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.

24 Responses to “Ellen Johnson: Not a Great Atheist Representative, IMO”
  1. Doug Indeap says:

    Such pointless tactlessness can, I suppose, be passed off most charitably as youthful indiscretion. Whether your opinions of Ellen Johnson’s work are valid or specious, what’s the point? You speak of thinking about waiting a week (as if there is some virtue in that), but chose to say your piece now out of your “need to speak.” I suggest you think of your need for discretion and good judgment next time this need to speak overtakes you.

  2. Marc says:

    Ever since I’ve known about Ellen Johnson–roughly 1996–I’ve always been terribly underwhelmed by her, um, “preformance” on the job, if you can call it that.

    This post adequately reflects my feelings.

  3. L. Ron Brown says:

    The primary reason I chose to speak now was because had Ellen Johnson been a leader of a religious group I surely would not have waited a week before I posted in the interest of sympathy.

    Also, I did make it a point of speaking of her positively, too – referencing how hard she is said to have worked, how well she knew her stuff, her caringness, and how at least 2 members believe that without her AA could literally fall apart. These are some pretty hefty compliments, don’t you think?

  4. L. Ron Brown says:

    And it seems that you would have been just as unimpressed had I waited a week. What alternative do you suggest? Waiting 2 months? Or how about never posting anything so critical of her at all? Or something in between these alternatives? What path should I have taken that would have both been civil to Mrs. Johnson and fair to how I would have commented on a religious leader who I was displeased with the actions of?

  5. Doug Indeap says:

    Attentiveness to signs of bias within oneself and an aim to treat others with some measure of equality are all to the good. The former is an important aspect of intellectual honesty and sound reasoning, and the latter is important to those and a fundamental moral principle as well.

    My question is directed more at the need or reason to voice personal criticism of this sort after someone has left a position and is no longer performing the work to which the criticism is directed. I just don’t see the need–or at least not one that warrants the pain such criticism may cause.

  6. Strappado says:

    I live in Norway and obviously haven’t followed the organisation closely, but I have to agree that from those interviews I’ve seen/read she have lacked a certain intellectual honesty. Or at least, her rhetoric has been a bit brutish. It’s a bit like Hitchens, but wihout the wit (that works to soften his sometimes outrageous statements).
    Having said that, being a president and a spokesperson is after all two different things that in her position was combined into one job.
    Recently, in Norway, a very good spokeswoman for ex-muslims (although she prefers “atheist muslim”) left the board of the Norwegian Humanist organisation. While she is a hard-hitting and good speaker, she’s not an “organisational animal” as we say, so she levelled some (pretty accurate) criticism at the organisation. But it didn’t really help to just piss them off, and she did lose her temper a couple of times. I guess maverick would be the appropriate term, and while I personally agreed 100% with her, I understand that she’s a much better writer and debater than a board member.

    So my point is that while Ellen Johnson may not have been the best spokesperson, it doesn’t diminish her other organisational efforts.

    As for why she was really kicked out, we’ll probably learn soon.

  7. L. Ron Brown says:

    Doug: Again, I did make it a point to reference good things about what she has done. Secondly, these criticisms need not be taken as a daggar to the heart. They could be taken as constructive criticisms and implied suggestions.

    Next, what about the pain she has surely caused people? She has made it a point for years to be particularly brash and in your face in her approach. She is supposed to be a representative for a social group and she comes off as incredibly disparaging, uncompassionate, and makes claims that she nor anyone else can back up.

    The first criticism – that she makes irresponsible and unjustified truth claims – was something that she probably could have taken in stride, as I imagine that she is reasonable enough that she would say “yes, you’re correct, I do not know for certain what happens after death (in fact, she can’t have any idea at all – though there is surely no reason to believe in anything) nor can I know that there is not a God, though I can reasonably say that to this point no one seems to have given good reason to believe”. I was more strong-worded in my second criticism – her brashness – because her brashness combined with her overly strong epistemological statements are far more likely to hurt the nonreligious than to help us. And her approach will undoubtedly cause unnecessary pain.

    Lastly, she may have left the position but I do not think that she will stop being an atheist. So it’s not like this criticism is useless. I’m not the president of an atheist association and you are offering me feedback on my behaviour, which could potentially hurt me as you’re implying that I have been kind of a prick for making the criticisms I’ve made when I’ve made them. Does my not being a leader of such an association make your criticisms useless? Surely not. I still conduct myself in day-to-day life and so does she. And she will very conceivably still get some relatively wide exposure here and there given that she is a former president of AA.

  8. evedyahu says:

    Guys. It is fairly simple why she was chosen the president. She was very good looking…now she is getting old 🙂

  9. Deuce Geary says:

    Mr. Brown,

    This is such a fair-minded post, both as to Ms. Johnson and as to people of faith. No surprise, I guess, as Dennis Prager is one of my favorite commentators and I see in the second video clip that you and he share concern over a candidate’s values rather than their personal faith.

    As for Johnson’s seeming departure from reason by claiming to “know” what happens after death . . . Prager has noted that in past debates with atheists before largely atheist audiences, he has asked for a show of hands from the atheists in the crowd from anyone who has doubted their atheism, and he routinely gets no acknowledgments. He contends that most religious people have doubted their faith at least once in their lives, and says he sees great irony in this anecdotal evidence that atheists have greater faith than the religious!

    You acknowledgment that the unknowable exists is intellectually honest. You should watch for Prager’s next debate with atheists and be prepared to raise ytour hand!

  10. Leroy Glinchy says:

    What you see as lack of tact, she probably sees as a way to get ahead. Anyone who does not watch TV these days then catches one in a bar knows the truth. TV land is not reality. It’s not even close. It does not even mirror print land much.

