Freethought Today · Vol. 24 No. 10 December 2007

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Presenting Julia Sweeney

By Julia Sweeney

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Julia Sweeney
Photo by Brent Nicastro

Believing in Santa Claus is sort of like believing in God. If you want to do it, that's fine. Just don't ask too many questions.

This is an excerpt of a speech delivered at the 30th annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 12, 2007. To watch the speech, including questions and answers, go here. Listen to the audio version.

I want to just talk about the ten top things that I've learned about people since I started performing my show, "Letting Go of God." I've been engaged in so many conversations with people. I get so many e-mails. A lot of people, you know, hate me, and are worried about God and all eternity and everything. But mostly I get fantastic letters from people who have gone through a similar experience.

First, I have to say Katha Pollitt is fantastic and I could have listened to her all night. I was laughing when Katha was talking about these virginity rings. What could be hotter for a teenager than sex while you're wearing a virginity ring? That is the worst idea in the world! Omigod! Didn't they learn anything from the Catholic girls in uniforms? It's just so funny that they would think virginity rings would be a good idea and that it would keep teenagers from having sex.

I also think Katha's really on to something about being culturally isolated in America and how that turns people toward the church. I think that is so potent, that idea, and so true.

But even my mother, who's a practicing Catholic, is coming around. I've noticed you get a big reaction when you say you're an atheist or that you don't believe in God--at least from your quasi-religious or going-along-with-it family and friends. They hate you! It's a big drama. They suddenly get much more religious. Now that it's been a few years, it's very interesting. Boy, now they don't go to church every Sunday anymore.

I've really watched that with my mother. She told me about a friend of hers, whose daughter has two young kids, who had to move to some area in Washington state where she didn't have any family and she has to work. My mother was saying, of course all positively: "And fortunately, there's this church that takes the kids after school. They pick them up at school and take them to the church and they do homework with them and they feed them a snack and she can come pick them up at 5:15. Isn't that so wonderful?"

Of course, I was horrified. But as a mother, I understand. Wow, how fantastic would that be if somebody picked your kid up and did homework with them and gave them snacks so that you could be at work? And yet it's so insidious. Everybody thinks they're doing such a good thing. I said to my mother, "Oh, you know, that really bothers me. Because I think while they're doing homework they're slipping in whatever religion this is."

And even she didn't know how to react. She said, "Yeah, but you know, that's a good thing for her." That's true, and I understand it, but I just think that is where we need to turn our attention in the future.

OK. So here's the ten things that have really come to the forefront for me, talking to so many people about religion.

Number one: People want to be good. People want to sacrifice for the common good. This is just part of our heritage as human beings.

I believe we have evolved to have this feeling. We all know how good it feels to help your neighbor do something or contribute, or make some self-sacrifice to do something. Everybody wants that feeling. This is where religion can sneak right in and hand this feeling over to people. All this good will that we've evolved to have can be just sucked up by an organization that is really doing things that are probably not for the greater common good. Yet they can deliver that hit to people of feeling like they're doing something good.

For example, I just turned 48(!) and I'm still friends with about eight girlfriends in Spokane I've known since second grade, who are my age. Six are practicing Catholics, one is at the Universal Church and one converted to Judaism. But all of them do good things with their church, help build women's shelters. They're all involved. They all have that feeling.

When I talk to them about religion, they don't say, "Oh, did I feel good yesterday thinking how Mary was a virgin and conceived Jesus!" They don't say anything about Catholicism. They talk about the community work that they've done. And that's what they connect with their church. They assign that good feeling to their church.

I just observe that over and over again. That wish to do good seems to be such a universal human trait and I think that religion does ill will with that.

Number two: The second thing I've noticed is a code of behavior is often necessary.

Katha kind of touched on this. People need 12-step programs. They need structure. I don't like the whole higher power of the 12-step program. But just today, I got a letter saying, "I'm a physicist, I'm a scientist, I have 700 degrees and yet I know Jesus is the son of God because my life was a wreck and I couldn't get out of bed. I accept Jesus as my personal savior and now I do these ten things and the proof is in the pudding. . . ."

As I say in my show, what William James said: "It doesn't work because it's true, it's true because it works."

Number three: The next thing I've noticed is: People want to be in a club.

We evolved and here we are. I'm very glad about my club with you! People need to be in a club. We evolved in groups of small tribes. They say that the average person has about 200 people in their address book because the tribes were around 200 people. That's about how many people we can keep relationships straight with.

