Freethought Today · June/July 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

A Christian musician’s path to disbelief - Joseph Taylor

Joseph Taylor gave this speech (edited for print and space) at FFRF’s national convention Oct. 8 in Hartford, Conn.

I first got in touch with Dan Barker after I was browsing through the atheist books at Barnes and Noble. I saw this book Godless, which is quite a provocative title. I started reading it right there in the aisle and saw his involvement in Christian music. It even mentioned southern California. I said, “I’ve got to get in touch with this guy.” So I dashed off an email to him and he was kind enough to respond.

I teach the history of rock music at James Madison [University, Harrisonburg, Va.] We have 306 students every semester. This is the first time I’ve addressed a group that’s made up almost completely of unbelievers, and I’m tempted to say you’re all going to hell. On the other hand it makes me think of that bumper sticker, “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?” All right, well, let’s detail my own trip to hell.

I’m an artist. I’m not a scientist and I’m not a philosopher. This is an important distinction to make, an obvious one, but I was listening to the speakers last night, and many of the books that we all read, we depend on science and philosophy. We even depend to some degree on theologians to find out what the other side, if you want to call it that, is thinking.

Art on the other hand is a little bit different. We depend on the raw material from science and philosophy and hopefully bring some interpretive meaning to it. How does this impact my world? How am I to think about this? How can I put this into some kind of meaningful context? The arts bring meaning to that.

It’s also meaningful to point out that laws, but also facts, as critically important as both are, are often not enough to change our hearts. Absolutely essential, but can they change our hearts? If you look at the history of the civil rights movement, we had the desegregation laws, but it was when at concerts where black artists were playing and they had a rope down the middle of the audience — one side for the blacks, one side for the whites — and they started dancing and the rope came down, they started dancing with each other, which was absolutely scandalous.

That’s what it takes to change people’s hearts. Laws and facts are essential, but it’s the arts that really appeal to people’s hearts.

A believing brain

Let me start by referencing Dr. Shermer’s book, The Believing Brain. I always had a sense of God in my life from my earliest memories. It might have had something to do with the fact that my mother was an Italian Catholic whose mother was one of 19 children — between 16 and 19, we’re not sure, because they lost some in childbirth.

The youngest of those, Uncle Fred, had nine children himself. He was a devoutly Catholic, Italian guy in Philadelphia who made his family sit through one decade of the rosary every night before dinner. We were threatened, “If you don’t behave, you’re going to go to Uncle Fred’s for the weekend.” Holy shit, anything but that, please.

I remember a dream that I had when I couldn’t have been older than 5. I wrote and recorded a song about this: I was in the Vatican and I was dead, in a line of dead souls waiting to ascend a staircase to heaven. The pope was walking around and he could see us, but nobody else could, so the pope knew that we were there but nobody else did. What vivid imagery.

In first grade, a year later, a nun told us a story of a statue of the baby Jesus in the church coming to life and playing with two lonely children. This is the honest truth. I went to the church after school that day and knelt down in front of the altar because we had a statue of the baby Jesus in our church. I prayed that the statue would come to life and play with me. I was 6. Of course, we know the ending to that story.

I wanted God to be real. I used to watch “Bernadette of Lourdes,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” all these religious movies, and the music was so moving. They know how to do this to appeal to our deepest, most powerful places. I wished so hard I could have lived back then. I could have walked with Jesus, I could have seen him walk on the water, I could have seen him rise from the dead, or not. So from my oldest memories, I had a believing brain.

Of course we have to adjust at some point, we have to get over it, because it just doesn’t happen. In high school I left the church altogether. God was not present in my world; that’s just the way it was.

Three ‘Broken’ records

Shortly after I was invited to be in a band in high school, my uncle told me about this church in Costa Mesa, Calif., Calvary Chapel, that had Christian rock bands. Maybe I’d like to go and check them out? I went with him. It was a very large church that spearheaded much of the Jesus movement in the late ’60s or early ’70s. The young people were coming in barefoot or with sandals and jeans and shorts. They sang and were very much animated and energized by their faith.

I really wanted God to be real in my life, and boy, God sure seemed real to these people in their lives. So there I was, and I went forward at an altar call and immediately launched my mission from God.

The band that I was in [Undercover] started playing Christian music and writing our own songs. I didn’t grow up in the Protestant sociology that Dan came from; I was Catholic. We didn’t have a lot of the same restraints, but he’s absolutely right. The church and Christian rock was an oxymoron in some of those Protestant evangelical circles.

