Notable Atheists and Scientists Are Disassociating from the Secular Policy Institute

It was just over a year ago when Edwina Rogers (below) was fired as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America.

It’s important to know exactly what the SCA is so you can make sense of what’s happening in this story:

The Secular Coalition for America is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy organization whose purpose is to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.

The Secular Coalition represents more than 200 organizations nation-wide and advocates at the federal level to protect and strengthen the secular character of the government

One of the Secular Coalition’s primary roles is to facilitate unity within the movement. Our 17 voting member organizations are established 501(c)(3) nonprofits who serve atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans. In addition to our voting member organizations, the Secular Coalition boasts over 190 endorsing, allied and associate organizations as part of the Coalition.

Advocating for atheists. Broad coalition. Lots of support from established organizations. Unity.

You get the idea.

That’s why it was a little weird when, about six months after the SCA fired Rogers, I received an email asking if a group I managed wanted to support the newly-formed Secular Policy Institute.

What’s the Secular Policy Institute, you ask?

The Secular Policy Institute (SPI) is a think tank organization of thought leaders, writers, scholars and speakers with a shared mission to influence public opinion and promote a secular society. We believe governmental decisions and public policies should be based on available science and reason, and free of religion or religious preferences.

The group’s objectives included: “Coordinat[ing] the nonbelief movement towards these objectives by building the world’s largest secular coalition.” And the website boasts 305 “coalition participants” — groups that support what they do.

Advocating for atheists. Broad coalition. Lots of support from established organizations. Unity.

You get the idea.

It all looked very familiar… and the CEO of this new group was Edwina Rogers.

It appeared that, after parting ways with the SCA, she was setting up her own organization with a lot of overlapping parts.

This new organization didn’t lack credibility. In addition to that large coalition of supporting groups, she had a number of big-name “Fellows” — “distinguished scientists and scholars dedicated to the idea that policymaking should be informed by scientific evidence.”

That list of fellows included: Lawrence Krauss, Peter Boghossian, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein, Carolyn Porco, Michael Shermer, and Andy Thomson.

As far as the secular/science world goes, those are some heavy hitters. If you can say those people are on your side and support your policy ideas, government officials may very well pay attention to what you have to say.

But guess what?

None of those names I just mentioned are on the list of Fellows anymore.

In fact, of the 30 names that were on the list back in April, nearly a third of them (almost the entire “atheist” contingent) aren’t there anymore.

What gives?

Were they removed by SPI or did they ask to be taken off the list?

If they asked to be removed, what caused it?

Last week, I reached out to all the former Fellows I just named to find out if they could shed some light on those questions.

While some of them did not respond, the ones who did, including Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein, told me they asked to be removed. They have no formal connection with SPI anymore.

It’s my understanding that Sam Harris left a while ago, but the rest of the names have all asked to be taken off the list over the past week or two.

Daniel Dennett in particular told me he asked to be removed from their list after learning that Rogers had filed a lawsuit against the Secular Coalition for America (which made some damning allegations about the SCA and several people associated with it).

Not only did Dennett inform many of the other Fellows why he was leaving (prompting them to do the same), here’s the most shocking part of what he told me:

I didn’t know I was a Fellow of SPI until I saw my picture and name on the website.

Richard Dawkins — who is the subject of one of the damning accusations in Rogers’ lawsuit — said that he requested to be taken off the list after hearing from Dennett.

He also told me, “I have no recollection of how I [came] to be on the list in the first place.”

That’s pretty interesting considering how his image was used to promote the organization from the get-go:

And at least for now, the cover photo for SPI’s Facebook page still features both Dawkins and Krauss, neither of whom are Fellows anymore:

I asked Rogers about this situation a few days ago (and again over the weekend), but have not yet received an on-the-record statement. If she provides one, I’ll post an update.

***Update 1***: It’s been pointed out to me that part of the confusion may stem from the fact that the Secular Policy Institute grew out of the “Global Secular Council” which originated as a Secular Coalition for America project. (Got all that?) In other words, the Fellows may have been supportive of the GSC when it was under the SCA umbrella… but were unaware that it had separated from the SCA and is now, in some ways, in competition with the organization for donors and attention. It’s possible they were simply carried over to the new group/website with the assumption they would all be okay with it.

