Freethought Today · Vol. 25 No. 5 June/July 2008

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Violence in Religion: Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara Walker


Anthropologists and archaeologists have ascertained some general trends in pre-patriarchal societies, worldwide, that show decided contrasts with our own civilization. Dr. James DeMeo sums them up in his book, Saharasia: The 4000 B.C.E. Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World, pointing out that pre-patriarchal or “matrist” cultures are indulgent toward children, giving them much physical affection and little punishment, tending also to be permissive in various forms of pleasure and sexuality. There are no homosexuality taboos, no concubinage, no prostitution. Women control their own fertility and choice of mates. The sexes have equal social status, though the family usually is matrilocal and matrilineal–that is, married people live in the wife’s home, the property is hers, and descent is reckoned primarily through mothers: exclusively so, among peoples that have not yet understood biological fatherhood. There is a democratic division of labor, no caste system, no full-time military. Religion is some variant of nature worship without strict codes, a Mother Goddess being primary and her consorts secondary. Shamans are both female and male. Sexuality and love between the sexes may be considered a part of religious feeling. Such cultures were generally nonviolent, and valued spontaneity, humor, and sensual enjoyments.

By contrast, the characteristics of the fully developed “patrist” society are given as follows: children are severely treated, with harsh physical punishments, restriction of movement, and painful initiations, including genital mutilation. Sexual attitudes are highly restrictive, ascetic, and fearful. Women’s freedoms are limited and their status inferior. Marriages are arranged by others, are patrilocal and patrilineal, and frequently imply sexual and reproductive slavery for wives and/or concubines. Heavy taboos surround menstruation, childbirth, abortion, birth control, widowhood, and women’s access to spiritual matters. There are full-time male clergies and military organizations, with a mono-theistic father god often depicted as rigidly authoritarian, demanding, and cruel: pain-seeking asceticism and renunciation of sexuality tend to please him. There are tight caste systems and strict codes with sadistic punishments, which may be used as spectacles of public entertainment. Men own property, women, and children, and may regard war as their most honorable calling. Slavery and torture are permitted and freely discussed, whereas physical pleasures and sensuality are viewed with puritanical anxiety and may incur verbal taboos.

Given these typical characteristics at the two extremes of observed human cultures, past and present, one might better understand how it happens that monotheistic, father-worshiping cultures can become distinctly violent and warlike. Experiments with monkeys have shown that individuals raised by gentle, nurturing adults will mature in the same way, while young monkeys deprived of maternal affection grow up with violent tendencies, sexual dysfunctions, and lack of empathy for others.

DeMeo writes: “Early social institutions, which nurtured children emotionally, which venerated heterosexual love and allowed much freedom in sexual matters . . . once persisted across all of Europe, Asia, Africa, and India. In all cases, the arrival of militant armored nomad groups from Central Asia and Arabia initiated cultural transitions which destroyed the male-female and maternal-infant bond, and placed all family matters, including choice of marriage partner, in the hands of dominant males. The early peaceful peoples were either exterminated. . . or they were enslaved, losing their own cultural identity and legal controls over their land, property, and their very lives. . . . Increasingly stratified political hierarchy and despotism were accompanied by changes in family structure toward an increased male dominance over basic life decisions of females and children. Sadistic abuses within the family, in society at large, and in the military appear to have increased in direct proportion to these changes.

“The archaeological and historical survey . . . confirms the past presence of a ubiquitously higher status for women, greater autonomy for children and adolescents, and a much more fluid and pleasure-oriented social fabric. Males had a solid role in the family as help-mates, lovers and partners, but did not dominate the basic life decisions of either the wife or children. . . . Destructive human aggression and sadism in its worst forms, which include despotism, warfare, ritual murder, and the brutal subjugation of females and children for sexual purposes, are a relatively recent development in human history, of less than 6000 years’ duration.”1

Mesopotamia before 4000 B.C.E. was largely matrist and peaceful. The Mother Goddess religion prevailed, and women had high-status positions as priestesses, scribes, diviners, healers, judges, and acknowledged masters of various crafts: fiber arts, weaving, pottery, food preparation, and agriculture. In Crete and pre-Hellenic Greece also, the primary deity was the Great Goddess, whose temples were tended by women, and gender equality was the rule.

Few societies are 100% either matrist or patrist, since human culture is always a continuum of overlapping eddies in the stream of general trends, but we can perceive the stream through archaeological and anthropological studies.

