Chris Johnson went out and explored the voices of over 100 famous atheists around the world and published the prominent A Better Life, the book, and “A Better Life,” the documentary.
Here we talk about him and his work.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As an author, filmmaker, atheist, and humanist, how did you become involved in a humanistic and freethought outlook?
Chris Johnson: One thing I’m very grateful for, is that I’ve always been an atheist. My parents raised both my brother and me (in Seattle, WA) to be curious, inquisitive, and search ourselves for the answers in life. It’s something I’m very grateful for. Since I was never religious, it became an interest of mine at Concordia University in Montreal and I ended up minoring in religious studies because I found it so interesting. This was also around the same time that the new atheist movement really took off, so I began to really identify with that word (atheist) at that time in a way that I hadn’t before.
Jacobsen: You travelled around the world and interviewed famous atheists including Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, Greta Christina, Daniel Dennett, and a host of others. How was this project funded? Over the travelling and interviewing, and photographing, for the year and a half of the project, what interviews stood out to you?
Johnson: I hadn’t really been involved in the humanist/atheist community before I started A Better Life. It was wonderful that the community was so welcoming to me and my to approach this topic. I felt it was important for us not to just talk about what we didn’t believe. It was equally important that we take a stand and talk about what’s important in life from our atheistic worldview. How does not believing in God change one’s life? How do we handle life’s obstacles without religion. There are so many places in the world — even here in the US — where atheists are vilified. It’s important that we change those perceptions and be vocal and outspoken about who and what we are.
I did a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the book (and later the film). It became the second-highest-grossing publishing project at the time and is still something I’m very proud of, though it was probably the most stressful two months of my life!
In my conversation with AC Grayling, he talked about having less than 1000 months in your life. Supposing you live until you’re 80 years old x 12 months a year = 960. He said, 300 months of that you’re asleep, and 300 you’re waiting in line somewhere, so you’ve really only got 300 months to do whatever it is you want to do in your life and to make the most of it. That really stuck out to me and shapes the way I live my life.
Jacobsen: What were some of the common themes of the interviews? Do you think those would differ from some themes in a similar hypothetical project with famous religious believers around the world?
Johnson: Common themes in the book/film surrounded making the most in the short time we have together and being proactive in making the world a better place. Unlike many religious figures, I think atheists tend to really own the responsibility of creating the world we want to live in and fixing so many of the systemic issues that cause strife, pain, and suffering in the world. No prayers or God to fix things, it’s up to us to make the change we want to see.
Jacobsen: Your tone and presentation are calm, rational, and compassionate. Why is this tone important to set to present to the internal and external community of atheists?
Johnson: [Laughing] I’ve never thought of myself as being calming, but people have told me that I sound that way. I’m glad that people think my demeanour and attitude fit in with my message and the theme of my work. At the end of the day though, I’m just myself and hope that calming attitude has a positive impact on others.
Jacobsen: Who did you not get for an interview – but wanted to get for an interview?
Johnson: That’s a tough one. There were so many wonderful people I met. I did photograph Carol Blue, Christopher Hitchens’ widow, but he had passed away before my project. It would have been great to have interviewed him as well.
Another thing is that I met so many wonderful people after doing the book/film that I wish I had known beforehand as I would have loved to include them. Perhaps there will be a sequel someday, but we’ll see.
Jacobsen: What has been some of the feedback on the documentary?
Johnson: It’s been really great. I did a screening tour after I premiered the film where I went to over 120 cities on six continents to show the film and do talkbacks. It was an incredible experience! It’s one thing to just put a film out there in the world for people to see. It’s another to be there in the room with people all over the world to get their immediate reaction and feedback. It was also an amazing opportunity to meet secular groups and people from around the globe — from Iceland, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, Peru, to all over the US. It was great. Sadly, I was never able to get any events off the ground in Canada! Next time!
Jacobsen: When the project started, what were the fears? When it finished, what was the feeling and the reflective thoughts on the 18 month or so journey?
Johnson: Obviously, it was a lot of work putting both the book and film together (as well as the screening tour after). Travel is exhausting, and it’s all a lot of hard work. I was thrilled though that everything was so well received and my work has had a positive impact on people. It’s a humbling experience and I hope to continue to create meaningful and impactful work that resonates with people in the future.
Jacobsen: What interviewees see unique in their background and outlook on the atheist community?
Johnson: I really enjoyed meeting and speaking with rock climber Alex Honnold, who went on to be in the Oscar-winning film Free Solo. In addition to being an incredible athlete, he’s also a kind, compassionate, inquisitive and reflective person. He’s really a great guy.
Jacobsen: Any recommended other speakers or writers?
Johnson: My friend Dave Warnock who has been on his Dying Out Loud tour is very inspiring. We just spent some time together in Seattle working on a project and had a great time. After his recent ALS diagnosis, he’s been using the time he has left to inspire others to appreciate the moments in life and use the most of the time we all have together.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Chris.
Johnson: Thanks Scott! Much appreciated!
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.
Canadian Atheist 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, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
Image Credit: Chris Johnson.