***Update 2*** (1:28p): Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and author of several books about atheism, tells me he has requested to be removed from SPI’s list of Fellows.

***Update 3*** (1:48p): Here’s something interesting (though you should read Update 5). In 2013, the Secular Coalition for America (under Rogers’ leadership) put out a Secular Policy Guide covering a “multitude of issues affecting secular and nontheistic Americans in public life including health policy, science education, tax exemptions, religiously-based discrimination, and the treatment of nontheists in the military, among others.”

Here’s a passage from page 32:

Total charitable contributions by individuals, foundations, bequests, and corporations reached $298.42 billion in 2011, with religious organizations receiving the largest share — thirty-two percent — of total estimated contributions. Holding religious organizations to the same filing standards as other charitable and educational institutions ensures that the almost $100 billion being donated to religious organizations is actually going to help those who need it.

That same passage shows up on the Secular Policy Institute’s website:

Total charitable contributions by individuals, foundations, bequests, and corporations reached $298.42 billion in 2011, with religious organizations receiving the largest share — thirty-two percent — of total estimated contributions. Holding religious organizations to the same filing standards as other charitable and educational institutions ensures that the almost $100 billion being donated to religious organizations is actually going to help those who need it.

There’s more overlap on that page, too.

Two possibilities here:

Either that’s a remarkable coincidence… or Rogers took material that was created for the SCA and is now using it at SPI. Most employment contracts say that material you create for one group remains the property of that group. Even if there was no such clause in the contract, to take what was created for SCA and use it for SPI seems highly unethical to say the least.

***Update 4*** (2:02p): Other SPI pages taken directly from the SCA Policy Guide include bits on political endorsement from the pulpit, same-sex marriage, employment discrimination, discriminatory youth groups, everything on atheists serving in the military, everything on their health and safety page, international law, international human rights, everything about education, and everything on constitutional law. (Be sure to read Update 5.)

***Update 5*** (7:49p): A commenter points out that the SCA Policy guide includes this disclaimer: “Permission is granted for the reproduction of this document in whole or part without consent of the authors and the Secular Coalition for America.” In essence, it’s a Creative Commons license… though when you use items with CC licenses, you’re supposed to give credit to the original source. The SPI site, as far as I can tell, does not provide that credit.

That also raises the question of whether the policy guide was created with no copyright so that it could be used for another organization in the future.

***Update 6*** (8/19): Edwina Rogers issued this statement to me about the Secular Policy Guide, on behalf of the Secular Policy Institute (emphasis hers):

Copying SCA’s Written Materials — There is a misunderstanding here. These materials are all open access, and have been from the outset of their publication. No one owns them and everyone is invited, indeed encouraged, to adopt them, modify them, distribute them or otherwise use them in whole or part without concern regarding copyright or credit. Below is an account of the development of these materials. I know this to be true as I am the one who originated the guide concept for the secular movement and its open source nature.

In December 2013 Edwina Rogers released the Secular Policy Guide for the U.S. secular movement while serving as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. All secular groups in the United States were requested then, as now, to adopt it and use it as their own and put their logo and information on the cover and place the materials on their websites. The document was labeled to be available in whole or part to all with no need for credit or permission to repurpose or quote. I have attached this disclaimer as it is printed on the dedication page, on the page adjacent to where the letter and photo of the Executive Director, Edwina Rogers, appears.

This open source procedure is customary with Policy Guides. Policy Guides are released this way to encourage legislative and executive branch staff to take any policy discussions or recommendations without concern of copyright matters and use them when briefing their members before votes. Ms. Rogers has produced over ten such guides on a variety of topics and was an avid user of these policy guides while working in the White House and for four U.S. Senators.

SPI encourages all US secular groups to adopt the guide and tailor it to their needs. It is open source. Please let us know if your group needs assistance with any graphics or editing. These policy guides are not evergreen and the basic document will need to be updated very soon via a movement-wide working group, as before.