Judaism was one of the most patristic religions of the early middle east, after having won its territories by warfare and having made many rules that subordinated women and children to male control, under a god who claim-ed sole power over everything in the universe. Though this god was supposed to have said, “Thou shalt not kill,” he ordered massive slaughters again and again of various “infidel” peoples, and even commanded the faithful to kill their own family members, neighbors, or friends who did not share their one-and-only religion:


“Neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: but thou shalt surely kill him” (Deuteronomy 13:5—9). And there is that commandment in Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” which was directly responsible for twelve centuries of the most hideous persecutions, tortures, and legal murders of an estimated nine million women–and this is said to be a low estimate.2

Christianity became even more patristic than its Judaic forerunner, spending its first eight centuries forcing conversions by the sword or else exterminating Europe’s heathen agriculturalists (the Latin word for a farmer was pagan). After 385 C.E., the church rigorously enforced the death penalty for nonbelievers. New canon laws also took away women’s property rights, subjected children to the absolute rule of fathers with the power of life and death, encouraged frequent beatings of offspring and wives through exhortations from the pulpit, and insisted on the inherent sinfulness of sexual activities, including even marital relations. St. Jerome said a Christian must “regard everything as poison which bears within it the seed of sensual pleasure.” St. Augustine maintained that original sin is transmitted through all generations by means of sex, and the handbooks of the Inquisition explained that the devil governs every sexual act “because of its natural nastiness.”3

The innocent sensuality of children was to be severely repressed with various physical torments, according to church fathers like St. John Chrys-ostom, who also advised terrifying them with stories of child-devouring demons, to keep them still “when they want food or play or anything else unreasonable.” A new holiday was devised, called Childermass, or Holy Innocents Day, when all children were to be whipped to make them remember the story of King Herod.4

In view of the contrasting attitudes of matrist societies toward children and sexuality, it is no surprise to read the disapproving remarks of Father Bourien, a missionary to the Malay Peninsula, where, he said, “a long sojourn among erratic tribes has taught me that from among carnal sins they only exclude one, that is, rape.”5 Naturally, the good father was disinclined to notice the prevalence of this particular sin in his own culture; but the many strictures against natural sexual expressions led to cruelty in this regard, as in many others, among Christian believers.

During Europe’s many wars, crusades, and persecutions, as Susan Brownmiller demonstrated in her book, Against Our Will, rape was considered a rightful reward of the warrior. Old Testament soldiers were told by their god to seize the young daughters of their slain enemies and make them into sex slaves (concubines); see Numbers 16, 21, and 31 in particular. Medieval clergymen claimed a similar privilege. “The Inquisition kept prison harems of young women, who were incarcerated purely because of their good looks; they were subject to repeated prison-rape by inquisitors and other strangers with connections to the Holy See, who threatened them with grotesque tortures if they failed to submit. . . . The Christian Church also engaged in temple prostitution, and kept brothels of young girls who would service only Christian men. The girls were required to say prayers, however. Church coffers overflowed with monies from brothel and &lsqou;sin rent’ payments, which were allowed in lieu of more painful forms of penitence.”6

In such ways, sex was poisoned by patristic inequality between men and women, within a church whose founders called all women “daughters of Satan,” “sacks of dung,” “insatiable beasts,” “unworthy of life,” “imperfect animals,” and many similar epithets.7 When women are so put down as to be forbidden any part in defining the moral code, it seems that violence soon becomes institutionalized. Christian nations were intensely warlike, and during their periods of colonization massacred native populations on all continents, in order to teach the heathen to love the correct god.

The Holy Inquisition was perhaps the most heinous extortion system ever devised; it served as a foundation for the church’s immense wealth, since all whom it accused had their property confiscated at once. Conviction was essentially inevitable, due to the unrestricted use of torture. Each victim was forced by torture to supply the names of many alleged “accomplices,” so that whole villages could be wiped out by a visit from the Hounds of God (Domini canes, the Dominicans), and the church could take over lands and other assets virtually without limit.

Relatives of the accused even had to pay for the ropes, chains, whips, stakes and other materials of execution, and had to contribute food and clothing for the sufferers in inquisitorial dungeons, as acts (so it was written) of “Christian charity.” Property could be taken away from the legal heirs of the dead who were accused of heresy post-mortem. If a victim was forewarned, and committed suicide through fear of the torturers, his or her property was taken anyway, and suicide was declared a mortal sin, consigning the victim to hell forever.

Canon law thus established the rule of property seizure for suicides, which remained in force throughout Europe until the late 19th century, and still contributes to today’s prejudices against euthanasia or suicide even for a sufferer of unbearable pain; yet self-sacrificial suicidal feats in a war situation are commonly viewed as heroic.8

Anthropologists and psychologists have wrestled with the problem of human violence. Some have attributed the problem to basic biology, saying that among social mammals the females generally spend their lives nurturing and teaching the young, whereas the males spend their lives fighting one another for access to females. Therefore, they say, battle is the natural testosterone-induced male role in life, while caring for others is the estrogen-induced female role.

