January 1

    Julian Bond

    Julian Bond

    On this date in 1940, Julian Bond was born in Nashville, Tenn., to Julia Washington and Horace Mann Bond. Bond became a lifelong champion of civil rights, chairing the NAACP, opposing the Vietnam War and helping to found both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center. His great-grandmother Jane Bond was a slave mistress to a Kentucky farmer. One of her sons, Bond’s grandfather, attended Oberlin College.

    His family moved to Philadelphia, where he enrolled at age 12 in a Quaker school, experiencing racism when he began dating a white girl. The family moved to Atlanta when Bond was 17 and his father became dean of education at Atlanta University. Bond attended Morehouse College, where his teachers included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He dropped out in 1961 to devote more time to protesting segregation and segregated public facilities. He was arrested for leading an early sit-in at the City Hall cafeteria in Atlanta.

    As communications director of SNCC for five years, he was credited by The New York Times for “deftly guid[ing] the national news media toward stories of violence and discrimination as the committee challenged legal segregation in the South’s public facilities.” He returned to Morehouse College in the 1970s to finish his English degree.

    Bond served for 20 years in the Georgia General Assembly, which had once escorted him and other black students out of the white-only visitors’ section. When he was first elected in 1965, white members of the House refused to seat him. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a unanimous decision in 1966 ordered the State Assembly to seat him. He also served in the state Senate. Bond was a productive and effective state senator advocating for many important social causes and sponsoring many successful bills, one of which established a program for the research and treatment of sickle cell anemia.

     In 1986 he ran for the U.S. House, but lost to John Lewis, also a co-founder of SNCC. Bond was president of the Southern Poverty Law Center from 1971-79. As a journalist he hosted “America’s Black Forum,” a syndicated black-owned TV program, for many years. A cultural icon, he once hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” He later taught at Harvard and other universities, and as a professor of history at the University of Virginia co-directed the oral history project “Explorations in Black Leadership.”

    His book of essays A Time to Speak, a Time to Act, was published in 1972. He became chair of the NAACP in 1998 and was active in Democratic Party politics. He was married twice and was survived by his second wife, Pamela Sue Horowitz, three sons, two daughters and eight grandchildren. D. 2015.

    Q. Are you a believer?
    A. No.

    —Interview on PBS "American Forum" (March 2015)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com

    Saul Alinsky

    Saul Alinsky

    On this date in 1909, community organizer Saul David Alinsky was born in a Chicago slum to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. Alinsky said in an interview that they “were strict Orthodox; their whole life revolved around work and synagogue.” When asked if he was devout as a boy, he responded, “I suppose I was — until I was about 12. I was brainwashed, really hooked. But then I got afraid my folks were going to try to turn me into a rabbi, so I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit.” (Playboy, 1972)

    Alinsky majored in archaeology at the University of Chicago, but after two years of graduate study he left to work as a criminologist for the state of Illinois. In the mid-1930s, he started working with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and became a close friend of John L. Lewis. Alinsky shifted from labor to community organizing in 1939, focusing first on improving the impoverished slums he grew up in. In 1940, millionaire Marshall Field III provided him with funds to start the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which grew into a prominent training institute for radical community organizers across the country.

    Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were connected to the IAF, along with numerous other organizers and movements. Alinsky’s “street-smart tactics influenced generations of community organizers,” including President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who wrote her senior honors thesis at Wellesley College on Alinsky (New York Times, Aug. 22, 2009). The Times said Alinsky was “hated and feared in high places from coast to coast” for being “a major force in the revolution of powerless people.”

    His political philosophy was very nonconformist, and this carried over into his personal life. When asked if he had ever considered joining the Communist Party, he told Playboy, “Not at any time. I’ve never joined any organization — not even ones I’ve organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it’s Christianity or Marxism.” The goal of the radical, Alinsky explained in his last book, Rules for Radicals (1971), must be to bring about “the destruction of the roots of all fears, frustrations, and insecurity of man, whether they be material or spiritual.” Enemies of the poor “can no more live up to their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

    In a move that horrified the Religious Right, Alinsky dedicated the book to the devil: “the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.” His first book, published in 1946, was Reveille for Radicals. Three years later he published John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography.

    Alinsky married Helene Simon, another University of Chicago student, and they adopted two children, Kathryn and Lee David. Helen tragically drowned in 1947. He was married to Jean Graham from 1952 until their divorce in 1970. The next year he married Irene McInnis. He died of a heart attack in 1972 at age 63 while walking in Carmel, Calif. His ashes were buried in a family plot in Chicago. On the marker is a quote from Thomas Paine that also appears in the epigraph of Rules for Radicals:  “Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul.” (D. 1972)

    PHOTO: Alinsky in 1963; photo by Pierre869856, CC 4.0.

    “If you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics.”

    —Alinsky, 1972 interview with Playboy magazine
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Oksana Shachko

    Oksana Shachko

    On this date in 1987, artist and activist Oksana Shachko was born in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine. In 2008 she helped found FEMEN, a women’s rights group that garnered international notoriety for bare-breasted political protests. Along with the punk group Pussy Riot, FEMEN was part of the post-Soviet protest movement against corruption, wealth inequality, civil rights violations and the oppression of women and minorities.

    According to the New York Times in 2018, “FEMEN members protested in Ukraine against sexual exploitation; in Davos, Switzerland — the scene of an annual conference of world political and business leaders — against income inequality; and, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, against policies of the Roman Catholic Church, among other targets.”

