Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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An ad recorded by Ron Reagan inviting viewers to join the Freedom From Religion Foundation is airing for the first time on the nation's most prominent news commentary shows.

"Morning Joe" and the "Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC are running the ad through March 12. The 30-second spot is also returning to CNN during the same time period.

In the ad, Reagan, the progressive son of President Ronald and Nancy Reagan, says:

Hi, I'm Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I'm alarmed by the intrusion of religion into our secular government. That's why I'm asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation's largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.

This week, the commercial is scheduled to air tonight, Feb, 27, for the first time on the "Rachel Maddow Show" at 9:12 p.m. Eastern Time and on Wednesday, March 1, at 9:30 p.m. The ad will run a total of four times. MSNBC had previously refused to run this commercial. It aired for the first time on "Morning Joe" this morning and will be telecast a total of six times on that show between Feb. 27 and March 17. See this week's MSNBC schedule.

FFRF has also placed the ads on CNN, where it will run a total of 16 times on "CNN Newsroom," "The Lead with Jake Tapper" and "The Situation Room" between Feb. 27 and March 12. See line-up for this week

The ad had previously been refused by CBS, NBC, ABC and Discovery Science, although it had aired on some regional network markets, as well as CNN and Comedy Central. However, a previous FFRF ad featuring John F. Kennedy has run on MSNBC, CBS and other networks.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), with more than 27,000 members. It works as a state/church separation watchdog.

FFRF advertising is made possible by kind contributions from members. Donations to FFRF are deductible for income-tax purposes.


1DanCoatesThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Senate to intensely scrutinize President Trump's nominee to direct U.S. intelligence agencies.

FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor have written a letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Energy and Natural Resources about Dan Coats, Trump's choice to be director of national intelligence. They are requesting Sen. Richard Burr, the chair of the committee, and fellow committee members to ask Coats a number of pointed questions during his confirmation hearing on Feb. 28.

Throughout Coats' career, his religion has played an important role. He helped author Don't Ask, Don't Tell, has opposed gay marriage, and has vowed to "defend the sanctity of life from the moment of conception" — all because of his religious beliefs.

"If there were a conflict between the law and your religion, can you commit to upholding the law?" Barker and Gaylor urge Burr to ask Coats.

And another question for Coats naturally arises from his strong Christian views: "The U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office in Article 6. Would you honor that aspect of the Constitution in all your staffing choices, including the possibility of hiring nonbelievers or LGBTQ people?"

Coats has argued that taxpayer funding, resources, and authority should be transferred to religious institutions. He claims this approach stems from "the experience of seeing how religious charities not only feed the body but touch the soul."

"Do you believe that governments should be funneling resources to religious institutions for religious goals, such as 'touching the soul'?" Coats should be asked.

When Coats was the U.S. ambassador to Germany in 2004, he used that position to stop funds for a speaking engagement for the author and professor Jeff Sharlet (with the U.S. Embassy as a sponsor) at the University of Potsdam. Coats reportedly declared Sharlet "an enemy of Jesus" and cancelled the event because of Sharlet's reporting on Coats' involvement with The Family (also known as The Fellowship), a secretive organization of Christian fundamentalists that wield political influence and also sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast.

"Do you believe it is appropriate to use a government office to mistreat those who do not share your religious beliefs?" Coats should be sharply questioned on his abuse of public authority.

FFRF is appealing to Burr and other members of the Select Committee on Intelligence Energy and Natural Resources to keep these questions in mind during Coats' confirmation hearing, currently scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 28. Coats' answers could determine his fitness for becoming the top intelligence official in the United States.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nonprofit organization representing more than 27,000 members across the nation, including members in every state. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between religion and government, and to educate the public about nontheism.



