Photographer Johnson documents satisfying secular lives by Chris Johnson


This morning I’m going to introduce our next speaker, Chris Johnson. He is a New York City-based photographer and filmmaker and received his undergraduate degree in film production from Concordia University in Montréal, Quebec. His photography can be seen in The New York Times and other publications. He is the recipient of the Kodak Award for Excellence in Filmmaking as well as the B.F. Lorenzetti Scholarship for Excellence in Filmmaking. His work in art direction and production design can be seen in several films, including “The Pen and the Sword,” produced in part by the National Film Board of Canada.

For the past few years, he has traveled the world, meeting famous atheists, infamous atheists and just everyday atheists. He’s put his photography and stories together in a wonderful book called A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World Without God. I urge you to use it to collect atheist signatures from your favorite atheists [in attendance here]. In the meantime, let’s hear Chris Johnson talk about his work.

By Chris Johnson

Wonderful! Good morning. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here in Los Angeles. As a filmmaker, I’m especially excited to be here in this particular room where the Oscars were held. That’s pretty cool for me.

As was mentioned, I spent about two to three years working on this project and I’m going to tell you a little bit about the story behind that and how it all came together. Before I do that, I want to talk about one of my favorite movies. It’s about C.S. Lewis. Shocking, I know! It’s a movie called “Shadowlands” directed by the late Richard Attenborough.

It’s about C.S. Lewis later on in his life and his romantic relationship with an American divorcée. So it’s not really about the religion thing, but one of the scenes that always stuck out to me is where Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is talking about God. Let me play a clip for you.


“[God] wants us to be able to love and be loved.” I happen to agree with one third of that statement. People often ask me, “What are the overarching themes that you learned talking to these 100 atheists from around the world?” [“To love and be loved”] would pretty much be it.
One of the themes that runs through the book is love. Now as far as we know, we only have this one life, right? And if you really take it to heart, it changes the way you see your family, your friendships, your relationships and your experiences.

I quoted in my introduction to A Better Life A. A. Milne’s beautiful line from Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” One of my favorite photos from the book is of writer and blogger Greta Christina in San Francisco with her partner Ingrid. Just a fun little bit of trivia: Behind them you can see plates on the wall. That’s called the “Great Wall of China.” [laughter]. But let’s go back to where it all started.

I was on a road trip with my brother three years ago, going through the Southwest. This is White Sands National Monument in New Mexico [photo], which if you haven’t been, is incredible. I was taking photos of this amazing, gorgeous place and my brother said, “You should do a book of your photography.” I said, “Nobody knows who I am, nobody cares. There are so many books out there. No publisher would want to do that.”

“Well, you just have to make it different,” he said, so I thought about it. We were listening to a lot of podcasts on religion, something that had always interested me. I have always been an atheist, but I found religion interesting and had minored in religious studies in college.
Being in that space, being in that gorgeous beautiful space surrounded by sand and mountains, I thought, you know, there are people out there who think that this was put here by God, or that without God this is pointless or meaningless. What if somebody were to make a book showing not necessarily what we’re pushing against, but what we believe, what we love and what we cherish?

That’s one of the things I felt, that there are so many great books talking about why there’s no God, why we don’t believe, and those [books] are important. But one thing that I thought was missing was, “What do we believe?” If there is no God, now what? Atheists, by the way, as you all know, aren’t very well liked in this country.


Oh, Newt Gingrich. So that’s what I was going against, right? I had this idea, I wanted to do this book, but nobody knew who I was and I didn’t have any money. I was a struggling artist living in New York, until I found Kickstarter. I found Kickstarter and decided to do a campaign, and I basically crowd-funded this project. It tooks about two months, the most stressful two months of my life.

Not everybody was particularly excited about this project. One YouTube comment that I got said, “Please die in a car crash or other accident.” There are two things that I like about that. One, I like that they said “please.” And the second is that they gave me a choice. I mean, they are fine if I die in a car crash or they’re fine with some “other accident.”

I also got emails like this — a serviceman in Iraq telling me he was an atheist and was excited about the work I was going to be doing. I also get other emails. “I’m a 60-year-old ‘still in the closet’ atheist. I have to be due to my conservative, narrow-minded western Pennsylvania surroundings.” Hello, Pennsylvania.

Another: “Life makes more sense now. I can live for now and enjoy my life, not suffer that I won’t burn for eternity. Losing my religion has been such a refreshing change. I’m anxious for your book to be published, though I’ll have to hide it under my bed so my wife doesn’t find it.” It was going so well up to that last sentence.

