The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the 2016 Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest winners.
The list of awardees has seven top places and 13 honorable mentions from colleges located all over the country. Students were asked to write 700 to 900 words on the topic of "Why I am a freethinker." FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and graduate students since 2010.
The winners of the competition are listed below and include the award amount, age and college or university they are attending. Students who are a member of a secular student group received $100 bonuses.
Adam Simmons, 19, University of Tennessee ($3,000)
Alex Reamy, 21, Arizona State University ($2,000)
Katherine Gramling, 19, University of Minnesota ($1,000)
Leah Kennedy, 22, New York University ($750)
FIFTH PLACE (Tie)
Karl Yee, 19, University of Maryland ($500)
FIFTH PLACE (Tie)
Elias Rodriguez, 22, University of Texas-Dallas ($500)
Adrick Tench, 21, Northwestern University ($400)
HONORABLE MENTIONS ($200 EACH)
Cheyenne Barger, 19, Gannon University
Savannah Flusche, 23, Texas Woman's University of Denton
William Gardner, 24, University of Delaware
Syd Gettier, 21, Notre Dame of Maryland University
James Harder, 23, Athabasca University
Camille Kaiser, 19, University of New Mexico
Jonathan Ortiz, 18, University of Florida
Fallon Rowe, 19, Utah State University
Aiden Sorge, 20, Arizona State University
Elizabeth Turovsky, 19, Barnard College
Manon von Mil, 24, Queen's University
Camille Sanchez, 19, Pomona College
Alexis Serra, 20, Drexel University
Next to be announced will be the winners of FFRF's graduate student essay competition.
The college contest is named for the late Michael Hakeem, a sociology professor who was an FFRF officer and active atheist known by generations of University of Wisconsin-Madison students for fine-tuning their reasoning abilities.
FFRF also thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing the $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $11,450 reflects bonuses.
FFRF congratulates the 20 college students who won this year's essay competition and wishes them all the best for their future endeavors.
The opening night of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's upcoming convention in Pittsburgh has a major revelation in store.
After years as a closeted atheist in the Bible Belt, a former conservative pastor will be coming out publicly on Friday, Oct. 7. "Adam Mann" (a pseudonym) is a co-founder of The Clergy Project, a group for current and former religious professionals without supernatural beliefs.
Adam was featured on ABC News in 2010, interviewed by Dan Harris, now host of "Nightline." An ABC TV producer will be present to record Adam's unveiling, who will for the first time be declaring his nonbelief in public and entering a new phase of his life as a former minister.
The FFRF Pittsburgh convention will begin on Friday evening with Linda LaScola, a co-founder of The Clergy Project, introduced by noted Tufts philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, another Clergy Project co-founder. (Dennett will again address the convention Saturday night in the keynote speech.) Shortly afterward, FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, a former minister and also a co-founder of The Clergy Project, will introduce Adam. The quartet will take questions for 15 minutes. At the evening's conclusion, following an award and speech featuring noted physicist and atheist Lawrence Krauss, Dennett and LaScola will sign copies of their book, "Caught in the Pulpit," with Adam on hand for the book signing, too.
"Adam was clandestinely moonlighting as an atheist for too long," says Barker. "We're pleased he's free at last."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including 700-plus in Pennsylvania.
LINKS TO CONVENTION SCHEDULE AND INFO:
FFRF awarded Adam $3,000.
By Adam Simmons
I remember staring at it. The moon lay shrouded behind a trail of clouds, which cast streaks across the grey stone as they passed. On either side, towers loomed over the face of the courtyard. I remember looking up at its broad, Gothic windows and fixing my attention on what appeared to be a single candle that flickered on one of the upper floors. It reminded me of my youth — the days where I would sit quietly in church, listening to the pastor deliver his sermon on the grace of God and crucifixion of his son.
I never liked church as a boy; I could never wrap my head around the concept of salvation. In truth, there was little to nothing I could wrap my head around. It all seemed so foreign and complex. God creating man, setting up the perfect scenario for him to sin, then condemning all of his progeny to eternal damnation, saving only those few whom he had predestined. Why punish them for something they had no control over? Better yet, why create a hell in the first place and why make it eternal? But as the mind of a child is vulnerable to the slightest impressions, I became the mold of my parents' desires.
