Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Vol. 37 No. 04 May 2020
Julia Sweeney (Photo by Ingrid Laas)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

FFRF contacted its distinguished honorary board presidents during these strange and stressful times to catch up with them, to find out how they’re doing and to see if they have any thoughts of how we can best weather the coronavirus crisis.


Edward Sorel (Satiric cartoonist and irreverent illustrator)

What are you up to these days?

I’ve been working on my book Profusely Illustrated, which Knopf plans to publish in 2021. Although the jacket calls it a memoir, it is also a political expose. As I tell the story of my life, I interrupt my narrative to describe the criminal and unconstitutional acts that my president was doing at that time. Since I am now 91, that includes all the presidents from Harry Truman on down to the present autocrat.

The book will also serve as a show case for the cartoons, caricatures, and magazine illustrations I’ve done for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Ramparts, Freethought Today and The New York Times Book Review.

How are you holding up?

I’ve been freelancing ever since I was 25, so working alone is nothing new. I’ve been a widower for five years and have grown accustomed to living alone. Living in solitary confinement hasn’t disrupted my life as much as it has others.

Advice for others?

To those who can’t help praying for divine assistance in times like these, make sure you’re praying to a God who has a good record at ending worldwide catastrophes quickly, not one of those geezers who have been around forever, and still can’t seem to do anything right. What helps me at times like this is a hot bath after I’ve shut off the phone.


Susan Jacoby (Bestselling author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and program director of the Center for Inquiry)

What are you up to these days?

I’m working at home on a new book, Up From Sanctity: Why Religion Holds Women Back, to be published by Pantheon at some point in 2021. The title is, I think, self-explanatory. Publishing schedules have been totally disrupted by the pandemic, and the New York Public Library, where I work in a special room for authors, has been closed for several weeks. I am separated from my books, among other things.

How are you holding up?

Life in New York right now is so difficult in terms of everyday tasks (panic buying of Tylenol, which I need for a bum knee, is the newest problem) that it is impossible to worry about quotidian matters and actually getting the virus at the same time. This is probably a valuable evolutionary trait. Basically, New York City has turned into a hunter-gatherer society.

Advice for others?

I have no advice for others. I am disgusted by all of the moralizing op-eds about how much we are going to “learn” from this experience. There isn’t a lot of evidence for the educational value of disasters. See: How we got to World War II after World War I. If I weren’t personally involved, I suppose I would find it interesting to watch what unfolds when you elect people who are ignorant and contemptuous of science, which has indeed progressed since both World War I and the Neolithic era. As it is, I am just another person trying to work, worrying about my older friends, and generally astonished at how much everything around me resembles my grandmother’s accounts of the influenza epidemic of 1918.


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Research associate in Harvard’s psychology department and a 1996 MacArthur Fellow)

What are you up to these days?

I’ve been working on two book proposals. One is for a book called Longing to Matter: The Story of What Makes Us Human. The other is for a book requested from me by the philosophy editor at Oxford University Press that will be an easy-breezy introduction to philosophy’s major 10 problems. Don’t you worry — there’ll be a chapter on “Is God Real?” 

How are you holding up?

The consuming rage I’ve been feeling for the last few years as we all watch in horror as major institutions of democracy are dismantled has been overcome by . . . well, I guess the word is just sadness. The level of suffering and death is overwhelming. But here’s something I’ve discovered about myself during this pandemic. I can’t work when I’m enraged. I know that for many people anger can be creatively energizing but for me anger is just draining. It’s just impotent rage. But sadness? Sadness, especially of this kind, just makes me stop concentrating on the villains and feel love for all the rest of humanity in all its frailty, and that’s a creative state for me. Hello darkness, my old friend.

Advice for others?

You know, some evolutionary psychologists have theorized over what the adaptive value of psychological depression could possibly be and have come up with the view that it forces you to step out of your life, just put it all on hold, and re-evaluate why your life choices have brought you to this place.  I’m not endorsing this explanation of depression, and of course I’m not saying that it’s  our own personal life choices that have brought on a world pandemic. But what I would say is that having to put our lives on hold for a while opens up a huge space for serious reflection on what matters.  And the sense of shared vulnerability also opens up a place for greater compassion and forgiveness for any grievances we might have been harboring, sometimes for years.  I’ve gotten in touch with a few people with whom I’d severed ties just to find out how they were doing, as if nothing had ever happened between us, and the results have been mutually beneficial.  There’s nothing like a world-wide pandemic to give one a little perspective.


Daniel C. Dennett (Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy
at Tufts University)

What are you up to these days?

I’ve been working on a debate book with philosopher Gregg Caruso, on free will and ‘just deserts.’ It’s almost finished and will be published soon.

How are you holding up?

My wife and I are very fortunate. We’re safe and sound in our own home in relatively low-covid Maine, and we have found a grocery store that will take email shopping lists and do curbside delivery.

Advice for others?

Read a book a day!


Jerry Coyne (Professor of ecology and evolution
at the University of Chicago)

What are you up to these days?

I’m finishing up a book that, curiously, has nothing to do with science. It’s a children’s book about an Indian man I met in Bangalore, and about it I will say no more. Oh, except that writing a children’s book is extremely challenging. It’s a genre with its own rules and conventions and requires a lot of work. Everybody thinks they can write one, but it’s not that easy!