We like to feel affiliated. Obviously, there was an evolutionary advantage to us to have this feeling. I think religion, once again, in the absence of anything else, just swoops in.

In a way, in the last three years, even though I've completely rejected religion and I've done the show about how I rejected it, I've seen what works about religion. I've seen the underbelly of the beast. Because it does deliver. It makes people feel good. It gives them a code of behavior. And they're in a club. And it's easily identifiable.

I also agree with Katha that these things are changing. I think it's an incredibly exciting time to be part of this group and all of these groups and people saying what they really think. But I also think that religion delivers those basic needs for people who don't want to think too deeply about it.

I know, no big news to you, but for me, these are the things I'm turning over in my head.

Four: People love to hate.

People feel closer to other people if they have a common person they don't like. Come on, everybody knows that's true! And it's true for us, too.

Religion delivers on that, too! It gives people an instant common enemy, whether it's Islamic fundamentalists or secularists, that's immediately there and provided. At Saturday Night Live, we were never closer than when Steven Seagal hosted--because we hated him so much! That was when I actually found out where everyone who was on staff lived in the city. I became close to everyone in our common hatred.

Religion provides that. I understand talking about how much we don't like religious fundamentalists and they are so worthy of our hatred. But I try not to get too much into that. Because that's so easy. That's really delivering easy hits.

Five: The market does not like informed or skeptical citizens.

Advertisers and big companies that are short-term profit driven align themselves, consciously or unconsciously, with religion, because they both have common interests: keeping people needing things and not quite giving them what they need.

I really notice that over and over. To me, one of the creepiest things is this alignment between big business and conservative religion.

Six: I feel that bashing religion is more popular than understanding it, or even standing firm about your point of view without bashing. I think in the long term, understanding it is really the way to win.

Seven: Mostly, people are not introspective.

This has been a really profound realization for me. I was raised in Catholicism. I thought while everyone was praying they were thinking deeply about the hardest questions. Turns out that's not true. I don't think they are really thinking about anything. I don't think--this is sad and maybe cynical--but I don't think most people are very interested in why they do the things they do, and why they believe the things they believe. I know that makes me sort of a pessimist, but I came to this conclusion through thousands of e-mails and conversations.

Eight: Mostly people feel uncomfortable not knowing an answer.

Uncertainty is highly stressful. It's undesirable. And religion provides answers. Science provides some answers, and those are often deeply unsettling and deeply humbling in a way that is very unnerving.

For example, to realize the universe doesn't care about you specifically is a very difficult thing. When I think back to how I loved being a Catholic and I loved the nuns and the whole humility thing, I was kind of, "Oh, that's so fantastic! I'm so humble, I'm so humble!" What could be more arrogant than thinking that there's a god out there wondering if you're performing the five offices of the day? That is arrogance taken to the extreme.

Nine: We've evolved our consciousness, I think, to have a great capacity to live in denial about things that make us feel uncomfortable.

I do this about a lot of things. I think we all have to admit that we do this, just not about religion. I stopped and looked at the uncomfortable answers with religion and I decided to go with the evidence. But there is some adaptive advantage to being maybe ridiculously optimistic about things or not really knowing, just going on faith. I think it's not good, but we have to admit that we all do live in denial to some degree.

And I have a tenth observation. I even wrote this down. This is bad--I should not end on this, I should end on something good!

I wrote: Life is meaningless.

That is not good ad copy. What can I do about that? People say, "But then life's meaningless!" Then I go into my song and dance: "But life is meaningful to me! And I have my meaningful life. Just being aware is so meaningful. Blah blah blah."

And it's true. I do feel that way. But that is a bitter pill to swallow. I don't think everyone can swallow that pill. That maybe the universe isn't so excited about these homo sapiens and has not been looking forward to our appearance all this time! That's hard to admit.

Finally, I want to say three other things, and then I'll be done.

The biggest, the greatest harm that religion did for me is that it quelled my natural wonder about the world. I didn't really wonder about science. When I took chemistry, first of all it was boring the way they presented it and all the guys just wanted to make stink bombs. I didn't think of it as being like cooking--I mean, I love to cook. If they'd presented it that way I would have been in. But I felt that there was this answer to everything. God gave us the 92 elements, or however many there are! Everyone knows the real answer: It's God!

