Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about the superstition, Covid, and the American problems when they come together at the same time.
*Interview conducted October 12, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, I want to frame this particular session around paranormal beliefs. There are the supernatural beliefs, paranormal beliefs. Maybe, they can be categorized largely as extra-normal beliefs or some larger set of nonsense beliefs and non-empirical beliefs, generally. So, in a 2017 survey by Chapman University in Orange, California, they looked at seven, at least, paranormal beliefs. I want to list those quickly to frame this conversation today. 55% of Americans believe ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis once existed. 52% believe places can be haunted by spirits. 35% believe aliens have visited Earth in our ancient past. 26% believe aliens have come to Earth in modern times. 25% believe some people can move objects with their minds. 19% believe fortune tellers and psychics can foresee the future. 16% believe Bigfoot is a real creature. The punchline to all of this, 5% of Americans hold all seven of those beliefs and only 25.3% hold none of those. Again, this is from Chapman University in 2017 on paranormal beliefs. So, let’s talk about untouchability as one of the reasons for the prevalence or the ubiquity of these beliefs, why, and also how, does this tie into a New York Times article that you read?
Jonathan Engel: It is clear. That’s frightening to think that that many people believe these things. Although, I would say that one of the things that’s interesting is that a lot of everyday Americans would look at something like that, at least the ones who don’t believe those kinds of things. And I know it is only 25% who don’t believe any of them, but many of that 25% would look at those things and say – and laugh and chuckle, “Oh, boy, I can’t believe the things people believe. But how different is any of that then to believing in literal religious beliefs, mainline religious beliefs.” But taking them literally, as fundamentalist Christians do, as ultra-Orthodox Jews do, it is not that there’s no difference, but simply believing in something for which there was no evidence and that absolutely defies the laws of nature. And recently, we’ve seen the harm that can be done. I’m thinking about the situation with Covid in this country. And it is pretty clear by now that the United States has had the worst response and continues to have the worst response to Covid of any Western nation. And there’s any number of reasons for this.
But I think one of the reasons that people are afraid to say it, hesitant to say it, is because religion is so sacrosanct in this country, by which I mean fundamentalist religious beliefs. And we’re seeing that just this past Saturday, there have been several articles in The New York Times and there have been articles going for the last few days about an outbreak of Covid in Orthodox Jewish areas. Both in Brooklyn and in New York City and in some small communities that are just a little bit north of New York City. And in response to those outbreaks, Governor Cuomo, for the state, and Mayor de Blasio, for New York City, have imposed some new restrictions. Like many places, when you get an outbreak, there are restrictions, then we slowly come out of those restrictions. But then when you get an outbreak, you have to re-impose them. So, almost reimposing restrictions on areas, many of which are home to large ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. They have gone crazy. They sued Cuomo. They’re yelling, “It is anti-Semitism.” And believe me, I’m sensitive to anti-Semitism [Ed. Engel is Jewish.], but I know it when I see it. And this isn’t it.
Anti-Semitism certainly exists. It is a terrible problem still in this world and this country and this city. But like I said, I know when I see it and this isn’t it. They’re not being targeted because they’re Jewish, no matter how much they want to say they are. They are being targeted because they’re not following the basic guidelines and, therefore, they’re having an outbreak. And that outbreak affects, endangers, everybody, everybody in the USA, every single person. My wife, kids, and I, my 96-year-old mother and everybody in New York City. Everybody in the state is endangered when people don’t follow these rules. And the thing that’s interesting is, I find, mainstream news sources like The Times don’t want to come right out and say this. They’re saying, “We need to follow the science. We need to follow the science,” but they don’t take it to the next step and say, “Why aren’t some people following the science?” And the answer is: Some people don’t believe in it. People believe that there’s this sky deity that protects them, which will protect them from Covid or doesn’t reward them. For being, I don’t know, selfish assholes. They were down here on Earth in the next life.
We’ve seen these super spreader events. In fact, one of the first outbreaks in the United States, in North America, was around the Orthodox community just a little bit north of New York. And of course, we’ve seen many fundamentalist preachers saying, “We will not shut down our churches. We will have our church meetings,” etc. In defiance not only of laws and of regulations put out by their governors, but in defiance of any common sense, and clearly, in my view, I have seen that fundamentalist religion is contrary to science. And I don’t understand that there are people who are going to church or synagogue or mosque, but they still believe in science. They compartmentalize. That’s fine for them. It is absolutely their way. When it comes to fundamentalist religion, it is simply not compatible with science. So, the response in some of these communities has been anti-science. I think it is one of the things that has caused us to have this response to Covid that has been the worst in the Western world.
Jacobsen: Now, is it Tom Friedman?
Jacobsen: Yes. He’s the writer for The New York Times. And if he’s writing some articles and he can’t even touch his ‘sacrosanct’ beliefs in the United States, in The New York Times of all publications, where does this leave even mainstream discussion on religious issues? If you can’t openly, even gently, critique some of the fundamentalist religious ideas pervasive in the United States, especially based on the Chapman University survey, why aren’t even fringe paranormal beliefs able to be critiqued? This, by implication, only leaves neutral or positive commentary on fundamentalist religious beliefs or personal beliefs? I think that’s a natural implication of that conclusion of those two premises in the argument. If you have a pervasive set of fundamentalist religious beliefs and personal religious beliefs in the United States, and if you can’t speak opposingly to them in public fora, then you can only speak neutrally or positively about them. So, this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, which is a problem. It emboldens an anti-intellectualism in a negatively ignorant culture.
