In June, I wrote a piece for AlterNet, titled 8 Awesome Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. The gist: When a media outlet decides that atheism is important, they all too often turn to Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Then, when Dawkins or Harris puts their foot in their mouth about race or gender — again — the reporter cries out, “Atheism needs better leadership! Why doesn’t atheism have better leaders?” Atheism does have better leaders — so I profiled eight of them, to bring just a small fragment of the range and variety of atheist leadership to more people’s attention.
At the end of that piece, I wrote, “And these eight are the tip of the iceberg… I could write a new profile of a different atheist leader every week, and still be at it ten years from now.”
So I decided: Why not do that?
I don’t know if I’ll do it for ten years. But for at least a while, once a week I’ll be profiling and interviewing a different leader in organized atheism.
This week’s profile: Annie Laurie Gaylor.
GC: Tell me briefly what your organization does and what you do for them. (If you’re in a leadership position with more than one atheist organization, feel free to tell me about more than one.)
“In working for women’s rights I fought in a battle that would never end, because the root cause of the denial of those rights was religion and its control over government. Unless religion is kept in its place, all personal rights will be in jeopardy. This is the battle that needs to be fought.”
Anne was asked to take FFRF national in 1978, and that’s when it was incorporated. FFRF has two purposes: to educate the public about nontheism, and to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state. We started with just two of us and have grown to over 23,000 members in North America, so FFRF is the largest freethought (atheist, agnostic) membership group in the United States. We wanted to start a group that Thomas Paine could have joined, so we have no “litmus test” that a member must call themselves atheist per se. We like to joke that we don’t care what our members may call themselves — atheists, agnostics, skeptics, secularists, humanists, rationalists, etc. — but we all disbelieve in the same gods. About 75% of our members typically identify as atheist and the rest prefer appellations such as agnostic or freethinker.
FFRF has taken over 70 lawsuits, winning many important victories for state/church separation. Our goal is to end violations through education and persuasion, but when that doesn’t work, we litigate if the circumstances are promising. We now have a legal team of five staff attorneys, plus interns and two legal fellows, and a staff of about 13-14 right now. FFRF publishes a newspaper, Freethought Today, 10 times a year, has an annual convention, a weekly radio show, runs billboard, TV and bus sign campaigns, our “out of the closet campaign,” and also promotes the use of reason in public policy. We point out that the U.S. Constitution is a godless document whose only references to religion are exclusionary, such as that there shall be no religious test for public office.
I was a volunteer for many years associated with FFRF. I joined the staff in 1985 as editor of Freethought Today. In 2004, Dan Barker and I (we are married) became co-presidents, serving as FFRF’s executive directors.
Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.
FFRF just became the sole member of a new secular charity, Nonbelief Relief, to distribute funds from atheists and agnostics under the freethought banner, but also, we hope to help nonbelievers endangered by blasphemy and theocratic laws.
We are running TV and newspaper ads during the pope’s visit to call attention to the dangers of inviting a religious leader to address a joint session of Congress.
With the Dawkins Foundation, we’re about to issue an ‘atheist’ alternative badge for Boy Scouts!
Our staff attorneys responded last year to thousands of requests to help end state/church violations, writing over 1,000 formal letters (and countless follow-ups) and ending over 250 violations last year alone.
We just won a federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania to remove a ten commandments marker from a junior high school! We just filed a lawsuit with the ACLU and Americans United in Florida seeking to ensure that a nonreligous citizen can give an invocation to a city council. We are planning to refile some litigation against religious privileging by the IRS and have about 8 other ongoing lawsuits at the moment.
We have just completed a major building expansion, adding an addition and quadrupling our office space in downtown Madison, Wis., including adding an auditorium for local events, expanding our library and building a radio and TV studio. In 2016, adding a regular TV show will be our focus.
Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?
I would like to see public officials catch up with the changing demographics in our country.
I would like to see candidates courting the secular vote, and speaking up, as candidate JFK did, for “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
I would like to see public officials identify regularly [as] atheists and agnostics, and see those poll numbers go down drastically that show Americans would be least likely to vote for an atheist president or vice president, and most distrust nonbelievers.
I would like to see changes to civil rights acts to extend protections to atheists and other non theists around the country. The city of Madison, Wis., became the first city to pass such legislation, thanks to Ald. Anita Weier, who will be receiving a Freethought Heroine award at our upcoming national convention.
I would like to see campaigns to balance the so-called “Good News” after-school clubs in our public schools.
I would like to secure reproductive and LGBTQ rights from the Religious Right campaigns seeking to deny civil rights.
I would like to see pro-Establishment Clause justices added to the Supreme Court. 🙂
What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?
The same as always: the myth that you cannot be moral unless you believe in a god (the root of much discrimination against atheists and nonbelievers), and the myth that the U.S. is a ‘Christian nation founded on God.’ Debunking these myths is the main challenge in the United States. Worldwide, it is the war against secularism — the imposition of religion by government (Islamic is the current threat) and by terrorists, of course.
Anti-intellectualism in the United States is another challenge — with believers positively bragging that they don’t want or need evidence for what they believe.
And of course, as a feminist atheist, the reproductive war against women is one of our biggest challenges. FFRF began right after Roe v. Wade, and we’ve lost so much ground since then.
I like to say that it’s the best of times to be a freethinker or atheist in the United States — there have never been more of us, particularly young people. But it’s the worst of times to be in the courts, because we have a 5-4 bloc largely against us right now on the Supreme Court, and that has a chilling effect. But we are holding firm on the law against religious indoctrination in the public schools.
Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?
I was born an atheist, identified as an agnostic as a preteen, and have called myself an atheist since high school. So I guess that doesn’t make me a “new” atheist. I was very fortunate to grow up in a freethought home, with parents who despised the idea of indoctrinating young minds in the horrors of religion, and who let us decide for ourselves when we were old enough to understand religious claims. I like to say I was a secular Pippa – god wasn’t in his heaven and all was right with my world.
“New” or “old” atheists — I’m for them both!
Any questions you wish I’d asked, or anything else you’d like to add?
Maybe some highlights?
I’m very proud, still, of stopping a 122-year abuse of commencement prayer at a top Ten university as a college sophomore in the 1970s. That was fun, and one of the easiest victories I ever had!
Being part of the challenge overturning Good Friday as a state holiday was very satisfying — I went to the library on the afternoon of Good Friday for the first time after FFRF won that federal lawsuit. It’s also been satisfying to be a plaintiff in many FFRF cases as well as overseeing them.
Getting Bill O’Reilly to admit that there’s no god in the Constitution (I was on his show after Gore picked Lieberman and this came up in the debate and the next day he admitted, basically, that I was right.)
Meeting Dan on the Oprah Winfrey talk show (AM Chicago back then) – we met right before the show (my mother and I had suggested him as a guest to Oprah, since he had a cool story of leaving the ministry and evangelism).
Helping to recall Judge Archie Simonson in 1977 for calling rape a “normal reaction” here in Dane Co. My mother made the formal call for his recall and wrote the formal petition. I called the first picket. It became an enormous community action, with the local feminist bookstore serving as the hub. He was recalled (he was highly religious) and a woman judge replaced him. Moria Krueger, that judge, now retired, actually presided at Dan’s and my wedding (wearing purple shoes under her robes).
Editing the first anthology of women freethinkers, and reclaiming their contributions to feminism and freethought.