How are you holding up?

Like everyone else, I am frustrated at my plans that will not be fulfilled. Everybody has their own gripes. Mine is that I planned to travel this summer and fall and that no longer seems realistic. But compared to those who have lost friends and loved ones, or have become unemployed, this is a minor quibble. I consider myself lucky to have escaped the virus (so far), and am catching up on a lot of reading.

Advice for others?

I’m not an expert. Everyone has their own way of coping. My own take (which can be construed as advice) is that we should be prepared for this to last a lot longer than many people think, and certainly longer than Donald Trump implies. I am starting to wonder if universities might even cancel their fall semesters.


Michael Newdow (Doctor and lawyer)

What are you up to these days?

I’m afraid I don’t have much to report at the moment. I just lost a case in the 1st Circuit (challenging the “so help me God” phrase in the immigration oath). I may file a Petition for Rehearing, although that will undoubtedly be futile. I still plan to try another challenge or two to “In God We Trust” on our money. I have a ton of other ideas, but far too many “to do” items to get to them right now.

How are you holding up?

I’m holding up fine in the pandemic. I’m an ER doc, so I don’t know how long that will be true, but, for now, things are OK.


Julia Sweeney (Comedian, actress)

What are you up to these days?

This last year has been one of acting in TV shows. I was on three shows this last year, and two of them have been picked up for additional seasons, so that means a lot of this coming year will be spent on doing those acting jobs. I’m on “Shrill” on Hulu, “Work in Progress” on Showtime, and “American Gods” on Starz. Each job has been a complete joy and that seems like it must be untrue, but it’s not. Truly each show is like a child to me and I cannot choose which one I love best.

I was also scheduled to film my one-person show “Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider” as a comedy special, but it was cancelled because of the quarantine. I will be working to film that show when it’s possible. Other than that, I’m working on a podcast idea I have about Catholicism, and I have a TV idea, too. 

How are you holding up?

If I wasn’t so upset about how much suffering is out there, how much suffering that is going to take place, and rage over the ineptness of our federal response to this crisis (all those things are a big emotional hit on my psyche) I would be in a constant state of bliss. I love being home. I love being told I have to stay at home. I love not thinking anyone else is doing anything, so I don’t even have to be burdened with feeling I want to be somewhere. I love it top to bottom. I could go on this way for years. Hell, maybe I will!

I am reading so much (Boccaccio’s Decameron and Mary Beard’s History of Rome at the moment) and I’m watching great film and television. I’m cooking like crazy, organizing all the time and not too rushed either. I love that I don’t know what day of the week it is. I love being with my husband and daughter all the time. I love making our house our entire world. I love what this quarantine is doing to me psychologically — it’s altering my plans for the future. I want to do and write and participate in different things. I want to do more thoughtful things, fewer things, deeper things. It’s transformed my relationships and made me realize who I truly care about and who I can let go of. It’s actually been quite profound.

Advice for others?

Hmmm . . . read and watch. Do nothing. Stare at stars at night. Eat what you want when you feel like it. Just looking at what I wrote, I am overcome by my privilege. I am so glad not to have a gaggle of kids at home, or be preoccupied with money worries, or not like my husband and daughter, or be forced to work when I don’t feel safe working — all of these are things that are happening.

So I guess I alter my advice and say this: This Too Shall Pass. We will get beyond this.   


Ron Reagan (Media commentator)

What are you up to these days?

I have recently remarried. My new bride is Italian and we spend half our year in Tuscany. I still show up on TV, though not as regularly. I’m working on a novel (but don’t hold your breath!).

How are you holding up?

Since I’ve always been rather solitary (albeit with a significant other), social distancing has been less disruptive for me than many others. We, like so many people, have explored baking at home — my wife, Federica, does the hard part; I arrive for the sampling.

Advice for others?

Think about what you miss. Also, what you don’t miss — dirtier air and water, noise, cruise ships, etc. Ask yourself how we fashion a better world on the other side of this calamity.


Steven Pinker (Johnstone Professor of Psychology
at Harvard, bestselling author)

What are you up to these days?

I’m teaching a new general education course at Harvard called “Rationality,” divided evenly between the basic tools of rationality (logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, statistical decision theory, game theory, etc.), the psychology of rationality (cognitive heuristics and biases and how they can be overcome), and applications of rationality (sports, crime, war, medicine, journalism, philanthropy, climate change). I added a lecture on “Rationality in a Time of Coronavirus,” applying the concepts learned in the course to understanding the pandemic.

How are you holding up?

I am among the lucky ones, not just healthy and having healthy loved ones, but securely employed (Harvard gets its tuition whether students are in class or using Zoom), introverted enough not to miss the face-to-face contact, and in good company (with 2011 Freethought Heroine Rebecca Newberger Goldstein).

Advice for others?

Recall that disease is not divine retribution or any other symbolic message-bearer, but an inherent part of life on Earth as it evolved. Organisms are opportunistic, and our bodies and cellular machinery are irresistible targets of tiny organisms in their struggle to replicate. All species have evolved defenses against pathogens — sexual reproduction, an immune system — yet our species has evolved a unique one, namely reason. We can know our enemy and figure out new ways to defeat it. It is human ingenuity and sympathy that empowers us to believe that we will prevail, and more quickly than our ancestors did when faced with their own plagues and pestilences in the past.