Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about conspiracy theories and the substantial denial of the scientific method in American society.
*Interview conducted February 1, 2021.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, Canada has its own share of conspiracy theories, its own sources of spreading it. A lot of them have a lot of overlap with the United States. I’m not just talking about Bigfoot or Yeti. For the United States, those that were on the fringe entered a bit of the mainstream, got a bit of steam, impacted politics, even ended up in the deaths and murders of people. So, conspiracy theories, irrationalism, have real consequences on people’s lives. The United States, there is more freedom of thought than anywhere else in the world, by far.
So, there’s going to be a lot fewer boundaries in terms of a lot of positive things about free thought, but also a lot of the bad things about free thought in terms of the following: you can piece together any hodgepodge of materials cognitively and come up with weird theories and, hence, can become conspiracy theories. So, what are the origins of QAnon? How is this related to standard religions, as you define them in the United States, as people are taught in church and mosque and synagogue?
Engel: Well, I was curious when we watched a film, which, of course, I’ve watched so much of what happens at the Capitol on January 6. We see that there were, of course, people out there with their Trump flags, etc., and all sorts of different flags. But included, you had people, a lot of people wearing QAnon symbols and carrying QAnon banners. You also had people with banners, etc., talking about Christianity. We’re hearing the name of Jesus. I saw a film of the guy who has become known as the QAnon Shaman. Anyway, the guy with the horns and then with the fur pelts.
And the thing is he and a bunch of others of these mob mobsters, these thugs went into the Senate chamber and immediately started off with a prayer that ‘we are here in the name of Jesus Christ.’ But it’s interesting, you don’t see too many people making that connection. Because you look at QAnon which started, maybe, five years ago. It started with this idea that there was a pizza parlour in Washington D.C., where in the basement, Democrats and liberals and a worldwide conspiracy of globalists were abusing, sexually abusing, and murdering children, eating them, cannibalism, drinking their blood. Hillary Clinton, how could anybody in the world possibly believe that?
But people did. By the way, that particular pizza parlour is just a little offside the building it’s located in doesn’t have a basement. But of course, it’s in the basement where all this stuff is happening. Some died right after, in 2016, I think about the height of that insanity. Some guy drove to North Carolina to this pizza parlour with a rifle and shot into the ceiling and said, “Show me where the kids are being held.” Of course, he’s in prison now. You can almost feel bad for him because he was brainwashed. Obviously, he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, to begin with. But you think about it, they said, “Well, how can people possibly be susceptible to believing something so out there, so insane?”
And of course, it goes without saying, so evidence-free. What I think part of the answer is, “Well, where do people learn to believe in something that they have no evidence for?” My answer to that is in church, in the synagogue, in the temple, in the mosque, because that’s where they’re taught that it is not only okay to believe in something with no evidence, but it’s a sign of virtue.
“Yes, you’re a great believer. You have faith.”
You hear a choir and go, “Oh, that’s right.”
“So, you are. Aren’t you a good person? You’re a God-fearing person. That’s a good thing, right?”
Although, I always thought if God is as merciful and just as they say: Why should anybody be afraid?
But in any event, that’s where they learn the idea. I don’t see this outside of real secular circles in this country. I don’t see that being acknowledged that the problem starts there. That if anybody’s going to believe this craziness; that they become susceptible to believing things that are evidence-free, things that are really fantastical and evidence-free. They believe it. They’re taught from a very young age by religion that that’s a virtue. That it’s not only OK, but it’s a virtue to believe in such things. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that when they get older that they’re susceptible to believing things that are evidence-free, like ‘Donald Trump really won this election’ and ‘there’s widespread voter fraud.’
“Show me the evidence,” but that’s what I say; of course, they don’t have any. It doesn’t make any sense. Rudy Giuliani can go ahead and say, “I’ve got boxes full of evidence. But if he had them, why didn’t he show them to the courts that throw them out of court for the fact that he wasn’t producing any evidence? So, that connection in this country, that religious connection, of believing in things for which you have no evidence. As I said, it is not only okay, but a virtue. I think to me this needs a sociological standpoint. We should be investigating and thinking about, “Why are we susceptible to that?”
And I think that answer points to religion, but a religion in this country is so sacrosanct that very few people, not even liberal commentators, are willing to even broach that subject and talk about it. But I think, until we do, we’re in trouble because we’ve seen how these conspiracy theories do not lead anywhere good.
Jacobsen: What’s the percent of people in the United States who are, more or less, detached from a lot of the real world, detached from real information, so they can make valid judgments? If they don’t have accurate information, they can’t make valid judgments. I’m assuming an ability to make a rational discourse, even with the evidence. But just assuming that ability to rational discourse for them, individually, why is there so much disinformation around sufficing to make a large cohort of people believe en masse online?
Engel: Well, it’s interesting. When Trump was impeached for the first time, a lot of people were talking, making comparisons, and thinking about how this was similar to or different from the Nixon situation where he was actually impeached. But he resigned. He was headed toward impeachment. It’s pretty clear history believes they send him into impeachment, then quite possibly, or even probably, removal. I took offence to one of the things. That’s different today than back then; back then, if you got your news from TV, it was essentially ABC, CBS, and NBC News. They all played it pretty straight. They were not ideologically inclined to watch people, trusted Walter Cronkite with the news.