SPI will work with member organizations in other regions to develop policy guides that can be used by all regional groups and offered to legislators and other decision makers.

SPI has not copied or used any of SCA’s written materials. The Secular Policy Guide was released with the specific disclaimer that it is a publicly available document and SPI’s use of the guide supports the original objectives of the guide. All groups are encouraged to act similarly in support of the resource and its utilization. No organization can claim ownership or copyright of the guide or any of the material within it.”

***Update 7*** (8/19): Rogers also adds in an email about the Secular Policy Guide that “There is and never was a Creative Commons license. We never expected or wanted credits. Most authors were never even mentioned anywhere in the SCA original document. It was not copyrighted in any way to encourage unrestricted use.”

As for whether the document was created so that it could be used by another group in the future, Rogers says, “Yes this was the intent that the information would be used immediately by any and every organization as its own and hopefully even by public policy decision makers.”

***Update 8*** (8/22): At Rogers’ request, I’m publishing a full statement from her below:

Rogers Statement On Identity Theft Of Fellows By SPI — Hemant: I am writing you with a couple of points of clarification. Your statements below suggest that some of the previous Fellows of SPI are now disavowing any knowledge of their status as SPI Fellows and perhaps there was some sort of identity theft involved. You indicate that you contacted numerous of the SPI Fellows and that some of them responded by being unable to recall ever having been Fellows. Because I communicated with all the Fellows regularly, it seems unlikely that they would forget that they were Fellows. If you can tell me who is trying to recall their affiliation, I can send you (and them) reminders of our correspondence in this regard. I would also be interested to hear what the other Fellows indicated, i.e. those who did not deny their affiliation. May I ask what they indicated as the basis for their resignation from SPI? It seems as though different people are telling you different things at different times. This is why when you first contacted me in June I recommended that you secure the written resignations. The written resignations are quite clear and are subject neither to distortion nor the reconstruction that you are now having to contend with (see resignations below).

In the meantime, let me assure you that not a single SPI Fellow indicated identity theft, confusion or amnesia as the basis for their resignation from SPI to me. The only reason I received concerned the filing of my employment-related grievances against my my prior employer, the Secular Coalition for America. In every instance of explanation, resigning SPI Fellows signaled their disapproval of my actions, some clearly characterizing their resignation as an act of reprisal against my exercise of my civil rights in pursuing my grievance against SCA.

I will paste in below the resignation emails from Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Michael Shermer. All three of them capably articulate the bases for their resignations in their emails. All of them nominate my lawful expression of my grievances against SCA as the basis of their resignation, and none of them indicate that they were in any way, shape or form unaware of their Fellowship in SPI. To the contrary, they were acutely aware of their Fellow status and were expressly seeking to sever themselves from it.

Subsequent events may have troubled them, however. I believe they may have come to understand that their attempts to notify and/or recruit other Fellows to resign (which some of them did and others did not) might be interpreted as the illegal practice of tortious interference (i.e., interfering in otherwise normal business relationships). Mr. Dawkins and Mr. Dennett in particular, were recipients of legal cease-and-desist letters as a result, asking them to stop notifying other Fellows of their defection and/or encouraging them to do likewise. Shortly after this, reports of their confusion about their affiliation with SPI surfaced as new explanations for their resignations. This seems highly unlikely since no SPI fellow has ever expressed any such sentiments or confusion to me. I believe our email exchanges below may be helpful in that regard by clarifying the nature of our correspondence and their clear understanding that they were Fellows of SPI and not of SCA as you now surmise. There is even a very detailed email below (and others) that I sent to all Fellows explaining the split with SCA so the confusion theory cannot hold up.

Moreover, I personally escorted Michael Shermer around Capitol Hill in a series of congressional briefings as an SPI Fellow and we handed out SPI materials, so he could not have forgotten that he was a Fellow. All Fellows were clearly notified in writing when SCA relinquished the initiative and it became freestanding under my direction. And, of course, Richard’s resignation makes no mention of any confusion in this regard, identifying instead his loyalty to SCA as the basis for his resignation from SPI.

