A Little Background on the Secular Policy Institute (Updated)

A few months back, organizations I’m part of started receiving invitations from the Secular Policy Institute.

The Secular Policy Insititute is the world’s biggest secular think tank, where Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, and dozens more spread secularism.

Now we’re pushing Congress and would like to list [organization] as supporting secular values!

It costs nothing. Just let us to list you as a coalition participant and you get:

— Influence our national campaign for secular values

— Weekly call on national issues

— Individual attention from our superstar thinkers for your local issues*

— Funding and support for your local secular projects

— VIP Invitation to the World Future Forum

The more we come together, the more clout we have with Congress, just like the Heritage Foundation and CATO Institute!

Call me if you’d like to chat!

Do you support secular values and can we list you?

-Johnny

Johnny Monsarrat
Alliance Director
Secular Policy Institute

“Oh, yes”, I thought, “These guys.” As I have decision-making responsibilities for one of these organizations, I decided to pull together information for the rest of the group. Below is what I presented to them. Since someone at the organization recently thanked me for providing the information that kept us from affiliating with the Secular Policy Institute, I thought it would be worth sharing this background with everyone.

Warning: It’s a bit long, but I’m sure I’m missing interesting things.

It Started With Cats

The first hints of what would become the Secular Policy Institute were in the Secular Coalition for America’s Model Secular Policy Guide (pdf). I don’t mean the guide itself. If you look at the acknowledgements on page 3, you’ll see that none of the people who put together this guide are part of the Secular Policy Institute.

However, if you look above the acknowledgements on page 3, you will see this:

Picture of calico cat with the caption, "Dedicated to Natasha, the Panamanian Feline."
Yes, a guide aimed at U.S. lawmakers was dedicated to a cat in Panama. We found out why a few months later.

When the Secular Coalition announced the launch of the Global Secular Council nearly a year ago, it had a page dedicated to two cats, Bella and Stella, and their “foundation”.

These two furry heathens do not suffer fools lightly, as they are both staunch proponents of the separation of church and state. When lounging in direct sunlight, they have a propensity for summoning the unwitting to their soft stomachs. A simple enough gambit, they let others pet them for the perfectly calculated amount of time, before the naïve are swatted at with more speed than a Hitchens one-liner.

Both have advanced degrees in the theory and practice of self-cleansing, and follow in the pursuit of each other’s genius to Ph.Ds in cat-naptology.

If you click through to see the picture, you’ll find a cute pair who are obviously related to Natasha. The foundation donated $150,000 to start the Council.

The Panamanian Connection

It took Edwina Rogers being fired by the Secular Coalition for the money behind Bella and Stella to come forward.

“I can be a good and generous friend, or I can be a very effective adversary,” wrote one major donor, Lloyd S. Rubin, in an email to board members and the heads of member organizations last week.

One enterprising commenter on Ophelia’s blog made the Panamanian connection. Who is Lloyd Rubin?

One day in the mid-1980s, Rubin, a portly American in his 50s, steps off a plane. In no time, he is ensconced in opulent offices, complete with an imitation jungle brook. He proceeds to filch millions from visiting countrymen, despite repeated complaints to the U.S. embassy. He tools around in a wine-colored Jaguar. Even after Noriega falls, Rubin continues to con with impunity. He seems untouchable…but is he?

In June, 1991, Rubin travels to Thailand with his new Panamanian wife, Rachell Constante. They drive to a dusty village, where Lloyd is admitted to a drug rehabilitation center run by Buddhist monks. Constante returns to Panama alone. Some weeks later, a New York judge hearing a fraud case against Rubin gets a Thai death certificate in the mail. It states that Rubin died on July 26 at the rehab center and was cremated. As translated, the cause of death is listed as “complication disease, unhealthy.” He was 60.

Rubin is back in Panama now, having failed to convince anyone that he died. He’s done his time in prison and is now funding secular start-ups.

He also made a habit of sending emails to secular leaders and board members. In an email from the Secular Coalition, they described the situation this way:

We offered a severance with the aim of reaching a departure agreement wherein the parties could move forward amicably, and even scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue further. Ms. Rogers did not attend the scheduled meeting.

What did occur soon thereafter, however, is that two individuals (former SCA donors) suddenly demonstrated an extraordinary level of interest in the personnel matter, to the point of disseminating scathing emails regarding the SCA Board. Most of these communications related to the personnel matter. Our responses – which merely stated that because the underlying matter involved personnel issues, we were not in a position to talk about it in detail with the public or with donors – only seemed to enrage these individuals further. Accusations of secrecy and lack of transparency (not understanding that we cannot be publicly “transparent” about a personnel issue) were made frequently, often daily.

The SCA understates the issue. The emails were sent to far more people than just the board. I didn’t receive copies from anyone on the SCA board. Here’s a sampling of the emails from Rubin. This seemed to be the crux of his problem:

The good news is that the Vatican will accept my art donation . . except for a few nudes.

My beef with SCA is that they decided to keep $9,000+ of refund of unused funds my cats donated to fund: http://secularglobalinstitute.org/l .. a new secular Think Tank, that will aggressively champion separation of C&S as an issue.

I donate to AU .. Rev Barry Lynn visited me.

What else do you want me to do?

Based off of correspondence attached to the email thread, the problem appears to be that it wasn’t entirely clear in the wake of Rogers’ firing that Rubin had officially earmarked his donation to start a 501(c)3 organization run by the Secular Coalition, a 501(c)4 lobbying organization, or what expenses accrued to that 501(c)3 project. Amanda Metskas, as the acting executive director, was left to sort out the financial tangle, earning her Rubin’s enmity.

While his frustration over his project moving away from the Secular Coalition with Rogers’ departure but his money potentially remaining in their coffers, well, I’ll let the emails speak for themselves.