I feel so cheated by that. That's why I wish I could sue the Catholic church. It's not for whatever those priests were doing, it's because I didn't let my natural wondering continue, the thing that makes me the most human, the thing that makes me the most different from other species--my natural desire to know the answer. It cut that off for me. And I just think that is the most heinous thing that religion does.

I have a seven-year-old daughter. We went to the Atheists Alliance convention and I was on this great parenting panel. Everyone was talking about how they read a different myth from the world to their child every night. And I was thinking, "I can barely make dinner! My god, I'm so behind on the myths!"

So I have been trying to throw a myth in here and there. I was telling my daughter recently about Adam and Eve. I thought, OK, let's just start with the basic stuff. So I was telling her, oh, there's this story, and it's about how the world began. It's not how the world began, but it's a story. There's Adam and Eve and then there was this tree of knowledge and God said, "Don't eat from the tree of knowledge." Then the snake came to Eve and Eve went to Adam and before you knew it everyone was having apple pie. Then God came and was so mad about it and they had to leave the garden.

So Mulan goes, "Well, how did God know they were eating the fruit?" I said, "Oh, that's a good question! I can't remember."

So just today I looked it up. Actually, it's very interesting because God comes in and says, "Who was eating the fruit?"

Then Mulan said, "But God knows everything and there're only two people."

I love her questions.

Then we got into the thing about the other animals. Could they not eat the apple? Because we have an apple tree in our backyard and sometimes squirrels are eating them. Could no animals eat it? Only the people couldn't eat it?

So I read that chapter of Genesis again. You know, I've gone through my whole story. I just knew vaguely what the Genesis story was. Then I took a bible study class. Then I was horrified by the bible. Then I read comparative religion. The story turns up here and there and everywhere. You can't turn around without seeing that story somewhere in the world. But I just haven't looked at it for a few years.

So today I read it again, and it is so beautiful. That story is so obviously about enlightenment. It is so obviously about human beings becoming aware that they're conscious and they are going to die and that they are naked and that they can do good and bad to each other. Even when God says, "From now on, Adam, you have to eat from the soil, from your crops," it's such a beautiful story about us learning how to till the land and farming.

How did that beautiful story get so fucked up!

It's such a great enlightenment story. It's about saying goodbye to God. It's about saying, "I'm eating the apple. And now I take the consequences of eating the apple. I know I'm going to die. And I know that I can do right and wrong. And I know I have to cooperate and have pain in childbirth. I'm aware of it. I'm not an animal that isn't aware of those things."

I was just arrested by the beauty of that. So I just wanted to share that.

My last story is about my daughter.

I didn't know what to do about the Santa Claus thing. I start my show all about how I found out there was no Santa Claus, and how one thing just led to another. So then I became a mother and I really felt uncomfortable about lying to my daughter. I was very in conflict about how to handle Santa Claus because, of course, it's fun and fantastic and great. I really do believe it's a secular celebration and it's part of our culture and I want to participate in that. On the other hand, it involves all this lying, and I really want my daughter to know that I would not lie to her. Maybe if the Nazis were coming and we were running away, under extreme circumstances I would lie, but not about Santa Claus. I just didn't want to do that!

I was very uncomfortable so I didn't tell her about Santa Claus for a really long time. Somehow she got to be three and a half without hearing about Santa, and then it was almost like she was too smart. 'Cause I was going, "Well, there's this guy. He's going to come over when we're asleep."

She's like, "What?!"

And I did not sell it. I was so half-assed: "Yes, he comes when we're sleeping."

She goes, "Well, I'm not going to sleep in my bed by myself when there's somebody coming in the house!"

Then I go, "He leaves presents."

And she's like, "Um, how does he get in?"

And I go, "He comes down the chimney."

And she goes, "WHAT?"

So we put out carrots for the reindeer and cookies. And I went and ate them. Omigod! Then I went in her room and I say, "Santa Claus was here."

She goes, "I'm not going out there!"

It was horrifying.

So now she's older. Finally she started picking up on stuff, like the tooth fairy. 'Cause when we were in Iceland last year at the atheist conference she lost her tooth. We did this big elaborate ritual of putting the Icelandic money under the pillow. And then, I saved her tooth.

So eight months ago, I'm in the living room and Mulan comes in with this little baggie that had her tooth in it and says, "What is this?"

I'm like, "That's apparently a child's tooth."

And she goes, "Uh-huh. Are you the tooth fairy?"

I said, "Yes, I am."