I know most of you already know and admire Dan Dennett. But after listening to his bio that I'm going to read, you'll understand why I was so impressed to be collaborating with him. Now, Professor Daniel Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He's an honorary FFRF director. He received FFRF's Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2005. He received the Erasmus Prize in 2012 in Amsterdam. It's the highest award that's given in the Netherlands. And he received the American Humanist of the Year Award in 2004. Now he'll be signing copies of "Breaking the Spell: Religious as a natural phenomenon." Other books include "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", "Consciousness Explained" and the soon to be released "From Bacteria to Bache and Back: The evolution of mind." He received two Guggenheim fellowships, a Fulbright fellowship, a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies and Behavioral Science. As you've already heard, he's co-founded the Clergy Project and he and I co-authored "Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind." And when I meet people who know that we've worked together, they look at me with wonderment and they ask what it's like to work with Dan Dennett. I say it's wonderful. Many people have seen him on YouTube or read some of his books or essays and they get a correct sense that he's not only brilliant, but he's warm and folksy. Not only intellectual, but he has a great sense of humor and is decent and kind. His talk tonight is titled "Has the Damn Broken? Omen and worries." It's a great pleasure to introduce to you my colleague Daniel Dennett.


Well thank you all for being here. So I thought I would start by sharing something that many of you have probably seen or heard about, and it's relevance will be clear as I go on.

Shows a 1957 film clip on Panorama.

That was 1957 on Panorama, which was sort of like 60 Minutes. And Richard Dimbleby was that most august figure of the BBC. The man, the voice who quietly and respectfully intoned all the details of the coronation and other great state events. So he was a man of tremendous credibility, and yet he dared to put on this April Fool's joke which was so successful that the next day travel agents in the U.K. were inundated with requests from people who wanted to fly off to the spaghetti harvest while it was still going on. So that was 60 years ago.
Ten years ago a number of us — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and I — all got into the act by writing books that later became called the books of the Four Horsemen. And we were all responding to the same thing, what you might call the theocratic rumble that we heard in this land. And I wonder if you remember how scary that was. I remember when Breaking the Spell came out. There were presumably smart, knowledgeable, savvy people in New York and the West Coast and elsewhere who advised me that I was going to have to get an unlisted phone number, have bodyguards, wear a bulletproof vest. And I didn't know they were wrong, but they were.
The rising theocratic surge was much more of a paper tiger than we realized. But that's the way it felt back then; the outrageous arrogance and affrontery with which they proceeded. What they did is they overplayed their hand. If they had just been a little bit more modest and calm, I would probably not have dropped everything and decided I had to do something about it and would have stayed with my other projects to which I am now pretty much returning. The reason I mention this is I want to make sure that we don't make the same mistake. There's a lot of good news and we've heard from various people, I won't spend much time on this because we've already heard a lot of the good news from the Public Religion Research Institute.

Tries to display a graph

This is a graph that shows the rising percentage of the unaligned, which has gone up from about 5 percent to about 30 percent in recent years. And another chart, which is in some ways even more heartening, which shows the age distribution. How many young people say that they are entirely unaffiliated and the percentages of young people going up and up and up? So that's good news and the FFRF has had a big role to play in fostering those developments. But freedom from religion is not the only freedom in need of defense today.

A question that has been occupying me of late is if we should we have a daughter foundation — the FFFF. The Freedom From Fascism Foundation. I think we have to take seriously the idea that it's not just religion. We shouldn't think that all of the problems are to be laid at the door of various religions.

There are plenty of non-religious fascists out there as well, and their power is growing. The Religious Right is fragmenting, in any case. It's losing market share and it's morphing into some new configurations.

An example, in June, quoting from Pew, fully 78 percent of white evangelical voters say they would vote for Trump, including about a third who strongly backed his campaign. That was in June. I read that a group of nearly 80 evangelical leaders published a letter condemning Trump. But will their congregations listen to them, and if they do, will they believe what they hear? Well, that was Thursday, I think maybe today they will believe what they hear.

What I want to talk about tonight is a longer-range worry and a few reflections on the circumstances that produce it. A philosopher whom I much admire and have been friends with for 40 years is Philip Kitcher. He's at Columbia and a book has just been published called The Philosophy of Philip Kitcher. It's a bunch of essays about his work with responses from him. And I have a piece in it called "What to Do While Religions Evolve Before Our Very Eyes."

Phillip is what Jerry Coyne would call a "faitheist." "I'm an atheist, but . . ." He is an atheist, but he has more than a soft spot for religion and wants to argue for preserving it, fostering it, helping it through difficult times. He claims to be on the same page as me and you. We all want to see religion evaporate, if not in our lifetimes, then in the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren. He is quite clear that that is his goal, too, and he's a good atheist, but he's very concerned with how we get there.