It appears that you are going to need more than “crazy glue” to fix SCA. Amanda seems to be ” The Queen of Bad Ideas ” .. the latest is below. Perhaps you can explain to Amanda that her action in pocketing my $9,027.78 for SCA . . will cause a re-action in the Commercial Court of Panama, on my part.

The cost to SCA, and selected members of the BOD, to defend a class action suit of this kind will far outweigh the gain in keeping my donor refund. Amanda’s leadership .. is just a bit greedy .. but not wise .. in my opinion.

Another:

For me it’s arithmetic, my total cost for filing a class action in Panama will be less than $1,000 to recover $9,000+. In addition to actual damages, the judges in our Commercial Courts very often add on punitive damages.

Likely SCA and selected BOD members will not choose spend what a defense will cost them in Panama. Therefore I anticipate a default judgment, that will be forwarded to the US courts for collection. This procedure is governed by treaties going back to 1903…that will be expensive to the named defendants.

So Amanda might be again “penny wise – and pound foolish”. We will see.

Yes, the man to whom the keys to the Global Secular Council were handed was willing to donate his art collection to the Vatican, or at least to threaten to in email.

In the meantime, the GSC had been renamed to the Secular Global Institute for reasons that are unclear, and Rubin was sending out emails to promote the new organization. I have no idea how I ended up on his email list, but I received these emails at an address I use for donations and newsletters, not the address publicly connected to my blog. It is the address at which I receive Secular Coalition emails.

The most famous secular authors, speakers, and thinkers gather . . worldwide.

Enjoy our Newsletter today: http://www.secularglobalinstitute.org/newsletter.html

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Subscriptions are Free : http://secularglobalinstitute.org/subscribe/

We are nearing 75,000 registered opt-in subscribers . . Join us today.

This was a huge improvement over the first email I received from them.

Open the link . . Your invitation

http://secularglobalinstitute.org/sgi-newsletter/

The good news about Rubin is that he now appears to have been cut out of the organization, at least officially. It apparently required a third name for the organization to make it happen, however. In December 2014, the Secular Global Institute officially became the Secular Policy Institute.

The Dot-Com Icon

With Rubin gone, it was time for the new Secular Policy Institute to stop pushing people away and try to draw them in again. In order to do this, it turned to Alliance Director Johnny Monsarrat, who sent the emails mentioned in the introduction here.

I made the recommendation to my group that we not put our name behind an organization that in more than half a year of existence had only managed to create chaos. The rest of the board concurred, and we sent an email declining the invitation and asking that we be removed from the Coalition page on their website. At that time, the Coalition page consisted of an invitation to become a coalition member and a map of, as far as I can tell, all secular organizations in the world. While the page didn’t outright state that all these groups were coalition members, neither did it clarify that they weren’t.

Monsarrat replied, agreeing that the map was misleading, agreeing to move it to another page, and asking why we had chosen not to join. He claimed we were the first group to say no. We decided not to respond.

As it turns out, we dodged a bullet. If you haven’t already seen this post regarding the way Monsarrat followed up on being turned down, you should read it. Here’s a taste:

I thought perhaps Feminist Freethinkers might benefit from such a relationship. But I did my research and realized that it was not a good fit for us. I tried to explain this to him and all hell broke loose.

First he insulted FFNY exclaiming that we didn’t really “do anything”. Then he went on to defend his organization ending with this choice line:

“I’m starting to believe that the reason the secular movement doesn’t have more women is the women. Prove me wrong.”

Wow! In what universe does that create a welcoming environment for women?

I have emails and transcripts of voicemails that Monsarrat sent to three of the organizations that provided reasons for declining to become coalition members. This went to a coalition of groups that wanted to remain local-only.

Well, I guess that’s your business. I have to admit this is a new one for me.

Being turned down was not new. We had declined nearly two months prior.

When the same correspondent gave a more detailed reasoning but suggested an individual women’s group might be interested, Monsarrat responded, in part:

Meanwhile, I’d very much like to discuss [your group]. I like the saying that the #1 asset you can have in business is leverage. As a woman’s group, you have leverage over us because we need more diversity. We’ll do almost anything to get more female Fellows and Advocates, and to fund and promote a women’s interests secular project. So you will have a great deal of power and our attention if you choose to partner with us there.

After a period of time, the correspondent suggested that the presence of Dawkins, Shermer, and Rogers was an impediment for a women’s group. Monsarrat:

You don’t even have a real website. In [a large city], you have [a few hundred] meetup members. You hold some group discussions, but it doesn’t look like you are moving the meter.

You need to learn to partner with groups that have power, without the rage. You should be ashamed to have misjudged Edwina. You are wrong about her.

Did you know that 150,000 people die every year from measles, because families ignorant about science won’t get a vaccine? There are stakes here that are higher than destroying ourselves from inside with infighting. Unlike you, we’re moving the meter on government policy and social debate. You should join us.

The choice is pretty simple. Harness us, use us to further your own goals. You don’t have to agonize over the 286 groups we are aligned with. None of our 30 fellows is anything like the powerful conservative religions and the people we are trying to align to combat.

No word on how Rogers feels about painting conservatives as the enemy.

When his correspondent told him this was the wrong tack to take and that this email would be made public, Monsarrat sent one more email.

Thanks for threatening me. It just underscores how unprofessional you are. What kind of “ethical society” person would forward around a personal email with the intention of destroying someone personally? Ethical fuck you if that’s your approach to life.

Can I educate you? Politics is about working across the aisle.

And if you think we’re on the opposite side of the aisle, your powers of judgment are wrong.

Here’s your choice. A big groups swings in and wants to invest $25,000 giving you the power to hold a conference focused on issues you care about.

