An Interview With Roy Speckhardt

Roy Speckhardt is the Executive Director for the American Humanist Association, the oldest and largest Humanist organization in the United States. He is also a board member of the Humanist Institute, and an advisory board member of both the Secular Student Alliance and The Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship Program. Previously, he served as deputy director for the Interfaith Alliance. He lives in Maryland with his wife Charlene Gomes and daughters Johanna and Riley. (Roy’s Web Site).

Q: Roy Speckhardt, first of all thanks for taking time from your busy schedule to be interviewed. I’m sure that many of our readers will be curious about your tenure as Executive Director for the American Humanist Association. 

Tell us something about why you decided to take on this multi-dimensional job. Had you been a Humanist for some time? Certainly, you’ve been involved in political activism for much of your career. Did becoming director of the AHA seem a natural “fit” for you?

A: Like many I’ve met who come from theistic backgrounds, my journey to a new way of thinking is part of my lifelong effort to discard myths and misconceptions and to seek truths—truths with a lower case “t” that recognize the value of critical inquiry, no matter how sure we are of our positions.

Everywhere I turned there were more reasons to doubt the Catholic faith of my upbringing. From confronting unacceptable answers to the question of evil, to being warned that studying religion too closely might cause you to lose faith, to learning that the stories in the Old Testament are only different versions of much older stories from Mesopotamia, stories even the Mesopotamians recognized to be myths, my theism could not withstand my inquiry. 

I was initially a bit angry in my atheism. I thought, “Why did my family, friends, community, and society, not see through this transparent myth of religion?” During my undergraduate studies I took sociology courses that covered many social problems that exist in our country that are driven by ignorance: racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and classism. The recognition of the many deep-seated myths to which our society clings to, along with a glimpse of the harm that they can cause, inspired me to choose a career focusing on dispelling these myths and righting the resulting wrongs. 

I continue to be driven by a desire to see society turn to the scientific method as a basis for truths we can act upon, an aim to see compassion drive our goals and actions, and an aspiration to ethically realize egalitarian aims. Though I didn’t know it at first, these are the very pillars of humanism, which made work at the AHA a nearly perfect fit for me.

Q: What are the most significant changes to have developed at the AHA, since you’ve become its Executive Director? What further changes would you like to see occur in the near future?

A: The only thing preventing the AHA from being a perfect fit for me was that the organization fell considerably short of its potential over the years. We simply weren’t having the impact yet that I knew such an organization could. With that in mind I’ve introduced a number of changes so far.

While there was already majority support for this direction among our democratically elected board, I really ran with the idea that we had to be clear about humanism’s inherent lack of theism, instead of conveniently allowing that aspect of our identity to be overlooked. This change meant dropping our religious tax exemption and shifting our public presentation. For instance, I was surprised that we were maintaining membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. When I attended a board meeting of theirs, I was shocked to find that their membership was limited to groups that were verifiably attached to a religious faith. We haven’t lessened our support of abortion rights and still work closely with RCRC, but our membership could only have been maintained if we denied an important part of our identity. This shift has also cast aside remaining barriers from coalescing with our natural allies among other freethought organizations, an aim of itself that we now pursue unwaveringly. 

Another major recent change was to leave the concept behind that the AHA was a “club for the intellectual elite” and instead build our organization in a broader activist direction. We’ve become active members of the Secular Coalition for America, and have an additional staffer lobbying part-time on humanist-specific issues. We’ve launched a legal center with over 30 pro bono attorneys, quadrupled our appearances in the national media, added annual paid advertising campaigns, and encouraged our local affiliates across the country to bring this activism to a local level. Though we’ve doubled our membership since modernizing our outreach programs, I look forward to doubling it again and faster.

We’re about to launch yet another initiative that will support lifelong learning for humanists and think tank style policy support for humanist issues. This new education center will involve local groups and networks with national organizations to have greater impact. 

Q: Tell us something about the upcoming AHA conference in Spring, 2008, which will include our European colleagues from the International Humanist and Ethical Union. 

A: This is the first time in 20 years that the International Humanist and Ethical Union will be having its triennial World Congress in the U.S. and it will doubtlessly be the AHA’s largest conference in our 68 year history.

At this conference June 5-8, 2008, we’ll be honoring Representative Pete Stark with the Humanist of the Year award for his tireless work on behalf of humanistic issues and his daring in becoming the first member of Congress in U.S. history to go public as a nontheist. We’ll also honor Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin who famously explained church state separation to the Maryland legislature by saying, “People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution. They don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.” And Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority and owner of Ms. magazine, will receive the Humanist Heroine award.