They did play it pretty straight. But today, of course, as we all know, there are many people who live within Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax, etc., which is their bubble. That’s all they hear when they turn on their news at night. They’re looking at Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. That’s a lot different than Walter Cronkite. So, if you want to believe in these types of things, and if you are susceptible to it, it is not that hard to live within a bubble. You don’t go anywhere else. That’s where you get your news from, “I watch Sean Hannity. I go online to Breitbart. That’s where I get my news.”
So, we’re in that situation, which is very perilous for us. I do believe because people who are, again, susceptible to magical thinking almost from birth with their indoctrination into religion, then they’re susceptible to magical thinking. Then they go into an information bubble that feeds them only extreme rightwing talking points. They’re already susceptible to believing in things that have no evidence or etc. This is what you wind up with. You wind up with a whole bunch of QAnon believers. Although, I do think one thing that’s a little help is how these people really believed that Trump had some sort of magical power and that there’s no way that Biden was going to be inaugurated.
I read a few people. QAnon believers saying things like, “I was duped, wrong the whole time.” Here’s a hint. You were. But they were wrong the whole time. “I believe,” but Joe Biden gets inaugurated and right up until the moment he said “so help me God,” which, by the way, he doesn’t have to say to be inaugurated. But that’s another issue. But right up until the point, you said it, “I believe that something was going to happen, literally believe that police are going to swoop down and arrest them before he can take the oath of office and carry them away.” When it didn’t happen, some of them actually were like, “Did I?,” a little self-reflection. But it’s the type of thing that happens with the end of the world cults.
The world will end on this day. The day comes and goes, it doesn’t end. There are some people in the cults who say, “I was wrong. How did I believe this?” But there are others who will continue to press even further on, “Oh, what happened was…”, as if they have an explanation. “It didn’t end that day because we got a calculation wrong. But now, we know what the real calculation is and people who will hold on to it.” I think that’s what we’re seeing now in this country. We’re seeing some former QAnon believers realizing that; maybe, this was wrong all along. But we have a lot of others who were simply, as they say, “doubling down” this, that they’re not open to the cognitive dissonance of finding out that something they believed in so strongly was a bunch of bull is too much for them.
And so instead of acknowledging that and dealing with that dissonance, they’re just saying, “No, no, no, no, no, this is still right. It didn’t happen this way because…” and they just go further into it. But again, to circle back a little bit, I think that the religious, the extremely religious, practices in this country make people susceptible to believing in things that are fantastical and have no evidence. Until we can fight us – humanity, not just this country, but the whole world can fight its – way out of that, we’re going to have these types of outbreaks of completely irrational thinking.
Jacobsen: How have you been combating this in your tenure as the president of the Secular Society of New York? There are the skeptic communities, the humanist communities, the secular humanist communities, and the religious humanist communities. But how are you combating this in New York, which is a skeptic Golden State within a secular humanist framework in particular?
Engel: It’s interesting. Politically speaking, secularists don’t have a lot of power. There’s a lot of talk among us. I was just at an event with a bunch of other humanists in the New York area, some from New Jersey, some from Connecticut, etc. There’s a lot of talk about “How do we combat this?”, and also about the idea of us as a political bloc. There’s an old, old joke that organizing atheists is like herding cats. We’re free thinkers and, therefore, we’re not likely to be in some pigeonhole and march in lockstep together, which is what you need for political power in some ways. So, there’s a lot of talk about that.
One of the things we’re doing is we’re supporting the Congressional Freethought Caucus with donations to their members, etc. It’s only 13 members so far, but we’re hoping there’ll be more. Because one of the things, one of the tenets, is just the various types. One of their tenets is that government action should be based on evidence, evidence-based and not on dogma. I think if we can get that; the scientific method is so important. I wrote an essay on this last week or something about how we talk about science denial in this country. We largely talk about the denial of hard science like climate change.
But I think one of the real problems is not just the denial of hard science, but the denial of the scientific method. The scientific method, which says, “You have a hypothesis. You’re testing. You actually try to prove it wrong, because the only way you can know if it’s right, is that you’ve tried to prove it wrong and you couldn’t. We don’t believe things without proof and evidence.” So, I think one of the ways we try to fight with that is for people to let them know “we’re here”; “we’re a bloc looking to get our votes,” but also talking about one of our primary beliefs in our belief system: The scientific method.
Then saying, “Listen, government decisions should be based on good science, and that’s it.” So, you test. You may have a hypothesis. You try it out somewhere. You see if it works, even as much as you might believe that this is the thing, “I’m sure of it. I feel it in my gut.” If the evidence shows you that it doesn’t work, then you say, “I was wrong. It didn’t work. We have to try something different.” So, what we try to do is make that idea more widely known and talk about it, and also put it on newsletters, also in our letters to our elected representatives, “We as a bloc expect you, no matter what your personal religious beliefs are, when it comes to acting on behalf of the community in your governmental jobs, we expect you to abide by science and the scientific method, and to have policies that reflect good evidence and not preconceived beliefs.”
So, that’s one of the ways we do that. Another thing is just trying to be open about who you are. So, people can understand that it’s acceptable to not have supernatural beliefs. That the person next door could be me. He’s a nice guy who will help you with this or help you carry your packages and whatever, but has no supernatural beliefs. Hopefully, that could lead a few people to start questioning their own; I can only hope. But that’s how we roll about. We try to live a life based on reason and evidence and try to do that publicly, so that people, other people, can, hopefully, understand that that’s possible. You can live a very good life without believing in things for which you have no evidence and that really aren’t there.
Jacobsen: Jon, as always, thank you so much.
Engel: It’s my pleasure, as always Scott. Listen, you take care of yourself.
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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