You won’t even have a phone call with them.

That is poor judgment.

He signed it “Johnny”, so that was a nice personal touch.

The other correspondence I have is more brief. Here is a voicemail he left another group leader after that person hung up on him for being unprofessional in their discussion after that leader also expressed issues with some of the organization’s fellows. Because this is a voicemail transcript, there is some uncertainty to the exact wording. Places where I was really unsure what Monsarrat was saying are in brackets, as are places where I removed identifying information.

I think you need the reality check. I understand you think you’re the world’s best professional and what you’re doing is within [the] norms. You get to get a reality check. What you’re doing [is strictly] inside baseball, [name]. This is not professional. And for that reason I don’t think we can work with [you], which is a shame because [garbled, but context suggests he’s saying there’s a lot of potential benefit to the organization]. It’s like your approval for [winning] the lottery this week. But something about your [ego], your approach, really didn’t wanna. Well, whatever you want. If you want to talk, I’m still here. You can give me a ring.

After a student group declined his invitation because the Secular Policy Institute was unlikely to share their values of sociopolitical intersectionality and diversity, and the group leader complained about their group being contacted at an email address that should only have been used by the Secular Student Alliance:

You’re not on a mailing list. Good luck with your sociopolitical intersectionality.

There was more to the correspondence after this, but the student group leader deleted it because they didn’t want to be tempted to reply to Monsarrat’s escalating rhetoric.

[ETA to add the following correspondence I was sent after this post went live.]

When the Winnipeg Skeptics declined his invitation based on not wanting anything to do with Dawkins, Harris, or Shermer, he sent this to their head, Ashlyn Noble.

Gross thoughts? I don’t understand.

Is there anyone else in your group I could speak with?

I’ll put it this way. In the last month I’ve traded more than 400 emails with group leaders.

They don’t normally have this much unexplained anger.

I mean, come on, really. How can you be a serious person and have so much hate for all three luminaries? Keep it to one, please!

Their founder, Gem Newman, stepped in at that point.

While I would have perhaps phrased things a little more diplomatically, I’m certainly no more interested in having the Winnipeg Skeptics associated with Dawkins, Harris, or (especially) Shermer than Ashlyn is. Given what they’ve said recently, and the reaction that we’ve seen in some quarters of the various secular communities, you can’t possibly be naïve enough to be surprised when some people don’t respond positively to your “luminaries”.

As I said, you can talk to me, but you probably don’t want to. I may have started the group, but Ashlyn is the group’s organizer and leader, so talking to me won’t get you anywhere.

You should also probably learn to take “no” for an answer.

Monsarrat’s response:

I already marked you as a no.

You are a smart, evidence-based person, right? So I have to tell you that you have your facts wrong.

You are the one who is naïve. From the thousands of groups that I have reached out to, and have traded email personally with about 400 of them, yours seems to be the only one shaking with loathing about the academics who have done so much for the secular movement.

Perhaps you’ve fallen victim to groupthink, the idea that your tiny community of friends represents the viewpoint of the world. No one’s going to take you seriously with that attitude.

The fact is, if you are open to facts, that Richard Dawkins personally has more Facebook followers than the whole secular movement put together, and while some people have their concerns, we generally love him. You are the one in the minority.

And when Gem pointed out he wasn’t impressed with an argument from popularity:

You were the one who called me “naïve” because you thought that “everyone” hates the leaders of the secular movement.

Your facts are wrong, and I can tell by your throwaway reply to me that you’ve got nothing to say to that. Dawkins, Harris, etc. are not widely hated or “gross”, whatever Ashlyn meant by that.

It makes you look ignorant.

If you are an evidence-based person, you might show due humility and think about your position.

Or feel free to shoot me another one-liner. I will respond the same.

The correspondence ended when Gem pointed out that Monsarrat was misrepresenting what he’d said.

It is my understanding that one of these group leaders recognized Monsarrat as the culprit in the Feminist Freethinkers of New York blog post. They contacted Edwina Rogers in the last few days about the response they received, and Rogers has said Monsarrat has now been removed from his position, though not from the organization. He is still listed on the website as Alliance Director, but given that he was originally a contractor brought into the Secular Coalition to build the Global Secular Council website, they may not have someone else to make that change. [Update: According to this comment, he was still using that title several days after news of his email stylings broke.]

What is particularly disturbing about this is that it is trivial to find a history of abusive behavior on Monsarrat’s part. All one has to do is Google. Monsarrat is infamous for having filed a frivolous lawsuit (that he later had dismissed) against bloggers who published excerpts from a police report about a party at his home that involved underage drinking. If you start to look into this incident, you’ll find that bloggers targeted by the suit reported that he showed up to their houses.

So I got my letter in the mail today and just a few minutes ago JonMon showed up on our doorstop, ringing the bell. When my housemate opened the door, he ran off, jumped in his car and drove off at a high rate of speed with his lights off.

You will also find that he has a history of improper use of private data and aggressive…self-promotion via email.

Around Valentine’s Day this year, Harvard Law School students received fliers in their Harkboxes encouraging them to sign up for the Match-Up, a service that promised to pair each participant with 20-30 compatible matches within the three university communities. Three thousand two hundred people participated by Valentine’s Day, and then another 600 signed up when a second round was offered for those who missed out the first time.

[…]

However, Jon Monsarrat, a 34-year old MIT business graduate, apparently organized the event on his own, as none of the listed sponsors claim any involvement with the service or know of any other genuine participants.

[…]

Since Valentine’s Day, numerous HLS women have received e-mails from Monsarrat requesting that they start dating him. He did not just email the 20 or so people he had been matched with by the web service. In fact, according to 3L Nicole De Sario, he admitted in an email to one of her friends that he had sorted through all of the Match-Up profiles himself, and used the service to gain access to many women’s contact information.