More than awardees, the list of speakers down to the breakout session leaders are all prominent and capable. Workshop speakers include church-state separation activist Rob Boston, secular lobbyist Lori Lipman Brown, feminist activist Dr. Patricia Willis, child rights activist Inaiah Narisetti, author George Erickson, secular addiction recovery specialist Dr. Joseph Gerstein, and many more.

Q: You once were on staff for the Interfaith Alliance, where you worked with C.Welton Gaddy, current president of that organization. Gaddy was honored at the AHA’s 2007 conference in Portland, Oregon, and in his remarks suggested that he felt increasingly comfortable with Humanism and nontheism. Do you see increased potential for building relationships with organizations like Interfaith Alliance? How is your Humanism regarded by people “of faith,” when you reach out to build bridges?

A: The AHA has a long history of working closely with religious progressives, and as we’ve become more politically active our connections with leaders like Rev. Gaddy have become stronger and more numerous. We have active relationships with many individual Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ ministers as well as Reform, Reconstructionist, and secular Rabbis, as well as Sikh and pagan leaders. I regularly meet with denominational leaders from various denominations to share strategies.

While the AHA has had this longstanding relationship with organizations of faith, in many cases it was one based on false assumptions where our humanism was mistakenly seen as a distinctly religious one with an implied God belief. As we’ve been more outspoken about the true nature of humanism we’ve been met with even greater interest. Now we don’t just represent “religion light” but rather a large minority that is otherwise inaccessible to these religious powerbrokers. With rare exceptions these people of faith respect our theological position and are more than happy to work with us in coalitions to accomplish shared ends.  

In some cases I even discover closet humanists in these religious leadership positions, but we’re not in the business of outing people.

Q: You seem to have been an activist from a young age, getting involved as a college undergraduate GLBT issues, as well as in matters of cultural diversity and environmentalism. Are your wide-ranging interests in politics part and parcel of a family history of activism? Who were your most important mentors?

A: Actually, I come from a fairly apolitical family history that if anything could be described as rightward leaning. However, my two siblings and I grew-up in the liberal town of Carmel, New York, and to varying degrees have adopted a more progressive outlook. I’ve had various mentors over the years and I do my best to learn from those who have examples of what not to do as well as those who lead in positive directions. I also do my best to keep an open mind about my current position on any given issue so that I might update my thinking when better information comes along.

One trick I’ve learned in self-development is to ask people I respect for the names of books that have significantly shaped their thinking. While I now have more suggestions than I have time, I still discover significant insights through this method of study.

Q: You’re a creative individual, with interests in photography and writing. Do you still find time to pursue these artistic endeavors? 

A: I don’t have as much time for creative outlets that require depth of research or similar immersive energies, but I dabble from time to time. I also find that developing humanism and tackling the challenges around the myriad of issues we address is something that requires all my creative energies and is significantly rewarding.

Q: What are your hopes for the upcoming national elections? Will Congress find the courage to turn back some of the legislation that has breached the wall of separation between Church and State? 

Unfortunately, we have a very long way to go, not just to reverse legislation intended to meld church and state, but also to convince politicians that further encroachments aren’t worth the potential boost in their poll numbers they might get when they pander to religious groups. In this first year with the new Congress, serious talk is underway regarding reversing bad legislation that addresses civil liberties, women’s rights, and the environment, however, efforts to focus attention on church-state separation are so far unsuccessful. 

Worse than the stalled efforts at rebuilding the wall of church-state separation are the successful efforts to keep tearing it down. Dozens of financial set-asides attached to unrelated bills that represent increased violations of our First Amendment freedoms from and of religion are being passed with majorities in both houses. While one that supported creationism was stopped by our coalition effort, others that provide taxpayer funds to Christian-only organizations have sailed through. We’ve got to raise consciousness among politicians and the general public about this failure to support basic rights.

The upcoming elections offer similar hopes as the last one, but tempered now by the reality that a stated party platform isn’t enough to guarantee allegiance to the issues we care about. We need courageous people in public office willing to support the rights of religious and philosophical minorities, willing to stand up for First Amendment freedoms, and willing to stand by their convictions even in the face of political peril. I’m convinced that majorities in this country would be happy to support candidates like this, especially when educated on the value of protecting the rights of all. If we humanists and our allies are vocal and active there’s solid hope for our future.


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