And she goes, "And who is Santa Claus?!"

So I said, "OK. I'm Santa Claus."

So it's out. But then I go, "But don't tell Coco, don't start telling kids at school."

I could see her little head working. She goes, "Well, all those letters I wrote to Santa Claus? So that was just writing them to you!"

And I go, "Yeah, that's right."

She goes, "Huh. So I don't need to write a letter, I can just tell you what I want?"

And I said, "That's right. And I can just tell you what I want."

She goes, "Oh. Well, what if I still want to believe in Santa Claus?"

And I go, "Well, you can go ahead. Yeah, you can believe in Santa Claus."

And she goes, "Well, I think, yeah, I think there is a Santa Claus. And I think if I'm good I get an American Girl doll!"

So it was this whole hilarious thing.

We're going to Mexico City for Christmas this year. My fiancee, Michael, and I are in the car and Mulan's in the back and she's asking all these questions about Mexico. Now it's triply awkward, because it's already out, but now we're kind of half-pretending it's true.

She goes, "So how does Santa Claus get to Mexico?"

And I go, "He's magic!"

Then she goes, "Ah, but does he come on Christmas Eve, or does he come on Christmas Day in Mexico?"

And I go, "Mulan, as you know, I'm Santa Claus, so, you know . . . whatever day you pick."

She goes, "No, no! I believe in Santa Claus!"

I go, "OK."

She goes, "So, what if they don't like have a chimney?"

Michael says, "I think believing in Santa Claus is sort of like believing in God. If you want to do it, that's fine. Just don't ask too many questions."

Which I thought was the greatest answer.

Julia Sweeney, an alumna of "Saturday Night Live," is well-known for her androgynous character, Pat, and her critically acclaimed one-woman monolog, "God Said, 'Ha!'," which played on Broadway. Miramax released the film version in 1998, which earned the Golden Space Needle Award for best directing. The comedian and actress consulted on the HBO show, "Sex & the City," and has been a regular and guest on several TV series. Her movies include "It's Pat," "Pulp Fiction," "Clockstoppers," "Whatever It Takes," "Stuart Little" and "Don't Come Knockin'." She graduated in economic studies from the University of Washington. Julia's third monolog, "Letting Go of God," was Critics' Choice for the Los Angeles Times.

Order "Letting Go of God" CD for $22 ppd from ffrf.org/shop.


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FFRF Co-Presidents

ALGandDan2017

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.

Photo: Ingrid Laas

See Dan's bio »
See Dan's online writings »

See Dan's Debates »
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See Annie Laurie's bio »
See Annie Laurie's online writings »
Contact Annie Laurie »

FFRF President emerita

Anne Nicol Gaylor
Photo by Brent Nicastro.

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.

Slideshow of Anne Gaylor & FFRF activism
See Anne Gaylor's online writings.

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 is the Legal Director for FFRF. She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and received her B.A. in political science, international relations and German in 1998. Rebecca attended Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, Rhode Island, and received her Juris Doctor in 2008. She joined the Foundation staff in October 2008 as the first in-house staff attorney. Prior to joining FFRF, she worked for former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold both in his legislative office in Washington, D.C., and in his 2004 campaign office.

She handles a First Amendment caseload that includes matters involving religion in the public schools, religious symbols on public property, and electioneering by churches. She has served as co-counsel in federal lawsuits across the country and routinely assists FFRF’s cooperating attorneys in litigation. She’s drafted amicus briefs filed in many federal appellate courts including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rebecca is admitted to practice in Wisconsin, and before the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. District Courts for the Western and Eastern Districts of Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Rebecca is also a member of the Western District of Wisconsin Bar Association, Dane County Bar Association and the James E. Doyle American Inn of Court. She also serves as the President of the Legal Association for Women in Madison, 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.

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. Ryan became an FFRF staff attorney in September, 2017.

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.

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.

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.

CHRISTOPHER LINE received his B.S. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2012. He began working for FFRF in 2015 as a legal intern while attending law school at the University of Wisconsin. Shortly after receiving his Juris Doctor in 2017, Chris began working full-time for FFRF as a Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow. He is an accomplished photographer whose work has appeared in The Humanist magazine, the Progressive, and FFRF’s own Freethought Today. His work can even be found on display in Freethought Hall.