As for Damiel Dennett, he has contributed an article to the World Future Guide as an SPI Fellow, and we have exchanged a series of emails to that effect in just April (see below). So it is quite clear that he was fully aware of being an SPI Fellow which, again, is fully consistent with his resignation email but not his second statement to you. If any of these Fellows has expressed any late-breaking confusion to you about their status as SPI Fellows, I can assure you that it has never been expressed to me and that such confusion could only have followed the many months of acute clarity that preceded whatever confusion they may now be experiencing or expressing.

But without knowing who may have told you they were unaware of being Fellows (except for Dennett and Dawkins that we address today), I can’t provide you with evidence to the contrary. But if you fill me in, then I can do likewise for you.

I do know that there was considerable awkwardness regarding Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins when their undisclosed conflicts of interest surfaced, and this generated some confusion among other Fellows. When Mr. Dennett and Mr. Dawkins notified other SPI Fellows of their resignation from SPI they apparently neglected to tell them that they were active members of the Advisory Board of SCA, which is the organization that I am suing. Knowing this might have provided a valuable context for more fully understanding the basis for their actions. Instead they gave the misimpression that I and SPI had done something wrong, inappropriate or illegal. But even when they were asked to do so, my understanding is that they chose not to reveal their conflicts to anyone. Their failure to disclose this fact leaves it unclear as to the role it may have played in their reprisal against me or SPI. I honestly cannot say whether Mr. Dawkins and Dennett were acting on behalf of SCA or simply supporting what they view to be SCA’s best interests of their own accord, because they have not responded. The truth will be revealed as time passes. Either way, as sitting members of the SCA Advisory Board, they make it clear in their resignation emails that they feel forced to choose between SCA and SPI, and it probably would have been helpful for other SPI Fellows to have at least been made aware of their conflicts of interest.

I hope this is helpful to you in better understanding the nature of the resignations of SPI Fellows. I honestly do not think any Fellows were ever unaware of their status as Fellows. And it seems more improbable still that they would all suddenly become aware of their Fellowship for the first time just after I filed my lawsuit against SCA, after being Fellows for many months and, in many cases, after having communicated with me multiple times in that regard, as well. I am confident that as you seek to verify the facts you will gain a clearer understanding. And I would be happy to assist you in that regard if it would be helpful to you, too.

Thanks in advance for sharing my incredulity regarding anyone’s claim that they somehow thought that they were still part of SCA as Fellows of SPI. I hope the emails below are useful to you and I welcome the opportunity to clarify any additional confusions that may arise.

Hemant Blog Statements – Daniel Dennett in particular told me he asked to be removed from their list after learning that Rogers had filed a lawsuit against the Secular Coalition for America (which made some damning allegations about the SCA and several people associated with it).

Not only did Dennett inform many of the other Fellows why he was leaving (prompting them to do the same), here’s the most shocking part of what he told me:

I didn’t know I was a Fellow of SPI until I saw my picture and name on the website.

Richard Dawkins — who is the subject of one of the damning accusations in Rogers’ lawsuit — said that he requested to be taken off the list after hearing from Dennett.

He also told me, “I have no recollection of how I [came] to be on the list in the first place.”

Over the past couple of months, I’ve contacted several of the Fellows who resigned from SPI. A number of them told me their primary motivation for resigning was not that Dawkins told them to leave, but that they never agreed to join the SPI as Fellows in the first place. Once they realized this, they asked to be removed from the list.

Rogers Reply — Here is Daniel Dennett’s resignation email as an SPI Fellow. He makes his reasons clear. Being unaware that he was a Fellow is not one of them.

From: “Dennett, Daniel C.”
Date: June 9, 2015 at 5:04:30 PM GMT+1
To: Edwina Rogers
Subject: Re: Resignation from the Fellows of SPI

Dear Edwina,

I resigned because I disapprove of your action in filing suit against SCA, and your dealings and communications with Greg Paul. I have to choose between SCA and SPI, and the choice is clear. I have not changed my secular views at all.

Please remove my picture and name from the SPI website immediately.