I share his concern, and I have to say I think there is a case to be made for his side of it. It's like the question of how do you pull off a Band-Aid? He's very, very gently and slowly, and gently and slowly, and gently and slowly. And I say, rip it off. Get it done and then we can go on with our lives. And I don't think it's obvious what the right answer is, but I do say he hasn't convinced me.

What he introduces is the distinction between what he calls the belief model and the orientation model of religion. The belief model is the traditional model, where your beliefs are the core of your religion. The orientation model says, "no, it's the community, the alliance, the loyalty, the ritual traditions that should be the core belief's creed." That's a negligible or ignorable or adjustable part of religion. And, as you can imagine, he wants to recommend to us all the orientation model, because he thinks the belief model is simply indefensible, because he's a good atheist. If you take it literally it's nonsense.

Well, the orientation model, he says, presents us all with a spectrum of possible views, which he has some curious names for. It goes from the mythically self-conscious, through doctrinal indefiniteness to doctrinal entanglement. What does that mean? The mythically self-conscious; these are people who say it's myth, it's metaphor. It's just myth. They are self-conscious about the fact that they are putting their allegiance behind the myth. This is not unlike such organizations as the Baker Street Irregulars who don't quite worship Sherlock Holmes, but pride themselves in knowing the details of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and they have meetings and scholarly papers and they celebrate Sherlock Holmes. Though they know he's not a real character, they know he is a fictional character, but they just they just love him as a fictional character. And if there was a Perry Mason group, or something like that, to stand in opposition to them, they would shun the Perry Masonites as they continue.

But this is all mythic, self-consciously myth loving. Doctrinal indefiniteness is that convenient fog that settles in over creeds and permits one to respond to questions with mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble. Which leads, if pressed, to doctrinal entanglement where one, in response to probing or just one's own curiosity, venturers some faint or growing entanglement with the doctrines of the belief model. Philip is a very astute presenter of this panoply of options. But he does have a problem. He really can't talk about it in public. That is, he can write a book about it, but it's not the sort of thing that you can talk about in the sort of wider public because you can't speak candidly because of the poisonous effects it might have.

You can't go into the church and say, "All right congregation, what shall we vote for? Shall we be doctrinally indefinite, or are we in for some mythic self-consciousness, or maybe even a little entanglement?" The very self-consciousness of the very reflection on these options is something which has to be kept backstage. You can't be candid about it.

And that, I submit, puts him in a very awkward position, and it really sort of puts us all in an awkward position. In fact, you can talk about it. That's what I'm doing right now. But this deflects us from what matters — truth. The very idea of insisting on telling the truth and expecting others to tell the truth is put in jeopardy by the normalization of policies of the sort that Kitchener is recommending.

And, by the way, PRRI found that the most common reason people gave for their lack of religious affiliation was the disbelief in religion's teachings. So that if the religion manages to fuzz over the boundaries of its doctrines sufficiently, this may keep people from leaving the church, which will actually delay further the end result that Kitcher himself says he wants, which is the gradual evaporation of religion. This is prolonging a moribund tradition by creative obfuscation instead of insisting on telling the truth.

I want to draw attention to a wonderful remark that was made yesterday [at FFRF's convention] by Carter Warden. He said, "I didn't lose my faith, I chose to discard it."
We should take that distinction very seriously and recognize that if we are going to give people the opportunity to make the informed choice that Carter made, we should resist importunings that we go along with doctrinal indefiniteness and other foggy obfuscations of that sort.

Now, how does this come about?

I think what we're facing today is a sort of credibility vacuum and people are losing track of the importance of, to put it bluntly, meaning what you say. Now, this is not a new problem. It's actually very old. I want to discuss what several other philosophers have had to say about this.

And I'm going to start with my favorite philosopher of all, David Hume. My colleague Dennis Rasmussen, in a forthcoming book, The Infidel and the Professor, the friendship and philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith tells the following tale:

In 1764, a friend asked Hume for advice about the case of a young clergyman whose religious beliefs were wavering and who was deliberating about whether to give up his orders. Hume counseled him not to, given that reliable occupations were so difficult to come by for a man of letters. As for the young man's scruples, Hume acidly responded, "It is putting too great a respect on the vulgar and on their superstitions to pique one's self on sincerity with regard to them. Did ever one make it a point of honor to speak truth to children or mad men?" And he goes on, "I wish you were in my power to be a hypocrite in this particular. The common duties of society usually require it, and thus the ecclesiastical profession only adds a little more to an innocent dissimulation or, rather, simulation without which it is impossible to pass through the world."