COLIN MCNAMARA, an Upstate New York native, graduated from SUNY Oswego with a BA in philosophy and creative writing in 2013. During his junior year, he took night classes to earn his New York State Emergency Medical Technician certification, working as a volunteer EMT during his senior year. He stepped away from education to work in the medical field for a year before enrolling in law school at the University of Richmond in 2014. While in law school, he worked in the Children’s Defense Clinic, providing pro bono legal representation to children in Virginia criminal courts. His law school summers featured stints with the New York State Office of the Attorney General and the ACLU of Virginia. Colin graduated cum laude in 2017, and now works as FFRF’s Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow.

FFRF Editorial Staff

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.

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.

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.

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.

LAURYN SEERING is the Communications Manager. Lauryn graduated from the UW-Stout with her B.S. in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, concentrating in Technical Communication & International Studies with a minor in Journalism. Lauryn enjoys reading sci-fi, biking and creating art at coffee shops. 

BILL DUNN is the editor emeritus 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.

BAILEY NACHREINER-MACKESEY is the Editorial Assistant at FFRF. Born and bred right here in Madison, she graduated from UW-Madison in 2017 with majors in Journalism and Mass Communication and Political Science and a certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies. Outside of FFRF, she can be found volunteering for Madison’s Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS), catching up on her ever-growing stack of feminist reads, or slingin’ top notch espresso drinks as a specialty coffee barista.

FFRF Administrative Staff

BEN TOLLE is excited to join the FFRF team as the new Store Manager. Prior to FFRF he worked at a community center as well as freelancing design projects. Ben enjoys biking around Madison, digital illustration, and spicy food. If you see him around, don't forget to introduce yourself and say hi!

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.

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!

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.

FFRF Specialty Staff

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.

JAMES PHETTEPLACE is the Director of IT for FFRF. Prior to joining in January 2018, James was the Director of IT for Willy Street Co-op for more than a decade, and served as a Project Manager for major expansion efforts. He was also an information specialist, programmer and consultant for Community Care Systems, Inc. from 1995 to 2003. James is also a Qualified Administrator of the IDI (Intercultural Developmental Inventory), and is dedicated to promoting inclusion, diversity and equity in the workplace. James is a poet and musician and has performed in the Madison area for over 20 years.

Executive Board of Directors

View DAN BARKER's profile above. 

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.

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.”

STEFANIE MORITZ (Secretary) retired from a career in public libraries in 2003.  She holds a B.A. in Fine Arts and a M.A.L.S. in Library Science.  A former resident of Illinois and Arizona, she and her husband now reside in downtown Madison, Wis. where they enjoy the best farmer's market in the country, close proximity to UW-Madison campus activities, and a plethora of restaurants and arts events.  In addition to her volunteer work with FFRF she is the Land Inquiries Specialist for the Wisconsin office of The Nature Conservancy, and serves as an English tutor to recent refugees through a Madison-based organization, Open Doors for Refugees.  Her "conversion" to freethinker after many years as a lapsed Catholic has been liberating and she is proud to be associated with FFRF's battle to maintain separation of church and state.

CHERYL KOLBE (Director) retired from Portland Community College in 2004 as Student Systems Support Manager where she was responsible for implementing the software for Enrollment Services. She is passionate about the mission of FFRF and in 2013 she started a local chapter in Portland, Oregon and continues as chapter President.  She is a volunteer naturalist for Nature Conservancy and takes advantage of frequent opportunities to usher for performances in Portland. In her free time, she is an avid hiker, cross-country skier, and kayaker. Her two daughters and two granddaughters are a constant source of pleasure.

SUE KOCHER is President and a founding member of Triangle Freethought Society in North Carolina. She works at a large software company by day, and she occupies her off-hours with passions which include: vegetable gardening, cooking, working as a professional dog trainer, and of course, activism. Sue believes that the separation of church and state is essential for a true democracy, and that the replacement of supernational beliefs with reason is essential for the survival of Homo sapiens. And for being worthy of that name.

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.

1ffrf honorary-board 2018

The FFRF Honorary Board includes a. Sean B. Carroll, b. Jerry Coyne, c. Richard Dawkins, d. Daniel C. Dennett, e. Ernie Harburg, f. Jennifer Michael Hecht, g. Susan Jacoby, h. Robin Morgan, i. Mike Newdow, j. Katha Pollitt, k. Steven Pinker, l. Ron Reagan, m. Robert Sapolsky, n. Edward Sorel and o. 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."
  • 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 

1honoraryboardmemoriam

  • 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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