Interview with Roy Speckhardt of the American Humanist Association November 14, 2008

Interview with Roy Speckhardt of the American Humanist Association

There’s been a lot of reactions (good and bad) to the American Humanist Association’s atheist bus campaign. In short, the AHA will be running the following ad on buses in the metro Washington, D.C. area:

The Christian Right thinks this is an attack on them. Conservative commentators aren’t happy either.

Today, AHA’s Jesse Galef was on FOXNews discussing the ads. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue was also there to offer a counterpoint… which included the mentions of Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Stalin. (It had to be tough for Jesse to engage in a battle of minds with an unarmed lunatic…)

Anyway, after learning about the American version of the atheist bus campaign, a few questions came to mind:

— How did this idea come about?

— Was the AHA in contact with the British Humanist Association because of the success of the BHA’s own ad campaign?

— How will the AHA gauge the success of the ads?

— Will we see “atheist buses” in other cities anytime soon?

— How is the AHA reacting to the conservative Christian response?

Roy Speckhardt, the Executive Director of the AHA, was kind enough to answer those questions.

His statement to me is below:

The American Humanist Association started running paid advertisements as part of our annual program plans when Steve Goldberg and David Niose developed ideas for mass marketing in 2005. As we humanists, atheists, and freethinkers know too well, we’ve been mostly ignored by the media and the political powers that be, so paid ads were a way for us to break through that barrier. Through FreeThought Action we’ve run amazingly successful ads in a number of U.S. cities. The idea to do bus ads originated as a way to get around the billboard prohibition in the Washington DC metro area. But then, as we saw the British Humanist Association reap terrific results from a clever campaign in the UK, we wanted to shift our ad to have a similar flavor.

The American Humanist Association has come a long way in recent years and we were moving quickly to run the BHA ad before its media coverage was forgotten by reporters. However, since the BHA ads weren’t running until January they preferred we not use their wording. So our board and staff worked on a slogan that would be more fitting to the coming holiday season. The result has already far exceeded my expectations. People are coming out of the woodwork to respond to this campaign. And I’m pleased to report that we’re hearing from supporters and local group leaders about interest in rolling out the campaign in other cities. I’m optimistic that plans will soon be finalized to do just that.

I think it’s humorous that so many people of faith think they were the ones we were targeting with these ads. We’ve got millions of people to reach who are humanists but don’t know of us or care to join an organized movement. These nontheists are the real target. But if I think that bit of self-centeredness on behalf of the religious is humorous, I think it’s just hilarious that some actually find the ad offensive.

Really, the absurdity is palpable. Let me explain the situation. Some of the roughly ninety percent of our society are offended that a small organization made a tiny advertising purchase to reach out to its minority constituency? And the source of this offense is the fact that we just raised the question “Why believe in a god?” Sounds like some folks have major security issues…

The folks on Fox and Friends (who just had me on for a follow-up interview) were among those who seemed to feel this was an attack ad on Christians. Hearing their antics you can almost see what their imagining: sneaky atheists aiming to unhinge the faithful by ambushing them with magic language that will undermine their faith. But then you have to remind yourself about the source of all that unhinging — a simple question.

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  • Chas

    I think the AHA are being a bit duplicitous when they say their goals were to reach out to the secular community. The language on the ad directly challenges the believers to articulate (even in their own heads) their reasons for that belief. It tweaks them, even if it was in a fairly benign way.

    Therefore, we should not be surprised that it has been interpreted as an attack. If the actual reason for the attack was merely awareness, then I would say the ad was successful, and they cleverly used Fox,etc. to spread that awareness.

    However, I wonder if it helps advance the notion that the secular community isn’t anything more than a bunch of snarky individuals.

  • I have to agree with Chas on this, those ads are clearly directed to theists. That’s not a bad thing, but I think they are going to shoot themselves in the foot pretending that this is anything but an awareness raising campaign.

  • I would think they are more directed to agnostics to think, and to atheists to know they are not alone in the world.

  • I think that the reason theists feel personally offended when someone claims there is no god, or even that such is possible, is their emotional investment in their religion. As Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris said in the Four Horsemen discussion, to tell a theist that there is no god is akin to telling them “you’ve wasted your life”. As Dennett said, there is no polite way of saying that, which doesn’t mean that we should stop doing so. But it helps us understand why they feel attacked by these ads — in their minds, they are being attacked.

  • stogoe

    Pedro’s got it right. It’s not an ‘attack’ on faith, it’s a simple statement of Humanist ideals.

