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Madison and America have outgrown the Freedom From Religion Foundation

This lifelong atheist and Madisonian doesn’t need the out-of-touch local organization, and neither do you.

This lifelong atheist and Madisonian doesn’t need the out-of-touch local organization, and neither do you.

Illustration: In a stained-glass-style image, a haloed male figure with robes and a beard places his hand over his face in a gesture of exasperation. Illustration by Shaysa Sidebottom.

As much as I adore Madison, this city and I have had a fraught relationship since my parents and I moved here in 1987, when I was 5 years old. Among my earliest memories is the bronze “Wisconsin” statue, which gleams brightly atop the state Capitol dome, her right hand extended as if to usher progress. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that to some, the iconic Capitol building represents an untenable status quo. The problem is the duality of Madison’s paradoxical allegiance to forward momentum all while taking fucking forever to change things for its most marginalized residents. 

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When it comes to justice for all, several of Madison’s highly esteemed institutions and organizations operate under the same paradox of glacially slow, cutting-edge momentum. Last week, I was reminded that the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which was founded in Madison, is one of these organizations that exemplify my city’s brand of hollow progress. If you’re a Madison resident around my age or younger and a nonbeliever or secularist like me— one who doesn’t believe in god(s) and yet doesn’t walk around town wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Atheist” (yes, that guy exists and I’ve met him)—you may not realize that FFRF has been in your backyard all this time. 

I first learned of FFRF in the ’90s. I had moved past the quintessential yet sophomoric “religion is stupid” phase that non-believers tend to go through when I was literally a sophomore in high school. I sort of shrugged at the time, but didn’t really pay attention to the organization until my 30s, when I became involved with the “skeptics” movement, which claims to value empiricism above all else. As some of America’s leading secular groups started inviting me into their fold, I realized that FFRF is one of a handful of such organizations, many of which have been overwhelmingly spearheaded by older leadership with, as author and feminist Sikivu Hutchinson has put it, “lily white” Boards of Directors and conference speaker lineups. If you know Madison the way I do, you probably aren’t surprised that this city birthed one of these secular organizations that caters largely to non-believers of European extraction.

FFRF was founded in Madison by current FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor and her mother Anne Nicol Gaylor (1926-2015) and incorporated nationally in 1978. Since then, it has, as its website puts it, worked “as an umbrella for those who are free from religion.” Some of its accomplishments are fine enough, like legal wins including halting federal funds to a bible school offering no academic classes in 2004, and programs for students including scholarships. It has also supported pro-choice legislation, including participating in a 2021 “Tweetstorm” opposing anti-choice legislation.

Some of the organization’s initiatives give me pause, though. In 1996, for instance, FFRF successfully challenged a law that declared Good Friday a state holiday in Wisconsin. I get the impetus behind many of these accomplishments, but I wonder what kind of “freedom” these actions are actually winning, and for whom? I don’t dispute that its founders were women’s rights advocates, but it’s been a while since the feminists that I admire have rightfully declared that worthwhile feminism is intersectional (the venn diagram between these feminists that I look up to and pussy-hat feminists is decidedly not a circle). 

For its weekly episode of its Freethought Matters TV program that aired Sunday, September 12 across a reported quarter of the U.S. broadcast television market, co-hosts and FFRF co-presidents Gaylor and Dan Barker, a former evangelical preacher who left religion in 1984 and maried Gaylor in ’87, “interviewed” evolutionary-biologist-turned-insufferable-bigoted-uncle Richard Dawkins. I saw the interview, which billed Dawkins as an “intellectual giant,” announced on Twitter and sipped the hogwash with a stifled gag and a few spoonfuls of salt, given that FFRF’s bio says that it’s a “nonprophet nonprofit,” which it must think is clever and not utterly vapid.

On the decision to interview the author of The God Delusion, FFRF is as behind the times as it has ever been. Some of the Atheist elders of yore may laud Dawkins. Those of us non-religious folk who don’t earnestly use terms like “regressive left” realized ages ago that Dawkins has not only been resting on his laurels, but casually spreading bigotry dressed up as mere inquiry. In April of 2021, after rescinding Dawkins’ 1996 “Humanist of the Year” Award for his hateful, unscientific suggestion that transgender identities are fraudulent and that Blackness is an identity that can be assumed when convenient, the American Humanist Association put it this way:  “Richard Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values.” As if to prove that atheism doesn’t cure evil, over the past couple of decades, the British scientist and his ilk amassed a “New Atheist” movement and merged it with the far right, to the dismay of swathes of marginalized non-believers and their allies. 

