Margaret Downey

On this date in 1950, secular activist Margaret Downey was born in Baton Rouge, La., where she lived until 1957. She was raised primarily by her mother, a Puerto Rican immigrant, after her father of Irish descent left the family when she was 3. She witnessed the racial prejudice inflicted on her mother and her half-sister, a person of color, who had come to live with them.

The family struggled financially and by age 10, Downey was sewing and cleaning houses to make money. By age 15, she had come to identify as an atheist. College was out of the question and she saw only marriage in her future. Pregnant at 17, she married and divorced a man of Mexican heritage by age 21. “My first marriage, to a Catholic man, dissolved when we disagreed on such questions as the baptism of our infant daughter,” Downey said. (“Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion,” ed. Dale McGowan, 2007)

“I married again three years later, this time to someone who did not attend church or believe in God. He was kind, honest, reliable, and a terrific father. I was glad to have another child with Tom [Schottmiller] as my loving husband. Matthew was born when my daughter Holly was 9 years old.” (Ibid.) Matt went unbaptized. “Tom’s parents were not religious, and they never went to church. My mother and many others from my side of the family had given up their religious beliefs by then as well.”

Downey’s workplace efforts promoting equality for women (pay, promotional opportunities, fairness in dress codes) often landed her in trouble with employers. Due to her husband’s promotions that led to frequent moves, she stopped and started an interior design business five times.

She founded the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia in 1993, then continued her activism by starting the Anti-Discrimination Support Network to combat discrimination against the atheist community. In 1991 she filed a discrimination case against the Boy Scouts of America in Pennsylvania for rejecting her nonreligious son’s application after he’d been a New Jersey Scout previously. The Freethought Society under her leadership formed the Thomas Paine Foundation in 1994 to conduct programs promoting the ideals of Paine’s freethought philosophy. She was named the first president of the newly formed Thomas Paine Memorial Association in 2021.

She has represented the nontheist community since 1995 at several United Nations conferences and is a past board member of the American Humanist Association and the Humanist Institute, as well as a past president of Atheist Alliance International and Reason Rally board member. Downey became a certified Secular Officiant in 2001 and operates Secular Celebrations to serve nontheists’ life celebration needs.

She also serves as an adviser for the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, N.Y. Downey’s one-woman play about Ingersoll and his wife Eva Parker Ingersoll was performed at the 25th anniversary celebration of the reopening of the museum. The setting is five years after Robert’s death. Eva reflects on their lives together and invites all her guests (the audience) to dinner.

Along with her essay in “Parenting Beyond Belief,” she has been published in “50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists” (2009) and in Chris Johnson’s 2014 book “A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy & Meaning in a World Without God.”

After being a co-plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to remove a Ten Commandments plaque from the facade of a courthouse in West Chester, Pa., Downey led the effort in 2007 to place the Tree of Knowledge (a godless holiday tree) at the courthouse to counter religious displays. The tree, decorated with facsimiles of covers of books about atheism, religious skepticism and secular philosophy, is installed annually. “This helps to balance and shows the diversity of the community,” Downey said. “We want people to read these kinds of books so they can make up their minds about religion, not just be spoon-fed by pastors and priests and rabbis.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 10, 2008)

Downey isn’t all serious business: “I’m the only Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Center nurse in the world teaching critical thinking skills in a fun way every Friday the 13th.” She also organizes a parade entry every year at Dragon Con in Atlanta at which about 50 costume-clad skeptics parade past tens of thousands of viewers. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation