The Martha Stewart of Atheism
Ellen Johnson, the successor of the 'most hated woman in America,' makes American Atheists family-friendly
BY: David Gibson
Johnson has established a Washington lobbying office, and earlier this year she snared New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, the Democrat and physicist who defeated Christian rightist Mike Pappas, to address the organization. Last year, the federal government flew Johnson to Seattle to testify on religion in public schools at a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Johnson doesn't shed much light on her life. She won't talk about where she lives, her children, or her husband.
But from interviews with Johnson and a variety of other sources and records, her background can be sketched in. She grew up in Midland Park, N.J., in the late '50s and early '60s--the high-water mark of churchgoing in the United States. Her hometown remains 96% white and largely Republican, despite changes in America's social topography.
She says her parents were atheists, even though they didn't label themselves that way. "It's almost like growing up gay," she says. "You know you're different."
In high school, she sang in the chorus but mainly worked on behalf of population and women's issues. Her senior yearbook picture shows a post-Twiggy blonde; benath is a quotation from the humanist George Bernard Shaw: "The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them."
Indifference wasn't Johnson's problem; she wanted to save the world. She majored in environmental science at Ramapo College and earned a second degree in political science and a master's from the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. She was headed for law school when, she says, "I got tired of school." It wasn't until Johnson saw O'Hair on television in 1978 that she discovered herself. "Oh, that's what I am," Johnson recalls thinking.
Today, Johnson lives in predominantly white and Republican Rockaway Township and drives her children to soccer games, piano lessons, and dance classes in a sports-utility vehicle. She swears that it wasn't her plan to be American Atheists' savior. After O'Hair disappeared, the board of American Atheists drafted Johnson, telling her that the organization wouldn't survive without her leadership. It was still a close call.
By the time O'Hair vanished, at age 77, the best days of American Atheists were long gone. Many believed O'Hair had driven her organization into the ground. In fact, her disappearance quickly became as enthralling as her presence had ever been. Countless news reports put O'Hair in Mexico, New Zealand, even Tahiti, living the good life on money donated by credulous freethinkers.
The most likely theory is that Madalyn, Jon, and Robin were killed for money, according to the assertions of authorities. Whatever happened, it left American Atheists rudderless, and Johnson stepped in to remake the organization in her own image. She says American Atheists now has 2,500 members, an increase from the group's low of 1,400, though still a far cry from the fanciful 70,000 that O'Hair liked to claim. But further gains may be hard to come by.
For one thing, America remains a fiercely religious country. An estimated 95% of Americans consistently profess a belief in a higher power. Social surveys from the past 20 years indicate less than 1% of Americans consider themselves real atheists, certain that God and an afterlife do not exist. And atheism, like Marxism and pacifism, remains a luxury of the privileged. Atheists are largely white, older, and well educated; hardly any minority members or anyone under 50 attended the Piscataway convention.
The movement has been damaged by squabbles among various secularist groups, feuds once fomented by O'Hair, who managed to alienate even her own followers. Tensions erupted in the early '80s when O'Hair, during the last American Atheists national convention in New Jersey, disbanded all state chapters. Most urgent now is straightening out the financial mess O'Hair left behind. "I want money and power, and I am going to get it," O'Hair once wrote in her diary, and she allegedly fulfilled her ambition on the backs of her followers, plundering the organization's accounts to support a lifestyle that included $1,000-a-day vacations, mink coats, and expensive cars. Yet she still owed more than $250,000 when she vanished.
Johnson says the group's finances are under control and that she can attract members by focusing American Atheists' agenda on the church-state issues that have proved critical to lobbies like the American Civil Liberties Union. But she may be too late. While American Atheists floundered, other secularist groups established themselves as serious advocates of the cause. In contrast, Johnson's group comes off like a bunch of wacky cousins.
In the end, success for American Atheists may depend on a reinvention of the O'Hair formula: relentless self-promoting. History shows that atheist movements in America usually grow up around charismatic leaders and die with them. Johnson hopes to avoid that fate by courting the public without offending. "Right or wrong, I'm just not comfortable being antagonistic," Johnson said.
She needs to work on her execution, though. When "Nightline" producers rebuffed Johnson because she attached a series of conditions to her planned appearance, she fired off a dense four-page protest that included remarks like, "Why should American Atheists provide ABC with millions of dollars in advertising revenues?" Any whiff of criticism of her or O'Hair provokes complaints about society's dislike of strong women. "The emphasis is always on the negative.... It's like how Barbara Streisand always gets trashed," Johnson says during an interview at a Staten Island, N.Y., studio where she tapes "Atheist Viewpoint," a cable show. The studio is the only venue where she has agreed to answer questions, and only after lengthy efforts to secure her cooperation. She explains that the burdens of being a working mother leave her no time.
"It's seven days a week, morning, noon, and night," she groans, referring to her job with American Atheists, which pays a meager $10,000 a year.
Complaints notwithstanding, Johnson vows to keep the faith. "My atheism is something that I hold very dear to my heart," she says. "It has enriched my life and made me a better person, which is why I have spent the last 20 years of my life working to share the 'good word' or 'good news' of atheism, to put a twist on a typical religious phrase."