Ask Jon 23: Magical Thinking By No Name

by | April 21, 2021

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New YorkHere we talk about magical thinking.

*Interview conducted on October 5, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, what is magical thinking? And how does this apply to advanced industrial societies, with highly educated people in various parts of the society still extant? It’s just there. It is present. It affects everyone’s lives. In fact, it affects policymaking, and politics all the time in the United States, far more often than a lot of the other advanced industrial economies.

Jonathan Engel: Well, I think it’s interesting because it came up. I was speaking with some fellow humanists recently, and that thing came up in a tangential way, but it was the heart of the matter. We were talking about Donald Trump’s COVID diagnosis, whether or not it’s okay. How should a humanist feel about this, and talk about this?

With regard to schadenfreude, the taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Because if there was anybody who deserves it, it’s him. We’re talking about 210,000 Americans dead. And some of these people were real heroes. People who went to work in hospitals. They were risking their lives. And they died just trying to save others.

And Trump has not shed a single tear for any of them. But on the other hand, we humanists do believe, generally speaking, that we should endeavour to enhance human happiness and decrease human suffering. We feel this way about trust. So, is it okay to feel glad, and take some pleasure out of the fact that this S.O.B. is getting sick?

And I can tell you that yesterday’s New York Times; there were op-eds by Frank Bruni and Nicholas Kristof. In which both of them admonished Liberals, “Do not take pleasure in this, and you’re not supposed to.” Also, you hear Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, and all sorts of democratic politicians, e.g., Joe Biden, of course, saying that they’re praying for Trump.

They never wanted this to happen to him. They’re praying for him. Although I think they’re politicians, some of that might just be for public consumption, in order to contrast themselves with Trump’s callousness towards people who have been sick and might get sick.

Not to mention the fact that he’s caused some people to get sick. Almost certainly, at the Democratic Convention this year, there was a woman who spoke whose father died of COVID. She said the only pre-existing condition my father had was that he believed Donald Trump. So, if this causes Trump to change his ways, or maybe, hopefully, but that’s impossible. But some Trump supporters need to possibly take this more seriously and wear a mask, etc. You could look at it as a positive that way. So, it’s okay. You’re excusing yourself from those feelings of: this is a good thing – because you rationalize it.

Well, it has good practical effects. Even though, I shouldn’t be engaging in this kind of thinking, but I think you don’t have to get to the heart of the matter, what you were talking about; that this is magical thinking. ,

The idea that somehow, if I say, “I’m glad you got COVID,” or, “I hope he gets COVID,” and then he does. “Oh, that’s terrible” What do you mean “might be glad” or ‘hoping he gets it’? It has nothing to do with what actually is going to happen any more than the prayers of Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden are going to make it well.

You’re right to phrase it that way. It comes to magical thinking. That’s something that seems to be a large part of American society, even for people who aren’t religious. Some don’t even identify with the religion.

There’s a part of the magical thinking. They’re very hesitant to give it up. And you see it here with the idea that somehow you shouldn’t take pleasure and say, “Oh, if you’re happy because he gets COVID, then you might get COVID.” Well, I might get COVID anyway.

But what the hell has it got to do with me being happy that he got it? And the answer is, of course, “Nothing.” I think it’s the people who don’t necessarily believe in a personal God, think there’s some force in the universe that punishes you for bad things.

I think it helps people make sense of the universe that punishes you for thinking bad things. Not just necessarily doing them, but thinking what would the bad things be, or what would be considered bad things. That somehow, you’ll get punished for it.

If you hope that Trump gets COVID, and then he does; you’re in trouble. Now, the cosmic universe, karma, or whatever you want to call it. It may punish you for feeling that way, by giving you COVID. Let’s face it, Trump didn’t get COVID because he’s acted like a bastard.

In terms of what he’s done, the lack of empathy for anybody else who’s suffering, or any of that kind of thing. He got COVID because he acted like a jerk. He acted like a moron. He wouldn’t wear a mask. They wouldn’t take the basic precautions that need to be taken. That’s why he got COVID.

Jacobsen: Do you think over the last four years, the United States has decreased in its level of critical thinking? Or the current administration’s approach to press, media, and public relations has created an environment more conducive to bringing out that which was already there?

