Getting Sam Harris on Campus

When I was the president of Students WithOut Religious Dogma, the first group for non-religious students at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), we wanted to plan a big event during our second year of existence.

The biggest atheist in the news at the time was Michael Newdow, right in the heat of his lawsuit to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. I thought it would be amazing to have him speak at our school. I emailed him and asked him if he would be interested. He was unbelievably gracious, saying he was very busy, but maybe we could work something out time-wise.

As it turned out, we found a good date for him to come. It was two weeks after he had spoken in front of the Supreme Court (he represented himself in front of the justices) and he was getting rave reviews from court reporters.

How much did it cost to bring Newdow to our school? The total cost was a few thousand dollars. Most of that was for advertising and renting the audio/video equipment and security for the evening. Some of it was for travel and lodging. And there was a very, very minimal stipend that we gave to Newdow. Truth be told, he never asked us for a specific amount, but we wanted to give him something.

Cut to today: A friend would love to have Sam Harris come speak on campus for his college atheist group. He contacted an agency representing Harris and inquired how much it would cost. The representative’s response:

Sam’s fee is $25,000 which includes airfare. We would ask the sponsor to provide transportation to and from the airport, onsite meals, and hotel (up to 2 nights).

So after they pull together the $25,000, they would still need to put up for lodging/food/cabfare. Not surprisingly, the group doesn’t have that type of money. So the friend kindly responded that this amount was “unrealistic” for his group to raise, but thanked the rep for her time.

The rep responded back to him with some other speaker suggestions.

First on the list: Francis Collins.

Collins is the Christian scientist who sequenced the human genome and whose book talks about how science and God are compatible.

Obviously, a perfect substitute for Sam Harris.

I’m not necessarily complaining about Harris’ speaking fees. Other popular speakers get similar amounts, if not more. And you might as well charge a bundle while you can.

However, atheist groups, even on a national level, are not exactly well-funded. And one person, even someone of Harris’ stature, can’t spread the message of atheism single-handedly.

One would think that Harris’ speaking fees would be reduced almost entirely for a college group, consisting of secular students who would certainly be motivated to heed Harris’ advice and who could be a force for positive change in the future.

I suppose if Harris can’t come, Collins can take his place.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Students WithOut Religious Dogma, University of Illinois at Chicago, UIC, Michael Newdow, Under God, Pledge of Allegiance, Supreme Court, Sam Harris, Francis Collins, Christian, God[/tags]

  • Siamang

    How much is Collins?

    Hell, I’d love to hear Collins just talk about the Genome project. His science is important even if his jockying for the Templeton Prize isn’t.

  • Richard Wade

    Hey Hemant, how much do you charge? I think they would get much more benefit from you.

  • plover

    One could threaten to have Francis Collins come and give a talk about atheism unless Sam Harris waives his fee.

    Well, it would work with PZ Myers.

  • anonymous

    Surprise, surprise! Sam Harris is going for the bling and trying to exploit his 30 minutes of fame for personal profit rather than fighting for the cause.

    I can’t say that I’m all that surprised, but I’m one of those pessimistic skeptics that believes Sturgeon’s law applies to people as much as to anything else, regardless of whether they believe in imaginary superheros or not.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    Hey Hemant, how much do you charge? I think they would get much more benefit from you.

    Richard– I’m only $20,000 :) (Actually, the cost is still being determined. Depends on what I’d be doing. But trust me when I say the cost to speak to a campus group about atheism would be well within the range of what those groups could offer.)

  • Richard Wade

    Hmm. Kind of cynical, anony. The main mistake that cynics make is to assume that everyone else is secretly cynical too.
    I don’t’ agree with some of Sam Harris’s ideas, but he has written two best-selling books and taken a public stance that puts him at significant personal risk. It is hard work to write such books, and he does a good job. He deserves the good income from his notoriety because he worked for it and he risked for it.

  • Richard Wade

    Hemant, that’s cool. You also deserve whatever rewards you can eke out. We’ll be able to say that “we knew you when–” while you make your acceptance speech thanking all the little people who helped you get where you are. ;) I’m ordering your book today.

  • Greg

    Good God! $25,000?! When I read The End of Faith, I disagreed with a good chunk of what he said, and thought he came across as arrogant and pompous. I’ve now lost even more respect for him. The group is better off not having him come speak. The prospect of Francis Collins, though… I thought it was an atheist group?