Engel: Yes, I think that that’s absolutely true. And it is a big problem. Talking about Tom Friedman, who, by the way, is a smart guy, it is not like I don’t think he knows. Last Wednesday, they are talking about Covid. So, it is like speaking of “Mother Nature.” So, it is one of the things for the questions you have. The answer is: It is your adaptive response to the virus. Grounded in chemistry, biology and physics, because that is all I am, if it is grounded instead in politics, ideology, markets and an election calendar, you will fail and your community will equally pay. Now, what’s interesting, in his response, you’re going to have to pay a price for your response to Covid if it is grounded in politics or ideology or markets or an election calendar, but he doesn’t mention religion.
And I think he knows that if your Covid response is grounded in – I think it is like Stevie Wonder – profound superstition, if you believe in things you don’t understand, you’re going to suffer. This is the same thing with this country again. It is religious beliefs that are so sacrosanct that they wouldn’t touch them. Now, listen, if you want to believe certain aspects of nonsense things, and if they don’t hurt anybody else, then go right ahead. I’m a big believer in the First Amendment, but like all the rights that are enumerated in the Constitution.
It is not absolute freedom of religion. Freedom to practice is not absolute free exercise of religion and not an absolute. Things can go right to swinging your fist at my nose, when you start hurting people. And this whole thing is the perfect proving grounds for that because nobody gets Covid in isolation. You have Covid. You have the disease. You are a danger to everybody else. And there’s the danger. Everything comes close to them. I actually see these Trump rallies with thousands of lunatics without masks, which I think, by the way, we’re going to get another glimpse of today. It is one thing to say, “What? They want to go there and endanger their lives. Go right ahead.” The problem is that the same guy who goes to a Trump rally on the way home when he stops at the 7-Eleven to buy himself a soda. He’s endangering the folks and anybody else within that 7-Eleven. So, this is not the type of thing that’s restricted to you. So, your religious beliefs. You can go ahead and have all in your life.
If you want to think that God will protect you from Covid, you can go ahead and take the job of protecting people. But if you don’t wear a mask, you’re endangering me. And I don’t think God will protect me from Covid. So, you have your right to your religious beliefs, but you don’t have the right to put me into danger. And you’re putting me in danger. You can’t, or at least you shouldn’t, be able to hide behind, “This is my religious belief,” in order to just go ahead to leave dangerous practices that endanger me. But again, we talk about the importance of following the science. You see so many people talk about following the science, but in this country, only few of them. I’m talking to people that you see on TV, the politicians and pundits or whatever, few of them are willing publicly to make that connection that we have to follow the science. And if you’re not following the science, whether it is because you think Trump is Superman, or whether it is because you think your religion is going to stamp out Covid. You’re not following the science. That’s a danger. But they won’t be connected to the religion. And I think that, in and of itself, is a real danger and a real problem.
Jacobsen: There is some research by people who are serious and sober into the subject matter of critical thinking and working to combat these beliefs openly in public. Apparently, a more aggressive and assertive and firm approach to individuals who harbor these beliefs does the opposite. They go home. They simmer, maybe. They become more entrenched in non-reality-based beliefs. If not the overarching non-reality-based belief structures, in fact, if they become more entrenched in individual beliefs, they become more entrenched in the overarching structure that holds the individual beliefs. So, the gentle, slow approach is the most effective. However, it is difficult to maintain when there’s so much nonsense around in the United States. What is it you find that works?
Engel: Yes, I hear you. And I believe in research and evidence. And if that’s what the research evidence shows, and I can make some common sense, then I think that’s the way we have to go; it brings up two problems. One is what is just in my head. My head may want to explode. I want to scream at these people, but I won’t outside of our conversation, because I understand what you’re saying. But the problem with Covid is that that’s a slow process and Covid kills people quickly. So, yes, and listen, I give a lot of props, because they are taking a firm stand now with the ultra-Orthodox Jews. The fact that they are taking a firm stand now. And that’s not going to help them politically. I understand what you’re saying, but the problem that they are facing again is the immediacy of this. And I can see we are taking the gentle, slower approach just saying, “Hey, let’s talk about what you think.” The idea is to get people thinking. You can’t yell at people, “You have to change. You’re an idiot. You can’t do that,” but I can understand that. But they don’t effectuate change. But again, the difficulty that we’re seeing here is that that’s a wonderful long term project, but Covid is with us in the short term and it kills quickly. So, whereas I see the point that we are trying to change the minds of people who are in fundamentalist religion, it is going to be a slow and gentle process and one that has the best chance of working. I also say that right now; someone like Governor Cuomo doesn’t have the luxury of doing this slow process directly, not necessarily in terms of beliefs, but in terms of practices he had to confront this directly and quickly. He had no choice; because, otherwise, we could be back in a second wave seeing thousands of people dying again.
Jacobsen: Jon, as always, thanks so much for your time.
Engel: My pleasure, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). 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 the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.
*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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