Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about the notion of thoughts and prayers in the context of Canada and America.
*Interview conducted on May 11, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, we are back with another Ask Jon. This time, we are going to be talking about an intersection between political leaders, whether at the state level or the national level, and then the chiselling away at some of the faith-based notions held in cultures, by and large. One of those deals with thoughts and prayers or the notion of an intervening God helping in the affairs in operating a state, city, or country. Let’s start with your case in New York, what was Cuomo’s comment or statement on coronavirus not too long ago?
Jonathan Engel: One thing that he said got a little bit of coverage, not a tremendous amount. He said, ‘Listen, prayer is not going to solve this for us. We have certain steps. That we have to take: stay at home orders, social distancing, wear a mask, wash your hands.’ He came out and said that. Which, in the United States, in many ways, it is a very religious country. It was extraordinary coming from him. He is not only the governor of the state that has the biggest city in the country. He is also the governor of the state that has the biggest coronavirus infection. It is not surprising given how many people come here. We get 40,000,000 tourists a year. People coming in and out. We live on top of each other in big buildings crammed into subways, which you can barely get into. It is not surprising. It is interesting that Cuomo has become quite an interesting figure in the United States. Because while Trump was doing his fact-free and knowledge-free daily coronavirus updates, Cuomo was doing them as well. People started to watch Cuomo more than Trump, even if not from New York state because Cuomo was giving the real deal and the truth: prayer is not going to stop this. It is not going to do it.
It said it in a matter-of-fact way. He was not saying it in a way to attack religion or anything. He said it in a matter-of-fact way. It is interesting because it is true and something that is unusual in this country, where people tend to give lip service to religious beliefs, whether they really believe them or not – especially political leaders. They feel that there’s never been much of an atheist political movement in this country. But religious politics – oh yes, very much so, it is to the fore. You will be more dangerous for a politician. “Dangerous” for being re-elected. It is more dangerous as a perception to say what he said rather than the Vice President Mike Pence thing with the picture of the Task Force kneeling in prayer prior to doing anything. Basically, they didn’t do much, so it didn’t really matter.
Engel: The words from Cuomo were very interesting. Perhaps, it is seeing a sea change in these types of things.
Jacobsen: In the Canadian case, we had one coronavirus unrelated, but a similar sentiment, with a case of a killing of more than 22 Canadians, or at least 22 Canadian, which amounts to the deadliest in the history of Canada of its kind. Our prime minister, and quoting now, said, “They were nurses and teachers, correctional officers and RCMP officers. They were someone’s child, someone’s best friend, someone’s partner. Their families deserve more than thoughts and prayers. Canadians deserve more than thoughts and prayers.” So, this followed an “effective immediately” banning of the buying, selling, import, or transport or use of military-grade assault-style weapons. It applies to 1,500 makes and models. So, that kind of statement came around one of the most dramatic murder sprees in Canadian history, which is, at least, 50% more than the one before it. It took an extreme event, more than the previous one. When it comes down to brass tax, even at the national level, there is a sensibility in Canada to have, at least, a boundary between what is reasonable and unreasonable, but it takes extreme circumstances to bring reality to bear upon the situation. I think this is an interesting commentary on North America, as we both know, with the Nones. I know people [Ed. Indi!] have problems with the term, so I won’t go into that.
Engel: I just wanted to comment on what you said. Something similar happened with the Parkland High School killings. A bunch of people were killed. After it happened, a lot of young people themselves – their parents too, but the ones who survived became very active for the movement for sane gun laws. One of the things that they were saying, ‘We don’t want your thoughts and prayers.’ It was the go-to for the politicians who had no intention of strengthening American gun laws or making them saner or anything like that. They had no intention of doing anything. What did they say? They would say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” Then you had these kids. These high school kids who survived and saw their classmates have their heads blown off say, “We don’t want the thoughts and prayers. We want action. We want action on gun laws.” Which, by the way, we haven’t had much, except in Florida where this took place. They did pass some laws, not on the federal level, though. What they were saying to these sons of bitches politicians, who said, ‘We give our thoughts and prayers.’ Those who simply give thoughts and prayers, but don’t have to do anything and can get the sympathy of the public, “Oh, he’s a good guy.”