His defense?

Abuse and harassment, Monsarrat said, are “very loaded words”.

He called the complaints “flame wars” and said, “most people don’t take editorials in the student newspaper seriously. I don’t think they’ll believe the flame wars,” Monsarrat said.

Also, despite having promised at least one alumni group that the data would be kept confidential:

Monsarrat, who also participated in the matchup service, said that he had heard of complaints about his personal use of data from the service, but said “I kind of don’t get that. I signed up like everybody else. There was no privacy policy.”

While I won’t tell you that it was inevitable that he would send the emails he did, it was no stretch at all to predict that Monsarrat would be a disaster in this role. I did. It was why we dealt with him the way we did.

The Secular Policy

Putting cats in your secular policy guide isn’t the most professional thing ever done. However, in general, I had and still have a great deal of praise for the guide the Secular Coalition put together. I’ve sat through policy guide negotiations discussions. Putting those things together is tough, and the team the Secular Coalition put together did a good job.

Given that, I find it fascinating that none of the people credited with writing that policy guide are now connected to this new organization that was created to focus on policy, with the possible exception of Ron Lindsay, who may have been part of the CFI staff credited as a group. Instead the fellows of the Secular Policy Institute are a group of PhDs, MDs, JDs, and Peter Boghossian, whose fields are largely in the sciences.

There are exceptions to this. Amatzia Baram, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, Wendy Kaminer, Ron Lindsay, Elham Manea, Holger Mey, Sarbagh Salih, and Michael Semple have all done at least some serious policy work or writing. That’s just over a quarter of the SPI fellows. Most of the rest of the fellows are doing amazing work in science and/or advocating for cultural change, but as I point out a lot when people accuse me of authoritarianism, there’s a huge gulf between cultural criticism and advocating legal changes.

Don’t take my word on the policy weaknesses of the current line-up of Fellows. The SPI’s call for volunteers specifically asks for “Fellows. We need more women, minorities, international people, and public policy experts. Help us identify and attract them.” The page also explicitly notes, “We need to research secularism and government in every country and build more policy recommendations, working with our coalition partners”, not with their Fellows.

None of this is to say that the SPI Fellows can’t produce sound policy recommendations, though past attempts by some have been bafflingly awful. However, there also don’t seem to be any plans to have these Fellows produce policy recommendations or research that would point to policy recommendations under the banner of the SPI. Note: It isn’t easy to figure out what SPI’s plans are. The active and past projects pages on their website are placeholders. Their proposed projects page shows projects others have submitted with no commitment to carry out the projects.

As it turns out, the most information about what the SPI commits to do is on their mission page, not in their projects section. Most of these projects do not involve Fellows, but two do. Rogers confirmed to me by email early this week that their e-book, “Objective Truths for World Leaders”, will contain contributions from at least 16 of their Fellows. At least 15 are contributing work original to the book. This book is currently scheduled to be released in September 2015.

Also in September will be the World Future Forum in Washington, DC. This will be largely panel discussions, and at least Richard Dawkins is scheduled to appear. [See comment below from Rogers. While taken from the SPI website, this information was incorrect.] I presume that other Fellows will as well.

I asked Rogers whether any of the research that SPI plans to funds will be research by the Fellows or other researchers. This was her response:

We have thus far funded archival research and are only 90 days post launch. We have three projects just starting. The research is principally funded by individual donors but we do have a professional grant writer on board and have submitted numerous grant and sponsor applications to corporations and foundations.

I interpret this as meaning this will be outside research or research by staff/volunteers.

For a think tank, this is, at least so far and by secular movement standards, fairly limited involvement from its Fellows. You can compare this to other secular think tanks, where the Fellows create the organization’s output and where such contributions are a requirement for inclusion as a Fellow.

In contrast, the resources provided by the SPI are largely created by people other than the Fellows. As it currently stands, their articles and their blog consist predominantly of links to blogs elsewhere. Their papers list is a similar set of links to abstracts, without organization. Surveys is links to content from Pew, Gallup, etc.

There’s nothing wrong with this, though it’s useless in its current unorganized state. However, a bunch of links does not a think tank make. It’s possible that SPI could grow into a think tank, but calling it one currently is a stretch at best.

So what is SPI? The clearest description of their view of themselves that I’ve found comes from their volunteer recruitment page again:

The Secular Policy Institute is different and more successful than other secular groups because:

  • We don’t bash religion. Unlike many secular groups, we don’t get shut out of government and media. We can partner with anyone.
  • We are true professionals. Unlike many secular groups, we don’t want to settle for amateur anything. We emulate best practices of major organizations like the AARP, NRA, CATO Institute, Heritage Foundation, and American Cancer Society.
  • We are focused. Unlike many secular groups, we aren’t vague about our plans. We take on giant, world-changing projects that inspire donors and volunteers, such as promoting an Indian rationalist’s guide to Hindu scripture and raising money for the world’s first atheist orphanage in Uganda.
  • We are thought leaders. We are the world’s biggest secular think tank with Fellows and Advocates including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Lawrence Krauss, and so many more.
  • We organize everyone. We are the world’s biggest secular coalition.Like the Bill Gates Foundation, we talent scout the best projects from our coalition groups and maximize their impact with management coaching, funding, promotion, access to our Fellows, and our contacts in media and government worldwide.

Now, I disagree with much of this, particularly with regard to professionalism (see above) and focus.** However, this list, along with the “Instant Power Broker”, “Keys to the World”, and “Steer the Secular Movement” sections of their call for interns gives a pretty decent idea of how the SPI sees themselves and their relationship to everyone else.