But this view is far too simplistic for anything as complex as human culture. It is evident that both women and men partake of either matrist or patrist values when raised in an environment of one or the other. The picture is never uniform. Whatever the prevailing codes, there are always individuals or smaller groups who resist them and evolve other alternatives.

Still, in our patriarchal culture the conditioning toward violence is seen in sports and entertainment, with overtones of battle, rivalry, and desensitizing spectacles like modern “action” movies and video games aimed at the young. A major enforcer of the values of violence has always been a monotheistic patriarchal religion that condemns alternate beliefs as heresy or devil worship–even when the mainstream religion may have shamelessly taken over formerly “pagan” beliefs and converted them to its own uses. Since the underlying principle of monotheism is that only one god is right, and all others are wrong, every dissenting belief becomes defined as evil, and its practitioners become candidates for extermination, which is called “doing God’s work.” This is what happened during Christianity’s early conquests; the holy wars against pagans, Gnostics, Arians, Paulicians, and 30 or 40 other Christian heresies; the Crusades; the tortures and burnings of the Inquisition; the witch hunts; the pogroms, the ghettoizations, and the 20th century Holocaust–all manifestations of religion-based violence.9

The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved–Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are patriarchal–God is the omnipotent father–hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his male delegates. The sky-god is jealous. He requires total obedience. Those who would reject him must be converted or killed. Totalitarian-ism is the only poultice that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose.10

Adrienne Rich points out that “It is not from God the Father that we derive the idea of paternal authority; it is out of the struggle for paternal control of the family that God the Father is created.”11 As a consequence, “The absence of respect for women’s lives is written into the heart of male theological doctrine, into the structure of the patriarchal family, and into the very language of patriarchal ethics.”12

Socialization of males in our culture, from their earliest boyhood, involves so much orientation toward violence that it is hardly surprising to see it acted out in adulthood by far too many men. “In 1991, 90% of those arrested for murder were men, who tend to murder for more trivial things than women. Women arrested for murder most often killed their husbands or boyfriends after long-term physical abuse.”13

In the United States, television and movies have largely replaced other conduits of socialization such as parents and other elders in the community. Multicolored screens exert their magnetism of excitement and fantasy, with desensitization and violence-training lurking behind their scenes like fishhooks inside the bait. Even the film “Thelma and Louise” could hardly be understood as a successful feminist statement, since the women paid with their lives for stepping out of line in a patrist society, and for daring to defend themselves with violence against male violence. A posse of men in effect demanded their execution, and got it. The lesson of this film for women was the same old line: fight back, and you will be killed.

We all want a peaceful, warless world but we haven’t the faintest idea of how to achieve it. . . . We don’t approve of killing, yet we train millions to kill, and if one kills sufficiently he becomes a national hero, and we are proud of him. We are proud of our armies and navies, never realizing that if we were civilized there would be no such things. We are proud of the size and efficiency of our police force when this is due only to the number of criminals in our society. We are proud only because we haven’t sense enough to be ashamed.

We would rid the world of religious bigotry and prejudice, then passionately defend their source, religion. This, we’ve been told, is the one great binding force, when it is the most divisive force in the world–Catholic against Protestant, Arab against Israeli, Mohammedan against Hindu. Thus instead of binding us together it makes killers of us. Throughout its history it has caused the death of untold millions.14

In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon proposed the idea that there will never be true peace on earth until there is “no religion,” no heaven or hell, no preachers persuading their followers that they alone know the right way, while others are wrong and deserve only conversion or death. In view of the effects that religions have had on human history, Lennon’s idea has much to recommend it.

Concern for life in the here and now is a major point of difference between the old pagan female-oriented religions and patriarchal religions. The latter frequently denigrate or even despise life in the here and now, in favor of life in the hereafter. Christianity has always been death-centered; its central figure is a man dying in agony. Christian civilization has had a history of almost unremitting violence. For the past 2,000 years it has had hardly a single decade free of war, and hardly a day–not even a single hour–universally free of male violence.

Until violence affects them personally, many women seem relatively unaware of its ubiquity in modern culture. They may avoid watching the bloodier forms of entertainment, or believe that male violence is genetically or hormonally predetermined. Anthropologists have found that matrist societies were quite capable of training men to be nonviolent, without casting any unwarranted aspersions on their masculinity. This indicates that the violence pervading our society is not innate but learned.

Imagine a world where any woman or child could walk alone on any street, lonely road, back alley, or path at any hour of the day or night, and meet a strange man or group of men without any sense of threat. That would be a civilized world. Our world has come to such a pass that all men must be routinely suspected of criminal, sadistic, or homicidal tendencies. It isn’t fair to women; neither is it fair to those men who have no such tendencies and mean no harm to anyone.