Though FFRF fancies itself “the nation’s largest” association of non-religious Americans at a reported 30,000 members, it appears to have failed over the years to grasp that most younger people don’t find their token celebrity advocates particularly compelling or cool. For instance, the internet deemed the nonprofit’s ad in which former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s son Ron declares himself “not afraid of burning in hell” puzzling, amusing, and, well, not edgy when it aired during the Democratic presidential debates in 2020. The idea that religion is what Americans most urgently need freedom from is as antiquated, lily white, and delusional as FFRF’s leadership. Non-religious Americans—who currently make up over 1 in 5 residents and are considered the fastest growing “religious” group in the nation—have been flourishing without help from FFRF (and several other U.S. based non-religious organizations like FFRF that claim to stand for our “rights” as non-believers). The data don’t lie—you don’t need to be a math whiz to figure out that FFRF and the like can hardly take credit for representing let alone fighting for the “rights” of over 60 million non-religious Americans—but dinosaurs like FFRF will, eventually, die.

Its lily-whiteness will be the cause of its demise. The FFRF interview gave Dawkins ample space to regurgitate his tired old talking points—”softball” would be a generous description of the gelatinous line of questioning from the interviewers, like Gaylor’s “why is god a delusion, Richard, for someone who hasn’t read your book, which would be very shameful ignorance?” Upon hearing such unending sycophancy while perusing the interview, I thought to myself, as I often do, some Atheists make me want to convert from no religion to literally any religion. It “is wicked to tie a label around the neck of a child who is too young to know what they think,” Dawkins, who hasn’t had anything new to say in my adult life, blathered. 

I mean, do they hear themselves?! To share my personal perspective, growing up openly brown and a daughter of immigrants in Madison was far harder than growing up openly Atheist, which my parents raised me to be since birth. Black Americans, Madisonians included, continue to be killed by police at disproportionately high rates. Black, Hispanic or Latinx, and American Indian  Wisconsinites have been more than fifty percent more likely to be hospitalized or die of COVID-19 than white residents. Black infants are significantly more likely to die in their first year than white babies, and being Black puts someone at around three times the risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes. Biomedical research in the most prestigious medical journals still dabbles in the completely dehumanizing, pseudoscientific notion that part of the reason for racial health disparities, including in COVID-19 morbidity and mortality, is that white people may just have a genetic edge. And you people (by “you people,” I mean white people, and I’m allowed to say that because my spouse and some of my friends are white) are sitting here talking about tying things around people’s necks as an intellectual fucking exercise?!

None of this is to say that Christianity (or organized religion in general) hasn’t used its power to dehumanize and marginalize, because it absolutely has. And none of this is to say that there aren’t brilliant individuals and organizations in the intersectional American secular space. There absolutely are. But if the hope and forecast is that more and more people will eventually be non-religious, then now is the time to clean up the non-religious house. Now is the time to cultivate a healthy space from those who are truly fleeing unjust conditions, including the injustice that religious and non-religious institutions perpetrate. Right now, that house is in shambles—even though some intrepid secular activists are working to change things, the movement is still largely under the control of white elders. 

There are far too many Atheists who think racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other brands of abhorrent, pseudoscientific hatred are entirely the product of religion. But any “intellectual” with (the privilege of) an internet connection should be able to glean that “science” and other secular institutions have always worked in tandem with religion to dehumanize and marginalize, and still do to this day.

Instead of fawning drivel, it would have behooved the interviewers to question Dawkins about any number of his bigoted, toxic antics. But they didn’t. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. As time passes, along with their dated ideologies, groups like FFRF and figureheads like Dawkins will matter less and less. Meanwhile, this lifelong non-religious Madisonian is tired. I’m off to hang out with my non-religious kids and check in on my non-religious friends and family (and a few of my brilliant religious friends and loved ones, too), none of whom has ever needed the likes of FFRF to free them from jack shit. 

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