It’s not exactly how they advertise themselves in the recruiting emails they sent out. It is, though, how they’re behaving. They’ve tried to claim the ability to speak for the movement based on the fact that a bunch of groups said, “You’ll give us stuff? Cool.”

I don’t think that’s particularly cool. The group on whose board I sat agreed, even with just hints of where this was going. What they were offering us wasn’t worth it. As I mentioned a few thousand words ago, someone still on the board thanked me for giving the lighter version of this background. They’re very happy now to not be part of this.

So now you have the same information.

* In more recent emails, they’re offering “Connect to our Fellows for your projects” instead, and they’ve dropped the weekly calls. This may have to do with the kinds of organizations they’re contacting now.

** I find it difficult to credit them with significant focus when the same group of people form the staff of two other recently formed organizations, and all of them share the address of the lobbying firm with which Rogers appears to be employed. When asked about the situation, staff structure, and how many FTEs were employed by the SPI, Rogers responded:

We do not have contracts that require that our staff must be exclusive with SPI. Numerous staff have other interest and charities they support. Our staff are performance and outcome based and all are performing per our arrangements. The staff are compensated. We have 5 staff that contribute daily. We also have access to approximately 35 volunteers in the US and meaningful contributions from Advisory Board members and a variety of consultants.

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A Little Background on the Secular Policy Institute (Updated)
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43 thoughts on “A Little Background on the Secular Policy Institute (Updated)

  1. 3

    myeah, all this SEEMS to be pretty damning evidence in proving “at least” that the SPI or whatever the hell they’re called is utterly incompetent (and that I would want nothing to do with them …) and possibly a hindrance to any atheist movement .. BUT then again, you are a part of this FTBullies organization, so I can’t trust all this documentation of phone calls and emails and such like. /sarcasm

  2. 4

    I got halfway through the section on “the dot com icon” before the penny dropped and I said “oh, him.” He tried to sue “John Does 1-100” because he disliked a LiveJournal community, and Popehat got involved in finding a defense lawyer. (I know about this one mostly because the specific community is local to one of my partners, and she told me about it.)

  3. 5

    SPI’s policy page is a word for word copy of the Secular Coalition for America’s Model Secular Policy Guide so I guess if you get thrown out of your job you just move down the street and create a copy of it under a different name.

  4. 7

    Doug, I hadn’t realized that. The SCA did release it freely for other groups to use, but that means they’ve done less than I thought. I figured they’d used it as a template for their own, not used it whole.

  5. 11

    Well that’s weird and chock full of red flags.
    The very first time I heard of them I just looked at the website and saw Harris, Dawkins, Krauss, and Schermer in the most prominent position and decided I didn’t want anything to do with them.
    But all that has come out just seems weird. I begin to wonder why even those guys would want their names on this group’s website. But this thing with two other orgs, apparently unrelated otherwise, but staffed by the same people an all apparently centered around Rodgers? That’s more than a bit dodgy. Is this some weird way to make some money by setting up as employees of several non-profits and not doing anything? I also can’t help but note that all three organizations sound, superfically, like something that I, a lefty secular progressive, would support. But they’re all run by a Republican lobbyist? I can imagine someone coming at these issues from a libertarian perspective and arriving at similar positions, but it’s a bit of a stretch. I guess I’ll get out the popcorn and see if this whole thing implodes in a pile of documents soon.

  6. 12

    Tacked onto all that is that they still don’t have any concrete proposed actions, other than raising money. I commented over at Ophelia Benson’s place about this a while back, but while they’ve cleaned up the language somewhat, they’re still very, very jealous of other minorities, particularly The Gays:

    Why shouldn’t we get corporate sponsors, like other minority causes do?

    Even the gay rights movement has large corporate sponsors.

    There could be a lot of money there for us, and it would do a lot to end discrimination against secular people.

    Really love the priorities spelled out so clearly in that last one.

    By the way, Monsarrat is listed as the contact for these “projects”:

    Contact
    Organization: Looking for a Host
    Contact Name: Johnny Monsarrat
    Contact Email: [email protected]

  7. 13

    we don’t want to settle for amateur anything…

    …We organize everyone.

    So they want…VOLUNTEERS!

    Who totally aren’t amateurs. Because they accepted a small gift from an agent or something.

    Don’t forget to pick up your copy of Call to Secular Duty ’11 for only $59 when you pay in 7 days or more in advance of the release date. You’re sure to want to show your friends your own distinct likeness fighting the good fight using your own distinct moves as part of this incredible profit-venture in whose profits Rogers will swim like Scrooge McDuck while you hide from the rain under a leaf.

  8. 14

    Amazing. Simply breathtaking.

    you can’t possibly be naïve enough to be surprised when some people don’t respond positively to your “luminaries”.

    I loved this, though. 🙂

  9. 15

    So, it’s wingnut welfare meets pyramid scheme. Ms. Rogers must have some big weddings or milestone birthday parties to attend this year–lots of presents that need wrapping.

  10. 17

    Is there a better demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger effect than a movement full of people so confident and self-assured in their intellectual and moral superiority being suffused at every level with incompetence and gross ethical lapses?

  11. 18

    … the more clout we have with Congress, just like the Heritage Foundation and CATO Institute!

    What an inspiring choice of role models.

    Edwina’s Elves might do well to solicit $upport from the Koch Brothers too…

  12. 20

    I did a total double take when they said they emulate the “best practices” of the NRA. That is NOT an organization I’d want to emulate in any way, shape, or form.

  13. 21

    Lady Mondegreen, I’m not sure. Rubin is still connected to at least one of the other two orgs that Rogers and crew work for, but I don’t know about the SPI.