Namely, the lack of a critical thinking culture, and a widespread series of poor critical thinking subcultures. For example, Conspiracy Theorists, Cults, QAnon, Religious Fundamentalism, various forms of anti-science, and so on?

Engel: I think that’s an interesting question. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot, wondering when the United States comes out of this, will we realize that the scientific method is the way for us to discover the truth about our world.

On the critical thinking, and critical reasoning part, I don’t remember. A number of weeks ago, I read an essay by a professor at Harvard law school who was bemoaning the fact that they teach critical reasoning in law school. That’s a lot of what they teach. But he was saying in his essay that we should be teaching in grade school, and high school.

Because people don’t have it. So, what happens when we come out of this? And to tell you the truth, I’m a little down on human nature. Because you see things happening. I don’t know. I just don’t see that people are getting it that much.

I’m hopeful. I, certainly, am hope that people would look, and I think there’s a chance that, at least, some people would realize, “Wow, what the scientists told us turned out to be true. And they were basing it on their research and their science. And what the preachers, politicians were telling us, ‘Oh, it will magically disappear by Easter,’ which is a great date for it to disappear. Don’t you think? That was Trump. They were wrong. And so, he said, ‘Well, listen, maybe, we need to look at things critically. Maybe, we need to trust science. And that’s the way for us to learn about ourselves, about our planet and our environment rather than engaging in wishful or magical thinking. That things are controlled by some strange forces that we can’t see.’

I hope so, but I don’t know. The history in this country, isn’t great on that. It’s a very religious country. Which again, I swear, I think this is where a lot of this comes from. Where do people learn that it’s a positive character trait to believe in things for which there is no evidence?

Of course, in Church, in Mosque, and in Synagogue, that’s where they learned that. And they learned it from a very young age. And they see it reinforced all through their lives, and breaking through that is a hard task. I have no illusions about how difficult it is.

Jacobsen: In particular, I would take this as a personal moral stance or obligation. Because I don’t consider organizational humanism the be-all and end-all. I consider humanism at the root about an individual recognition of science, human rights, and democracy in many ways, along some other values.

Where the individual organizations devoted to humanism or humanistic orientations, by and large, they exist for those individuals who find that recognition in part or in whole, and then join those organizations as members of staff, as boards, as executive directors.

So in terms of combating these forms of magical thinking by no name, we can look to historical examples of people who aren’t necessarily acknowledged as much by ordinary humanists.

Those without stature, those without prominent standing or authority within the community. So, someone like Martin Gardner had a vast influence on the culture of critical thinking, and skepticism in the United States without necessarily going by such a name.

In the same way, Bill Nye does a similar task, but goes by that title. In fact, he’s derided. I think by Ken Ham as Bill Nye the Humanist Guy with a sneer.

Engel: If you think he gets a bad wrap by referring to himself as humanist, try referring to yourself as an atheist.

Jacobsen: Yes, exactly, that’s right. In fact, I had talked to professor Burge in one recent interview session. And he noted Democrats, Republicans, and Independents of the United States all view Atheists as among the people they’re coldest to – and many think this is only among Republicans, but this is among all major political party identifications in the United States.

All three view Atheists as among the lowest, we’re talking in the 30% to 40% range of likeability. People are very cold towards atheists, self-identified atheists in the United States. It’s probably similar on a values variable to the magical thinking variable, where individuals have the atheist identification.

They are seen as not having a moral center. Because morality is implicitly connected to a religious identification or religious sensibility in the United States. If there is a morality, there must be a morality giver.

Similarly with magical thinking, all of this kind of karma, horoscopes and prayer, stuff. People still believe in these things without giving a proper name to them in the United States. And it’s just infused in the culture, and people don’t question things as much anymore. I think it leads to not even be able to label things.

Engel: Yes, I think you’re right. And I think that’s where it comes in. We were talking about people who have called themselves spiritual, but not religious. They see these religious hypocrites all the time. What’s his name, the guy Liberty University?

Jacobsen: Jerry Falwell Jr.

