Interview with Roy Speckhardt – Executive Director, American Humanist Association (AHA)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Roy Speckhardt is the Executive Diirector of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Roy Speckhardt: I grew up in the suburbs of New York City in a town that was almost entirely Catholic or Jewish, and my family was the former.  That said, religion didn’t play a big part in my life and my family never attributed successes or failures to anything supernatural.

Since it was my great grandparents who immigrated to the US from eastern Europe, many years before I was born, that heritage didn’t play much of a role in my life either. Coming from a working class background, I was the first in my family to graduate college, and then go on to get and MBA.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Speckhardt: I was a sociology major and religion minor in undergraduate school, and that education had a significant impact on my interest in challenging societal injustices, and honing my thinking on religious questions.

While I was already heading toward atheism, understanding more about ethics and the study of knowledge (epistemology) helped me become a humanist.

Jacobsen: As the long-term Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Speckhardt: I enjoy the challenges of this position juggling the various needs related to long term visioning and program planning, staff supervision and organizational management, outreach and public presentation, and related tasks.

I’m glad that I’ve managed to fit in enough time to write the current primer on humanism (Creating Change Though Humanism) and am most of the way done with a new volume that I hope challenges our members to expand their thinking on social problems of the day–I’m titling it Justice Centered Humanism.

Jacobsen: What are some of the important initiatives and programs coming online in the recent past or in the near future? Why were these specific initiatives and programs founded? Or, in the latter case, why are these specific initiatives and programs going to be created in the near future?

Speckhardt: While we have a natural survival oriented focus on church-state separation, humanism addresses nearly every issue under the sun and beyond, so there’s never a shortage of potential projects or reasons to engage in them. Project ideas arise from leadership, staff, and supporters and if funding can be secured we often go forward with several at once.

Within just the next month we’ll be 1) arguing a cross case before the US Supreme Court, planning public events around it to use it as an opportunity to educate the general public on the need for government to stay out of the religion business, 2) putting finishing touches on a national advertising campaign to raise awareness and activism around climate change, 3) planning a distributed conference to take place in June in 5 cities and online, 4) launching a book addressing the misuse of religious exemptions, 4) holding a master class for humanist movement leadership addressing ways to combat racism, 5) Awarding a prominent university for it’s openness to humanism, and 6) continuing our regular operations supporting hundreds of local groups, publishing multiple periodicals, and the like.

Jacobsen: What have been the important social and communal activities of the American Humanist Association within its history?

Speckhardt: Though much can be said on the social/communal side for our many local chapters and affiliates, the national organization focuses more on advocacy, so, besides networking and lobbying, the social is emphasized only annually at our conference and this year will be our 78th annual.

Jacobsen: In terms of activism, in legal and sociocultural contexts, what have been the important victories and honest failures of the American Humanist Association? How can others build on those successes? How can they learn from the failures?

Speckhardt: Our legal department holds a remarkable 90% win rate, with no precedent setting failure to date.

Historically our organization and its leadership secured conscientious objector status for nontheists, kept government sponsored religion out of schools, and opened the door for humanists and other nontheists to obtain the same benefits reserved for the religious.

There are a number of areas we haven’t succeeded yet, but failure is only a result of trying something and stopping, which I can’t think of any good examples of. E

xamples of areas we’re still actively pursuing include obtaining humanist chaplains in the military, removing “under God” from the national Pledge of Allegiance, passing an Equal Rights Amendment, and reforming our racially biased justice system.

Jacobsen: Who have been integral humanist men and women within the American humanist tradition? What are important speeches or writings – articles or books – by them?

Speckhardt: There are too many to fairly answer this question in part because humanism isn’t an authoritarian or hierarchical tradition. We don’t venerate a founder or take direction from any particular leaders, and never have.

So that’s opened the door to a myriad of contributors who were directly involved with the American Humanist Association’s work.  Beginning with those like Albert Einstein and Margaret Sanger, thought leaders such were drawn from psychologists (including Maslow, Rogers, and Fromm), feminists (including Friedan, Ehrenreich and Steinem), scientists (including Sakharov, Sagan, and Weinberg), authors (including Asimov, Atwood, and Vonnegut) and many more.

We aren’t dogmatic and require no litmus test to be a humanist, but the closest thing we have to a source document is Humanism and its Aspirations which you can find at: https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/

Jacobsen: In terms of 2019 and also a tad into the 2020s, what will be the important areas of activism for the humanist and other secular-oriented communities to become involved in and coordinate their efforts towards, as targeted objectives?

Speckhardt: Nontheists are rapidly growing in number and acceptance, with over 50 elected officials openly nontheist and nearly a quarter of the population leaving religion behind. In the coming years the gains we’d been striving for regarding equal representation and secular government will be achieved.

And always looking forward, humanism will turn its focus toward more societal challenges in order to utilize our sound, reason based, compassionate approach, to make this society and the world we live in a better place. So you can expect an increasingly diverse humanism addressing a wider swath of issues, locally, nationally, and internationally.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Speckhardt: Donations are key to our success and folks can find various ways to give at https://americanhumanist.org/ways-to-give/ Folks can find local communities to engage in at https://americanhumanist.org/get-involved/find-or-start-a-chapter/.

People can read and contribute material to our various publications found at https://americanhumanist.org/what-we-do/publications/And our activism can be followed on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/americanhumanist/ and Twitter:  https://twitter.com/americnhumanist

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Speckhardt: Interesting and atypical depth of inquiry, it’s refreshing. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Roy.

Speckhardt: Thank you Scott!

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

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