Each year in our country, thousands of young girls and children disappear. Whether they are voluntary runaways or abductees, most of them end up in terrible circumstances created by men. Some are even tortured or killed for the entertainment of men. The idea that females are fair game, born to be victimized because they are somewhat less than fully human, is an outgrowth of sexist theology.

Early Christianity was deeply influenced by Zoroastrianism, which insisted that the only women who might escape eternal torture in hell were those who lived lives of abject obedience to men. Psychologically, however, the abjectly obedient do not escape persecution. The pose of a victim only encourages abuse by the bully. As a rule, a bully is a coward who prefers to torment only those who seem incapable of fighting back.

The real demons that we need to exorcise from our world are not the traditional horned devils or fork-tailed imps that theology postulated. They are the human-made demons of violence, exploitation, rape, bullying, and ignorance: the demons that make it impossible for all women and children to live safely, and impossible for all men to be trusted. We need to exorcise war, hatred, bigotry, and the kind of entertainment that presents senseless cruelty as somebody’s fun. We need to understand and exorcise men’s sexual fears, and the social blocks against women’s true power, set up by patriarchal religion.

Then, perhaps, we may look forward to a truly civilized world.


1. DeMeo, James. Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World. Greensprings, OR: Orgone Biophysical Research Lab., 1998, pp. 367-368
2. Ibid., p. 312
3. Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. HarperSanFrancisco, 1983, pp. 910-911
4. DeMeo, op. cit., pp. 275, 306
5. Briffault, Robert. The Mothers: A Study of the Origins of Sentiments and Institutions (3 vols). New York: Macmillan, 1927, v. 2, p. 48
6. DeMeo, op. cit., p. 311
7. Walker, op. cit., pp. 921-922
8. Smith, Homer W. Man and His Gods. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1952, p. 418
9. See Carroll, James. Constantine’s Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001
10. Warraq, Ibn. Why I Am Not A Muslim. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1995, p. 116
11. Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1976, p. 67
12. Ibid., p. 270
13. Stephenson, June. Men Are Not Cost-Effective: Male Crime in America. New York: HarperCollins 1995, p. 33
14. Graham, Lloyd M. Deceptions and Myths of the Bible. Carol Publishing Group, 1999, pp. 420-421

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.


FFRF Co-Presidents

DAN BARKER and ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and co-hosts of Freethought Radio. A former minister and evangelist, Dan became a freethinker in 1983. His books, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist (1992) are published by FFRF. Other books include Godless (Ulysses Press, 2008), The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God (Pitchstone Publishing, 2011), Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning, Pitchstone Press (2015) and GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (Sterling Publications, 2016). A graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a degree in religion, Dan now puts his knowledge of Christianity to effective freethought use. A professional pianist and composer, Dan performs freethought concerts and is featured in FFRF’s musical CDs, "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist," "Beware of Dogma,” and “Adrift on a Star." He joined FFRF's staff in 1987, serving as public relations director. He was first elected co-president in November 2004, speaks widely and has engaged in more than 100 debates about religion.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, a third-generation freethinker, co-founded FFRF with her mother Anne Gaylor as a college student in 1976. She served as editor of Freethought Today, FFRF’s newspaper, from 1985 to 2009. Her book, Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published by FFRF in 1981, is in its 4th printing. In 1988, FFRF published Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 anthology, Women Without Superstition: 'No Gods, No Masters,’ is the first collection of the writings of historic and contemporary women freethinkers. A 1980 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism School, she was an award-winning student reporter and recipient of the Ken Purdy scholarship. After graduation, she founded, edited and published the Feminist Connection, a monthly advocacy newspaper, from 1980-1985. She first joined the FFRF staff in 1985. She has been co-president since 2004. In the late 1970s, her student protest ended commencement prayers at the UW-Madison. She has been plaintiff in or overseen many state/church lawsuits and actions by FFRF. Dan and Annie Laurie have appeared on a variety of TV news shows, including “Oprah,” “O’Reilly,” “Good Morning America,” Univision, CNN and FOX news segments, CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight.

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FFRF President emerita

Anne Nicol Gaylor
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ANNE NICOL GAYLOR was a founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She served as executive director from 1978 to 2005, and worked as a consultant to the Foundation. Born in rural Wisconsin, she was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She owned and managed successful small businesses and was co-owner and editor of an award-winning suburban weekly newspaper. A feminist author, she did substantial volunteer work for women's rights (including serving as volunteer director of the Women's Medical Fund). Under her leadership the Freedom From Religion Foundation has grown from its initial three Wisconsin members to a national group with representation in every state and Canada.

