Secular VIP of the Week: Roy Speckhardt

May 12, 2014

Roy Speckhardt is Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, the largest humanist group in the United States. Together with their 200 local chapters, the AHA advocates for nonbelief, supports local events, and produces articles, magazines, and a podcast. Roy spoke with Johnny Monsarrat for this interview at the AHA's headquarters in Washington DC.

Roy Speckhardt is Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, the largest humanist group in the United States. Together with their 200 local chapters, the AHA advocates for nonbelief, supports local events, and produces articles, magazines, and a podcast. Roy spoke with Johnny Monsarrat for this interview at the AHA's headquarters in Washington DC.


RDF: Readers may not know that 'atheism' isn't the only type of nonbelief.

How do you define 'humanism'?


Roy Speckhardt: Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a god.

Kurt Vonnegut said, "Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently

without expectation of reward or punishment after you are dead," and it's

really that simple. It's the effort to do good for yourself and society, not

expecting a higher power to be involved, because, of course, we don't

believe that there is one.


Roy Speckhardt: A lot people don't realize that humanism is inherently

atheistic, but it is. Humans are rule-making beings and it's natural for us

to come up with our own rules and morals. That's part of what makes us who

we are.


RDF: Growing up, was it difficult being an atheist in upstate New York?


Roy Speckhardt: My part of New York was not exactly conservative. I was

raised Catholic and my priest was pretty openly pro-choice and no one

thought anything of it… In school I was once sent to the principal for not

saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I wasn't yet an atheist, but I found it

deeply objectionable that I had to say this pledge in which there was a

reference to God… A "moment of silence" sounds like a good idea… but how

does it play out an hour outside of Nashville, where there is a class that's

all one particular kind of Christian? They sit and pray together, aloud, and

one person doesn't pray. That child is ostracized. This sort of thing

actually happens across the country on a daily basis, so we have to keep

these situations in mind and come up with rules that allow everyone to live

with free expression and the ability to be free from religion.


RDF: So you're a strong supporter of removing the phrase "Under God" from

the Pledge of Allegiance. It's easy for people to think, "So what? Does that

really affect anyone?"


Roy Speckhardt: I've got two little girls who go to school everyday. They

are asked not just to listen to their teacher lead them in a prayer-like

thing that says this a country for people who are under God, which excludes

them and their dad, but also they are asked to stand and say it too. So I do

think it matters.


Roy Speckhardt: Beyond that, it has an important legal impact. Think about

other church-state separation issues, like religion in public schools and

LGBT rights. [ In courtroom battles ] you have the American Center for Law

and Justice, our nemesis on the other side, saying, "This is a Christian

nation… We see it in our money, we see it in the Pledge of Allegiance, and

we see it on government buildings." So these seemingly symbolic issues

become legally foundational. We have to address these symbolic issues

because that will take that foundation out from under the religious right

when they're trying to meld church and state together.


RDF: For six years you worked full-time for the Interfaith Alliance. Is

there potential for us to work with believers on limited issues?


Roy Speckhardt: I definitely do. Even though we are a growing majority —

20% of Americans are non-believers and a good chunk of those are people like

us, non-theists — well, we're still a minority. So we have to convince our

progressive religious friends to work with us if we want to win in the

legislative sphere and in the public domain. The Interfaith Alliance… was

formed by secular and religious people who thought, "The Christian coalition

is kicking our ass, what can we do to stop them? Let's come up with a

religious left." It worked; it was a pretty good strategy.


RDF: What language should we use when reaching out to believers?


Roy Speckhardt: We need to go into interfaith circles, but we have to be

clear about who we are. We can't leave our non-theism at the door. They have

to accept us for who we are or we shouldn't want to play. We can never

compromise on that, because if we do it undercuts our efforts to raise our

profile in this society.


Roy Speckhardt: I like it when people say, "We're bringing together a

coalition of people who believe in good will." I like to see when they

broaden their terminology to include us. Just our being at the table and

open about who we are makes that happen. We participate in an international

religious freedom effort that meets at the capital every few months, leaders

of different faith groups as well as ourselves, and they know there are

non-theists in the room.  So every time someone says, "We're getting

together as religious leaders," and then they look across the room and they

see me, they add, "Oh, and people with no faith." They’re having to edit

themselves to include us will eventually lead to the point where we're a

bigger player than we used to be.


RDF: You recently upgraded your website and are making a big push for the

best possible articles. Are you actively looking for authors? What will

people who subscribe see?


Roy Speckhardt: is a

Huffington-Post-style website for original humanist articles. A lot of the

articles are news related and there's a little philosophy, but it's all tied

into what's going on today. You're going to open an article and see links to

current articles in the New York Times and sources like that, but the

articles are all original content appearing first on We're

excited to have it and we publish at least one article but usually three or

four a day, Monday through Friday.


RDF: The American Humanist Association's annual conference is coming to

Philadelphia, June 5-8, and you've got former US congressman Barney Frank

coming. Is he an open nonbeliever?


Roy Speckhardt: He is. He came out as the first openly gay member of

Congress years ago. Then he retired from Congress last year and said that he

doesn't happen to believe in God. He carefully, strategically I think,

decided to do this after he retired. There's a real sense on Capitol Hill

that saying that you don't believe in God is political suicide, but I think

it's not true. There are members of Congress who could say this and it

wouldn't hurt their campaigns, but it's going to take a few of them coming

out for us to realize that this is true.


Roy Speckhardt: So we're going to hear what Barney has to say, why he

decided to wait, and whether he thinks the ground is fertile for others to

come out as nontheists too.


Roy Speckhardt: The conference is much more than just sitting and listening

to other people talk. The United Coalition of Reason and our chapter

programs have partnered together because we want to train local leaders to

take advantage of the opportunities that are growing all across the country

today. People will learn how to speak to the public and be involved in

public debate issues. We'll have an intensive workshop experience.



You can join the American Humanist Association at, read their magazine and listen to their podcast at, and buy tickets for their annual conference at

Written By: RDFRS

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