As usual, Hume is a master writer. But I think Hume was dissimulating here. This was not in a published paper. This was in a letter to a friend to pass on to this poor young man who had taken holy orders. And I think that Hume didn't mean it. And I think what he was doing was creating a useful crutch — exaggerating the triviality of saying a few words so that the young man could not only continue with his post, but do so with a relatively clear conscience. I think Hume, I'd like to think, was in fact a very generous-minded and sensitive man, and I like to think that he felt for the young man and contrived a way of giving him a counter illusion to salve his conscience as he continued espousing the illusion that he was being paid for.

So that's Hume dissimulating. Richard Dawkins in his recent second volume of his autobiography tells a story about New College, the college where he has been a fellow for many years. It's a very ecclesiastical place. It has a fabulous chapel. It has a world famous choir and many very distinguished academics. It is one of the jewels of Oxford. In the book, Dawkins tells about one of his duties when he was sub-warden, and that was saying grace at some meals. What should he do?

There were people who objected, said it was hypocritical of him to do this. And he said he didn't think it hypocritical. He thought he could do it. So where today should we draw the line between, as he puts it, a matter of simple courtesy like removing your shoes when entering a Hindu or Buddhist temple, and capitulation into hypocrisy.

So I want to do a little experiment. He, in his book, quotes his colleague A.J. Ayer, the philosopher who was also the professor of logic in New College. And Ayer, the famous atheist and logical positivist, his defense for saying grace was, "I will not utter falsehoods, but have no objections to making meaningless statements."

I think Ayer was dissimulating here, too. Especially if you know any philosophy and if you've ever read Language, Truth, and Logic by Ayer, you know he had lots of objections to uttering meaningless statements. That's the whole point of the book.

Much more honest to utter falsehoods that might be corrected than to utter meaningless statements. But it passed for a while and got him over the embarrassment of saying grace.

So what was the New College grace? Very simple. Benedictus benedicat. How many of you, just in the spirit of going along, will now repeat after me, "Benedictus benedicat"? How many of you refuse to do that? I thought there might be a little bit of a refusal. You say that at the beginning of the meal and then at the end of the meal — "Benedicto benedicatur." Benedicto benedicatur. Now let's translate those into English and see if you really want to say them. Maybe you do. "May the blessed one bless us, may the blessed one bless us." Are you happy with that? Anybody? Let us bless the blessed one.

That's interesting, isn't it? Well, now you'll say in Latin, but you won't say it in English. Isn't that sort of fetishistic response? I mean, are you superstitious or something? Of course, now you know what it means in English, you're less likely to say it. But just to show you that this is on a sliding scale, I want to try one more and see how many of you will go along with this.

Are you ready? Allahu Akbar. Really? Really. It's not just "Allah is great," but "Allah is greater." Greater than your government, greater than your god. Greater. Are you comfortable saying Allahu Akbar? No. Neither, by the way, is Richard. I asked him and he said he would not say it. He would say "Benedict benedicatur" but he would not say "Allahu Akbar," because of his view of the difference between Islam and at least the kind of Christianity exemplified by the Church of England in New College, which is of course about as vitiated and watered down religion as you could possibly have. The Church of England or, as the joke goes, somebody says, "Are you religious?" "No we're C of E."

I want to talk about the problem that they raise. The problem with formula of this sort and our reluctance to saying them. I submit that our reluctance to saying them is not because we had any superstitious ideas about blasphemy, or anything like that. It's that once they've become sacred to some group of people, we know that saying them without meaning them is going to be offensive to some people or seem to give support.

And so the formula itself becomes an object of attention that people can become very exercised over and even fight over and even, in the end, kill over. And I want to know how this happens. And first of all, let me say, I don't know. But I have an idea and I'm going to run it by you. I don't know if many of you are familiar with this. Stephen Jay Gould's book Wonderful Life. This book is about the Cambrian Explosion, the incredible blossoming of new life forms about 350 million years ago. My favorite tree of life. This is the present, out around here. This is the beginning of life, and life continues on for about a billion years plus more than that. Two billion years really. Until suddenly we have the famous eukaryotic revolution.