    People are shocked out. They are over exposed to too much stimulation. The only way to get their attention is yelling. At least that’s what TV thinks. They need to put everything in the most unsubtle and crudest way possible. So it’s actually going down hill.

    Ellen is playing the game. Will it help atheists? Not any more than Coulter helps republicans. But it helps Ellen’s career because those are the kind of people they like to have on TV.

    Remember the medium is not the message. The medium right now is retarded. The message is, “YELL YELL”. That is, there is no message just yelling.


    • lilly says:

      Why do atheists hate anyone who disagrees with them? Its like 2 kindergarten children fighting in a sandbox over a toy. Your lives would be a happier if you gave up your fight against God. You believe he exists but you hate that truth. You atheists enjoy ruining a peaceful life for anyone who doesn’t agree with you. I’m not professing to be ‘religious’ but I certainly am not attractive to the miserable life I see the atheist lead.

      • Leroy Glinchy says:

        You have a few assumptions which are wrong. We don’t believe in God. I have spent the time to understand why people do believe in God and I believe that they believe. Why not extend the same thought and courtesy to atheists? Perhaps this lack of thought and courtesy on the side of the religious might answer the question of why you feel that we hate you. Second, it’s not like kindergarten because people who believe in God have real world power to pass laws that affect us. Good examples are persecution of homosexuals and the removal or a right for a woman to choose not have a child. If someone had power over your life based upon a false premise, you would feel compelled to remove that falsehood. This is why atheists feel the need to argue. If religious people went to church, paid taxes, and left us alone, you’d get a better response from most atheists. Finally, atheists are not miserable. Again, this is a misconception which results in someone’s unwillingness to see a different person’s point of view. I was Christian and unhappy and now atheist and happy. I do believe that relgion can be a tremendous power for good but the way that it’s practiced in mainstream politics, it is a force for increasing ignorance and misery.

  11. skylights says:

    evedyahu: Agreed. She’s still a MILF, though.

  12. Rev. Barky says:

    I have met Ellen once at an Atheist function. My impression of her was that she was a very business like person who has a lot of energy and is good at organizational matters, however I was not impressed with her attitude. Ellen is articulate and friendly but I left the meeting with a negative attitude about the state of American Atheists. I sensed that she was out of ideas, overwhelmed and frustrated. Although this was not a public appearance, I felt that she may not be an entirely good spokesperson for the organization and that she would be best at running it. But then, maybe it was time to move on. 13 years is a long time in a position and if you don’t go somewhere you may stagnate. Is this what happened? It would be nice to have more insight. It’s too bad that the board was not more tactful in this matter.

  13. Rev. Barky says:

    Upon reading my opinion, I do not feel that I have conveyed enough credit to Ellen. I really would like to add that Ellen appears to have done a great job with AA and I would not wish to take any of that away from her. She deserves our respect and support. I hope that she can find another path where she can continue to apply her unique talents.

  14. MG says:

    I respect your beliefs about this topic-and welcome the fact that you made an effort to give Ellen some credit on comment #13. I think she has done quite well representing atheists in the US, although I am not a member that has gone to functions or have been an insider to the workings of the AA, so I didn’t know all the intricacies. I think though that she is no more “brutish” than spokespeople for the religious right-(why do we have to always be super polite while they can be total turds when in a debate?) I think also-(I know this sounds sexist-but here goes) her being attractive was a plus. Many people think of MMOhair-(who I loved) when they think of atheist women-which is not the case at all.
    Hope we find out what happened. Maybe they or her just needed a change?

  15. dirk ver steeg says:

    Would very much like to email Ellen. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks

  16. Stephen Y. says:

    The kind of leader dealing with rationals sure looks tough.

    Whether she was a great representative or not? Ahh..maybe
    not super great. But the fact that she was the one who
    was working her ass off instead of the rest(slackers)?
    Undeniable! Furthermore, abasing her as being
    unintelligent or embarrassing is an overstatement,
    come on! She went on national TV for christ sake.
    Time is limited. She wasn’t defensing her doctoral thesis.
    Besides, I don’t feel uncomfortable her saying “..when you
    die that’s it…”

  17. Jane Doe says:

    It’s simple folks. God overcomes. Anything and everything. Simple. Done.

  18. Mark says:

    I totally disagree that she was a negative for atheists. Actually, she was shockingly right about what she said, and many times the interviewers never really let her explain on TV for long enough. They were looking to make a fool of her, and so they interrupted her at every moment they thought they could say something which would make her look foolish. She had to deal with incredible arrogance from people, and I felt she made for great quotes. That one guy is correct– she IS goodlooking, and that actually helped both her and the movement because people out in TV land can be very judgemental. Her photogenic face and hair helped her; it did not hurt AA one damn bit that she is very pretty. But she’s also obviously SMART, and this helped AA in those TV clips a whole lot more than her looks. I think AA made a mistake firing her, and has paid the price in less media coverage very since! For millions of Americans, she is the only dissenting voice among the lunatics, and she was ABSOLUTELY RIGHT to claim that there’s no afterlife at all. There is not a scrap of scientific evidence to support such a neanderthall belief system! So when she ‘pretends to know’ I would say she’s on very solid ground.

  19. Tim says:

    Ellen Johnson is fucken bad burn in hell bitch you deserve to die in prison I hope they hang you

  20. Anonymous says:

    Ellen Johnson did a terrific job. She’ll be missed. Second: The burden of proof is on the person who claims something exists such as some kind of existence after death, not the other way around.

  21. StorytellerAer says:

    Small,silly, comment, but I think you meant BILL Donahue, not Phil Donahue (talk show host, although I believe he was/is Catholic) as far as involvement in the Catholic League.

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