Interview with Ellen Johnson

Since it’s creation by Madalyn Murray O’Hair in 1963, American Atheists has been one of the most widely recognized atheist organizations in the country.

Ellen Johnson has been the president of the group since 1995. You may have seen her on Larry King Live, on the podium at the Godless Americans March on Washington in 2002, or most recently, with Barbara Walters talking about how heaven and hell don’t exist.

The upcoming American Atheists convention will take place in Seattle, Washington on April 6-8.

Ellen was nice enough to take some time to answer a few of my questions:

Hemant Mehta: Were you raised without religion?

Ellen Johnson: Yes, my parents weren’t religious. I went to public school and never to church services.

HM: Can you tell us about any hardships you’ve faced as a result of your atheism?

EJ: None that I can think of.

HM: Can atheist groups work together with religious groups, and if yes, how so?

EJ: Our experience has been that the religious groups don’t want to work with US and not the other way around. They don’t want us speaking at their press conferences, etc. To the extent that we subsume our Atheism we can work with them [but] that isn’t acceptable [to them].

HM: What would you like religious readers and leaders to know about atheists?

EJ: Nothing. Actions speak louder than words. We need to show them that we are politically organized and that we vote our Atheism and that we will speak up when they say or do something we don’t like. We need to show them that we are serious about our Atheism by joining American Atheists. This isn’t to say that Atheists aren’t serious about their Atheism, but when you don’t have an Atheist organization that can claim 100,000 members then it doesn’t look like Atheists care all that much. Perception is everything in politics.

HM: What type of work do you do as president of American Atheists?

EJ: I wear many hats. I address the media on radio and television; I am editor of American Atheist magazine; I oversee the office; I plan our conventions; I cohost our cable tv program, The Atheist Viewpoint; and I oversee our various departments such as legal, affiliation, our library, and state directors.

HM: What can we expect from American Atheists in the future?

EJ: We are working on two events which I can’t talk about yet. I wish I could because I’m very excited about them. They are still in the formative planning stages.

If you have other questions specifically for Ellen (and not to atheists in general, please), feel free to leave them in the comments. I’ll send them to her if we have some good ones.


[tags]Madalyn Murray O’Hair, American Atheists, atheism, Christian, Ellen Johnson, Larry King Live, Godless Americans March on Washington, Barbara Walters, heaven, hell, Seattle, Washington, The Atheist Viewpoint[/tags]

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    My main question for Ellen concerns the relationship of American Atheists with other freethought organizations such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State or the Freedom From Religion Foundation. If she is right about political clout through numbers (and I believe she is), wouldn’t we be smart to combine as many of these organizations as possible?

    I think it is unfortunate that many godless Americans refuse to call themselves atheists, however, this is the reality. It seems like we could gain tremendous political clout through the formation of an umbrella organization. Just a thought.

  • txatheist

    vjack,
    I try to join all three to keep abreast of the news. I let my membership for AA go and will renew sometime. I joined the ACLU this year instead. I try to limit it to 3 organizations not in my local area.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Yeah, I do something similar. I currently belong to the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’m still trying to decide whether to join AA, Americans United, or some other organization. So many possibilities and so little money!

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  • Yap Rui Ming

    I am a student from Malaysia and is doing a research on atheism. I have 3 questions here for Mrs. Ellen:
    1.RELIGION AND ATHEISM HAVE DIFFERENT POINT OF VIEW ON CREATION OF UNIVERSE AND EARTH.WHAT ATHEISTS HAVE TO SAY ON THIS SUBJECT?
    2. DOES ATHEISM BELIEVE IN THE EXISTENCE OF SUPERNATURAL PHENOMENON LIKE SPIRIT? IF NOT, HOW DO ATHEISTS EXPLAIN THE INCIDENTS OF PEOPLE SEEING GHOSTS?
    3.DOES ATHEISM BELIEVE IN LIFE AFTER DEATH? IF YES, WHY DO YOU SAY SO? IF NO, WHAT ARE THE REASONS?

    THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR SPENDING YOUR TIME EXPLAINING THESE QUESTIONS.

  • Richard Wade

    Hello, Yap Rui Ming.
    I do not think that Ellen Johnson will see your questions here. I am not an expert, I’m just an ordinary atheist but I will try to answer your questions as best I can, so you can continue your research.
    The overall thing to remember about atheism is that it is not a religion. It is the lack of a religon. So atheists have many different points of view. They will disagree with each other on many things. Anyone saying things about atheists in general has to aknowledge that there are many atheists who will not fit into those generalizations.

    Question 1: Most of the religions of the world have their own creation stories. Some are similar to each other and some are very different. Atheists in general do not believe in things unless there is physical evidence for those things. By evidence I mean a footprint is evidence that someone has walked somewhere, or a fossil is evidence of ancient life. People saying they saw something is not evidence. Things written in scripture is not evidence. Evidence has to be something real that everyone can see, touch and measure. So most atheists tend to agree with scientific explanations about the origin of the universe as it is now and of the earth and life. It is the physical evidence that science offers that makes the explanations acceptable to them. Even so, many atheists remain skeptical about some scientific explanations, always wanting even better evidence. That is how science gets stronger. I am sure you can find plenty of material about scientific explanations for these things, such as the “big bang” and evolution of life.

