An Interview with Ellen Johnson

Ellen Johnson has been an activist for American Atheists (AA) since 1978. In addition to having served on the AA Board of Directors, she was also the New Jersey representative for ten years. Currently, she is the President of AA. She considers herself “one of the fortunate few who grew up in an Atheist home.” She is raising her two children in an Atheist environment.

American Atheists is an organization dedicated to securing the civil liberties of Atheists and the complete separation of Church and State. It grew out of the historic MURRAY v. CURLETT (1963) U.S. Supreme Court case filed by an Atheist, Madalyn Murray, which removed coercive, unison prayer and Bible verse recitation from the public schools.

I have long hoped to interview Ellen Johnson, given her commitment to Atheism, her eloquence, and leadership in American Atheists. My interest intensified when Dan Kennedy’s “Are You With the Atheists?” appeared in the UU World (Jan./Feb., 2003). In confessional tones, Kennedy recounted his experience attending an American Atheists’ convention, and gave the convention and a speech by Ellen Johnson mixed reviews. Kennedy said, regarding the conference that, as a UU, he had empathy for the “unorthodoxy” of Atheism and Atheists. However, he also admitted his discomfort with, what he termed, the “fundamentalist” Atheism endorsed by American Atheists. Of Ellen Johnson, Kennedy wrote:

Ellen Johnson is a carefully groomed, soft-spoken, self-described “soccer mom”
from New Jersey who comes across more as a lobbyist than a rabble-rouser. She is also a second generation atheist and successor to the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair …

Despite Johnson’s persona as the antithesis of her colorful predecessor, her rhetoric was unsparing. Standing in front of a banner that read “American Atheists: Leading The Way for Atheists’ Civil Rights,” Johnson seethed as she denounced such post-9/11 idiocies as the reintroduction of the Ten Commandments Defense Act in the House of Representatives …

I wondered how Johnson would respond to Kennedy’s assessment of the AA conference and to his critique of her “good grooming,” even as he castigated her for the “unsparing” rhetoric that she “seethed.”

On August 30th, 2004, after e-mails with Johnson, I interviewed her by telephone, at her home office. First, I read Kennedy’s comments to her, and asked if she felt stereotyped by his descriptions.

Johnson didn’t hesitate in answering. “Sometimes male reporters are more concerned with how we [women] look. I remember the conference [Kennedy attended]. I was wearing a pink suit.” She stopped to sigh. “Madalyn Murray O’Hair always had comments on her appearance. Why is my appearance more important than what I have to say?”

She also noted that she was not the successor to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, as Kennedy claimed, but rather she succeeded Jon Murray, who was president of AA until 1995, when he, his mother Madalyn and her grand daughter Robin were kidnapped and subsequently murdered.

Matters like appearance, Johnson said, often were used to deflect discussion from real issues and the problems that confront non-believers. Furthermore, she found it troubling that she would be characterized as “seething” when, in her opinion, she was speaking passionately about matters of concern to Atheists. It was typical, she commented, to run into the same problem over and over, when dealing with religious people upset by Atheism. “I am attacked for defending Atheism when they can’t defend their religious points of view.” They would rather attack Atheism than defend their religion.

“Seethed,” she repeated, returning to Kennedy’s verb of choice. “What does that mean?” She talked for several minutes about how Atheists were marginalized after 9/ll by the overwhelming religious response to the attacks, as means of coping and mourning. Atheists, she reminded me, were even blamed for the attacks. That was the point she was trying to make at the conference Kennedy attended. Her speech was meant to confront political prejudice: when the evangelical President of the United States says, “If you’re not one of us, you’re against us,” an Atheist becomes an enemy of the State.

I agreed that she had a right to her anger and her concern. Why do politicians get away with targeting Atheists as enemies?

“I think people are still hung up on Madalyn Murray O’Hair,” Johnson said.

A woman of strong opinion, personality, and will power, O’Hair is an American legend. The founder of American Atheists, it was she who originated the battle against forced school prayer, and in doing so became to many of the religious faithful “the most hated woman in America.” In a preamble to the legal case, O’Hair offered her own definition of an atheist: “An Atheist loves himself and his fellowman instead of a god. An Atheist knows that heaven is something for which we should work now — here on earth — for all men together to enjoy…”

Johnson mentioned O’Hair occasionally during the interview—graceful references. Prior to the interview, I had examined the AA web site  and found in the archives statements and articles about O’Hair, one written by Johnson, which offered the following caveat:

I would ask that when you write about Madalyn O’Hair, you try, as best as you
can, to convey all sides of this complex person and the story of her life. If you
call her ‘the most hated woman in America,’ also try to remember that she was
passionately engaged in the issues of her time, as an Atheist, as a social activist, and as a woman. It wasn’t easy fighting the legal battles she fought for nearly
four decades.