And suddenly, by evolutionary standards, over a few million years, we had this tremendous outpouring of novel forms unlike anything we see today. There's a lot of wonderful artist drawings of the amazing different life forms that flourished for a few million years in response to this explosion that happened. Not for nothing is one of these critters called hallucigenia. What triggered the Cambrian explosion? Nobody knows. There are different theories. One that I want to introduce to you, if you haven't heard about it before, was developed by the Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker and presented in his 2003 book In the Blink of an Eye. He argues that the main trigger of all of this tremendous creative design, evolutionary design work, that happened, was in response to the shallow ocean becoming chemically, for various reasons, more transparent. Light could get through. And whereas there hadn't been any eyesight, eyes evolved very quickly. And as soon as they evolved this set off an incredible arms race of invention and counter-invention. New methods of locomotion, methods of hiding and seeking, predator-prey interactions, camouflage, evasive behavior.

And the driving force of all of this was the sudden transparency of the medium in which life then existed, permitting long distance perception and making locomotion a much more potent tool. Before that, you had very little chance of seeing into the future because your sense organs pretty much simply told you what was happening at your surface and you sort of groped around in the mud.

Parker's theory is not known to be right or wrong. He's had to adjust it to respond to some objections. I'm not saying we should accept it, but I am saying let's use it as a hypothesis on which we can model another hypothesis, which might be right even if Parker isn't.

If the Cambrian explosion was triggered by the old transparency, we are now inaugurating the era of the new transparency. It's not just the internet; it's cell phones and television. It's what's happened in the last 50 years. And the hypothesis is that it's going to be even more tumultuous and at a much faster pace than the chaotic scramble to avoid extinction that faced all life forms when the Cambrian explosion happened.

I got together with the computer scientist Deb Roy. He has a wonderful TED talk about the language project he did with his son. And he and I, together in Scientific American in March of 2015, published a piece called "Our Transparent Future. No secret is safe in the digital age. The implications for our future are downright Darwinian." That is not our title, that's Scientific American's title.

At any rate, this new transparency. So the idea is that the great change in our world, triggered by the media inundation, can be summed up in a single word: transparency. We all can see farther, faster, cheaper, easier than ever before, and we can be seen. And this makes a tremendous difference.

The epistemological murk of pre-scientific civilization is being replaced by transparency. All the institutions that have developed in civilizations — not just churches, but governments, armies, banks, industries, clubs, families, corporations, all human groups with projects — up until now have evolved in a relatively epistemologically murky environment. It's been easy to keep secrets. And suddenly it's very hard to keep secrets. We seem to be living in a post-secret age.

Now some people think this is wonderful. And politicians love to talk about transparency. Barack Obama pledged a more transparent presidency, but we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that that's a good thing. And, in fact, as anybody who's knows any game theory will tell you, you absolutely do not want to reveal your plans if you are in any sort of a competitive situation. You have to keep your own plans and intentions secret. You cannot be an effective agent unless you have a non-transparent boundary within which you can conduct your planning and your moves in the world.

This transparency that's coming is in many regards a good thing, and I don't want to say it isn't. It's a very good thing. I like to quote AJ Johnson, who said, "The internet is the best thing to happen to atheism since Darwin." Why? Because atheists, African-American or otherwise, know that we are not alone. Which nicely brings up the mutual knowledge aspect. It's very important that, not just that I know you're an atheist and you know I'm an atheist, but I know that you know that I'm an atheist, and you know that I know that I'm an atheist, and so forth.

And this mutual knowledge is actually very important and it is made possible by the new transparency. And it gives us a sort of recursive hall of mirrors.

Here's an example: In 1975, let's say, there were many thousands of people who knew of a priest who had sexually abused a child. But almost no one knew that. Today, hundreds of millions of people know that hundreds of millions of people know that thousands of priests have sexually abused children. It's that mutual knowledge. The fact that people not only know it, but they know that others know it, and those others know that others know it.

And this changes the whole world of those agents in that setting. This is why the Catholic Church is now having a very hard time recruiting priests. Young men have to add to their concerns the likelihood that a lot of people are going to view them with suspicion if they enter the priesthood simply, because of the common mutual knowledge of all of that abuse.