  14. 22

    I wonder how much of this is due to them buying their own hype. Maybe they really thought that those critical voices were just a tiny, unimportant fringe group. Maybe they really thought the vast majority were on their side and that millions of atheists were just waiting for a chance to throw money at their glorious leaders.

    Maybe they thought this would be a piece of cake, requiring no organizational talent or hard work at all; just announce the formation of the group and presto! Instant political clout.

  15. 23

    @ah58 #19:

    I did a total double take when they said they emulate the “best practices” of the NRA. That is NOT an organization I’d want to emulate in any way, shape, or form.

    Those quotes have been sticking in my craw, too. On one hand, groups like the Heritage Foundation are very influential in crafting legislation (for instance, the Affordable Care Act is based on a Heritage Foundation plan), so regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on, “being effective” may be a decent model to emulate. I don’t know how much sway the CATO Institute actually has.

    And then there’s the NRA, which has a reputation for being an 800-lb gorilla that will take down any politician who suggests even the barest gun control measures. Being so intimidating that the prospect of your involvement in a legislative debate is enough to keep bills off the table is certainly a situation most lobbying groups would like to be in, but recent articles have questioned whether the NRA really has as much power as people think they have.

    Of course, what it boils down to is that CATO and the NRA have a lot of political views in common with the libertarian spokespeople in prominent positions in the atheoskeptic community (seems like every political episode of Bullshit! had a CATO spokesperson on, and Shermer’s involved with them as well). I suspect Heritage and ACS are included because of their influence and popularity. The problem with any of these comparisons is that the effectiveness of advocacy groups and think tanks is largely proportional to how much money they can afford to spend on individual candidates. ACS and NRA have broad appeal; the latter requires membership dues, and the former can fundraise pretty easily for their worthy cause. Heritage and CATO have lots of wealthy backers looking out for their own best interests. How does SCAGSCSPI expect to wield any kind of comparative level of influence when their money seems to come primarily from one shady conman in Panama?

  16. 24

    Not to contradict anyone on substantive points (which I haven’t read entirely through because I’m traveling), but that acronym should be GSCSGISPI. The formation of the Global Secular Council, a 501(c)3 that would compete for charitable donations with the SCA’s member groups, is probably the bulk of the reason Rogers was fired.

  17. 25

    Thanks, Stephanie for your efforts in investigating this group. I recently left my own local group, Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba over their decision to join the SPI’s coalition. My concerns were largely based on the line-up of “fellows” which had more than it’s fair share of “thought leaders” with some abhorent thoughts that I have no desire to be associated with. I also had objections to the lack of diversity, with 24 out of 30 fellows being men, and an insignificant number of people of colour. Their list of resources, as well, being 20 books written by, you guesssed it, men again. And then the topper was the “professional” behaviour by the marketing person. Interesting to know that there is even more to object to than I considered.

  18. 26

    Don’t even get me started on my uncomfortable and unprofessional interactions with Johnny Montserrat and the Secular Policy Institute, some of which occurred in the past, and some which took place yesterday (April 11) as a result of my having read this blog post. He criticized and badgered me after I declined to have my group join the SPI. He has been asked to stop writing to me.

  19. 27

    Interesting, Janice (#25), as I spoke with Edwina after my conversation(s) with Johnny and she told me that Johnny was not supposed to be contacting people to begin with (other than an initial email). And under no circumstances was he authorized to have phone conversations with people (in this context). Further, she said that as a result of our phone he would be moved (again) to the background and wouldn’t be talking with people for coalition recruitment in the future.

    Kim Rippere
    President
    Secular Woman

  20. 28

    Kim, (#26), I forwarded all of the emails to Stephanie Zvan for her review and just to prove that it’s still happening (there were several email “chains” as Johnny first removed Edwina from the “Reply All” and then removed the CC: of my chapter’s parent group to berate me privately). I also copied my parent org on the emails they had been excluded from. The President of my parent group replied to Johnny, copying Edwina, stating in no uncertain terms that our entire group has declined to participate in the SPI and we do not wish any further contact. I guess copying Edwina was the only way to get Johnny to stop emailing me about how wrong I was for not joining SPI. We informed them that we are already affiliated with the Secular Coalition for America.

  21. xyz
    30

    After reading all the comments I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thanks for your research, Stephanie and thanks for adding your experiences, Kim and Janice. The mind boggles at how incompetent this organization is. Like, you might want to actually become a respected power broker before you start throwing your weight around…

  22. 31

    The leader of the organization that I resigned from over this assured me that she had contacted Edwina about Johny’s behaviour and was told that he had apologized and even offered his resignation. She was also told that he had Asperger’s and a history of disenfranchising people. He apparently offered to resign. This was, as far as I can tell, enough to mollify their concerns.
    Big deal, even if he does resign, how anyone could have confidence in this organization who put someone like him in the position in the first place? And apologize to who? His boss? Certainly not the people he was rude to. What a joke.

  23. 32

    Johnny has not contacted me since he was asked to stop, but the SPI also has not removed my group’s name from their website, which Edwina personally promised would be addressed on 4/11.

  24. 33

    I initially contacted the Secular Policy Institute on 4/11 to ask them to remove my group’s name from their website coalition page, which resulted in several rude emails from Johnny Montserrat. They did not remove my group’s name, even though on 4/11, Edwina herself said it would be removed that day. On 4/21, my parent group’s leader emailed Edwina again to ask for my group’s name to be removed from the SPI site. We received no response whatsoever. Now today is 4/24 and my group is still listed on the SPI coalition page. I feel like I’m being held hostage. We’re not sure what to do next, but, this is how “professional” the SPI is.

  25. 35

    Ah, she sent a pleasant email to the person responsible for the website, and invited us to notify her if we knew of other incorrect listings. She was very cordial.

