What Just Happened at American Atheists? May 7, 2008

What Just Happened at American Atheists?

Short answer: Only a few people know and they’re not saying much of anything. Yet.

Since Ellen Johnson left, Frank Zindler has stepped in as the (temporary) President of American Atheists.

But why she left is not all that clear.

On American Atheists’ website, a letter to members reads:

Following over 13 years of outstanding service to American Atheists and the cause of State-Church Separation, Ellen Johnson is leaving her post as President of the organization.

The nearly identical — and more recently updated — letter on AA Communications Director Dave Silverman‘s website reads:

Following over 13 years of outstanding service to American Atheists and the cause of State-Church Separation, Ellen Johnson is no longer President of the organization.

A slight change in wording…

Ellen didn’t leave voluntarily. Rather, she was forced to step down from the AA board of directors.

The 13 year tenure of Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, came to an abrupt end at a special meeting of the board of directors held April 29.

While Zindler stated that Johnson left for “personal reasons”, in an e-mail response to an interview request to Humanist Network News, Johnson stated that she was “fired.”

A new statement from Zindler reads:

By a majority vote of the Board of Directors of American Atheists, Inc, and by a unanimous vote of the Board of Directors of two of the other four corporations, Ellen Johnson was involuntarily removed from the office of President of American Atheists, Inc. and from the office of President of the other four corporations.

The bylaws of each of the five corporations permit the removal of the President by a majority vote of the Board of Directors.

Out of deep respect for Ellen Johnson’s many services to American Atheists, in deference to her privacy, and with the desire that her Presidency be remembered favorably by history, American Atheists asks that this statement be accepted without calls for further explanation.

Be assured that the action taken was in the best interests of the organization and of its membership.

While I understand the need for privacy, there’s some issue (or issues) Ellen and the board disagreed about that led to the parting of ways, and AA members have a right to know what it was.

Dave, as any good Communications Director must do, is trying to keep things calm while under fire with questions. He’s responding to what he can, but since he can’t reveal much, it’s not too helpful.

He’s said that the Board will reveal what they can after they’ve spoken to the various parties involved. Basically, they want to make sure they’re saying the right thing.

What would be helpful is communication from Ellen herself.

Since she and her crew just ended the Freedom Walk today, we’ll hopefully be hearing from her soon. (Incidentally, the Mississippi governor was not present to receive Bill Moore‘s letter, but it was delivered as planned. Congratulations to the group for finishing their Walk.)

Zindler, who has been active with AA for over three decades, is the temporary replacement, but he has said he does not want the position for too long:

He told the Humanist Network News that “before the new year, hopefully, we’ll have someone else.” Zindler, citing his age, (nearly 69) said he would be happy to act in an advisory capacity in the future, but feels that “fresh ideas” are needed in a leader of the organization.

I’m anxiously looking forward to what changes may come from all this. But the delayed response of the AA Board is not a good omen for the future.

What are some of the changes people would like to see in AA’s future? Silverman asked and the most popular response seems to be: a more modern and dynamic website.

I’m all for that, but it seems like an odd thing to request when being asked what major changes you’d like to see made to a national organization with AA’s history. Why is the focus not on more cooperation with other groups, major initiatives to organize atheists, or further legal action to support our rights?

Also, without a webpage-design volunteer, an update of the page would take some money. Without coming clean about what happened with Ellen in a timely manner, the Board is risking losing some of the precious memberships it has.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Norm

    Having just been at the AA conference in March, it was my feeling that there was a lot of visible tension between a couple of the board members and Ellen. At times there was open disagreement about the direction the organization, especially where it concerned political involvement, and Ellen’s decision to do the Freedom Walk was criticized by some as a publicity stunt. I am not an AA member, and am just going on what I observed from the conference, but the news about Ellen’s departure, involuntary or no, did not come as a surprise.

  • I appreciate you keeping us up to speed on what is going on, with no spin.

  • Mriana

    It would be interesting to find out why she was fired. It’s sad to see this happen. 🙁

  • My impression of American Atheists is that they don’t want to be one of many atheist organizations. They want to be THE atheist organization. Other groups just fragment the movement.

    Yeah yeah, I’m not a big fan of AA any more. 😉

  • Brian

    It’s a shame; AA couldn’t have picked a worse time to be suffering from in-fighting. They should be leading the New Atheist(tm) revolution, not struggling to keep up! This election year should be the first one in history where several Atheist groups band together and throw their hat in with a candidate, and demonstrate the power of our numbers. I’m hoping they have a plan to get their act together quickly.

  • I was a member of AA for a couple of years but let my membership lapse because the experience was a disappointment.

    A. I thought Ellen’s call for atheists to avoid voting this year was irresponsible and stupid.

    B. The fact that she felt privileged to issue such a call convinced me that AA is completely out of touch with modern society, atheist or otherwise.

    C. The monthly magazine is an embarrassment and a seeming confirmation of the hackneyed stereotype that atheists are a bunch of bitter and aging baby boomers with nothing better to do than nitpick scripture and insult Christians for fun.

    I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the fact that O’Hair built an organization centered advocating on her own concept of atheism and not an organization capable of growing with the times and serving a membership entitled to have a say in its agenda and activities.

    So in much the same way that Buddhists are enjoined to “kill the Buddha” if they meet him on the road, I think that AA is going to have to “kill the O’Hair” if they ever want to turn into a group that can do something useful in the 21st century.