“What have you inherited from O’Hair?” I asked Johnson. “Are you still fighting the same battles she did, as a woman and a leader of American Atheists?”

“There’s no baggage being a woman,” Johnson quickly replied, “there’s just baggage being an atheist.” Though atheists have made progress since O’Hair’s activist heydays in the 1950’s and 60’s, and are now more likely to identify themselves as non-believers, they still encounter hatred. “The hatred may take a generation to die off,” Johnson reflected. Many of our “gray panthers,” she noted, are still more comfortable and feel safer identifying themselves as Humanists instead of as Atheists, because Atheism was anathema when they were kids.

Johnson was hopeful about today’s young people, who seemed more willing to go through the intellectual exercise of accepting Atheism on its own terms. “We need to get rid of the baggage of old ideas.”

Despite her hopes, Johnson is somewhat exasperated by the lack of commitment by Atheists to causes and organizations supporting Atheism. Atheists, she commented, are truly individualists—and that’s good. But it’s terrible when you try to organize people for political action. “The majority of Atheists are not joiners,” Johnson said.

As a perfect example of Atheist resistance to joining beneficial organizations, Johnson pointed to the aftermath of the Godless March on Washington, D.C., which was organized by AA. The march took place in November, 2002; the attendance was estimated between 2000 and 2500 people. Dozens of speakers appeared, including Michael Newdow, Ed Buckner (Council for Secular Humanism), Chris Harper (Landover Baptist Church), and Tasmila Nasrin (political activist, under a death sentence in her native Bangladesh). At the march, Johnson gave a stirring speech, with a call to action: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I see a sleeping giant that is waking up and ready to assert its political and cultural influence!”

“AA foot the bill for that event,” Johnson said. The organization brought everyone together on its own dime. What was the outcome? Not a single member increase.

Johnson worries that it will take a catastrophe before Atheists realize that they have to join forces and assert their agenda. “Maybe we have to be jailed for not praying?” she quips. There’s a fear, she thinks, lurking in the hearts of Atheists: unbelievers are afraid of becoming too religious about Atheism. The most common excuse Johnson hears from people unwilling to join AA is, “I just got out of a religious organization, so why would I want to join another organization?”

Atheists have to feel the effects of prejudice personally, before they get involved—or at least that’s Johnson’s experience. “I don’t have any other answer. It’s amazing how other groups—religious groups—can motivate members, but we can’t. Religious people get out and fight, and we have to do what they do.” Quoting her AA predecessor, Jon Murray, Johnson says, “Atheists have to learn the value of being a pain in the ass.”

While listening to Johnson, I wondered about my own future as an Atheist within Unitarian Universalism. I remembered reading sermons by UU ministers that seemed to mock non-believers with the standard trope, “Tell me what god you don’t believe in. I’ll bet I don’t believe in that god, either.” I recalled that former UUA President John Buerhens wrote in A Chosen Faith (a book used as an introduction to UUism) that “zealous atheism” is a “demonic pseudo-religion.”

What does Johnson think about Buerhens’ remark? “He’s a cleric. He’s not on the side of Atheists. Why do Atheists attend Unitarian churches?” she asks me. “Is it a safe alternative? Is it the only game in town? It seems to me that these clerics find it too hard to accept Atheism on its own terms, and so have to bring Atheists back into the fold.”

What’s her reaction to Dan Kennedy’s claim, in the UU World article, that the AA conference he attended had a “forced, brittle quality?” There was, Kennedy wrote, “a whiff of fundamentalism in the air, if by fundamentalism, you mean absolute certainty coupled with a defensiveness suggesting that, beneath the surface, maybe the certainty isn’t so absolute after all.”

“I don’t recall any defensiveness,” Johnson answers. “We [AA] are quite sure about what we stand for and what we are doing.”

I remind Johnson that Kennedy suggested that he sympathized with Atheists, and seemed on the side of not professing any belief in a god.

“Kennedy has an attitude typical of the most apathetic Atheists,” Johnson says. “It seems to me that UU’s have created their own problems, by trying to please everybody.”

Are the American Atheists “fundamentalists,” as Kennedy claimed? Are they dogmatic? “No. We like to look at facts. Are facts ‘dogmatic?’ Atheists are concerned with reality.”

Johnson points out a brutal fact confronting Atheists: the current Republican administration wants 65 billion dollars for faith-based initiatives. What are Atheists supposed to do about this breach of Church and State?

“We have to fight,” Johnson insists, “and yet Atheists have left the fight to very few of us.” An increase in AA’s membership would aid the battle against radical fundamentalism. “ I know American Atheists isn’t for everyone, but we are clear and consistent about what we are and what we stand for.”

The AA web site lists what Atheism teaches. Considering Johnson’s concerns, I found this teaching most significant: “There is no chance after death to ‘do our bit.’ We must do it now or never.”

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