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Ask Jon 10 – Say a Prayer for Me, Mr. Cuomo


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/06/18

Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New YorkHere we talk about God and the Governor of New York.

*Interview conducted on May 11, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I want to touch on two points, as covered before. Prime Minister Trudeau, son of the late Pierre Trudeau, made statements on the coronavirus. His remarks were, more or less, on the idea of Canadian citizens deserving more than thoughts and prayers. He did not denigrate those who wish to use the language and have the sensibility. He was making the argument that the general population – religious and non-religious, in other words – need more than this in times of crisis, especially in a shooting. In New York, Cuomo impressed you, others, and me, stating God did not reduce the numbers of deaths and incidences of coronavirus, but people did. This is along the same line of thinking that we’re seeing more and more with Iceland under Katrín Jakobsdóttir. She speaks to mass testing. Same with South Korea. New Zealand under Jacinda Ardern, an agnostic. It is a foundational common element of non-religion’s general focus on science. It is an operationalism as foundational. So, with New York, what is more likely to make most of New York operationalistic, naturalistic about the world, scientific?

Jonathan Engel: I think, New York is a big state in terms of geography. About half of the population or more lives in New York City. When you include the suburban areas of New York and New York City, I went to college at the University of Buffalo. Obviously, Upstate is its own thing. But New York State is dominated by New York City. New York City is a cosmopolitan place. It is a place with a lot of different people from a lot of different places. We call ourselves a city of immigrants. We are! My father was an immigrant born in Canada. We are a city of immigrants. So, a lot of people come here. We are more like, in New York City, other Western countries than other states in the United States. Because the United States has a very heavy level of religiosity among the people more so than other Western countries, but New York City, in particular, and New York State as well. Andrew Cuomo is a child of New York City. His father was the Governor of New York too. He spent part of his time growing up in Albany, but a lot of time in Queens before Mario Cuomo became governor of New York.

So, he’s a New York City guy in a lot of ways too. He wouldn’t say this because he feels the need to represent New York State. He is a New York City guy. In New York City, there is less of that kind of religious influence, especially the extreme religious influence. There are pockets of it because there are pockets of Hasidic Jews, but they tend to be very insular. They don’t affect the rest of the culture as much as Evangelicals as somewhere in the Midwest. In, again, the city, it’s very cosmopolitan. It is more influenced as if by Europe. When people talk about socialism in parts of Europe, it is not something people in New York will be bothered by, as much as people in other parts of the country. This has helped us. The cosmopolitan aspect of the city is why it got hit so fast. So many people come into the city for business, for tourism with 40,000,000 tourists per year. We live – literally – on top of each other. It is not surprising that New York City was one of the first places to get hit so hard in the United States. Right now, if you look at the trends of coronavirus in America, the only place where it is going down is New York. Everywhere else is going up. Cuomo has been very good person to listen to, because he tells the truth, doesn’t sugar coat things. You get the real deal from him rather than listening to the Task Force from the federal government from Trump and Pence.

Who knows what you’re going to hear from these people? Partly, it seems like the nature of New York. We are not going to engage. You don’t have to convince that many people that if you have to social distance; that that’s going to be something to help solve the problem. Whereas, saying, “We have to get in a church and pray this away.” You have pockets of ultra-Orthodox Jews, but you don’t have the kind of religious fervour, as in other parts of the country. With people – literally – saying, “Jesus will save. I will hug my congregants. Jesus will protect them.” You have people with this form of magical thinking. But is not as prevalent in New York, again, I am a New Yorker [Laughing]…

Jacobsen: …[Laughing]…

Engel: …So, take that with a grain of salt. Some, they may want to go to church or synagogue for various reasons because that’s what they’ve always done. They love the community. They will turn around and say, “As long as we pray, the coronavirus will stay away from us,” which will obviously make it worse. It has not happened. We have 80,000 people dead, even so, and rising. Just as we’re talking about the magical thinking of religion, in the Trump White House, you have Trump saying, “I believe this is going to go down to zero. When it is April, and it gets warmer, it will go down.” ‘I believe…,’ ‘I think…,’ what do you mean? “That’s what I think.” That’s nothing. It is what you want, but what you want and what’s real aren’t the same thing. Again, Trump uses the language of religion, even while not religious. Even though, he panders about religion. In some ways, it is the same thing. What is its basis? With religious people, it is based on a book written thousands of years ago, who did not know the germ theory of disease. With Trump, it is just “I am smarter than everyone. So, what I say must have value, because, I am so much smarter than anyone else. I do not have to bother with research and learning.” A lot of people buy into it.

A lot of people in this country say, “You know, I like a guy who knows what he thinks and knows what he believes, and that’s that.” You get less of this in New York than other parts of the country. I am saying, “That’s what I believe,” right? You don’t see protests in churches saying, “We demand churches open up and get packed,” in New York City. So, I do know that for a fact. It has helped New York. In New York, the rate is going down. If you look at the country without New York, then the rate continues to climb, to go up.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jon.

Engel: Okay, thank you!


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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