This is the funding graph of my Kickstarter. The line at the top, that’s the goal, and as you can see, it was a very stressful two months but I made it. I was off, traveling around the United States, Canada, the UK, talking to atheists from different professions, backgrounds and things like that. I visited some really amazing cities both abroad and in the U.S. I met some really incredible people.

There is Nahla Mahmoud [photo]. She’s a Sudanese refugee living in London. The bottom right is Carol Blue, the widow of Christopher Hitchens. And of course you recognize the top right, Donald Johanson, who spoke here last night. We’re holding a replica of Lucy.
Some other familiar faces you might recognize from the book — people here at the conference — we have Jessica Ahlquist, who will be speaking directly after me, and Dan Barker, playing the piano, Annie Laurie, Sean Carroll and Anthony Pinn. In the front row here, Margaret Downey. There’s Dawkins, of course.

One of the most frequent questions I get is, “How did you find these people?” Some of them I knew because I read their works, like Dawkins, Hitchens, people like that. Some were just friends of mine. I have a friend in the book who’s an airline pilot and happens to be an atheist.
Here’s one of the most interesting stories. One day I was at a friend’s house in New York, where we were watching “60 Minutes” on CBS, and I saw this particular clip [of mountain climber Alex Honnold].

Who wants to go to Yosemite? I saw this clip and I thought, “If he’s an atheist, he needs to be in my book.” So I went to Yosemite and met with Alex. Just to give you a little perspective on that rock where he’s sitting, here’s another picture from above. He’s not afraid of heights. You can watch the whole segment of Alex on “60 Minutes” [search for “ascent of Alex Honnold” on YouTube]. It’s really incredible to learn more about him.

Here are some of the other people from the book I want to introduce you to: Pat Churchland is a neurophilosopher. There she is down in San Diego, with one of her beautiful golden retrievers, Farley. One thing Pat talked to me about in my interview with her was celebrating from a secular perspective. You also might recognize A.C. Grayling here. He talked a little bit about the finite nature of life. [Grayling interview clip]Another person you’ll recognize is a friend of FFRF, actor and comedian Julia Sweeney, here with her daughter Mulan. One thing we talked about was being an atheist and dealing with the issue of death and dying. [interview clip]

I love her statement about people being like wildflowers in a field, growing and dying. It takes me back to the one-third of that C.S. Lewis quote that I actually agree with, which is, we only have each other in the world, right? We only have one another, that’s all there is. And that’s OK.

The relationships we form with others are precious and they’re wonderful. That’s not because of the sanction of some entity, but from the fact that we, together, have come to create these experiences and form these bonds and relationships ourselves. That’s incredible. That’s really beautiful, when you think about it.

All these clips, by the way, [came from] when I took photos for the book. I filmed the interviews. Now I’ve been spending months sitting in my apartment growing a beard and editing away. I’ve been going through the 50-plus hours of footage I have of everybody talking about this stuff, and now I’m turning it into a documentary version.

I know there are other people here who are in the book and would be happy to sign their pages. Before I leave, I just want to show you a brief promo for the film version of A Better Life. [clip]

Thank you for having me.

ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR: We have time for one or two questions for Chris.

Q. Did you ask Alex if he has a fear of death, or why he does what he does?

A. You’d probably learn more about that in the “60 Minutes” piece. Mostly he talks about how free soloing is just another type of climbing, how exhilarating it is and just a different technique, rather than thinking about the death part of it. He doesn’t really [fear death], as far as I know. I don’t think he thinks about it that much.

Q. I’m from the Twin Cities. My community is just kind of burgeoning as far as a secular community, so I know about 300 to 400 atheists, some of them not so well. It’s kind of amazing . . . how we’re still considered evil and strange. Your book and documentary are good efforts to show that we’re regular people. We’re becoming more mainstream, and yet you never know where we’ll get negative feedback. This presentation got me thinking about that.

A. Thank you, yes. There’s an interesting story here as well; thank you for reminding me. A personal connection that I have with FFRF — my stepmother, my mom’s partner — is from the U.K. and was becoming a U.S. citizen. She’s a 65-year-old British woman, and they asked her on the form if she would bear arms to protect the United States. She’s a pacifist, and she said “no.”

They said, “Well, are you religious?” and she said “no.” Then they said, “Well, you can’t be a conscientious objector unless you have a religious basis.” She emailed me and asked, “Do you know anyone I can talk to about what’s going on?” I said, “Do I know anyone?” So I contacted FFRF and Andrew [Seidel] did a wonderful job writing letters and helping, and they eventually gave in. She was able to become a U.S. citizen.

Freedom From Religion Foundation