Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about ongoing problems with religious ethics in practice in critical times.
*Interview conducted August 30, 2021.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, today we’re going to be focusing on mandates around COVID, and religious institutions and the State. With regards to COVID in America now, one: what are some of the numbers or general census around the country? Also, what’s the impact of exclusions for religion when it comes to mandates from the State? How does this play out in New York State along religious and non-religious lines?
Jonathan Engel: Well, good question. Basically, in the United States as a whole right now, you’re seeing very high spikes and very difficult circumstances surrounding COVID in certain states. And not surprisingly, the states that are having the worst uptick of COVID tend to be those states that have the lowest vaccination rates. And they also happen to be states that — for the most part — are in the south and the middle of the country. You have Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and Tennessee as well. Now, this is what we in this country call the ‘Bible Belt’, not surprisingly. It’s very conservative, very religious, and those are the areas that are seeing really bad COVID spikes. We’re talking about hospitals that are absolutely full. We’re talking about affecting younger and younger people.
Some young people who are in their 20s and 30s or whatever, are somewhat cavalier about COVID at first. But the Delta variant, it was thought that this affects old people, but the Delta variant is hitting young people, sometimes very young people. It’s also just absolutely overwhelming. We’re talking about one hospital in Mississippi, University of Mississippi Medical Centre, the biggest hospital in the state, turned their parking garage into an extra intensive care centre because they just didn’t have any space. They’re really being overwhelmed. Here in New York, things are not that bad. But again, New York is one of the more highly vaccinated states. We have managed to keep things fairly manageable, not saying people aren’t still getting COVID here, but also remember we’re kind of scared.
I know I am, because every day in this country, there are buses going from every city and small town in the country to New York City. ‘If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.’ We’re nervous. I’m nervous, about people coming from other states and not being vaccinated and spreading the Delta variant here. I think that’s a real fear. So, that’s really where things stand in the country right now. Now, here in New York City, unfortunately — again, things are going not too badly — but there’s a lot of confusion about what you’re allowed to do, and not allowed to do, where you have to prove vaccination, and where you have to wear a mask. Fortunately in the schools — my wife is going back to teaching in a couple of weeks — they have mandates for all adults in the building must be vaccinated and everybody has to wear a mask. So, you feel a little bit better about that. But houses of worship are having an interesting time.
You have different religions and different denominations of religion. They seem to be dealing with the COVID crisis differently. For example, I read recently how reformed Jewish synagogues — which is, of course, the least religious — a lot of them are having vaccine mandates. You want to come to the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are coming up. You want to go to the service. You have to show proof of your vaccination. I actually have an Excelsior pass. You go online and get the petition by the state. I keep one on my phone that shows that I’m vaccinated. On the other hand, the ultra orthodox, the Hasidic are fighting against any kind of mandates for vaccination. The city is sort of taking both sides.
The city government doesn’t want to offend the ultra religious and on the other hand doesn’t want a spike in COVID, so they’re sort of running into each other without knowing what the heck they’re doing. The Catholic Church is sort of leaving it up to individual perishes. The Pope is saying people should get vaccinated, but then you have some very conservative Catholics in this country and in the city who are emphasizing ‘it should be a matter of personal choice, there shouldn’t be any mandates.’ One of the interesting things that you’re seeing is that with some churches and houses of worship in general, they lost money when they had to shut down because of COVID. Because a lot of them rely on people coming every Sunday or Saturday, depending on what religion it is, and putting money into the collection plate.
On the one hand, they know that if there’s an outbreak centered on their community it’ll be devastating. On the other hand they know if they say they require vaccinations, people who are anti-vaccination-mandates won’t come, and they’ll lose money. They don’t really know what the heck to do with regard to the COVID situation. As an individual — well I don’t go to houses of worship, I guess, except for, maybe, a wedding or a bar mitzvah once in a while — I would not go if it wasn’t mandatory vaccine, any indoor event. Outdoors, I would be a little less wary of, but any indoor event, if they don’t require vaccines, I ain’t going. How this is all gonna play out? We’re not sure. This is some of what’s going on with the local churches and synagogues. The less religious they are, the more progressive they are politically, the more likely they are to have a vaccine mandate to come inside and participate in services or mass or whatever it is.
The more religious they are, the less likely they are to agree to those kinds of mandates, and it leaves everybody else, including me, nervous about a big outbreak. You can’t confine a big outbreak. If someone goes to an Orthodox synagogue, with no masks, no vaccine requirements, they’re gonna leave that neighborhood. They’re going to get on the subway. I ride the subway. Right now, everyone’s keeping their fingers crossed, and kind of nervous. Organized religion, again, the less religious among us seem to be doing their part, more or less. The more religious among us are not, and as we all know, when it comes to COVID, there’s no confining it to one place.
Jacobsen: How are the non-religious discussing some of these issues? Is this coming up at all? Or is it mainly coming through commentary in the New York Times and through leaders noticing this but not having a formal discussion in public about it?
Engel: I think that there’s such a taboo about saying something against religion in this country. You see in Bangladesh, from people who are vaccinated against people who aren’t vaccinated, people who refuse to get vaccinated. We’re getting pissed off that we could be so much better and safer than we are, if people would just roll up their sleeves, it’s free! Hell, in a lot of places, they’ll give you something to do it. Very few make the connection between that refusal to get vaccinated and religion, but the connection is there. Obviously, it’s not 100%. There are a lot of people who refuse to get vaccinated where it doesn’t have anything to do with religious beliefs, but it is a very strong indicator, like we were just talking about.