  • Well, Ellen’s prank in telling atheists not to vote was enough for me to lose any respect I might have had for her. That was the dumbest thing I’ve heard anyone say in a very long time.

    Also not an AA member.

  • I’d like to see a democratic organization, and I’d like to see chapters start up again. I think there could be strength in sharing resources, including staff and finances and coordinating fundraising efforts and marketing. Although, as it’s been said before, atheists are like cats, and for the most part aren’t “joiners.”

  • Cade

    Perhaps this is a good thing. It just stings a little seeing an atheist group bicker like this.

  • David D.G.

    Since she and her crew just ended the Freedom Walk today, we’ll hopefully be hearing from her soon. (Incidentally, the Mississippi governor was not present to receive Bill Moore’s letter, but it was delivered as planned. Congratulations to the group for finishing their Walk.)

    The governor of Mississippi missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, then, and unless he was unavailable for a darned important reason, this failure of his to pay proper respect to an important cause — and to a lot of people dedicated to publicizing it — should cost him dearly in the next election.

    ~David D.G.

  • Of course the “don’t vote” thing was stupid, but I think they’re pissed that they’ve been eclipsed by other organizations in recent years. Here it is, an enormous ground swell of atheism and they’re the only organization that hasn’t capitalized on it. FFRF has more than quadrupled it’s membership and has led suits against local, state and federal government. Center for Inquiry is growing and has lobbyists. What have they done? Oh I see her make the rounds sometimes on tv, but that’s it. No one even recognizes their symbol anymore. They’ve completely missed the biggest boat to ever come along for them, so time for a new leader.

    And yeah, that website of theirs is pretty bad.

  • Rusty Barker

    Well, Ellen’s prank in telling atheists not to vote was enough for me to lose any respect I might have had for her. That was the dumbest thing I’ve heard anyone say in a very long time.

    Yes. But she was so hot, it was easy to overlook various lapse of judgments.

    Frank Zindler is not nearly as hot.

  • “Out of respect … remembered favorably … be accepted without further calls for explanation ….”

    That’s creepy. I expect churches and politicians tell me to turn my brain off, not atheist organizations.

  • Steve

    I for one am glad she’s been removed from her position. She is a TERRIBLE spokesperson for the atheist community- As long as she reads from a script, she’s fine, but as soon as she goes head to head with a person of religion, her poise goes away and she becomes combative in a very negative way.

    With all the amazing atheists out there who are excellent speakers as well as fantastic debaters- Ron Barrier, or Annie Laurie Gaylor are two great examples, it highlights the fact that Ellen was a really awful representative.

  • HERE! HERE! I don’t think it is appropriate to ask rationalists and other people who are for the truth to not ask anymore questions and “just trust us.” At the risk of sounding like a douche-bag, it sounds an awful lot like what a Christian priest might say. “Just trust me, have faith.”

    Hopefully this gets resolved soon.

  • Gil Gaudia, Ph.D.

    I am Gil Gaudia. My wife Jeanne and I have been editorial assistants for the past two years at American Atheists. In doing so, we have worked closely with Ellen Johnson whom we respect and admire greatly. We have also had telephone and email contact with a few of the board members, especially with regard to editing their manuscripts. We were not impressed with their interpersonal skills. I have also contributed several articles to the magazine. We have just concluded an hour long telephone conversation with Ellen.

    We are extremely biased in her favor, because we found her to be hard-working, honest, courageous, competent and caring of us and appreciative of our volunteer contributions.

    This board’s action, in our opinion, will almost certainly result in the end of the organization and publication as we know it. We say this because, from first-hand experience we are aware of the number of hours, the amount of coordination and the knowledge of the operation that are all required to successfully produce a monthly publication, and we have no evidence that any of the board members are willing and able to invest that degree of commitment. Indeed, we have some reason to believe that the opposite is true. To those members who propose hiring Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris and others for the presidency, first see if they’ll agree to work for 38K, or thereabouts, in addition to doing latrine duty in their spare time.

    For the board of directors of the most well-known Atheist group in America to have taken such a suicidal action is incomprehensible, but whatever their reasons, unless the
    members protest strongly and demand her reinstatement, (which she may not even want) it will only be a matter of time before we no longer have an organization to uphold the civil rights of Atheists.

    As a contributor of many articles to this magazine, and as volunteers in editing other journal articles, spending many hours of our time in assisting Ellen in producing this publication, we are no longer interested in writing, editing or assisting in any way a magazine whose board has acted in such an irresponsible, unfair and self-destructive manner.

    Gil and Jeanne R. Gaudia

  • I find it quite surprising that American Atheists would even expect that atheists would be willing to accept a “no explanation” after ousting a well-known leader of a well known atheist organization.

    While I’m not a member (I’m Canadian) I think that we all have a right to know the truth here, considering the fact that this is such a large and influential organization.

    The problem for me is not whether this was the right decision to make or not, it’s the fact that it has been done behind closed doors with no explanation. The expectation that atheists should find this approach acceptable is insulting.

    If I was a member I’d seriously consider resigning over this.

    I’m going to continue promoting their organization on my site for now and just see where this goes.

    I hope they’ll man up and tell the truth.

  • Roger Hertens

    I am a Belgian Atheist and ones more I am thumbling down from my seat while looking for news on American Atheist. Don’t you think it is allready so difficult being an Atheist also here in Belgium so the American story is ones more comming over to us as unbelivebel. We are used to have these troubles with Agnostics but what is happening in America is bad for Atheist over the world. Roger Hertens

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