  • Richard Wade

    Greg, yes it was an atheist group making the inquiry. By suggesting Collins as an alternative, the agent was either being a dumbass or a smartass.

  • Jen

    I do agree that is a bit much to ask from a college group. At my college, the only way to get a speaker that expensive was to be personally sponsered by the college. For instance, for the same price, my college got Ann Coulter, who didn’t even complete her speech due to the protests and the booing (from what I read in the school paper; I was abroad). Alas, since I went to Loyola, there is no way they would ever sponser Harris, but does anyone know if any other colleges have?

    Also, while I agree that Harris should be nice to the college kids, the guy’s gotta eat. He doesn’t have a day job, right? And people rarely can afford to make a living off of publishing, though he might be one of the lucky few. Michael Newdow, I assume, probably had money, since he had enough money to hire good lawyers and such. Who knows, though?

  • Richard Wade

    Jen, so Loyola paid 25 grand for Ann Coulter? What dunderheads. Kudos to the jeering crowd. As usual in colleges everywhere the students have it right and the adminstration is enjoying their colonic view.

  • Jen

    Yeah, that was pretty much what happened. It was apparently pretty crazy, and for weeks before, people were debating in the school paper and arguing, but I still wish they hadn’t played right into her trap.

    After all, three years earlier, we had all been nice, with mere poliet protests, when Jesse Jackson came to talk.

  • Richard Wade

    Ah where are those bygone days of legend? The tear gassed demonstrations in Berkeley, the wholesale arrests, the massacre at Kent State. Oh to be young again. Those were the days, oh yes, those were the days.

  • Darryl

    Richard,

    Pine not for the days of old; they will come again, be assured. One good solid economic disaster and we’ll see thousands in the streets and probably hear from those millions of guns that our good Republicans have been stockpiling.

  • Richard Wade

    I think all it will take is reviving the draft for more blood-for-oil in Iraq.

  • Richard Wade

    Sam Harris will face Chris Hedges in a Truthdig debate moderated by Robert Scheer at UCLA on Tuesday May 22 in Royce Hall. Standard tickets will be $15 through Ticketmaster in a few days.

    Damn. That’s in range. I don’t agree with several of Harris’s points but it would be fun to feel the electricity in the room. I have to to work that night showing school kids the universe through my telescope. But maybe that’s a more constructive thing to do anyway.

  • http://bjornisageek.blogspot.com Bjorn Watland

    Don’t sell yourself too short Hemant. Your talk was real world, informative, and thought provoking. As an atheist, I think it reevaluated what I think atheists, as a group, should be focused on. I think that’s an important message, just as important as the messages to churches that they need to keep people interested, or else loose them.

    At least you don’t have a link to rates for weddings yet!

  • http://bitscience.org William Brookfield

    Well I am indeed happy to find a group of friendly atheists. I have known a few friendly ones in my day. One was an airline pilot who founded “Atheists for Jesus.” I am not particularly interested in Jesus or ancient history in general, but I am supportive of friendliness/kindness. Unfortunately, I have been coming across atheist Darwinists sporting “brass knucles and steel toed boots” (PZ Myers) and other forms of unfriendliness. While I am indeed an ID scientist, I have always rejected religion and/or dogma of any kind. I do my best to be tolerant (friendly) toward other ID’ers who are religious while encouraging them to concentrate on science. It would be great if friendly theists and friendly atheists could work together for a better world.

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  • http://www.thefundidriveby.blogspot.com R. Hoeppner

    Why do some atheists like Michael Newdow, (since you already brought his name up) spend so much time, money and energy fighting something they profess to be non-existent? Before I became a Christian I didn’t believe in god nor did I care if someone else did. I mean it doesn’t bother me if people believe in flying saucers or claim to have been abducted by aliens…I certainly wouldn’t take them to court to get them to take their alien flag down. It’s ridiculous…just doesn’t make sense.
    I guess it gives them the notoriety to charge big bucks to speak, like you said.

    • Ryan

      The point is not that Newdow wants to ‘fight god.’ Newdow wants to eliminate all state references to any and all gods so that the country is inclusive. With no endorsed religion or philosophy, everyone is free to practice what they want without discrimination. Very few atheists care about what other individuals believe; many simply make their voices heard for the sake of equality. Your line of thinking, I believe, is sincere, but represents a major chasm between the religious and nonreligious. We (most) are not attacking your god, we want to live in a society with no ramification for believing or not believing one religion or another.


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