Daniel Dennett

Rogers — Here is an email exchange where Daniel Dennett, as an SPI Fellow, is seeking to identify a contribution that he can make to the SPI World Future Guide.

From: “Dennett, Daniel C.”
Date: April 13, 2015 at 8:37:16 PM GMT+1To: Edwina Rogers
Subject: Re: An Article For The World Future Guide

I’ll have a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the future of religion in Ameerica coming out in a few weeks (April 27, I think). You can reprint that with my “blessings.”

I attach a DRAFT. It’s been slightly changed. Do not circulate the draft at all. It’s just to give you an idea of what’s in it. There’s also the piece in the March Sci. American by me and Deb Roy. I attach it as well. It could be reprinted.

http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/Dennett_Roy.pdf

DCD

On 4/10/15, 4:02 PM, “Edwina Rogers” wrote:

Dear Daniel:

Just checking back to see if you will be able to submit an article for the SPI Fellows’ World Future Guide. We very much want your voice included. Three to five pages is all we need. If you are over scheduled at this time we can certainly repurpose another article that you have recently written. Can you get it to me by the end of June the original piece of your choosing or direct me to the one you wish to reprint.

Warm Regards,

Edwina Rogers, CEO
Secular Policy Institute
401 Ninth Street, NW, Suite 640
Washington, DC 20004

Rogers — Here is Richard Dawkins’ resignation and his reason is clearly stated and does not involve any confusion about his lack of affiliation with SPI.

From: Richard Dawkins
Date: June 8, 2015 at 11:45:11 PM GMT+1
To: Edwina Rogers
Subject: Lawsuit

Dear Edwina

We need the Secular Coalition for America. It was founded by Herb Silverman with the very best of intentions, and under its present regime it is again following his original noble plan. Your proposed lawsuit can do no good, and achieve nothing but damage to a vital part of our movement.

Accordingly I have no choice but to resign from SPI. Please remove my name from your list of Fellows and stop using my name and image for SPI purposes.

Yours sincerely

Richard Dawkins

Rogers — Here is Michael Shermer’s resignation as an SPI Fellow. He makes his reasons quite clear, and none of them have to do with being unaware that he was a Fellow.

From: Michael Shermer
Date: June 11, 2015 at 4:31:36 AM GMT+1
To: Edwina Rogers
Subject: Resignation

Dear Edwina,

It is with much regret that I must follow my colleagues and fellow board members and resign from the Secular Policy Institute board, unless you change your mind about the lawsuit against the Secular Coalition of America. I understand you are upset about your termination (as you recounted for me in detail), and no doubt it could have been handled better, but at this point I cannot see how such a suit could benefit anyone, including yourself, and would most likely hurt the secular movement in general and definitely damage the SCA in particular (legal fees alone will cost you both a small fortune).

As your friend and colleague I urge you to drop the matter and move on. It’s never too late to change course. Otherwise, please remove my name and likeness from the web page (I see we’re all still up there). It is a shame because in my experience you have otherwise handled yourself so professionally, and your work for the secular movement has been important. Wouldn’t your time and resources be better spent in advancing the cause? It was for me when contemplating legal action against those who falsely accused me of a crime. As infuriating as it is to be accused of falsehoods (which I know you believe you were as well), I could not imagine investing tens of thousands of dollars and a year or two of my life in righting that wrong when I could be moving forward instead. I hope you decide to do the same.

Sincerely yours,

Michael

Michael Shermer
Skeptic Magazine

Hemant Blog Statement — Why the confusion? It appears that at least some of them said yes to becoming Fellows of the “Secular Global Council” (an SCA program) when Rogers was the Executive Director there… but they were unaware of the Secular Policy Institute and did not agree to join a group that was separate from the SCA. (A lot of the policy recommendations at the Secular Policy Institute were identical to the SCA Policy Guide, which Rogers also oversaw, which may explain the confusion.)

Daniel Dennett told me: “I didn’t know I was a Fellow of SPI until I saw my picture and name on the website.”

Dawkins added: “I have no recollection of how I [came] to be on the [SPI Fellows] list in the first place.”

