New York Mayor Eric Adams' thoughtless and un-American attack on secularism shows a failure to understand what makes his own city great.

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As a New Yorker, a Democrat and an atheist, I’m not happy with Eric Adams:

At an interfaith breakfast Tuesday [February 28], Mayor Eric Adams seemed to regret the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned school-sponsored prayer in 1962.

“When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools,” Adams said to applause from hundreds of religious leaders gathered at an annual event in Manhattan.

… “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body, church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies,” Adams said.

Eric Adams: ‘When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.’” Julia Marsh, Politico, 28 February 2023.

This is the kind of historically illiterate, Christian nationalist propaganda nonsense you’d expect from a Republican in a red state. Not from a Democratic mayor in one of the country’s most progressive cities!

(Using this kind of overly simplistic post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc reasoning, you could also argue that after we took mandatory prayer out of school, civil rights acts became law and racism began to decline in America. Does this mean prayer causes racism?)

I’m aware that Black politicians often use different rhetoric around faith. The church is still a hub of political organizing in the Black community in a way that isn’t true of other Democratic voter blocs. White progressives have more room to maneuver on this issue, whereas people of color pay a heavier price for being openly irreligious.

All that said, Adams’ comments still crossed the line. There’s a big difference between expressing your own personal beliefs—or even justifying secular policy in religious language—and suggesting that religion is a cure-all to society’s ills, or that it ought to be imposed on people by the state.

When they’re made into a state ritual, prayers either have to be so vague as to be meaningless, or they have to favor some religious beliefs over others. When that happens, people who don’t participate always get treated as other-than or less-than. They become targets for harassment, bullying and retaliation when they don’t conform to the beliefs of the majority. This isn’t just an atheist concern, but a penalty that’s often been exacted against members of minority faiths, including Christians of the “wrong” kind.

After critics blasted these comments, Adams half-heartedly walked them back: “I’m going to follow the law… Government should not interfere with religion, and religion should not interfere with government.”

However, a few days later, he was back at it:

“How do we take a city that is the center of the power of America and turn it into a city, when you enter it, everyone sees faith and sees God?” the mayor said during Thursday [March 16]’s confab, held at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Our challenge is not economics. Our challenge is not finance. Our challenge is faith. People have lost their faith.”

…Adams described his childhood and how his mother, who died weeks before his inauguration, would emphasize the importance of people feeling and seeing God when they walked into their home.

“Mommy used to say to the six of us, she says, ‘When people walk into this house, do they feel God? Do they see God? Do they feel the energy of God?'” he said. “So here’s my question. Our home is New York City. When people walk into this city, when they get off the bus, when the asylum seekers come in, when they enter the city for the first time at JFK or Amtrak — do they feel God?”

Mayor Adams wants NYC to be a ‘place of God,’ calls on faith leaders and NYers to pitch in.” Michael Gartland, New York Daily News, 16 March 2023.

Again, there’s a fine line when it comes to what kind of religious language is appropriate from an elected official. Eric Adams isn’t close to that fine line. He’s way over there, out on the far side of it.

As an atheist, I don’t appreciate elected officials presuming to tell me what to believe or telling me that I’m the problem. And I’m not alone. According to Pew data, NYC’s population is 59% Christian of various flavors, with a slim majority of those being Roman Catholic; 16% other religions, predominantly Judaism; and 24% nonreligious. This makes it the most religiously diverse big city in the United States.

Even without considering nonbelievers like me, all those different faiths will have drastically different ideas about what it would mean for new arrivals in the city to “see” or “feel” God. Trying to put Adams’ vision into practice wouldn’t just be constitutionally foolish, it would be impossible. It’s incoherent from the beginning.

What makes this especially strange is that Eric Adams himself isn’t orthodox. Although he calls himself a Christian, his own religious beliefs might politely be described as unconventional. More bluntly, I’d call them a mishmash of pseudoscience and New Age woo-woo:

He learned that New York sits on a store of rare gems and stones, and believes that as a result, “there’s a special energy that comes from here.” On his right wrist he wears a pair of multi-colored energy stone bracelets. He has read several books by Joe Dispenza, a neuroscientist and faculty member at Honolulu’s Quantum University whose bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, teaches that we can transform our physical and emotional state through the teachings of quantum physics. “If you were to take your attention off your life or get beyond the memory of your life,” Dispenza writes, “your life should turn into possibility.” On stage with Adams on election night was another Quantum University faculty member, Bindu Babu, an integrative medicine practitioner and reiki instructor whom Adams appointed to his health transition team in December.

…Adams is in a partnership with Tracey L. Collins, an educator who lives in Fort Lee, N.J, though he declined to tell me what year they entered a relationship.

…According to Adams, Collins will not be New York’s first lady, even unofficially… But she does call with advice and, occasionally, with premonitions.

“Actually, I feel she’s clairvoyant,” Adams says. “She tells me things. You know, ‘Listen, you need to watch out for this.’ ‘You need to watch out for that.’ ‘This was something that came to me.'”

Adams did not provide specifics. But, he says: “She’s always dead on.”

The New Identity Politics of Eric Adams.” Ruby Cramer, Politico, 11 March 2022.

Given the soggy bowl of room-temperature cereal that constitutes Eric Adams’ worldview, it’s tempting to dismiss his remarks about secularism as similarly uninformed and thoughtless. They weren’t the product of any kind of coherent philosophy or ideology. More likely, it was just a mindless, shoot-from-the-hip hot take by a mayor who blurts out whatever half-baked idea sounds good to him in the moment.

After all, there’s no large, influential constituency in New York clamoring to inject more religion into government. This wasn’t something Adams said as appeasement, because he was yielding to political pressure. It was his own idea. He must have said it because he genuinely believes it, or at least he believed it in that moment.

It’s not threatening, per se. Adams doesn’t have any real power to impose religion on New Yorkers. But these remarks display a profound failure on his part to understand what makes New York City the great metropolis that it is.

New York isn’t a city of God, but a city of liberty. That statue in our harbor isn’t holding a cross, after all.

It’s flourished through the ages because it’s a place where everyone is welcome, whatever their beliefs. It’s thrived because it’s a place where everyone is free to pursue the good life in whatever form they find it. New York at its best moments has been a beacon and a refuge for people fleeing oppression. That includes the religious kind.

Religion has often functioned as an oppressive force, trying to box people into rigidly defined roles. That’s especially true when it’s the kind of religion imposed by the state, rather than the kind people choose for themselves. That’s what was so offensive about Adams’ remarks. Over and above their historical ignorance and shoddy reasoning, they display a gross lack of respect for the constitutional guarantees of secularism that he, us, and all Americans have benefited so much from.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...