  26. 36

    The United Coalition of Reason recently sent out an email to CoR state leaders to say that Johnny Montserrat was the new go-to guy for changes to the CoR state pages and group information.

    When contacted by a group regarding site changes, Johnny replied, “Please ask the group. I am only a volunteer and I cannot maintain the pages for all 78 groups.”

    I’m really disappointed in the United CoR and I’m rethinking my groups’ involvements with them as a result of their new communicator’s presence. I refuse to email him about anything, ever.

  27. 37

    I read the blog on “A Little Background on the Secular Policy Institute” with interest. Much like a novel, it tells a story. And much like a novel it owes little allegiance to actual facts. At first blush it seems to position itself as a case of “investigative journalism” which leads the reader to expect a truthful historical account. But it soon reveals itself to be better understood as a case of historical fiction, unsatisfying if you want an actual account of things, but a good yarn if you are just interested in a Tall Tale or backyard gossip. I know because I am Edwina Rogers. And I co-founded the Secular Policy Institute.

    The blogger spins a story of the transformation of GSC into the GSI and its eventual emergence as the Secular Policy Institute (SPI). This is a breezy reconstruction of the actual events that almost suggests that the Secular Policy Institute is the latest incarnation of what began as the Global Secular Council, the end stage of a metamorphosis in which the idea took final flight. The account reads as an improbable and serpentine transformation of projects and organizations precisely because it is improbable and, well, untrue, too.

    The Global Secular Council (GSC) was a Think Tank project of the Secular Coalition for America. Lloyd Rubin donated 50K to get it started (not the 150K that the blogger falsely asserts) and it was never a separate company or organization and not a c3 or even part of a c3 as claimed; it was a project nested within SCA a c4 and given life by a donor’s generous donation.

    SCA participated fully in the development of GSC. Amanda Metskas and the Board participated in, and approved, its development as an SCA project (see March 27 board minutes). Amanda wanted a name without the word Institute, drafted part of the press release for it, and selected the term “expert” for the members of its Think Tank as she thought Fellow as sexist. It is fair to say that Amanda and I were collectively spearheading the implementation of the GSC at the time that she terminated me, assumed my position as Executive Director, and then discontinued working on the project.

    The donor, Lloyd Rubin, was understandably incensed that his 50K was going to be squandered in my absence and with the discontinuation of the GSC project. He rattled his sabers and threatened to sue SCA (no surprise there) and in response, SCA gave the Secular Global Council with its Experts to Mr. Rubin, at which point he renamed it the Global Secular Institute. I know because I was a volunteer Fellow of the Global Secular Institute. Mr. Rubin put out a series of newsletters- yes, with pictures of this cats!- and soon tired of the work involved in the running of the Institute and allows it to lie largely fallow to this day. My understanding is that he discontinued its newsletter but that the organization still exits. It is a Think Tank Group. Not a coalition of organizations, but a stand-alone think tank group.

    The Secular Policy Institute is not the reincarnation of the Global Secular Institute or GSC. Yes, SPI has a secular think tank of scientists and scholars dedicated to the separation of church and state in public policy making, but it is also a coalition of international groups; the world’s largest coalition, in fact. It is a separate legal entity. It is sponsoring the World Futures Forum and drafting the World Future Guide, and has assisted in the implementation of a wide variety of projects nested within other secular organizations, including a website for UnitedCoR, a table at CPAC for American Atheists, a website for Freethought Film Festival, a website for Hispanic Freethought, a cash grant to the Youth Atheist Conference, a cash grant to the Association for Atheism in Turkey, a website and demonstration campaign for the United Church of Bacon, a website and Congressional visits for the Foundation for Critical Thinking, and a range of others. By contrast, the Global Secular Institute and GSC were never coalition organizations, never had any national or international affiliates, never had any projects or initiatives, and were (and still are) completely separate legal entities (although not actually even legal entities with any nonprofit status under any U.S. or foreign laws). In short, GSC/GSI and SPI are simply different organizations. SPI is a U.S. Charity approved by the IRS and exists legally while GSC and GSI are simply just names.

    Many other accounts in the blogger’s story are equally confabulated. Some patently so. Here are a few of them and all I have time for at this sitting, and the corrections for the record.

    1. The blogger indicates that “none of the people who put together the Guide (The Secular Coalition for America’s Secular Policy Guide) are part of the SPI.”

    Too funny. The idea for the Guide was mine alone. I commissioned most of the writers and editors for the Guide. I raised all of the money for the development of the Guide. I did heavy editing of the Guide. My picture is on the inside cover of the 5,000 printed copies of the Guide. And now I serve as the CEO of the Secular Policy Institute. To say that “none of the people who put together the Guide are part of SPI” is completely untrue.

    In addition, Wendy Kaminer, J.D., Marty Klein, Ph.D., and Greg Neimeyer, Ph,D., all played significant roles in writing and editing the Guide. They are all current Fellows of SPI. So, again, to say that none of the people involved in writing the Guide are part of SPI is, well, utterly untrue. And that falsehood pretty much serves as a harbinger of a great deal of what else is said in the blog. This truth about my Guide will now surely put an end to its praise by the blogger. I even had to good sense to declare my Guide as open source so it is actually now everyone’s and anyone’s Guide too.

    Colorful and at times intriguing, the blog nonetheless is woven throughout with a thread of untruth, so it is very hard to wind up with a fabric of integrity in the end, when it is riddled with holes, misrepresentations, and outright fabrications.