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Director of Operations

LISA STRAND is director of operations of FFRF. Previously, she was the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Library Association. She has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, both as a staff member and volunteer leader, including having served as board president of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives and the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin. She has a B.A. from the University of Minnesota. Lisa is married with a daughter, as well as three cats, a guinea pig and an untended garden that will someday be beautiful.

FFRF Legal

REBECCA S. MARKERT attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and received her B.A. in political science, international relations and German in 1998. After graduating from UW–Madison, Rebecca spent one year working as a legislative fellow at the German Parliament in Bonn, Germany. In the fall 1999, she returned to the United States and began working as a legislative correspondent and assistant to the chief of staff for United States Senator Russ Feingold in Washington, D.C. In 2002, she returned to Madison, Wisconsin, to work on Senator Feingold’s 2004 re-election campaign. After the campaign, Rebecca attended Roger Williams University School of Law and received her Juris Doctor in 2008. She joined the Foundation staff in October 2008.

Rebecca is the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s first staff attorney and primarily works on Establishment Clause cases. She is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, Dane County Bar Association, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin.

PATRICK ELLIOTT, the Foundation's second staff attorney, hails from St. Paul, Minn. Patrick received a degree in legal studies and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. He attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received his Juris Doctor in 2009. While in school, Patrick took an interest in the First Amendment and constitutional law. He joined FFRF as a staff attorney in July 2010, after working part-time for the Foundation since February. Patrick is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Western and Eastern Districts of Wisconsin.

ANDREW SEIDEL graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School in 2009, where he was awarded the Haber J. McCarthy Award for excellence in environmental law. He studied human rights and international law at the University of Amsterdam and traveled the world on Semester at Sea. In May of 2011, Andrew completed his Master of Laws at Denver University Sturm College of Law with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the Outstanding L.L.M. Award. He has written a book on International Human Rights Law and his essay on the role of religion in government and the founding of our nation placed second in the FFRF's 2010 graduate student essay contest. Andrew is a former Grand Canyon tour guide and accomplished nature photographer; his work has been displayed in galleries in Colorado, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Maryland. He joined the FFRF staff as a constitutional consultant in November 2011.

ELIZABETH CAVELL received her B.A in English from the University of Florida in 2005. After college, Elizabeth spent a year as a full-time volunteer in AmeriCorps*NCCC. She attended Tulane University Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2009. After law school, she worked as a deputy public defender in southern Colorado. She joined the Foundation as a staff attorney in January 2013, after working for the Foundation part-time since September 2012.

SAM GROVER received his B.A. in philosophy and government from Wesleyan University in 2008. He first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. In 2011, his article on the religious exemptions in the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate was published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. After receiving his J.D. from Boston University in 2012, Sam worked as a law clerk for the Vermont Office of Legislative Council where he drafted legislation on health care, human services, and tax issues. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013. Sam has written a paper on counterterrorism and the law that was published by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City and has traveled to southern Africa to work under Justice Unity Dow of Botswana’s High Court.

MADELINE ZIEGLER graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 2011 with a B.A. in English Literature and Political Science. She attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2014. She has worked at FFRF in some capacity since May 2012, starting as a legal intern/extern, and currently works as a legal fellow.

RYAN JAYNE received a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Honors College in 2007. After graduating, Ryan taught piano and chess lessons while working as a financial advisor until 2012, when he began law school at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon. In law school he focused on intellectual property and animal law, serving as an associate editor for the Animal Law Review at Lewis & Clark and co-founding the Pacific Northwest’s first Secular Legal Society. Ryan graduated cum laude in 2015, began working with FFRF in January of 2015, and became a Diane Uhl Legal Fellow in September, 2015, specializing in faith-based government funding.

WHITNEY STEFFEN is FFRF’s Legal Assistant. Whitney is a Madison native who graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in English in 2011. Whitney received a Paralegal Post-Baccalaureate diploma from Madison College in 2014 and previously worked as a paralegal at a small law firm before coming to FFRF. She enjoys watching the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly from the galleries, reading, and spending time with her four cats.

FFRF Staff

JACKIE DOUGLAS is the office manager at the Foundation. She graduated in 2002 from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Human Development and Family Services. Jackie is happily married, owns a home on the east side of Madison, and has a black cat named Lucky.

BRUCE A. JOHNSON has been a broadcasting professional for over 35 years. He has worked in Russia, Africa, Europe, Mexico and all across the USA.  Projects he has photographed, edited and/or composed music for have been awarded many Wisconsin Broadcasters, Milwaukee Press Club and both regional and national Emmy Awards. He is a 30-year resident of the East Side of Madison, and is married with two daughters.