No sooner had they started to get used to someone coming in with long hair and an acoustic guitar rather than playing piano or an organ, and here we came with tattoos and mohawks and ripped jeans and boots and spikes and leathers and earrings and whatnot. I didn’t care what they thought. We were on a mission from God. We were playing nightclubs and college campuses and high schools and wanted to communicate through the music we knew what we thought we’d found.

We were approached by Maranatha Music because we had developed a little bit of a following. They asked us to record our first record. Maranatha was a parachurch organization. It was the record company owned by Calvary Chapel, the church that started a lot of the Jesus movement stuff, and as such they were famous for their “praise” albums.

Does anyone have those early praise albums? So you know what I’m talking about. It’s very mild, stuff to be played in church. Then they started a label called A&S for edgier music. A&S’ claim to fame is Sam Phillips. She’s a great artist, writes for television shows and was married to T-Bone Burnett, who has produced all kinds of movie music and records.

We built quite a following. There were a lot of bands that were spinoffs of what we were doing. We’re talking about rather extreme music, loud alternative music, punk rock, heavy metal. And the churches are going, well, what are we going to do with this? So Maranatha Music started yet another label called Broken Records and hired me to be a staff producer to mentor new groups.

This is from a promotional postcard: “Broken Records is an unprovoked attack on complacency. Broken Records is a clear, uncompromised call to the unsaved, unchurched and culturally disenfranchised within the body of Christ. Broken Records is radical restructuring of relationships between music and the church, between artists and audience, between business and labor. Broken Records is people over product, vision over vinyl. Broken Records is surrendered and dependent.” (Whoo. Love that one.) “Broken Records is armed and dangerous. Broken Records is a militant response to the trickle-down theory of evangelism.”

We released three records on that label. Our group’s logo was designed by Rick Griffin, a quintessential San Francisco artist who did Grateful Dead record covers, concerts for the Fillmore, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. This highlights our militant approach, “Onward, Christian Soldier.”

We did 250 dates a year all over North America and Europe, giving altar calls. The lights come down, the music comes up, you know the scriptures to say. It’s powerful stuff that you can use to bring people forward.

Christian branding

Reality often interferes with the best-laid plans. Lots of us go through divorce, 52% statistically. Of course, according to the Barnard group, atheists do better than the religious, so we’re probably less than 52%. So, congratulations.

But there I was then, a mentor surrounded by kids and oh, by the way, I’m going through a divorce now. It wasn’t just how do you deal with the divorce and the scandalous aspect of it, but the bigger question of why was my faith so powerless to do anything about teaching me what it was like to be married, to do anything about building the kind of character I needed to be a successful human being in a functioning world?

I had four beautiful kids, so that was my question, and as a result I wrote this album, “Branded.”

“Branded” had multiple meanings for me: Number one, I was branded in the sense that once you go through divorce in the Christian church, your star’s dimmed a little bit. But for me the imagery of the tattoo [of crosses on the album cover] was more important. Yes, I wanted to keep my faith; I was branding myself a Christian.

So we released this record where I documented the process of my divorce and what it was like to deal with the failure of my faith. I don’t mean to blame my faith, I assume full responsibility for myself, but really, the faith I was practicing, the things I believed in were completely powerless in any meaningful way in my life. We released the record, and it was powerful, 25 years ago this year. The record label did a rerelease. Right now there’s a list coming out where it’s in the top 50 Christian music records of all time.

In 1987 I bought Broken Records and changed the name to Brainstorm Artists. We produced well over 100 records, won all those awards. We shifted the focus because it was obvious to me that evangelicalism didn’t work. I was still holding on to my faith, but we shifted from a more militant view to a more art-based form of Christian music.

I held that label for a number of years and sold it eventually. I was tired of the hypocrisy. I saw other artists whose lives were ruined. Alcoholism, drug addiction, all kinds of messes, and I don’t mean to say that this is caused by religion, but I’ll tell you what I do believe, that it’s perpetuated because they stay in religion and there is no power there, there just is nothing. Of course you know this, I’m preaching to the choir, if there ever was such a concept.

We played scattered concerts, Chicago in 2000 and various others, but by and large I was becoming unraveled. I stayed in a period of believing in the fundamentals of Christianity. We were doing Christian music, playing the same songs, I could deliver a sermon. I don’t feel like I was hypocritical because I did believe the things that I was saying, but the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and I can’t promise anybody anything. There’s no there there, so I can’t promise you anything. All I can say is you need to believe in Jesus. Now here’s this song, you know.