I was sent to a Christian "school," where I was limited to Christian "science" and was forced to attend daily chapel services and take bible classes. Like a rat in a glorified Skinner box, I was taught what to say, what to do, and, most importantly, what to think. And when the evil demon of rationality came in to "test my faith," I was warned of the fire and brimstone that was to face me if I continued to question The Almighty.
So, with the threat of hell always at my side, I took it upon myself to understand the bible. Sure, my parents had me read through all 66 books of the Old and New Testaments by the time I was 9, but I had yet to learn of the philosophy. In consequence, I read everything from Aquinas to Kierkegaard, still driven by Pascal's Wager to elude my fate. Yet even this was not enough to convince me. The arguments were unsound, and the evidence was as solid as the communion wine.
A few weeks later, as the pastor began one of his polished sermons that I had heard at least 20 times before, I came to a realization. I recognized that even if I spent my whole life going to the seminary and the most prestigious divinity school in the United States trying to rationalize a belief in God, it would always be just that — a rationalization stemming from nothing more than a fear of hell. It would be a life founded upon confirmation bias and voluntary ignorance.
I realized that even if I "devoted my life to Him" and at the end of it all I still felt that I didn't actually believe — that the holy spirit had never entered me — then I would just end up in hell anyway. After relating these thoughts to my pastor, he told me that I simply had to wait for the Lord to reveal himself to me.
"So," I said, "all I have to do is wait until I am so desperate that I begin to tell myself that he has shown himself to me and eventually, through self-fulfilling prophecy, become so deranged that I actually come to believe it." I broke out in a loud laugh and continued. "And even if I could convince myself through years of self-abuse and conditioning, the faith would still be false and I would still be destined for hell." The laugh turned into a cathartic cry. I had finally disencumbered myself of religion.
The flame had grown a little dimmer now in the cathedral, and I wondered if it would ever die out. What has kept it alive for so long? After years of thought, we are no closer to proving the existence of God. All the arguments — cosmological, teleological, ontological, moral — merely derive God as a necessity from false premises and circular claims. Yet the flame burns on a brittle wick.
Adam, 19, was born in Nashville and attends the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He enjoys reading and writing poetry, short stories, aphorisms, novels and philosophical treatises.
FFRF awarded Alex $2,000.
By Alex Reamy
Religious believers like to pretend that atheism is the result of personal trauma orfrustration with God, but this was not the case with me. I have had heterodox opinions concerning religion for as long as I can remember.
When I was 7, I decided that Christ was most likely an ordinary rabbi and not a god in human form. My reasoning was as follows: "Jesus said he was the son of God, but he also said that we are all God's children. So, maybe Jesus was not the literal son of God; maybe he was just a mortal man." The next year, I discarded the doctrine of hell, since I could not believe in a just God who sentenced his creations to eternal damnation.
Gradually, my criticisms of religion became more refined. I observed that thousands of religions have existed throughout history, each with its own pantheon and set of moral teachings.
While studying history, I learned that the bible, which Christians consider a divinely inspired text, contained passages that condone slavery and the subjection of women. I wondered why a loving and all-powerful God would allow millions of innocent people to die of disease and natural disasters. If God created human beings knowing in advance that they would commit evil actions, is he not partly responsible for that evil?
In my junior year of high school, I examined all the common arguments for the existence of God, and saw that they all contain serious faults. Religious apologists claimed that only God could be responsible for the elegant design of the universe; but where, I thought, was the evidence for this design?
Most of the universe is indifferent, if not hostile, to human life.
Yet we are expected to believe that this vast cosmos was created for the sole purpose of fostering human life? If God exists, he must be extremely wasteful or indifferent.
There is also the First Cause argument, which states that everything in the universe has a cause, therefore there must be a first cause, which we label God. There are two objections to this line of reasoning.
First, particle physics has shown that "nothingness" is unstable, therefore it is plausible to imagine a universe in which "something" arose from nothing due to purely mechanical processes.
Second, the argument is obviously self-contradictory. You cannot start from the assumption that everything has a cause and obtain the result that there exists an uncaused cause (i.e., God). If it is true that everything has a cause, then God must also have a cause. If there is something without a cause, then there are no logical grounds for believing that this so-called "First Cause" is the vengeful, jealous God described in the bible. It is equally likely that the universe had multiple first causes, or that the universe was set in motion by some impersonal, natural force.The First Cause argument has several other fallacies, but these are the most blatant.