MOLLY HANSON is FFRF's editorial assistant. Molly graduated from the University of Wisconsin--Madison in 2016 with a degree in journalism and a certificate in gender and women’s studies. Prior to graduating, Molly interned for FFRF. She ran for the Badger track and cross country teams while in college and still enjoys running. Also in her free time she enjoys reading about history, exploring, and traveling. Molly’s interests include music, politics, feminism, folklore and psychology.

ALYSSA SCHAEFER is FFRF’s Program Assistant.  She graduated from The George Washington University in 2014 with a BA in International Affairs, concentrating in Security Policy.   A native of Wisco, she recently moved back to Madison from the east coast. In her free time Alyssa enjoys traveling, exploring the great outdoors, live music, and lazy Sundays with her cat Lola.

PJ SLINGER is editor of Freethought Today. A Green Bay native, he has a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has worked as a sports reporter, news reporter, copy editor, web editor and photo editor in newspapers in Marshall (Minn.), Mankato (Minn.) and Madison (Wis). Prior to coming to FFRF in 2015, he worked for 15 years at The Capital Times in Madison. He has a wife and three kids.

BILL DUNN is the editor of Freethought Today. He has a degree in history and mass communications (journalism emphasis) from the University of South Dakota and has worked as a reporter, copy editor and editor in South Dakota and Wisconsin since 1980. Bill joined the Foundation staff in July 2009. He has two daughters, Kaitlin Marie and Jamie Lee.

LAURYN SEERING is the publicist & communications coordianator. She was born in Wisconsin and studied abroad in Nagasaki, Japan. Lauryn graduated from the UW-Stout in 2012 with her BS in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, concentrating in Technical Communication & International Studies. Lauryn moved to Madison in 2013 and enjoys reading about space stuff, biking and creating art at coffee shops. 

JAKE SWENSON started as FFRF’s first graphic designer in 2015. He was born in Rockford, Illinois, and graduated with a degree in fine art from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. He enjoys music, cycling, photography, traveling, and coffee.

LISA TREU is our Director Of First Impressions at FFRF.  She comes to us after working in broadcasting for iHeart Radio in Madison, Wisconsin.  She hosted various radio programs for fifteen years.  Lisa and her husband ran their own Birdhouse/Birdfeeder manufacturing company called Northwoods Mfg., Inc. during the 1990’s where she had her own line of decorative birdhouses that she designed and painted herself.  Lisa is the wife of Harry and is the mother of twin daughters Katrina and Karinthia.  In her spare time she enjoys reading, painting, gardening, feeding the birds, getting silly with her daughters and lounging with her two cats.

ELEANOR MCENTEE has over a decade of experience as a nonprofit bookkeeper and is very dedicated to nonprofit organizations.  In her free time, she journals, spends time with her cats Steven and MacNcheez, and rides her Harley all over Wisconsin and more!

AMITABH PAL is the Communications Director of FFRF. Prior to joining in February 2016, he was the Managing Editor of The Progressive magazine for more than a decade. He was also the editor of the Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive that sends out op-eds through the Tribune Wire Service to hundreds of newspapers in the United States and other countries. Pal has appeared on C-SPAN and BBC and television and radio stations all over the United States and abroad. His articles have been published in school and college textbooks in the United States and Australia. Pal teaches a course at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. He has a Master's in Journalism from the University of North Carolina and a Master's in Political Science from North Carolina State University.

A UW graduate, TIM NOTT has called Madison home since 1991. He began his career doing campus IT support while completing a BA in English. The Internet had just become graphical and the opportunity for inexpensive, scalable communication piqued Tim's interest. After 15 years in the industry he took the entrepreneurial plunge, cofounding a startup and building a platform to help make mobile application technology as accessible and ubiquitous as the Web. The company expanded services to work on drones and the Internet of Things. Tim brings his entrepreneurial and technological skills to FFRF where he focuses on our digital products and IT infrastructure.

ROGER DALEIDEN is the Graphic Designer at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He grew up in Wausau, Wis.  He has been living in Madison since 1987. He graduated from University of Wisconsin-Stout with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1986 (Fine Art), and the received his Master of Fine Art degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991. Roger has taught Art and Design courses for UW-Madison and also for Madison College. He has worked as a Graphic Designer for catalog companies, most recently Full Compass Systems, and as well as for newspapers, including The Capital Times. Some of his other interests include bicycling through our beautiful Southern Wisconsin landscapes, paddling down the lower Wisconsin River, sailing on our lakes and skiing at the local ski areas.

