Bill Donohue and Me

Hemant has been urging me to tell this story, and with the recent mentions of Bill Donohue, it seems
like a good time to bring this up:

FoxShotjpg

Yes, I’m laughing at Bill Donohue on Fox News.  (Here’s a link)

This happened was while I worked for the American Humanist Association, when we had put up the “controversial” bus ads stating “Why believe in a god?  Just be good for goodness’ sake.”  We got so much attention the next day that we had too many interview requests.  Our Communications Director Fred Edwords and our Executive Director Roy Speckhardt were already booked.

After I sat down at my desk, Fred came up to me and asked “Do you want to do a television interview on the bus ads?”  I stared at him stunned for a moment before telling him that yes, I WOULD like to do one of the interviews.  I started prepping myself with arguments and ideas.

About an hour later, Fred interrupted me to say “By the way, you’ll be on Fox News.”  I was a bit worried about it, but started prepping twice as hard.  After lunch – which I was too nervous to eat – I took metro home and got my suit.  Upon my return, Fred sprang the last update on me: I was to be on the show with Bill Donohue.

I was picked up in a limo and taken to the Fox headquarters in DC while the host and Mr. Donohue would be in NYC.  They put me in a small room with a chair and gave me an earpiece so I could hear the others.  Above the camera was a screen showing the NYC studio.  I was told to keep looking at the camera and not to look up at the screen – it would make me look shifty.  Besides, it would be turned off, they said.

Not so much.  It was on the whole time, tempting me to look up and see who I was talking to.  It was tough staring at a camera and only responding to talk in my ear.  I don’t know whether they did it on purpose – I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, even Fox news – but my acting experience helped me focus on the camera.

Bill was in his usual form, accusing humanists of butting in where we don’t belong, of being gutless, but my favorite part was when he compared me to a cannibal:

DONOHUE: Right. That’s right. They shouldn’t be profoundly ignorant, though. Sociology 101 says that morality has always been grounded in religion. They are trying to say, “No, it is grounded in individuals.”

Well, Jeffrey Dahmer had a conscience, too, Heather. And you know what? He destroyed his victims and then ate them. We saw what happened with militant secularism in the 20th century. Over 150 million dead because of this man’s philosophy — Pol Pot, Hitler, Mao and Stalin …

What could I do about that?  I laughed.  Anyone listening to that drivel would be lost to me.  I just reiterated that the message shouldn’t be controversial at all – we were merely saying that people should be good because we care about each other, not because a deity tells us to.  I stood up for our right to be involved in society, asserted that we care about others, and that he should too.

The reaction was, on the whole, good.  I got a lot of emails and phone calls after that, some telling me that they were praying for me, many telling me to get out of ‘their’ country.  But a good deal of them were positive, telling me that I was “more Christian” and more… well, sane than Donohue.  Commenters on Pharangula were divided about whether I should have refuted the cliche “Hitler” claim.  But I had neither the time nor the desire to get into that kind of back-and-forth.

When doing these kinds of appearances, it’s important to keep in mind the goal.  My goal was not to convince Bill Donohue.  It was to put forth a friendly face for humanists, defend the bus ads as noncontroversial, and make nontheists seem like a reasonable group.  And for that, I couldn’t have asked for a better person to be compared to.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    but my favorite part was when he compared me to a cannibal

    High irony indeed, being called a cannibal by a defender of the Cannibal Cult.

  • JulietEcho

    At this point, after having been in dozens of conversations that quickly devolved into “Hitler/Stalin/Mao/etc. were atheists!!!111!” I agree that the best reaction, often, is just to laugh. Someone who’s so deluded that they think those men represented some inevitable lack of morality because of atheism isn’t likely to be receptive to history lessons, philosophy lessons, or ethics lessons from an atheist.

