Building on FFRF’s firm foundation

Since the Freedom From Religion Foundation was founded in 1978 in Madison, Wis., it's grown to approximately 16,000 members nationwide. FFRF has enjoyed steady growth over the years, but has enlarged its membership dramatically the past few years. In 2004, for example, membership totaled about 5,500.  For quite some time it's been the largest group of atheists, agnostics and religious skeptics in the United States.

The nonprofit Foundation is governed by a Board of Directors and an Executive Council. Its purposes, as stated in its bylaws, are to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

In the spring of 2010, FFRF surveyed its members. Nearly 4,000 responded to the survey. Some highlights of the survey:

  • The typical member is a highly educated, white, married male 50 years or older, probably close to retirement, who preferred not to indicate a political leaning, who is a volunteer, describes himself as an “atheist” and grew up in a home where both parents were religious.
  • More than 42 percent of respondents who were raised in religious households were Protestant, 30 percent were Catholic and 27 percent Jewish. The “catalyst” for rejecting religion chosen most frequently was “Religion doesn’t make sense.” Most chose an intellectual reason for nonbelief.
  • About 5 percent deconverted after “reading the bible,” in keeping with the Pew Forum’s recent study showing that the nonreligious are much better informed about religion than believers.
  • Being a “lonely atheist” continues to be a problem, with a third of respondents “wary of letting others know I reject religion,” and a quarter saying “I often feel like the only ‘infidel’ in my area.” About 20 percent reported experiencing “social stigmatism as a nonbeliever.”
  • On the positive side for skeptics, about half felt they can “speak out freely about my lack of religion,” 48 percent are married to a spouse or have a companion who is nonbelieving, and a third have children who are also nonbelievers.
  • About 34 percent of respondents were four-year college grads, 26 percent had at least one master’s degree, 11 percent had a Ph.D., 4 percent are attorneys and 3 percent are M.D.s The most common professional field, at 13 percent, is education.
  • Only 3.5 percent of respondents are in their 20s, 14 percent are 40-somethings, 20 percent in their 50s, 25 percent in their 60s, 18 percent in their 70s and 9 percent are octogenarians.
  • About 9 percent checked LGBT, 11 percent checked vegetarian and 24 percent checked military veteran.
  • Family values rank high, with 58 percent currently married, 17 percent single, 12 percent divorced and 7 percent widowed. A small minority were in formal or informal civil unions.
  • More than 88 percent of respondents checked “atheist” as a favorite appellation, and 12 percent chose agnostic. About 18 percent grew up in a freethought home, compared to a quarter in a “mixed” home and 57 percent in a religious home.
  • Although most largely broke free of religious backgrounds, a healthy 18 percent call themselves “second-generation freethinkers,” and 5 percent are third-generation.
  • Males outnumber females as members, 71 percent to 29 percent, and 95 percent identify as Caucasian, with 2 percent “mixed,” and less than 4 percent Hispanic, Native American, Asian American or African American.

“We’ve started to do more outreach to the African American and freethought communities of color, and clearly, this is a great untapped source for new members who support reason and secularism in this country,” said Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Perhaps the most surprising result: Less than 10 percent of members who took the survey responded to the question about political affiliation. Of those responding, 20 percent identified as progressive, 9 percent liberal, 7 percent Green, 4 percent Democratic, 4 percent Libertarian and 3 percent Republican or conservative.

“FFRF is an apolitical, nonpartisan nonprofit, so we think the lack of response on this question shows that’s exactly how our members want us to stay,” said Co-President Dan Barker, who tabulated the results. “The issues of freethought and concern for the constitutional principle of separation between church and state transcend party politics.

“Our members want FFRF to concentrate on the two purposes for which we were formed: to educate the public about nontheism and defend a secular form of government,” Barker said.

Following are some responses to the question, "If you deconverted from religion to freethought, what was the primary catalyst?"

  • "While in the military, a chaplain told us it was OK to kill the yellow-skinned man, and that got me questioning."
  • "Women's studies. I realized religion was another system conceived by men for men. All the scales fell away."
  • "9/11 was a wakeup call regarding religious fanaticism and how dangerous it is for societies."
  • "I never believed the tales told in church because I had already been read so many fantasy tales by my mother. I could tell the difference between a fantasy tale and reality from around age 10."
  • "Most wars have been about religion."
  • "As a young teen, I learned about the Holocaust and realized that there is no God."
  • "At age 9 or 10, a pastor told me it was a sin to go fishing on Sunday."
  • "Attending a Unitarian Universalist church where the minister was an atheist."
  • "Being a Mormon."
  • "At age 15, watching my father die because of blind faith."
  • "Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell on PBS."
  • "Reading, college bull sessions, friends, lack of evidence, science."
  • "My father was skeptical and said we should go to church 'just in case.' "
  • "How could anyone believe Noah's ark was real? I was 8 and knew better."
  • "About three years ago, a friend loaned me a copy of 'Letter to a Christian Nation.' I read it and felt relieved and finally knew where I stood. Thank you, Sam Harris."
  • "I knew what the bible said about sex wasn't true, so I figured the rest wasn't either."

See the survey results

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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