KRISTINA DALEIDEN is a Wisconsin native and life-long freethinker. She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida and a Post-Baccalaureate certificate in Paralegal Studies from Madison College in 2010. She has worked for law firms focused on employment and labor law, and worked as an office coordinator at a local small business prior to joining FFRF. Kristina is an avid follower of politics and enjoys long protest marches on the square, historical fiction and post-modern poetry. Her hobbies include writing to her representatives, yoga, badgering her family and trying to persuade her cats to get off the kitchen counters.

Executive Board of Directors

View DAN BARKER's profile above. 

JIM BREDESON (Secretary) retired in 2012 from a career in academic and public libraries. He served as a reference librarian at Beloit College, Marquette University, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and as director of the library at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County for 15 years. He has been active in professional organizations and served on the boards of the Council of University of Wisconsin Libraries and Wisconsin Interlibrary Services for several years. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in journalism and library/information sciences.

Jim lives in Madison with wife Cheryl and their St Bernard dog, Afton. He has been president of the local neighborhood association board and currently serves on their condominium board committees. He is a lifelong freethinker and has been an FFRF member for two decades.

MIKE CERMAK (Director) lives in rural Pennsylvania with his family and owns several small businesses. He first joined FFRF while in college, after having read “Losing Faith in Faith,” and is passionate about state-church separation. Mike is a private pilot, electric car owner and “evangelist,” and enjoys technology of all kinds.

PATRICIA CLEVELAND, (Director) with her late husband Roger, was a founding member of the long-lived chapter, Alabama Freethought Association (active 1989-2016). Pat and Roger were awarded FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award for being outspoken atheists in the bible belt, and as volunteers for overseeing Lake Hypatia Freethought Advance (Not Retreat) near Talladega. Deeding property to FFRF, they encouraged the national FFRF to build a southern outpost, and, at Pat’s suggestion, also erect a monument to “Atheists in Foxholes.” Pat has been volunteer caretaker of the hall and campgrounds for decades, and as director or co-director of the chapter oversaw several successful lawsuits. She also arranged the annual “Glorious Fourth” of July event at Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall, attracting freethinkers not just from the South but around the country to the rural event. She is a mother and grandmother.

JOE CUNNINGHAM (Director) was born in the back hills of West Virginia, migrated with his family to the Oklahoma oil fields during the Great Depression, later returning to West Virginia, where he attended a one-room school. By high school, his family had moved to Illinois, where he had to float on a plywood boat for a total of 1,440 crossings of the Wabash River to catch the bus for high school. He joined the U.S. Navy after graduation at age 17, serving two years in the Pacific. He graduated from Southern Illinois University, earning both B.S. Ed. and M.S. Ed. degrees, majoring in history and English and taking business courses. He taught in Red Bud High School (Ill.), then in Mascoutah, where he met his wife, Norma Steines. They have two daughters, one a lawyer, one a doctor, and have five grandchildren, one of whom is finishing up her M.D. degree. He is 90 and has been retired for 31 years.

View ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR's profile above. 

STEPHEN HIRTLE (Chair) is a professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He is an organizer with the Steel City Skeptics and the Center for Inquiry Pittsburgh, faculty liaison for the Student Alliance at Pitt and previously hosted a CFI Institute on “Secularism on Campus.” He has been a guest on Freethought Radio and has assisted FFRF in fighting a nativity display at the Ellwood City Municipal Building (a Ten Commandments monument outside Valley High School in New Kensington) and the Year of the Bible resolution passed by the Pennsylvania House.

TODD PEISSIG (Director) grew up in central Wisconsin and still lives there today. He attended the University of Wisconsin Pharmacy School, graduating with a B.S. in Pharmacy in 1989. He has worked as a retail community pharmacist with the Kmart Corporation for 27 years and is currently the pharmacy manager overseeing 5 technicians. Traveling extensively both domestically and worldwide is a great passion of his, as is fighting the battle of religious overreach in our country. He also is an activist fighting for LGBT rights. Todd volunteers a full day for FFRF every six-eight weeks, as well as at FFRF conventions.

STEVE SALEMSON (Treasurer) took early retirement in 2005 after nearly two decades in scholarly publishing, first as business manager of the Duke University Press and then as associate director of the University of Wisconsin Press. In previous lives, he worked as a classical musician and as a French translator and interpreter. He has an M.A. in Liberal Studies from Duke University and a B.A. in Comparative Linguistics from Queens College in New York, as well as degrees in French horn and music pedagogy from the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. He enjoys biking, downhill skiing, doing crossword puzzles and being a grandfather. In addition to being on the board of the FFRF, he sits on the boards of the Midwest Folk Dance Association and the National Mustard Museum, and so is involved with both nonprofits and non-prophets.