Casting aside my religious belief was not a slow or painful process, as it is for someatheists. I was raised in a secular household, so I was not punished for questioning the validity of a 2,000-year-old sacred text. If children were taught to value logic and skepticism rather than obedience and blind credulity, religion would quickly become obsolete. This is a goal we should strive toward, since dogmatic religious belief is one of the primary causes of hatred and suffering in the world.
In order to guarantee the survival of the human race in a postnuclear age, we must be willing to confront hard truths, instead of surrounding ourselves with comfortable lies. We must abandon ancient superstitions, and rely on our own intelligence in creating a more rational, humane world.
Alex, 20, lives in Hilton Head Island, S.C., but spends most of the year in Tempe, where he is studying mathematics at Arizona State University. He is a member of the ASU chapter of the Secular Student Alliance and enjoys reading classic literature and swimming with the local masters team.
FFRF awarded Katherine $1,000.
By Katherine Gramling
Growing up in the Deep South, I was expected to be an observing, unquestioning Christian. As a young freethinker, I was criticized for my nonbelief. This social norm of Christianity is a large reason I traveled north and went to college in Minnesota.
When my family moved to Georgia in 2006, we started attending church, which was something we had never regularly done before. I became very involved in the Methodist church, eventually attending multiple Christian youth groups a week, participating in a Christian club at my high school, and even working in the church nursery for two years. This intense exposure to the Christian faith was at first fulfilling, but as I grew older I started questioning the things I once accepted as truth. I began on a freethinking journey that would end in atheism, all the while finding more certainty and happiness along the way.
Since I had been very involved with the church in my younger years, I had ample exposure to modern Christian theory. As I got older, I started questioning several biblical themes that preached misogyny, genocide and slavery. I could not rationalize these atrocities. Christians are supposed to love and rejoice in the fellowship of all people, yet I often felt there was an undercurrent of distaste and misunderstanding toward nonbelievers. My feelings were greatly intensified as I started to identify less with the church and more with nonbelief.
There were several times throughout my high school experience when I felt ostracized for being a freethinker. At one point, I was completely excluded from my high school swim team for declining to pray with them before a meet. It was an extremely public display. Bleachers of parents and friends watched as one girl sat alone, apart from her team, while everyone else participated in a communal prayer that blurred the line between church and state. These exclusionary practices repel not only nonbelievers, but everyone who is not a Christian, and therein lies a huge problem with religion in general.
When I look at our world today, I see a world in which religious affiliation merely serves to divide our people and extend modes of power and historical conflicts. Because of this destructive legacy, it was important for me to find a moral compass that does not carry thousands of years of hurt. I found that moral code within myself. Many religious people ask us atheists how we can be moral humans without a religious canon to abide by. I always answer that it is quite simple: We are rational beings who are able to distinguish right from wrong. Even when there are infinite shades of grey in the moral spectra, each person learns through both nature and nurture how to act in society, regardless of religious affiliation.
Religious concern for morality culminates in another common question, this one regarding the afterlife. As an atheist, I don't believe in an afterlife. As a person of science, I know chemistry answers our questions on eventuality. Our very beings decompose to replenish the Earth in a natural cycle that allows humanity to sustain itself.
Yet many will ask how I operate without hope for an afterlife. I do not need the looming promise of an afterlife in paradise to be a good person. I do not need the threat of eternal damnation to act humanely. I also do not need either of these promises to ease my fears of death. When nothing is there, there is nothing to be afraid of, and that's a freeing feeling.
Despite the comfort I have found in atheism, atheists are labeled as one of the most distrusted minorities in America. As a happy freethinker, this is a sobering thought. Therefore, my goal is to enlighten others so that they may see that we are not immoral beings, but simply those who have found a moral compass outside the divisive reigns of religion.
Katherine, 19, grew up in Warner Robins, Ga., and is a student at the University of Minnesota. She is a member of Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH) at the U of M and enjoys walking, movies, swimming and science.
FFRF awarded Leah $750.
By Leah Kennedy
When I was in second grade, my teacher gave the class the following journal prompt: "If you had three wishes, what would you do?"
I wrote that I would use the wishes to ask for more wishes until I had as many wishes as there are people in the world. Then, I would wish for each individual person to be "saved," I stated.