  • llewelly

    (It had to be tough for Jesse to engage in a battle of minds with an unarmed lunatic…)

    One of the most common mistakes atheists and skeptics make when doing battle with superstitions is to assume it is ‘a battle of minds’ – by which we often mean a contest of logic, reason, and evidence. If that were so, atheism would have wiped the floor with theism in the late 19th century, and nearly everyone alive today would be a nontheist of some sort.

    It’s a contest of emotional manipulation. Too many atheists, armed with reason, logic, and evidence, bring a screwdriver, a set of allen wrenches, and a soldering iron to a gunfight.

  • These nontheists are the real target.

    That’s the message I got when reading about this campaign. This is not an attack on Christians. It is a welcome mat for freethinkers, humanists, atheists and agnostics to come out and feel comfortable in their own skin.

    It’s so hard for nonbelievers to “come out,” as they say. They know the pressures of society, family and everyday life. What we need are open arms and welcome hands. It’s good to see positive ads like this.

    Be good for goodness’ sake. That’s all we ever want to do.

  • Seth C.

    One of the most common mistakes atheists and skeptics make when doing battle with superstitions is to assume it is ‘a battle of minds’ – by which we often mean a contest of logic, reason, and evidence. If that were so, atheism would have wiped the floor with theism in the late 19th century, and nearly everyone alive today would be a nontheist of some sort.

    If it hadn’t of been for severe persecution for promoting anything but theism in the 19th century, most people would be some kind of non-theist. Indeed, it is a battle of emotions, because at it’s roots, most people realize the Judeo-Christian version (or any other version similar to) of a theistic god doesn’t make any sense in application.

    That’s why I’m a panentheist/deist/humanist combination…

  • Shane

    There is this problem where the mere statement of atheism or doubt is an attack on religious people and “offensive”.

    I have a “God is imaginary” t-shirt. It is generally considered “offensive” by people. It is merely expressing one of my few sincere religious beliefs. Should I conversely be offended by a “Jesus is God” t-shirt? That is ridiculous, and it is this double standard that really needs to be overcome. You have no right for people to tip toe and show reverence toward your sincere (and usually arbitrary) religious belief.

  • Kyle

    Man, does this group need a new spokesperson, and a completely different message.

    Don’t say “Why” believe; that just pisses people off. They have all sorts of “whys”. They don’t make sense, but people don’t care; they like their whys. A better message would have been:

    Happy Holidays! Are you ready to say goodbye to your imaginary friend? Just be good, for goodness’ sake, and join us! etc…

  • Marsha

    The ad asks everyone who can read, not just nontheists or theists, to think about their god belief so I hardly see any attack.
    What annoys me is the pathetic justification I heard from an AHA rep (can’t remember name) about atheists feeling a little lonely and this helps. Ugh, please… nontheists have every right to express their opinions and ask people to think, *just like* theists ask people to accept jesus as their be-all, end-all. But to come out with this pathetic “lonely” justification is simply begging to be scorned. Sheesh, just say we’re asking people to think about life without a god and we have the right to express that.

  • When it comes to freedom of speech for a theist, oh you have to let them have their say, and it is all supposed to be fine and dandy, but when it comes to freedom of speech for an atheist, with a just a short concise message, they want us to stfu. Now who again, are the bigots?

  • Larry Huffman

    I also agree with Chas. The ad does go right at people who believe in god. If they were not targetting believers, they really must be ignorant, since the ad does go at belief. Not all atheists are intlligent or ‘bright’. This is proof, since they are denying they targetted believers while their ad directly targets believers. Duh.

    Again…a reason why we do not organize is we really do not want other groups speaking for us. This is not an attack I would wage as an atheist who wishes for us progress beyond our current situation.

    I think direct attacks like this that have a high ‘cute’ value or that will obviously be miscontrued will have negative impact on us. We are the minority. Attacks will cause defenses. Their defenses will be illogical, but they will be loud and will resonate with the believers.

    And here is why that is bad. Ultimately the people who need to be reached out to are people who are questioning their beliefs or have doubts, who need to feel they are not alone and that there are answers. In forums like this it is somewhat private and on a more personal level…as we all hide behind screen names, etc. But open attacks will polarize, and I think that will scare doubters or those questioning away from us, not bring them to us. There is a lot of personal shame and guilt with leaving faith. It is something that is almost always done in private, with tears and some agony. I know…I left religion but when I did, it hurt like a son of a bitch. Bad. To have a campaign like this causing an uproar, it will tend to scare those people away rather than pull them in.