    Question 2: Most atheists do not believe in supernatural phenomena like spirits because there is no physical evidence for such things. There is also a great deal of fraud about such things, and so everyone should be very skeptical about them. People should demand solid proof when someone claims to have seen or experienced something supernatural. Most atheists do not bother to explain what other people claim to see, such as ghosts, because most atheists think that the person making the claim is the person who must show the proof. A few atheists say that people see ghosts because they want to believe in life after death, so any strange thing they see or feel they will call a ghost, simply because they want so much for it to be so.

    Question 3: Again, most atheists do not believe in life after death because there is no convincing evidence.

    Remember that these are very general things about atheists. Some atheists will personally disagree with some of the things I have said.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I think it is unfortunate that many godless Americans refuse to call themselves atheists

    vjack

    The faith that dare not speak its name. Actually, I’ve never thought it was unfortunate that an adult got to choose whatever label or name they wanted to affix to them self. I figure it’s their right and a definite benefit. Having missed Moyers last week I just read this little bit about a godless American who … well, read it and weep, ye of no faith.

    At his press conference this week he asked God to bless the president and the country, even as reports were circulating that he himself had confessed to friends his own agnosticism; he wished he could believe, but he cannot. That kind of intellectual honesty is to be admired, but you have to wonder how all those folks on the Christian right must feel discovering they were used for partisan reasons by a skeptic, a secular manipulator. On his last play of the game all Karl Rove had to offer them was a hail mary pass, while telling himself there’s no one there to catch it.

    What can I say but, take him, he’s all yours.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Richard Wade, as you know I put a lot of stock in personal experience. I’m not impressed with any kind of “evidence” which doesn’t grow out of personal experience of a kind unmitigated by any external authority or coercion. I suppose that’s like the original Quakers and others of that kind. I have never been convinced by any professions of belief that didn’t come from the life of the individual, religion based on authority never seems sincere as belief.

    I don’t see any reason for a God to communicate indirectly with an individual.

  • Maria

    The faith that dare not speak its name. Actually, I’ve never thought it was unfortunate that an adult got to choose whatever label or name they wanted to affix to them self. I figure it’s their right and a definite benefit. Having missed Moyers last week I just read this little bit about a godless American who … well, read it and weep, ye of no faith.

    At his press conference this week he asked God to bless the president and the country, even as reports were circulating that he himself had confessed to friends his own agnosticism; he wished he could believe, but he cannot. That kind of intellectual honesty is to be admired, but you have to wonder how all those folks on the Christian right must feel discovering they were used for partisan reasons by a skeptic, a secular manipulator. On his last play of the game all Karl Rove had to offer them was a hail mary pass, while telling himself there’s no one there to catch it.

    What can I say but, take him, he’s all yours.

    that’s yet another time I’ve heard Karl Rove is an atheist/agnostic. wow, lol. just goes to show you someone of ANY background can be a jerk. I find it ironic how he’s manipulated the xtian right

  • Richard Wade

    Olvlzl, I think I’m almost about to understand you, but not quite yet.

    If you only believe in personal experience, then what if it is not your own personal experience, but someone else’s? Do you believe that person’s account of something remarkable automatically? Do you simply allow for the possibility of it until you yourself have such an experience? Do take such an agnostic stance even if the person’s account is wildly beyond anything you have ever experienced? What if he wants you to invest your time, money and talent toward something he has based on his experience? What if it is a great big investment?

    It seems to me that if each person must have their own personal experience of a god, then there is no need for organized religion, because that seems to be a social construct strung between the few who have had some kind of similar experience, to cover and envelop the masses who have not. Then there is the problem of individual experiences being so unique. Only a pre-existing social construct such as an organized religion will get people to alter their memory of their unique experience into something that others will agree with and not call heresy or witchcraft. To base one’s belief in an invisible god solely on personal experience and completely devoid of pressure or prejudice from others, (as I think you were saying) seems like an individual kind of animism. Are your beliefs really completely free of the conventions and biases of others and of groups?

    I use skepticism to protect myself from fraud, and I think everyone else should too. I use the word in its original etymological meaning, “to look.” Skepticism is the virtue that keeps people from spending all their family’s money to buy acres of useless land, applying dangerous quack remedies to their bodies and devoting their lives to some charismatic fruitcake who says he’s a god incarnate. Unfortunately this all too rare virtue is confused with cynicism. There is way too much fraud based on people’s claims of their personal experiences for them to not go through the gauntlet of skeptical circumspection.

    My own experience with my own experience has left me skeptical of it as well. I have found myself to be mistaken of that I thought I saw, heard, and felt. So I have to be skeptical inwardly as well. So when you say, “I don’t see any reason for a God to communicate indirectly with an individual.” I can only respond that I don’t see any reason to believe in a god who does not communicate directly with me in a completely unambiguous and unmistakable way.

  • Miko

    as you know I put a lot of stock in personal experience. I’m not impressed with any kind of “evidence” which doesn’t grow out of personal experience of a kind unmitigated by any external authority or coercion.

    So, in other words, you reject all evidence that you don’t want to believe on the grounds that the person offering it must be part of a coercive authoritarian conspiracy.

  • Darryl

    I don’t know what the hell Mr. O is saying, but I do know this–corroborating what Richard said–in my younger days, I had many personal experiences with God that, at the time, I would have bet my life were as real as anything else in life. Now, I see those experiences for what they were–products of my own wonderful and inventive mind. I am skeptical of my own experience; I have to be because of the incredibly stupid and ignorant things I did, said, and thought when I was a Christian. Unlike Mr. O., when it comes to facts, I’m looking for the external rule that corrects the emotion. I welcome the coercion of the Universe.

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