In other words, as a 7-year-old, I wanted to make the entire world Christian. As I was in a conservative Christian school located in the South, my teacher wrote a note on the assignment about how sweet my thoughts were.
I was raised as a nondenominational evangelical Christian, and prior to the age of 16, I never would have imagined that one day I might question the beliefs that I had been taught. I considered my faith to be the foundation of everything I knew. It was my duty to bring nonbelievers to the light of Christ.
I'm embarrassed to admit that each atheist, agnostic and gay person I knew was put on a list that I read in my prayers every night. My intentions were never evil; I simply hated the idea of any person going to hell and wanted to prevent it through prayer.
Midway through high school, my perspective unexpectedly shifted. I was struggling with depression, and rather than finding me the help I needed, my mother insisted that it was a spiritual problem and told me I was influenced by demons.
My relationship with my parents began to crumble, and during a philosophy class, I found myself faced with alternate ways of thinking for the first time. As I began to think more critically, however, I realized that I did not know for certain that God existed. I struggled with my doubts for months, until finally, I began to call myself agnostic, first in private and then publicly.
At first, I thought this was a temporary "crisis of faith." I had realized that my beliefs came solely from indoctrination. Surely God was real, and by wiping my slate clean and entering the world with no beliefs, I was giving God a chance to reveal himself to me. I figured that God would send me a sign that would lead me back into the faith stronger than before. No signs ever appeared to me, however, and I have now been an atheist for six years.
In truth, I like myself better as an atheist than I ever did as a Christian. As a Christian, I constantly felt inadequate. I was raised to be humble, but this translated to denying any sense of self-esteem as pride. My straight-A report cards and artistic achievements were brushed aside as gifts from God rather than the result of my hard work.
In the specific brand of Christianity in which I was raised, there was a sense of impending doom that seemed to justify inaction. Although I felt passionate about many issues of social justice, I rarely took action because I thought that Jesus would soon return and end this "broken" world.
As an atheist, however, I have assumed the responsibility to fight for social justice.
In college, finally away from my family, I took on projects to fight human trafficking, labor rights violations, sexism and homophobia. I became empowered and passionate about empowering others.
Because I am all too familiar with evangelical mindsets, I do not try to convert those around me to atheism. I do, however, try to set a good example of what an atheist is by working with people of diverse beliefs in order to bring about social change.
I have met Christians who are empowered by their faith. I have also met atheists who do harm to the label through their rudeness to those who are religious. Although my experiences led me to atheism, I ultimately believe that a person's worldview, whether secular or religious, should empower them. That is my only wish.
Leah, 22, was born in Baton Rouge, La., and attended the University of Oklahoma, where she graduated as the Outstanding Senior of the Weitzenhoffer Family College of Fine Arts. She is now studying at NYU's prestigious Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. She is active in labor rights, LGBTQ+ advocacy, anti-human trafficking and women's rights.
FFRF awarded Karl $500.
By Karl Yee
I was raised by parents who, during my childhood, were trying to find their religious identity.
They were both born in China and exposed to some Buddhist teachings, although not enough for them to declare themselves Buddhists. Eventually, they immigrated to Maryland. Moving to America, a largely Christian nation, was a major culture shock for my parents; they did not expect religion to be so influential here. Given the ubiquity of Christian churches in America, it is no surprise that my parents began exploring Christianity.
As a child, I had no choice but to follow my parents' religious journey. At the height of their involvement with Christianity, I was enrolled in a Sunday school. My enrollment was short-lived, as my parents decided to turn back to Buddhism. While I did not understand the concept of religion, I knew that they made a change and chose one thing over another. I simply could not rationalize their decision; I could only follow in their footsteps. Despite choosing Buddhism, my parents did not become religiously active and only practiced quietly.
Parents are undeniably the major force behind spreading religion. Children rarely find religion on their own; their parents introduce them to religion. According to research by the National Study of Youth and Religion, 82 percent of children raised by highly religious parents were religiously active as young adults. In contrast, only 1 percent of teens raised by nonreligious parents were religiously active as young adults. Parents are authority figures, and children do not know any better but to listen and follow their parents uncritically. If my parents stayed with Christianity, I have little doubt that I would have become a Christian.