JIM ZERWICK (Director) attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, joined the Navy in 1968, studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute, and served as a communications tech in the Mediterranean area until late 1971. After discharge, he and a buddy toured Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. He earned a Master’s in Library Science at UW-Madison, worked for several years at the Michigan State University Science Library, and became the engineering librarian at the University of Virginia. There he became hooked on flying ultralight aircraft. Returning to Wisconsin, he spent the following 29 years working as a property manager and assisting his parents as they approached the end of their lives. His mother, Rose Zerwick, who died as a “happy heathen” at 95 in 2013, was a second-generation atheist. Among Jim’s claims to fame is being part of the backup chorus singing Dan Barker’s “The Stay Away Pope Polka” for FFRF. He has been on the Board, initially as treasurer and now as a director at large, for 10 years. He is married to a retired high school teacher who has two grown children and a granddaughter. His three siblings and their spouses “all share a healthy skepticism of religion.”

FFRF Honorary Board


The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the formation of a new FFRF Honorary Board of distinguished achievers who have made known their dissent from religion.

The FFRF Honorary Board includes Jerry Coyne, Robin Morgan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Ernie Harburg, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Jacoby, Lawrence Krauss, Mike Newdow, Katha Pollitt, Steven Pinker, Ron Reagan, Oliver Sacks, M.D., Robert Sapolsky, Edward Sorel and Julia Sweeney.

“We are so pleased that these outstanding thinkers and freethinkers have agreed to publicly lend their endorsement to the Foundation, and its two purposes of promoting freethought and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.

  • Sean B. Carroll, professor of molecular biology, genetics and medical genetics act the University of Wisconsin, is author of 'Brave Genius', 'Remarkable Creatures', 'The Making of the Fittest' and 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful.'
  • Jerry Coyne, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is author of the popular book 'Why Evolution is True' and the blog of the same name.
  • Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous contemporary atheist and a distinguished evolutionary biologist, is Oxford professor emeritus. In his blockbuster book, The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”
  • Daniel C. Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Tufts, and author of the bestselling book about religion, Breaking the Spell. In a newspaper article about his nonbelief, Dennett once wrote: “I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.”
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a research associate in Harvard’s psychology department, is FFRF Freethought Heroine of 2011. Goldstein is a 1996 MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” award). She has taught at Barnard and in the Columbia MFA writing program and the Rutgers philosophy department. She’s been a visiting scholar at Brandeis and at Trinity College in Hartford.
  • Ernie Harburg, a retired research scientist, is president of Yip Harburg Foundation and co-author of Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? Ernie has dedicated his retirement to furthering the lyrics, music, memory and progressive views of his freethinking father, the lyricist Yip Harburg, author of classic songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and of Rhymes for the Irreverent, recently republished by FFRF.
  • Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet, historian and author of the acclaimed Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul, told the FFRF 2009 convention audience: “If there is no god — and there isn't — then we [humans] made up morality. And I'm very impressed.”
  • Susan Jacoby, bestselling author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, told FFRF convention-goers in 2004: "[President] Kennedy had to speak about his religion because he was suspected of insufficient dedication to the Constitution's separation of church and state. Today's candidates are suspect if they display too much dedication to secular government."
  • Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist, author and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, Fellow of American Physical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is featured in “The Unbelievers,” a film with Richard Dawkins, and is author of nine books, including A Universe from Nothing.
  • Robin Morgan, feminist pioneer, global activist, author of the groundbreaking "Sisterhood is Powerful" and more than 20 books, was formerly Ms. Magazine editor and consulting editor. She is the co-founder of the Feminist Women's Health Network and Women's Media Center and currently hosts "Women's Media Center Live" the radio "talk-show with a brain."
  • Mike Newdow is working pro bono to challenge such violations as the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. He told the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments: “I am an atheist. I don't believe in God. And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.”
  • Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard, is author of The Blank Slate: “I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”
  • Katha Pollitt, “Subject to Debate” columnist for The Nation, author and poet, has spoken out regularly and energetically as a freethinker, in such columns as “Freedom From Religion, Sí!”
  • Ron Reagan, media commentator, describes himself in a radio ad he taped for FFRF as: “Unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
  • Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist, Stanford professor and bestselling author, once suggested FFRF put up a sign at its conventions: “Welcome, hellbound atheists.”
  • Edward Sorel, satiric cartoonist and irreverent illustrator who is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and whose caricatures have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, has been a Foundation member since the 1980s.
  • Julia Sweeney, comedian and actress, is writer/performer of the play, “Letting Go of God”: “How dare the religious use the term 'born again.' That truly describes freethinkers who've thrown off the shackles of religion so much better!”

In Memoriam 


  • Christopher Hitchens, the iconoclastic journalist, was author of the bestselling God Is Not Great: “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”
  • Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, described himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”

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