The archbishop of Minnesota, this is a headline in The Boston Globe of a couple of years ago where he denies touching a minor. I want you to look closely at the statement that he gave to the press. "Dean said he normally stands for these photos with one hand on his staff and the other hand either on the right shoulder of the newly confirmed person or on a stall that hangs from his chest. 'I do that deliberately and there are hundreds of photographs to verify that fact,' he wrote."

Can you imagine a priest writing that sentence for public consumption 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago? No. And the mere fact that he protests in this way shows how profoundly the church has been affected by the transparency that it is now engulfed in.

In the Cambrian explosion, most of the exotic forms went extinct. Of course they didn't all. Every non-plant and non-fungus that's alive today is really descended from the creatures that were alive then. But they didn't all go extinct.

So which organizations will go extinct? Ah, the mutual knowledge changes the epistemological environment in which all organizations must survive. Here's an arresting fact: In Ireland, a generation ago, there were three priests for every parish. Today, there are three parishes for every priest. That's about a 10-fold decline. And most of the priests are old.

Now, we may applaud the transparency and think that all the institutions that have thrived in the darkness, and because of the darkness, will go extinct. Good riddance to them. But it may be a bad thing. When we move from epistemology murkiness into transparency, where there are no trusted authorities, there's no pope, there's no king, there's also no Walter Cronkite and no Richard Dimbleby.

The reason I showed that wonderful joke of his, that prank, is to suggest that, who could do that today? I don't think there's anybody that could do that. A lot of people could carry it off, but it wouldn't have the impact. And it wouldn't have the impact because nobody, nobody, has the credibility, the authority, to be accepted by most everybody.

Mutual knowledge does not endow anybody on the planet with that sort of reliability today. And what we have moreover is this sort of reputation arms race. What organizations and individuals are beginning to realize is it doesn't matter how good a job you do, if somebody else decides to destroy your reputation or credibility, all your good fact-gathering and evidence-gathering may go for naught.

As usual in arms races, offense is cheaper to design and develop than defense. And, to my knowledge, nobody has yet developed a defense against malicious reputation challenges. And that's a very frightening prospect. Notice that science as a whole is probably our best, strongest candidate. That's, to me, echoing what Jerry Coyne had to say earlier.

One of the best reasons to get behind science, and to announce our support. But don't go overboard. Don't make the mistake of worshipping science, but respect science for what it does respectably. And, to those who are critical of science, I love to point out to them, particularly when they describe to me one scientific misdemeanor or another somebody who's faked some data and been caught. I said right, and who discovered that? Who proved that this was fraudulent? The self-policing of science is what's done it, and that religion has nothing like it.

But there's also a touchiness arms race. We heard earlier today from Bonya about the blasphemy laws in Bangladesh, the crime of hurting religious feelings. And now we're seeing that many people are discovering in this arms race the utility as an offensive or defensive tool of a heightened sensitivity, a heightened religious feelings sensitivity which then scares off many people who otherwise would be critical. It's this that makes it difficult to find the balance we need when talking about the issues that we've been talking about happily amongst ourselves here at this wonderful convention.
There is, moreover, finally a sort of meta-meta-meta arms race. Doug Hofstadter once said to me "Anything you can do I can do meta." This is sort of the philosopher's theme. Going meta is to talk about the talk about the talk about something. And you will have noticed how so much of the coverage, for instance, of this election is meta, and meta-meta. Instead of talking about the issues, they're talking about the strategies, the counter-strategies, the effectiveness of the strategies, the effectiveness of possible counter-strategies, the probability that this strategy will work, and the hour goes by and nobody said anything about the actual issues. It's all just a game of strategy.

Maybe that's not so bad, maybe it's actually good. But it might be bad. It might distract us from truth-telling. That's what worries me the most. So what do we do? I think we've heard from several people what to do. We should do good under the banners of secularism. Not just say we're good, but show it. Show, don't just tell. Like the members of FFRF are doing in so many ways and I want to encourage you to do it again, and more. Thanks for your attention.

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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

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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.

SETH WRINKLE graduated with a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Oregon in 2010. Seth volunteered with FFRF as a legal intern in 2015 and 2016 and became the Foundation’s newest legal clerk after receiving his Juris Doctor from Lewis & Clark Law in July 2016.

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.

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, assistant webmaster & communications coordianator. She was born in Wausau, Wis. 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.

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, is 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, describes himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”

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