jewish people and the Jewish people believe in God.”
Engle: Okay, thank you for that straight answer. [Laughing] I see you were a Prime Minister; I did not know that you were a tap dancer as well.
Jacobsen: That is a secularist with like a Phantom of the Opera half mask on. They are tap dancing around that one for sure.
Engel: Again, going back to what we were talking about earlier, about the people believe because of the idea of blasphemy etc., “Oh, you are saying bad things about my religion. Then you are out of bounds.” If you believe, what do you care what I think? What do you care what I say? You know the truth. I mean, I do not care what you say. You can say what you want about atheists. It does not bother me if you leave me alone. As long as you don’t physically attack me or something, but my asking the questions causes you so much upset, maybe, you want to look in the mirror and say, “Do I believe this?” Because I do think that my asking the questions would not bother you if you were at ease with your beliefs. When my asking the question or the fact that a non-belief bothers you that much, I think it tells me that you are shaky on your own beliefs. So, instead of getting mad at me for making me question your beliefs, go into it. Look in the mirror. Go into it. Question your own beliefs. See what answers will come out, but that is not a bad thing. That is a good thing.
Jacobsen: When you take the world at face value as a religious one as many North Americans do, they believe in a cosmic battle. They believe there is a God and a fallen angel who departed from God by choice and was cast out of heaven. So, in their mind, an ongoing battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and the forces of good are of God and the forces of evil are of the devil or Satan or Beelzebub. So, to someone who affirms non-belief or have a rejection of their God, but in a context in which they only think of their God, you will become a force of evil in the world by your mere existence. So, you are a negative aspect of existence or rejection of God incarnate by choice because you are using the free will, freedom of the will, given by God’s grace. You have made a free choice to reject this wonderful gift that God has given you. So, there is a story and narrative, a theological backing, to what I deem legitimate feelings. I do not think they are valid in terms of the content, but they are feeling those feelings towards you as a non-believer.
Engel: I would respond to that if I were having a real conversation. Listen, I do not blow my horn too much or at all, but let us look at that hypothetically. What if hypothetically, you looked at me and you looked at the kind of person I am, and the kind of life I lead and decided, “He does good things. He does not hurt people. He is charitable. He tries to help people.” You look at that. I mean, I worked at a non-profit sector. I help get housing built for homeless, mentally ill people. So, I think I can pretty much say – Perfect? Of course, nobody is. Close to perfect? No, it is not there either, but I think it is not exulting myself to say, “Oh, I’m a good guy.” So, you look at that and say, “Well, if I am a source of evil, has it come out that my actions are for the most part, good?
Jacobsen: Basically, not all, there will be a strong contingent of the belief community. This is based on reading and hearing and talking with people, to kind of hear them out, get their views. From their view, you can do good, but you still rejected the sacrifice of the cross. So, to them, even though you could do all this good, you are still bound for eternal damnation.
Jacobsen: So, from that point of view, you are still, in spite of potentially being used by God for whatever good you are doing, an enemy that should be treated with a certain level of caution, if not suspicion, at any deviation from the good. That which comes directly from God by his nature, using their language, you will then, potentially, need an aggressive countering in some capacity.
I think this is where we then get cases of individual stories that you and I have heard of individuals having trouble getting employment, having trouble getting bound into a religious community because it is a highly religious community in a fundamentalist sense.
Jacobsen: So, these beliefs, once integrated, though not connected in any empirical sense but only to a set of kind of ideas and premises, then lead to behavioral consequences. That is where I think we hear the stories of, not terrible but, certainly bad treatment of many non-believers in North America, especially in places like in the United States. I mean, it comes up in South Carolina before. The inability of atheists to run for public office and countless other number of states as well.
Engel: I think that is certainly true. Although, hopefully, things are beginning to change a little. I think I mentioned in a previous call that there is now a Congregational Free Thought Caucus in the United States Congress. It is getting a little bit more open. The rise of presidents for democratic participation has been interesting because I do not think Bernie Sanders is religious at all, but he will not come out and say that he is not religious. Maybe, he is not making that part of his campaign.
Jacobsen: Maybe, he does not believe in God, but the Jewish people believe in God and he believes in the Jewish people.
Engel: There you go. [Laughing].
Engel: That is one of my favorites. That is tap dancing in full speed.
Engel: It is frustrating to me a little bit.
Engel: Yes, there are all those communities that would look at me and skeptically, because I am not a believer and it is like, “Boy, we have so many other things in common.” As Richard Dawkins said, when he talks about something like that, “Look, we’re talking to a believer. We’re both atheists when it comes to almost every God that is worshiped or has been worshiped in the history of the world.” I take my idea of one God one step further, right? I mean, if you believe, and believe that somehow I am an agent of evil and something like that, without knowing me, without seeing what kinda person I am, etc., I can simply point to the larger number of people dying in the world since the beginning of human history. It is not in my view, obviously, a positive thing. It is letting your superstitions get behind you. It is one of the things that you think about, too, in terms of how it is so much harder to hate people that you know. So again, I think that’s comparable to the gay liberation movement, where once people started coming out of the closet and more people got to know someone who is gay or got to know that someone they knew, they like, turns out was gay that they never knew. I think that can sort of change attitudes. So, I would hope that people who are Christian or religious, before they would condemn me, would, hopefully, get to know me a little bit. Suddenly, if they thought, “Okay, he’s a pretty good guy.” Maybe, it is possible that someone who does not believe can be a good guy, can be a good person. If we are going to turn that into their heads and creating that kind of positive distance, I think it is a step in the right direction. I mean, it is so silly when you think about it. What is the difference between me and someone who is a believer? We could believe in also some things that are the same. We have a disagreement. To me, it is not that big of a deal. But, of course, that is to me and a lot of religious people it is. I think religion needs to be open about who we are, etc., and hopefully, that can change a few minds. That can change a few people. It is not easy. I mean, there is still a little stick in the throat when I say, “I am an atheist.” What I usually say, “I don’t believe in Gods.” We will try to always make it plural or I say, “I don’t believe in the supernatural.” Then they ask me if I believe in God.
Engel: I’ve had that happen to me. But they ask if I believe in God. I say, “I don’t believe in anything supernatural.” They want to be modern people. Yet, they have this ancient belief. Hopefully, that will someday allow them to break free from the superstition. We can only hope.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jon.
Engel: Okay. Thank you, Scott. Take care now and wash your hands.
Jacobsen: Oh, yeah.
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.
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.