My confusion with religion continued to grow throughout middle school. My middle school was a melting pot of religions — there were Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Mormon students. Ironically, the exposure to many different religions is what caused me to question the entire institution. I could not help but to wonder why there were so many religions and different deities. Mormons believe in their worldview just as much as Catholics believe in theirs. What makes one religion more likely to be true or valid than the other? Is there evidence to support the claims theists make?
I asked my middle school friends why they believed in their religions, but their answers were unsatisfactory. The most common answer was a reference to a religious text, like the bible or the Quran. Children are taught to believe extraordinary claims — such as turning water into wine — without any concrete evidence, leaving them unable to justify their "beliefs."
The problem with teaching children religion is that they are taught what to think instead of how to think. Using a religious text as evidence is nonsensical because theists try to support claims made in a book with the same book, a prime example of circular reasoning.
Religious texts are not accepted as credible or authoritative because theists have yet to satisfy the burden of proof. For example, many of the stories in the bible are purely fantastical, and there is no credible evidence supporting supernatural events that happen in the bible. Some theists try to shift the burden of proof on atheists, but atheists, by definition, do not make any claims about the existence of deities. A common misconception and important distinction to make is that atheism is not the belief that deities do not exist, but rather the lack of belief in deities. Theists, conversely, claim the existence of a deity and are thus responsible for satisfying the burden of proof.
No religion is more valid than another, as no theist has provided the necessary evidence to substantiate his or her claims. Despite the lack of evidence, religion remains a powerful force throughout the world. Unfortunately, many children are born into their parents' religion and are taught that questioning their faith is a sin, creating an endless cycle of credulous believers.
The primary mechanism through which religion continues to survive is indoctrination. If religion were as infallible as some theists claim, there would be no need to involve children with religion while they are still impressionable.
Karl, 19, was born in Silver Spring, Md., and is attending the University of Maryland, College Park. His interests include solar energy, control systems and electrophysics.
FFRF awarded Elias $500.
By Elias Rodriguez
"All I know is that I know nothing." This phrase encompasses how I felt during my deconversion from Catholicism to atheism.
As an immigrant from Mexico, I did not have any choice in the religion that I would be brought up in, but I did have a choice about whether to continue believing in it. Although my deconversion happened slowly and over the course of a couple of years, there were three main stages to it: breaking away from the church; moving away from a theistic mindset; and embracing the agnostic-atheist position.
As a child in Mexico, I went to church every Sunday with my family. Church was such an integral part of my upbringing that I was actually allowed to deliver part of the sermons during Mass. It was around the age of 15, now living in the United States and working on my education toward Confirmation, that I began having a crisis of faith.
Until that point, I had been raised to believe that the church was a beacon of morality and that the pope, the central figure of the church, was infallible as God's spokesperson. As I learned more about history, I discovered many of the atrocities that had been committed by the church in the past, including the Inquisition and the imprisonment of Galileo. These facts, along with evidence of systematic cover-ups of pedophilia by priests, led me to abandon the church completely.
I became enamored with philosophy once I entered high school. It was during this time that I learned of many philosophical arguments that would help with my deconversion. The most notable was Pascal's Wager. Ironically, this argument is used by theists to highlight the supposed pitfalls of atheism. However, I did not see it that way.
Pascal's Wager states that it is better to hedge your bets and pray to God because if he does exist, then you won't go to hell. This argument helped push me toward atheism for two reasons. First, this wager states subtly that God is more concerned about how much praise is given to him rather than the good deeds performed by people. Second, it commits the fallacy of assuming the Judeo-Christian god is the only possible god to exist, but does not take into account that this very argument could be used for a myriad of other deities.
My final step toward deconversion came when I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I had always had a deep love for science, but it was after reading this book that I understood just how useful and powerful science and the scientific method could be.
Removing feelings and biases and relying on testable evidence was the best way to find the truth. I also learned more about genetics and evolution and I realized just how imperfectly beautiful the world around me was. I realized that the evidence used to support God failed to pass scientific scrutiny. I believe strong evidence is required whenever a falsifiable claim is made. Whenever someone asks me why I became an atheist, I always feel compelled to quote Christopher Hitchens in order to answer them. "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." Faith is subjective, scientific evidence is not.
My road to deconversion was long and mentally arduous, but I would not trade this experience for anything in the world. I have learned more in the past couple of years than I could have ever thought possible. However, all I know is that I know nothing. My experiences as a nonbeliever have led me to look at my life and the world in a completely different manner. I feel empowered knowing that I was able to reach this decision by asking questions and by challenging my belief system. I feel humbled knowing that there is still so much left to learn about the world and that I have the rest of my life to learn as much as I can.