They’re coming out and saying, ‘We don’t want the thoughts and prayers. We want action.’ There is a subtext to that. The subtext is thoughts and prayers don’t do anything. Once you get into that, you think, ‘Wait a minute, thoughts and prayers don’t do anything?’ It is around the corner or a sideways, almost, assault on religion. They’re saying, “Prayers don’t do anything.” They’re talking about a context of gun violence. But if that is the case with regard to gun violence, then, heck, it is the case with pretty much everything. When things happen, when the gun massacre happens in San Antonio, Dayton, or wherever the hell, you are seeing fewer politicians hiding behind the thoughts and prayers fig leaf. The kids want something that actually works. It is an acknowledgement that prayers don’t work. So, I feel like, in this country, there is a little bit of a sea change. But how many people are making the connection? Some will say, “Of course, prayers work. I want new laws.” But if prayers worked, you wouldn’t need new laws. To me, that’s what I saw. Of course, I am an atheist. But I do think, and certainly hope, that this is a change: If they don’t work with gun violence, then they don’t work with anything else. Maybe, this can become a basis for questioning things. This is down the road.
This can apply to coronavirus too. There are a lot of religious people who said, “Jesus is protecting me,” “Allah is protecting me,” etc. Now, many are dead. Will people see the connection and see that this doesn’t work? If it doesn’t work with coronavirus or gun violence, then, maybe, it is time to question whether it works at all – and why or why not.
Jacobsen: Have you ever seen the “God Is Not Dead” series?
Engel: I have never seen it. I have heard of it, though.
Jacobsen: It has people like Kevin Sorbos in it.
Engel: [Laughing] I heard of him. He was Hercules or something like this.
Jacobsen: That’s right. He was a popular television star in the United States for the Hercules series among other things. I think he played the part of the atheist for it. I have seen clips and trailers, and some of the contexts and the script of it. Some of the commentaries on the film talks about a whole genre of Christian film with a consistent theme of a “Christian persecution complex.” This is coming out of American film or cinematography. It makes me think. When you have these kids coming out and saying these things in America, when at the same time there is a reaction of feeling under siege in America, how did the prominent Christian community who would be within the culture of a Christian persecution complex react to kids saying, “No more thoughts and prayers,” after several of their friends had been murdered in daylight before them?
Engel: Basically, they tied themselves in knots. There were some on the far-right, not necessarily religious leaders per se. My recollection, there were some who came out and attacked. There are the absolute far-right QAnon lunatics who said, “The whole thing was faked. No kids died. It was actors.” But then, you have people attacking them, “What do they know?” Going after them personally.
Jacobsen: They were going after kids?
Engel: A lot of the mainstream religious leaders, it was too fraught for them to come after these kids. For crying out loud, the things these kids went through. Even if they didn’t realize it would be wrong to go after these kids, they understand from a public relations standpoint. There is no attacking these kids, except for the extreme, extreme lunatic right. There is no attacking the kids and getting away with it, after what they had been through, especially after they said, ‘We don’t want your prayers.” They want action. As I said, there is a basic underlying understanding there; prayers aren’t action because they don’t do anything. The mainstream has gone farther and farther to the right in this country. It is one of the things, maybe, why young people are so powerful. They did manage to change some laws in Florida. Federally, they are still working on it. But are you going to attack these kids for saying, “Prayers don’t work”? It was too fraught, except for the most extreme lunatics to go after them.
Jacobsen: What is the long game here for thoughts and prayers culture in America?
Engel: These culture wars in the United States. I’m not sure. Nobody knows for sure how it will turn out. But the long game in a lot of ways is being out there and being an out atheist, having people know who you are – having people see you, etc. To get to the point where being an atheist is no different than being a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew, it is that type of basic understanding and basic acceptance of people who have different views. I don’t know how we get to that. I’m not really sure. But I think that’s the long game. Things like this. There are things like talking about Christian leaders and people who are saying, “We are giving up our safety, etc.” There has been a lot of backlashes. There will be a lot of backlashes. Awakenings here and there of religious fervour, but, hopefully, the further that we get down the track, the more people understand and can see for themselves. It is a matter of having to think for yourself. People will support you. But you have to think for yourself. We have to go ahead and teach our children to think for themselves. Once people feel more comfortable with it, I would hope that they would not need to have somebody telling them how to think because they understand that they can think for themselves. We are a long way from that, but people like you and I are fighting for it every day. We have to keep up the fight. Hopefully, as these things happen, they are gradual. Gradually, people will see thinking for themselves is liberating as opposed to being frightening.
Jacobsen: Jon, thank you!
Engel: Okay, Scott, thanks!
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.