Date an atheist?

In 2007 I took my job at James Madison University, and in 2008 I knew not a soul there. So I’m going to have confession here, excuse me. I signed up for a dating website just to meet people. I came into contact with a scientist and she was an atheist, the first atheist I’d met.

She said the first time we talked that she had Googled me: “I want you to know that if you’re going to try to convert me or if you think I’m going to hell, I’m not going to go out with you.”

It got me to thinking about what I believed. There’s a book by Rob Bell [founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.]. He’s trying to work his way through the idea that hell is still a possible coherent idea. It’s simply not, especially if you want to postulate the existence of an all-loving God. It’s ridiculous, and I knew that.

So I constructed my own idea of what hell must be like, Of course I couldn’t abandon the idea — there it is in scripture. But one day I woke up and said, “I just don’t believe any of it. It’s all bullshit. I’ve been making shit up my whole life.”

Keith Parsons, a wonderful philosopher, had this to say about two scholars arguing for the existence of hell: “To refuse to believe in hell is to measure God’s thoughts by ours.” You’ve all heard this argument. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and we don’t know the mind of God.

Parsons: “Allow me at once to plead guilty to measuring God’s thoughts by my own. As I see it. I have no other choice. If my intellect and my deepest moral convictions tell me that hell is a monstrous dogma unworthy of belief by decent human beings, then I can think of no greater sin than to accept such a doctrine. It is a sad but edifying spectacle to see how intelligent defenders of the indefensible tie themselves in ethical and conceptual knots.”

I had to wake up and say, “You know what? That’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve tied myself in knots trying to rationalize and justify things that cannot be rationalized or justified. So I said to the woman, “Yeah, we can go out.”

But we didn’t. We had a couple of nice chats and she told me that she thought I had a responsibility to come out and to announce this to my Christian audience. I disagreed. I said, “I couldn’t possibly care less. It’s been a number of years since I’ve been out of Christian music anyway, and my phone’s not exactly ringing off the hook with people who are overly concerned with the well-being of my eternal soul. So I’m just inclined to say screw the whole thing and let them, let’s just let the world get on with itself.”

Thinking things through

Once I acknowledged to myself that I was an unbeliever, I began reading everything I could get my hands on, all the Dawkins and Hitchens, Dennett and Sam Harris. I picked up Dan’s book Godless and just soaked it all in. But the problem was this, and I would submit to you that this is a fundamental problem, that I had no context for a life away from the idea of God.

So many hands went up when I asked how many of you are lifelong atheists. You get it. I sat at breakfast with someone this morning who said they’re second-generation atheist. You’re very lucky. Me, Italian Catholic, two first holy communions for crying out loud.

How do you think about reality? It wasn’t enough to offer me facts. It’s like, all right, how do I construct a worldview out of this?

Very shortly after, this book came out: God’s Not Dead (And Neither Are We). I have a chapter in the book [subtitled The story of Christian alternative rock’s pioneers then and now, as told by the artists themselves]. It was an interview done before I acknowledged that I didn’t believe any of it. I was asked to help promote the book on Facebook. I had not done Facebook, but I said OK. I had no idea what I was getting into.

Next thing I know I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people coming on board. I’m faced with a crisis. I’ve got to be honest with these people, or not. That was an easy choice to make. I was not willing to be untruthful about where I was, what I believed.

My fear was that I wouldn’t have all the right answers. If someone asked me a question about the beginning of the universe, the big bang theory. Remember, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a philosopher, I’m an artist.

What I didn’t know is that I don’t need the right answers; all I need is the right questions. I would submit to you that that’s one way to approach this. It’s not all about answers. It’s about questions, and so the conversation started, and it started in earnest.

‘Ojo Uncovered’

Down the Line magazine in July of 2010 is where I came out altogether, in “Ojo Uncovered.” [He was known as Joey “Ojo” Taylor.] They asked me directly — we’ve heard on Facebook what you’re saying about your beliefs. What are your beliefs? I laid it all out. What do you think about the Christian faith? And I laid it all out.

The reactions have been all over the place. I haven’t had any death threats yet, although some of my friends have warned me that I should get protection sometimes. That seems so extreme, yet I know there are people that do get these kind of threats, and I’m wary about them.

I’ve heard things like, “Oh you’re a fraud, you never were a believer, you never were sincere to begin with, you were probably just in Christian music for the money.” But there’s more interest in what I’m doing now than there was when I was Christian musician. Tons of questions.