    2. The blogger claims that “SPI dropped its weekly calls”. I think the blogger may be confusing SPI with SCA in this regard. I understand the SCA has dropped its weekly calls (that I instituted when I began as the Executive Director of SCA), but SPI actually has never done regular weekly calls on one topic, so it is not clear how it could have dropped them! SPI does a monthly international call. We do many (often dozens) of other calls daily, but only one monthly regularly scheduled call with members. I know because I do the calls. This last one (last week) had reports from South America, Europe, Freethought Hispanic, from UnitedCoR and from representatives of other nations and associations, as per usual. The next call is scheduled for the first Thursday of July. All members are welcome to join our calls. Just contact me and we will get you included in the call and/or in SPI.

    3. The blogger claims that SPI’s projects’ page is used for SPI to “claim credit for other group’s projects.”

    Goodness, that is silly. And untrue. These projects are member group’s projects that SPI has donated funding or other in-kind support to in order to facilitate their implementation (I gave this proof to the blogger but it did not fit the premise). SPI’s projects, including the World Future Forum, are located elsewhere on the website.

    4. The blogger claims that Richard Dawkins is scheduled to speak at the World Future Forum. This is untrue. We did not ask Richard to speak because the topics we have chosen for the upcoming World Future Forum are not part of his forte. We would welcome Richard’s involvement and participation when we have opportunities to draw from his areas of expertise.

    5. The blogger makes all kinds of hay over Mr. Lloyd Rubin’s felonious background and his unsavory involvements with secular start-ups. Actually, Mr. Rubin mostly funded standing groups, not start-ups. He donated to groups like the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, the Secular Coalition for America and Americans United. The blogger is quizzically critical of my bringing Mr. Rubin into the donation scene for SCA without mentioning his donations to a wide variety of other secular groups who relished his support. Of course, other groups, such as Amanda Metskas’ CampQuest organization, were not successful in their efforts to lobby Mr. Rubin for support; he supported only those that he viewed to be worthy secular projects.

    6. “Lloyd Rubin was gong to give 2,333 paintings to the Vatican”.
    Actually, that was a joke. A cruel joke because he was angry. He was angry because he had given 2,333 pieces of art to SCA and we worked for a year to find a donor to bear the considerable expense associated with cataloging, packing, shipping, housing and building a website for this 1.5 millions dollar’s worth of art so that the proceeds could go to the various member groups of SCA. When SCA terminated me, however, that donor in Ohio who had pledged $250k for these expenses withdrew his support out of protest (as did MANY donors to SCA) killing the project (and the 1.5 million of donations) and leaving Mr. Rubin holding his art work after a year of brokering its liquidation for a suitable cause.

    Well, this response is starting to rival the length of the parent blog that spawned it, so I will sign off for now in the hopes that any future installments by this blogger on the subject will either involve fact-checking or include the simple disclaimer that, like its predecessor, it is historical fiction. After reading the blog I couldn’t help but think of the Mark Twain quip that we should never let “truth get the way of telling a good story.” Kudos to the blogger for telling a good story.

  28. 38

    Hi, Edwina. Thanks for your comment.

    In brief, no, the SPI is not in every respect identical to the GSC. It simply has overwhelmingly the same staff, same mission, and same fellows, particularly after accounting for the removal of everyone without terminal degree except Peter Boghossian. It also uses, or used at the time of writing this post, the same promotional picture. These are not remotely unrelated organizations.

    If you’d like to clarify exactly what the 501(c)3 issues were that were being discussed by the Secular Coalition in regards to the GSC, feel free, but the fact that there were some is noted in the emails Rubin forwarded to everyone after you were fired. The $150,000 amount for the matching grant comes from a press release from the SCA while you were running it. The link is in the post.

    To address your numbered points:

    1. What I actually said was, “I find it fascinating that none of the people credited with writing that policy guide are now connected to this new organization that was created to focus on policy…”. Feel free to look at the acknowledgements in the guide to refresh your memory.

    2. I pasted the text of the email in which Monsarrat promised weekly calls. Perhaps you were unaware he had done so?

    3. There is no such quote in my post. What I did say?

    In contrast, the resources provided by the SPI are largely created by people other than the Fellows. As it currently stands, their articles and their blog consist predominantly of links to blogs elsewhere. Their papers list is a similar set of links to abstracts, without organization. Surveys is links to content from Pew, Gallup, etc.

    There’s nothing wrong with this, though it’s useless in its current unorganized state.

    4. The information about Dawkins speaking at World Future Forum comes from your volunteer page, where it says, “World Future Forum. We need help planning our giant event modeled after the World Economic Forum in Davos. We already have 21 US Congresspeople speaking and 30 greats like Richard Dawkins.” I’ve updated my post. You may wish to do the same with your site.

    5. This doesn’t have anything to do with the accuracy of my post, but okay. Really, my concerns over Rubin’s involvement don’t have as much to do with the money as they have to do with the fact that you didn’t step in when it became clear that the cost of accepting his money was things like printing cat pictures in lobbying materials and having incredibly unprofessional promotional emails sent around on behalf of an organization you were at least titularly in charge of.

    6. Okay. It was a joke. Did the people on that email list sign up for hostile jokes?

  29. 40

    Edwina @36:

    Given that a large number of your “fellows” actually never knew you were listing them, how can anyone believe that ANY your fellows actually support the SPI in any tangible way? Also given the spam/shotgun techniques Mr. Montserrat used to gather supporting organizations, how can we take you at your word when you say that you are the “largest coalition”, when all it takes to be a member is to respond to a spam email? What do you actually plan to DO with this coalition, aside from claiming to have the largest coalition? It’s not the size of the coalition that counts…

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2015/06/15/notable-atheists-and-scientists-are-disassociating-from-the-secular-policy-institute/#disqus_thread

  30. 42

    Has anyone else received an invitation to the SPI’s World Future Forum “event,” personally addressed by Edwina herself? I did…and it was automatically filtered into my spam folder.

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