Hemant — Update 1***: It’s been pointed out to me that part of the confusion may stem from the fact that the Secular Policy Institute grew out of the “Global Secular Council” which originated as a Secular Coalition for America project. (Got all that?) In other words, the Fellows may have been supportive of the GSC when it was under the SCA umbrella… but were unaware that it had separated from the SCA and is now, in some ways, in competition with the organization for donors and attention. It’s possible they were simply carried over to the new group/website with the assumption they would all be okay with it.

Rogers Reply — Below is an email exchange that clearly articulates SCA’s relinquishing the Fellows’ project to become a freestanding initiative. This email was to Richard Dawkins (see also his replies) and similar emails were sent to all Fellows.

On Jul 3, 2014, at 11:03 AM, Richard Dawkins wrote:

Edwina

I hope you received my friendly letter, below, although you didn’t reply. I am bewildered and saddened by all the infighting. If you can help me understand what the hell is going on, I would like to hear from you.

All good wishes

Richard

Dear Edwina

Thank you very much for this letter. It gives me the opportunity to express to you my shock and surprise at your abrupt and seemingly unexplained dismissal from SCA. And I would like to give you my personal thanks for the AMAZINGLY good job you did for RDFRS at a time of crisis for us. Your firm hand on the tiller was precisely what was needed at a difficult time, and you did it all with such grace and skill. Your final gift to RDFRS was finding, in Robyn, somebody worthy to step into your shoes — no easy task!

With my very best wishes and personal regards and thanks

Richard

On 19 Jun 2014, at 04:59, Edwina Rogers wrote:

Dear Richard,

As the originator of the Global Secular Council I want to update you on important developments regarding the Council over the past few weeks. Together with the founding benefactor, Lloyd Rubin, (the owner of the Bella & Stella Foundation) I have continued to develop the organizational structure, as well as the membership of the group and am delighted to report that the groundswell of support for it that we have received will now enable it to serve as a freestanding non-profit organization. This will provide it with far greater flexibility and sustainability as we move forward.

A number of Council members and other secular leaders have called attention to the organizational challenges and factional interests that currently constrain the Secular Coalition for America and, raised serious issues regarding the continued viability of the Council within that organizational context. Because the SCA no longer enjoys either the administrative or financial support of its previous Executive Director (me) or its primary benefactor for the GSC (Lloyd), I have recommended that the Council seeks independent status as a C-3 non-profit organization at this time, and Lloyd Rubin has concurred that he will continue his financial commitment to the GSC only if it operates independently of the SCA. Lloyd spoke to the current President and Interim Executive Director of the SCA, Amanda Metskas, on Monday, and Amanda has agreed to seek the support of the SCA Board to effect the transition of the GSC over into an independent status at this time. I expect the board will act promptly in its deliberations in support of the viability of the initiative.

I want to emphasize that both the objectives and the activities of the GSC remain the same as we had originally discussed, and we hope that you will remain steadfast both in your commitment to them and in your membership on the Council. We are counting on you to serve as a repository of authoritative knowledge that might advance a collective secular cause, and to participate in select activities of your choosing, such as Congressional Hill Briefings and online Policy Conferences. Now that we have the organizational and financial pieces in place, we are looking forward to freeing the Council from factional interests and are excited about the future of the Council and eager to enter the implementation and activity phases. As a start, Greg Paul is looking forward to releasing the Freethought Demographic Guide by this world class think tank. As we begin to sequence and state the Council’s activities, we are happy to talk with you about its development and directions. We look forward to hearing from the Board of Directors in relation to their support for the independence of the Global Secular Council and will update you with that development as it occurs. In the meantime, please feel free to contact us at any time with questions, ideas or suggestion. We look forward to the prospects of working with you as we build an outstanding, authoritative presence within the secular communities and collectively tackle critical social, educational and policy issues that are best informed by the leading secular scholars, scientists, educators and thinkers who collectively constitute the Global Secular Council.

Warmest Regards,

Edwina Rogers, JD

Johnson, Rogers & Clifton


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