What I hear more than anything is how tragic it is. I see blog posts titled “Ojo Taylor, one of our heroes, has fallen.” How saddened they are by it. “He’s lost his faith.”

No, I didn’t lose my faith; my faith died a thousand deaths. From the minute I walked down the altar, things didn’t make sense and it has died a thousand deaths over the years. I had no context for what it was like to live outside of that. I do now.

Many of you maybe are not involved actively with a lot of ultra-religious people, but I am regularly. Every single day, dozens of posts come to my blog, to my Facebook page.

Some are very kind and ask questions sincerely, intellectually curious, others not so much. I would submit that you have about as much chance of changing someone’s religion with debate and confrontation and argument as you do changing their political affiliation. Anyone have parents that sit in front of Fox News all day long? You know what I’m talking about. Maybe your parents sit in front of MSNBC and you roll your eyes, too, I don’t mean that to be a partisan statement, but we cannot change people’s minds just by argument. We’ve all got our arguments.

Life without faith

I’ve learned that people need a context for seeing a life without God. I think this is where the arts become critically important: The T-shirt that says “This is what an atheist looks like.” The billboards that are going up all over the country, “Good without god.” The billboards that Freedom From Religion Foundation are doing that many of you have submitted that, “Yes, I’m an atheist, here’s what I look like. I have a family, I have a job, responsible, taxpaying citizen. I don’t eat babies, I don’t have satanic sex orgies.”

It’s very difficult for anyone to abandon their faith without an idea of life without it. We can’t just argue, we can’t just throw facts around, we need more than that, as critically important as that is. In this way the arts can be extremely effective. We appeal to feelings and emotions, that’s true. It’s not always necessarily bad. If I pay $75 to go see someone in a concert and I’m not moved, I’m pissed off. I kind of want my money back. I want you to take me on a journey.

We depend on metaphor, irony, paradox, all these things, asking questions. Stay free, that’s my message to myself. I’m not interested in replacing one fundamentalism with another. Maybe some of you will disagree with what I have to say and maybe I’ll disagree with you. That’s the beauty about this. We don’t have any kind of doctrinal purity to subscribe to.

I hear this all the time: “Atheism is nothing but a religion.” Well, atheism is a religion like the “off” switch on a television is a channel. I don’t have a purity doctrine because there isn’t one. I don’t believe, and neither do you, OK? Some of us are Republicans and some of us are Democrats and some of us are libertarians and independents and whatever else.

When I wrote the article in Down the Line, I was inclined to let the religious be. Coexist, what a wonderful world that would be, we all just coexist. You don’t put your religion on me and I won’t put my disbelief on you, but it just doesn’t work that way, does it?

The other day I posted about coming here and boy, the vitriol from the Christians about the Freedom From Religion Foundation. One guy had done some Googling and found this article by Dennis Prager about an FFRF lawsuit against a nativity scene in front of a government building. Prager got his knickers in a twist and said the people at FFRF don’t know beauty. “They’re atheists, and atheists don’t know beauty.” That was my friend posting on my Facebook wall.

I asked what in the world was he talking about? He said the nativity scene is beautiful, what don’t you get?

I said look, take away the fuzzy sheep and the donkeys, you ass, and what are you left with? The cute baby Jesus. What’s beautiful about a god who is so offended by us acting the way he made us act — so offended that he needs human blood sacrifice of his son to mollify him? That’s beautiful?

Yes, the mythology might be strong, but, I’m sorry, it’s just not a beautiful statement to me at all. This is why religion is rarely harmless and why we need groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It’s important for us to support them and advocate on their behalf and get involved.

Love is the umbrella over all of humanity. Love is what unites us; to me that’s the pinnacle of the human experience. Religion would have it the other way around: doctrine is most important, and their version of doctrine is more important than anything.

So we must aggressively — again, I’m speaking to myself — counter any attempt by religion to co-opt or assimilate our own love or any of the other human experiences, the fullness of the human experience — because it doesn’t belong in the realm of religion. It’s the big umbrella under which religion unfortunately resides.

To quote the Beatles, “In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” For me it’s about music, freethought and “lovism,” that’s what it says on my blog.

Love, the highest calling that we have. For me, that is most deeply expressed in music. Thank you very much for listening today.

Joseph Taylor teaches the history of rock, artist management, songwriting, marketing of recorded music and entrepreneurship in the music industry at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. He blogs at

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.

Photo: Timothy Hughes

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

See Dan's Debates »
Contact Dan »

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 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.”

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

Contribute to Nonbelief Relief

FFRF privacy statement