Engel: They see these people who are trying to themselves be reasonably ethical people. And they are telling a congregation of poor people, send me lots of money, and that’s how you’ll make money too. And you’ll get into heaven, and then I’ll have a private plane. They see that kind of thing. They say wow, that’s terrible. I can’t come against that. If that is what religious is, I’m not religious, I’m not religious then.

But the pull of the magical thinking, the pull of the groups thing, when it comes to that way. That will, of course. When you say a prayer for people who are sick, or something like that, it’s a decent thing to do. That pull is very strong.

I think people don’t even want to put their critical analysis to this. I think people who are religious certainly don’t want to. I think even the people, again, who are not affiliated with any religion, but claim to be spiritual.

It’s their way of dipping a toe in the water without actually jumping in. Because it’s like, “Well, I don’t believe that, but I have to say something to make me sound not so bad.” The way atheists are looked at, the way atheists are thought about etc. It’s part of that.

Nobody wants to be looked down on, like the statistics you just cited. Nobody wants to be looked down on anywhere and things like that. So, you find the middle ground. But I think that has much more to do with our social structures, than it has to do with any critical thinking.

They’re not applying critical thinking to this. You have someone like that. You think me sitting in my room, hoping that Trump gets better, will mean that he increases his chances of getting better? I’m sitting in my room in New York City.

He’s sitting in his hospital in Washington, DC. Do you think the other way around? Do you think, “Man, I hope this bastard suffers,” is going to change what happens to him?

I think not so much; that they think the answer to that question is “Yes.” Is that more to the point? I think they don’t want to even consider that question. Because it brings out certain truths, which can be frightening. If you think that, within the social structure of this country, which tends to be very religious.

“I can’t possibly believe in a lot of this nonsense. But if I give it up all the way, it’s not because intellectually. I can’t give it up all the way. It’s because I’ve been so socialized to believe that’s a positive thing. It’s just uncomfortable to consider it. So, I’ll put it that way and put it to bed that way, put it to rest that way saying, ‘Well, I’m not religious. I don’t belong to a religion or anything, but I am spiritual.’”

And that is the social comfort zone without the necessity of doing real rational analysis. That’s a different term. A figure of speech, we all say stuff like that. Although, I tend to substitute “Zeus” for “God.”

Hey, he’s a guy. Like, there’s an old saying, when someone says something that they hope happens. They used to say, “From your mouth to God’s ears.” I would more likely say, “From your mouth to Zeus’s ears. And I don’t believe he is up there listening.”

But I wonder, what do people think of their religion, especially in this country? What do they think of it as? And one of the things that I think about, we’re now into October and pretty soon the Christmas movies are going to start coming out. Not that long from now, but when you look at these movies, the companies churn out thousands of them. And they roll the same movie.

Like charging career woman in the big city, has to go to her hometown to help out her father’s store, which looks like it may go under, when she’s there, she runs into her old high school flame who was a widower with two or three children.

And she realizes, “Oh, but the small-town things are best, it takes place around Christmas. And trees, and the lights, and the snow falling.” But what? it doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus, or religion or anything else like that.

And that’s what people want you to think about. What are the most popular Christmas movies? Movies like a Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life. Jesus will make no appearance. In fact, TV channels run the Jesus movies like King of Kings and things like that on Christmas day itself, because Christmas day itself was the day when nobody’s watching.

And where they don’t need advertisers all that much because everybody’s already bought their Christmas stuff. So, it’s interesting. It’s an interesting study of religion, because I think what most people want are what I want. Yes, there are the super, super religious people.

There are ultra-Orthodox Jews who tried to live their best, as if it’s the 14th century. Something for some reason that I can’t figure out. But for a lot of people in this country, they just want to have that karmic glow to them.

Without wanting to delve into the religious part. What do people like about Christmas? And what they like is the presents, and Santa Claus, and the trees, and the lights, and the big meal, that’s what they like about it. A feeling of goodwill, maybe once in a while, between people, as if you have to believe in the supernatural to feel goodwill towards fellow people.

But when it could be actually religious with the part of ‘meeting Jesus,’ you mean dragging that cross around and stuff? Oh, that’s a bummer. That’s a downer. I don’t want that.

Jacobsen: Okay, Jon, thank you so much.

Engel: Take care, Scott. I will see you next week.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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