    I think they’re just as silly (perhaps *more* silly) as the atheists out there who think that all religious people are only held back from completely amoral, horrible behavior by their beliefs in God and their holy books. In reality, our sense of ethics (in healthy, well-adjusted humans) is grounded in our evolutionary roots, our social psychology, our necessities, the very complex brains we carry around in our skulls – and the parts we debate and discuss are the finer points of it.

    Talking someone out of believing in a simplistic, black-and-white morality argument is too often an exercise in futility. After all, they don’t consider you to be an ethical person in the first place, so why would they take your arguments seriously? *sigh*

  • http://blaghag.blogspot.com/ Jennifurret

    Ha, good job, Jesse. I really sort of hope I never get interviewed on TV, because I’d likely be laughing and rolling my eyes the entire time. Not the best spokeswoman…

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Concerting Hitler and Stalin, I like Dawkins’s response that attributing their morality to atheism is like attributing their morality to them having mustaches.

  • Siamang

    Jeez… I wish I knew who said it first, but the best smackdown I’ve heard recently to a claim of atheist intolerance, or a likening to the nazis was this:

    “Well, that really means something coming from a guy whose religion invented the thumbscrew.”

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    It never ceases to amaze me to see just how hard the Catholic church is pushing the lie that they were strong opponents of the Nazis and that Hitler was an atheist (or a neo-pagan, as some of them claim).

  • Justin jm

    Donohue thinks that the ad is “gutless” because it doesn’t address Muslims; but the ad doesn’t even specify a religion! The “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” ad doesn’t specify what type of god.

    Of course, reading comprehension just gets in the way of bigotry. Donohue’s way to busy being outrageous to read.

  • Carlie

    I think it’s entirely appropriate to laugh at the Hitler comment. It seems that informing them that Hitler was a Christian never gets you anywhere, because they just weasel around saying he wasn’t the right kind of Real True Christian, then. I’d just respond with “And Torquemada was a Catholic, so what’s your point? Obviously bad people will be bad people with or without religion.”

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Iason Ouabache

    It would have been nice if you had at least mentioned that the Nazis had the full backing of the Catholic Church just to see how many different colors Donohue could turn.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Donohue thinks that the ad is “gutless” because it doesn’t address Muslims; but the ad doesn’t even specify a religion! The “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” ad doesn’t specify what type of god.

    Of course it does! It’s mocking Santa Claus. How DARE they?!

  • Jason

    It was Fox… you should have expected a trap. I’d need a 20 minute segment to refute the two claims: 1 about morality and 2 about [horrible dictator] using atheism to commit horrible atrocities.

    But hey, “fair and balanced”, amirite?

  • anonymouse

    That’s funny he mentioned Dahmenr, since he professed in his last TV interview before he was murdered that he was a Christian.

  • http://arkonbey.blogspot.com Arkonbey

    Kudos. You maintained yourself well in the face of idiocy and bloviation. Your restraint, for want of a better phrase, was saintlike.

    So much for the ‘rabid atheist’.

  • Robert J. Grieve

    . . . well, sane than Donohue. Commenters on Pharangula were divided . . .

    Oops. That would be Pharyngula with a “y.” Otherwise kudos for the cajones to go on Fox Spews against a real loon.

  • Tony

    Well, Jeffrey Dahmer had a conscience, too, Heather. And you know what? He destroyed his victims and then ate them. We saw what happened with militant secularism in the 20th century. Over 150 million dead because of this man’s philosophy — Pol Pot, Hitler, Mao and Stalin …

    Wait… Jeffrey Dahmer’s philosophy left 150 million dead?

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    “This man” was referring to Jesse.

    I love the sly equation of “militant secularism” (whatever that is) to Humanism.

  • Tony

    So Jesse was responsible for the death of 150 million people? Er… Well done Jesse. 150 million people? Wow. When do you sleep?

  • ChameleonDave

    Otherwise kudos for the cajones to go on Fox Spews against a real loon.

    What do drawers have to do with it?

  • Christophe Thill

    Sociology 101 ? I’d be surpsied if Donohue ever set foot there. I think he really meant “Religious indoctrination 101″.


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