Ellen Johnson: Not a Great Atheist Representative, IMO
As some readers may already know, American Atheists has dismissed Ellen Johnson as its President. In hearing about this, I decided to check out a few Johnson YouTube videos, as I hadn’t done so in quite some time. Upon watching two videos, I remembered why I never made it a point to keep an eye out for her public addresses. Before I get into why, however, I must say why I am writing this piece now, just after she has been let go.
In the interest of good taste and compassion, I was originally going to wait a week until I did this. However, after watching a few of her interviews I had to say something. I thought I would satisfy my need to speak by posting a comment at the Friendly Atheist blog. That should tie me over for a week. But while I was writing this comment I felt that I should post it at TFP right now as well.
Why? Well, quite frankly, from what I have seen, she has not impressed me as a favourable representative of rationalism and atheist public relations. Furthermore, why should I be extra sympathetic to her? Because she’s an atheist? If the Catholic League had just booted Phil Donahue, I would surely not feel compelled to hold off for a week for him (note: I’m not deliberately inviting any comparisons between Donahue and Johnson). In the interest of fairness, I absolutely should criticize an atheist spokesperson just as I would a religious spokesperson. I have cut and pasted my comment on Friendly Atheist below, though with a few additions and small modifications.
I do not know much about Ellen Johnson’s work with AA. It is the opinion of at least some AA executives that Johnson was a very hardworker, knew her stuff, was caring, and was generally a great President. Moreover, some have speculated that AA could potentially fall apart without her, as it will surely be hard to find someone to replace what she brought for the modest annual salary of less than $40 K.
From what I have seen of Johnson, though, I really haven’t been particularly impressed. She has not struck me as a person that conveys the rationality and intellectual honesty that the atheist community holds so dear. She has claimed flat out that there is no God and that when you die, you’re dead and that’s it. As an agnostic atheist who is strongly committed to evidence-based beliefs, I am frustrated when I see a recognized atheist representative flout rationality and intellectual honesty, as it embarrasses the public image of the atheist community and gives people reason to be believe that this group is not nearly as intellectually honest as we say we are. And this is precisely what she is doing when she pretends to know – as if there were conclusive evidence – that there absolutely is no God (specific or unspecified/deistic) and that death is absolutely the end.
She also seems to have rather poor political tact. In fact, she seems to have flat out terrible political tact. I just watched a video of her on Paula Zahn with a panel that also featured a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim, in which she said that we’re really more likely to get an enlightened perspective from a President the less religious they are. Now, there is absolutely some truth to this (e.g., all else equal, I’m going to have more confidence in the religious moderate or the secularist than the religious literalist). I definitely think that religion is corrosive to reason just as reason is corrosive to religion. However, this is absolutely not to say that the atheist candidate (if there were one) would necessarily be the best candidate. Atheists can be dogmatists, while religious people can be very liberal, compassionate, tolerant, broad and open-minded (except for when it comes to their faith), and secular, rational and fair in their political activities. In addition to this comment being so easily argued down, it was just amazingly inflamatory. If an atheist representative (and ideally any atheist) is going to make an offensive comment, they could word it a hell of a lot more tactfully than she did, and they had better be able to back up what they say in the time given. Otherwise they’re just shooting them self and the rest of us in the foot. From what I’ve seen, Ellen Johnson has shot the atheist movement in the foot a number of times.