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?
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:
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.