If you meet a person who refuses to get vaccinated, there is a very good chance that they belong to a religion or a sect that is more fundamentalist and more extreme in their religious beliefs. People don’t want to say it — hell, I’ll say it — a lot of people don’t want to say it and they don’t want to admit it. There is backlash against the unvaccinated in a lot of places and some anger brewing, but the connection to the religious beliefs has been a lot of people don’t want to make it. They can see the connection is there, the correlation is there. There are a lot of ministers out there saying, ‘We will not wear their masks. It’s the sign of the devil.’ I don’t understand a lot of this stuff. ‘The vaccine is a sign of the antichrist,’ or something, I don’t even understand any of that. People are not making that connection, and they really should, at least not in public. I would like to think that in our movement away from heavy duty religiosity in this country, which is being spearheaded by young people — young people tend to be much less religious than their parents — that they are saying, ‘We want to go back to normal. We want to solve this COVID crisis.’ We can see that organized religion, especially extremist organized religion is something that’s getting in the way in our fight against COVID.
Jacobsen: How do you think this is changing demographic attitudes about supernatural ideas, not just religion in general?
Engel: Well, let’s put it this way. From a theoretical point of view, I think it is changing attitudes. It would make sense that we change attitudes. That people would see how many religious people who prayed, et cetera, got COVID and died from it. Not just that, but also at a time when it seems like it’s a public good or a common good for everybody to get vaccinated, I think that they can see that extremist religion is a force against that. Not just a force against that, but also, it’s not helping anybody. There are religious people all over the place who are falling dead from COVID. I would think, at least theoretically, that you’d make that connection, especially a young person who might be open to new ideas, and say, ‘If that doesn’t work, if praying has not saved people from dying from COVID, maybe, we should rethink this whole prayer thing in general,’ and make that sort of connection. In many places, there is obviously a very big reluctance to look at things in that logical sense.
Remember, this is something I always ask, “Where do kids learn that believing in something for which there is no evidence is not only okay, but a great virtue?” And that’s in church. And it’s breaking that area of beliefs that, I think, can help advance the concept of secularism and rejection of the supernatural, which is there. With young people especially, if they can escape that belief that somehow believing in something for which there is no evidence is a sign that you’re a good person, and if you don’t believe that, you’re a bad person. I think that’s a poor concept of how we break the stranglehold of religion and anti-science in this country, which is destroying that concept that we should always believe that if someone has faith; they believe in something for which they have no evidence; that’s a sign of them being a good person, as opposed to it being a sign that they’re a delusional person, a non-scientific person. A person who has some sort of mental illness, perhaps. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t do you good, or anybody any good, to believe in something for which there is no evidence.
Jacobsen: Many of these ideas are coming out of the idea of an interventionist God to save them from the Coronavirus. Fundamentally, this is around how we behave with ourselves and towards others. That’s ethics. So, this ethic is grounded in divine intervention. By definition, that’s an ethic of transcendentalism, or supernaturalist ethics.
Engel: That’s a fascinating concept.
Jacobsen: With a majority concept to the world around ethics — probably 84% of the world is religious, something like this — so, what is this saying about supernatural ethics? It doesn’t do anything. Yet, most of the world has a moral map built on that. Is this saying that most Americans, for instance, most of the population, is not grounding their ethical decision making, their ethical decision tree, in the real world?
Engel: Yeah, and you see what happens when that is the case, but absolutely, that’s a very strong point. You do not get a vaccine because you think God is going to protect you. What is that saying to the rest of your community? You are not acting as an ethical person in that case because you are putting other people’s lives at risk. It’s interesting how many people say, ‘Well, people just don’t want the government telling them what to do.’ They want anarchy? I don’t think they want anarchy. The government in this country tells us that we have to drive on the right hand side of the road. So, we’re going to have someone say, ‘I don’t want the government telling me what to do. I’m going to drive on the left-hand side of the road.’ This is the nature of not just an ethical society, but of any society. We have rules. How did we come to those rules? Well, by common consensus.
The rules are necessary for us in order to live our lives in any kind of safety. To have any kind of decency and common good in a county, we need to have certain rules. There’s no problem questioning the rules. You can ask a question, but that doesn’t mean that the rules shouldn’t apply to you or shouldn’t exist. When you put yourself in God’s hands… I remember a few years ago, reading a story about a very religious woman in Florida who was driving in her car, and she lost control of the car. Fortunately, she was not hurt and nobody else was hurt, but boy did she demolish a house. And afterward, she said, ‘I sort of lost control, and then just I closed my eyes and put my faith in Jesus, and that’s what I did.’ I think it’s a strong point that you’re making that not only is that deluded and crazy, but it’s also unethical. When she did that, what she said was ‘You are putting your beliefs which are not supported by any evidence, and not only risking your own life but risking the lives of other people.’ That is unethical.
To not get vaccinated is unethical, because it’s putting at risk other people in your community, especially children, who can’t get vaccinated, it’s funny; there used to be a saying that people talk about that your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. You have your rights, but you can’t hurt me. And now, today, it seems like there are people in this country whose idea is more like your getting punched in the nose is the price we pay for the right to swing my fist. That is not ethical. I don’t care if you base that on religion or on anything else. That is simply not ethical. And that is something that is worrisome and frightening and hopefully something that at least most Americans would be against. The idea that I can do whatever I want and it doesn’t matter if it hurts. Individual freedom is great, but I go back to the old one. You have your right to swing your fist around, but that right ends at my nose. You have the right to be a little crazy, but if it puts other people in danger… including being religious, you have the right to believe in the great sky deity, and all the rest of that stuff, but you do not have the right to act in an unethical way that puts other people in danger. I think that’s another important point.
Jacobsen: Good sir, thank you as always, I have to run off to another meeting.
Engel: You take care, now.
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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