    We often ridicule the religious when they insinuate Pascal’s wager…that it would be better to choose to believe, all things considered. We state that gaining a belief is not a choice and so it is not that simple. But then we completely forget that when we are insensitive to just how important their belief is to them. If belief is not somethng we just choose, then lets give them all some credit that they do have personally sacred and special reasons for believing and it is not as easy as just stopping. Belief does not work like that on either side. We should respect that as well, when attacking belief.

    And lastly, I do not want to make christians stop believing. Would it be better if their were no religion…sure. But back to reality…there is religion. It is not going anywhere in the near future. We really should be trying to live and work and associate with christians on an equal level…not attacking their belief…as this ad clearly does…despite claims to the contrary.

    We should attack when it is warranted. When religious people use their religion to attack gay rights or other citizens rights, based on religious morality, then we should cry foul…on the issues. We should fight religion being included in government and at a policy level. We should not try to fight a war against religion publicaly…at elast not yet. We should be fighting simply to keep religion private to the believers. We should fight a war for atheist inclusion. We should not be making people feel like to accept us they have to stop believing, or that we openly think bad of them because of their belief. We should make them know that despite our belief differences we can all live and work together and that they can follow their religion as they wish and we can be who we are, together in peace and without intolerance. If we make them feel that our agenda is to tear down belief, then they will resist and resist strong.

    Irresponsibile campaign, sending the wrong message at the wrong time to the wrong people. And then claiming that is not the case. Duh.

    They do not speak for all atheists, and my group of atheist friends all seem to be on the same page with this one. We need to stop getting exictied by the fact that there are atheist ads. That is not a big deal. Anyone with money can wage a big ad campaign. The question is should we and what campaign should we wage. Not this one, I can tell you.

  • I have a “God is imaginary” t-shirt. It is generally considered “offensive” by people. It is merely expressing one of my few sincere religious beliefs. Should I conversely be offended by a “Jesus is God” t-shirt? That is ridiculous, and it is this double standard that really needs to be overcome. You have no right for people to tip toe and show reverence toward your sincere (and usually arbitrary) religious belief.

    Exactly my point in my previous comment. Saying “God is imaginary” is telling them, in Dan Dennett’s words:

    … do you realize you’ve wasted your life? Do you realize that you’ve just devoted all your efforts and all your goods to the glorification of something which is just a myth?

    Not only does the beginning of such a thought make them feel, well, stupid, and deceived by con men, but it also activates the sunk cost fallacy: better to not admit a waste, even if it means to keep increasing that waste, than to face the consequences of admitting it.

  • «bønez_brigade»

    Hemant spaketh:
    “Will we see “atheist buses” in other cities anytime soon?”

    The MFA is currently discussing something similar for our local buses. Earlier this year we put up a billboard (in a somewhat rural fundy location), and we change the message every month or so. Said board remains undamaged, surprisingly. Hemant, make sure you get a pic with our board next time you’re in the South.

  • Mike Bartram

    Well, are we deciding HOW to proselytise or WHETHER to proselytise? Sometimes a direct attack does lots of good. Obvious examples are Hitchens’ writings and George Carlin’s “Religion is Bullshit”.

  • This ad could be interpreted to be towards those of non-belief and those of religious belief. I will say that it’s intent isn’t to offend. I like Roy’s responses above. He seems to have it all together and a good understanding of this ad campaign.

  • llewelly

    Shorter Larry Huffman: If we hide in the closet, they won’t beat us, like they do the gays.

  • Bernard Kirzner, M.D.

    I think the message should be more subtle, and more supportive of doubt.

    How about?

    Be good for goodness sake.

    That’s what we have consciences for, and that’s usually quite enough.

    American Humanists: 800-xxx-xxxx

  • stella

    How can they say there is no God? There has been human prophets just like us before us conveying messages to us about everything in life which we still live by to this day! And the hold Bible and holy Qur’an, and there are things in the Qur’an that was said to happen which are now happening, it is the word from God, these people are just trying to gradually cover religion over as it has been happening for years until it seems as if religion does not exist! these people are kafirs! God have mercy on our souls! The most Merciful.

  • Dixie

    “Just be good, for goodness’ sake.”

    Umm…..please tell me, for goodness’ sake, what being “good” means to an atheist? What is “good” and “bad” to someone who does not believe in God? It is simply a matter of interpretation. What is a “good person”? In whose opinion? Yours? Where did our laws against theft and murder, etc. originate? Why do we have those laws, and why do we need them, if we are simply a higher animal? If one animal kills another, is it considered murder? If one animal steals something from another, do we consider it a crime punishable by imprisonment? Of course not! So why should “higher” animals be prosecuted for doing the same? An animal is an animal, regardless of how high he ranks on the “evolutionary scale”.

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