Elias, 22, lives in Frisco, Texas, and attends the University of Texas at Dallas. He enjoys playing the guitar, running long distance races, and researching philosophical and scientific concepts.
FFRF awarded Adrick $400.
By Adrick Tench
My deconversion from religion was gradual, creeping in like that process by which a man looks into the mirror one day with the sad realization that he has left his youth behind him, though he knows not when.
In my case, the realization was indeed a sad and painful one. Believing that the creator of the universe is just and merciful, that he loves you, that your death will not be the end but that you will live happily again with those you love in a world free of pain, is no small thing to part with.
While I cannot remember when precisely I lost my faith, I can at least remember the answer I gave to one of my friends who was curious how I had gone from being so devoted to Christianity to being so completely separated from it. "Well, I had my doubts," I said, "and I suppose when you have doubts, you can either stifle them, or follow them wherever they lead you. And I followed mine."
Follow them I did. From the writings of the "Four Horsemen" (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens), the countless debates and videos to be found on YouTube, and the online rants of "militant atheists," I flooded myself with the thoughts and arguments of freethinkers. It became remarkable how little water the arguments of Christian apologetics held in comparison.
I doubt now that if I had not been predisposed by my parents' teachings to believe in the words of the bible that I ever should have taken them seriously. To my mind, the most important argument for atheism is simply the lack of a good argument for theism. What is difficult for many believers is simply realizing that the burden of proof lies with them, and they have none.
What would impress me most would be to find believers who were dragged kicking and screaming into belief in the same way so many of us are dragged into unbelief. There could be no surer test that they had tried their hardest to disprove their religion, but were in the end still taken in by the force of its arguments and its evidence.
Where might I find such a person? Surely only among the ranks of freethinkers.
I have come to look back on religion as a slave looks back on a set of manacles. What was at one time so uplifting became, with time and reflection, horrid.
For every beautiful thought that religion gives to the readily faithful mind of a child, it must first give far more untruth, far more aversion to the true freedom of the mind, and, in all too many cases, far more fundamental misanthropy. Some people are told that their judgments are inadequate, that they must not doubt, and therefore they esteem blind faith as a virtue; others are told that they are wretched and much in need of saving, and therefore they esteem God's mercy.
If, in weaker moments, I still look back longingly on the false comfort provided by the assurance of an afterlife, or of a final justice that would right the wrongs of this world, I would do well to remember the biblical words attributed to Paul: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." — 1 Corinthians 13:11.
Adrick, 21, was born and raised in Louisville, Ky., and attends Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He enjoys philosophy, music and tabletop RPGs (role-playing games).
By Cheyenne Barger
When I was a child, raised in conservative rural Pennsylvania, my mother taught me the basics of Wicca. I was raised to be attuned to nature, celebrating holidays based upon the turn of the seasons and believing in two gods. These beliefs did not sit well with my predominantly Christian classmates, and, in second grade, my best friend told me that she would never speak to me again because I wasn't Christian. This was my first negative experience with religion, and was the first event marking my progression to atheism.
As I got older and learned more about how scientists believe life as we know it came to be, my belief in gods and infallible creation diminished. By ninth grade, I had completely abandoned any belief in gods. However, I rarely spoke of my nonbelief, fearing more reactions like the one I received in second grade.
Despite being an atheist, I decided to attend a private Catholic university, determining that the opportunities it could give me as a biology major overrode my trepidation about being in a religious environment. Interestingly enough, while at this university, my atheism flourished. I was surrounded by people who seemed genuinely interested in my nonbelief. I had many intellectually stimulating conversations with my Catholic classmates, my resident ministers, and other religious people about how my views differed from theirs, and how they were at times quite similar. In one of my classes, we discussed "new atheism," and I was introduced to the ideas of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. These conversations and my research into these famous atheists helped develop my convictions, and I feel they have made me a better atheist.
Cheyenne, 19, is from Parker, Pa., and attends Gannon University, where she is a member of the Secular Student Alliance. She enjoys writing short stories, playing fantasy video games, and restoring furniture.
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
FFRF President emerita
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
- 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!”
- 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.”