    In 2013 Shachko and other members of FEMEN were granted political asylum in France following persecution by Russian special services. Shachko claimed that due to FEMEN’s protests against President Vladimir Putin, pro-Putin agents had planted a grenade in front of her Kiev office along with a photo of Putin.

    Shachko, who was interested in religious iconography from a young age, almost became a nun but was dissuaded from joining the nunnery by her parents. At the time of her death, she was working on an art installation entitled “Iconoclast,” wherein she painted traditional Orthodox icons, superimposing transgressive details and feminist messaging onto the icons in order to confront Orthodox religious dogma.

     She was found dead at age 31 in her apartment in Paris after apparently hanging herself. (D. 2018)

    “From this moment on, I began to reflect on what religion and faith mean to a human being. I found an answer, and it was atheism.”

    —Shachko, profile in 032c, an English-language magazine published in Germany (2016)
    Compiled by Paul Epland

    Bill Haywood

    Bill Haywood

    On this date in 1869, William Dudley “Big Bill” Haywood was born in Salt Lake City, Utah Territory. In 1896, when working in an Idaho silver mine, Haywood joined the Western Federation of Miners and became active in the union. By 1900 he was already a member of the union’s General Executive Board. Haywood was an advocate for industrial unionism, uniting all workers in “one big union,” and was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) in 1905.

    Haywood advocated direct action and strikes and was involved in many strikes, where he used innovative tactics in order to attract the attention of the press. He had been involved with the Socialist Party of America but he and many IWW members wanted to focus on direct action and radical revolution instead of electoral politics and split from the Socialists in 1913. Haywood was also an advocate for racial unity in the labor movement, bringing black and white workers in segregated states into IWW-affiliated unions.

    In 1917, Haywood and 164 other IWW members were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for “conspiring to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes.” Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis presided over the five-month trial. Haywood was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison but skipped bail and fled to the newly formed Soviet Union.

    Haywood served as a labor adviser to Lenin’s government until 1923, when Stalin rose to power. He did not speak Russian, and his Russian wife did not speak English. He died in 1928 from complications of alcoholism, diabetes and a stroke. After his cremation, his ashes were split between the Kremlin Wall necropolis in Moscow and Chicago, where they were buried near the Haymarket Square Martyr’s Monument.

    “To me [Christianity] was all nonsense, based on that profane compilation of fables called the Bible.”

    —"Bill Haywood's Book: The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood" (1929)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Hemant Mehta

    Hemant Mehta

    On this date in 1983, atheist blogger and activist Hemant Mehta was born in Chicago to a family that practiced Jainism. He abandoned his faith as a teen. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he formed the school’s first nonreligious group, Students WithOut Religious Dogma, or SWORD. He graduated in 2001 with degrees in math and biology and taught high school math for seven years before resigning to work full time on behalf of secular causes.

    Mehta decided in 2006 that he wanted theists to learn more about how religious institutions are viewed by the nonreligious. This led him to “sell his soul on eBay” by posting on the popular auction website that he would attend the highest bidder’s choice of religious institution. For every $10 the highest bidder gave him, he would attend one service.

    The winner, a Seattle minister, bid $504 and decided Mehta would go to a variety of churches and write about his experiences. This resulted in Mehta’s first book, I Sold My Soul on eBay (2007). He published The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide in 2012 and edited the 2017 book Queer Disbelief: Why LGBTQ Equality Is an Atheist Issue by Camille Beredjick.

    His popular blog Friendly Atheist highlights events, issues and people that are important to the nonreligious community. Mehta was a 2019 recipient of FFRF’s Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award, given to freethinkers who offer secular invocations before public boards. A transcript of his acceptance speech questioning whether atheism is still taboo in politics is here. A 26-minute video of the speech is here.

    He chaired the Foundation Beyond Belief, a nonprofit that raises money for people in need, and the Secular Student Alliance and was also spokesperson for the Chicago Coalition of Reason. Mehta is the co-host, with Jessica Bluemke, of the weekly Friendly Atheist podcast, which has produced over 270 episodes as of June 2019.

    “At age fourteen I was asking questions. When the answers failed to satisfy me, I searched elsewhere for different answers and found wisdom in atheism.”

    —Mehta, “I Sold My Soul on eBay” (2007)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano; Ingrid Laas photo

    Charles Watts

    Charles Watts

    On this date in 1836, Charles Watts was born in Bristol, England, into a family of Methodists. At age 16 he moved to London to work with his older brother in a printing office. The brothers were acquainted with many freethinkers and founded a publishing business, Watts & Co., in 1864. Along with Charles Bradlaugh and others, Watts co-founded the National Secular Society in 1866.

    Watts wrote extensively on freethought, including Freethought: Its Rise, Progress and Triumph (1885). In an 1868 pamphlet on Christianity, he wrote: “In Spain religion is cruel oppression, in Scotland it is a gloomy nightmare, in Rome it is priestly dominion, while in England it is simply emotional pastime. All these different phases of Christianity indicate that theological opinions depend on surrounding circumstances, and cannot therefore be the cause of the civilisation of the world.”

    He emigrated to Toronto in 1883, where he lectured and became the leader of the secularist movement in Canada. Returning to England in 1891, he worked for The Freethinker, the world’s oldest surviving freethought publication (internet-only since 2014). Watts’ wife, Kate Eunice Watts, also wrote and traveled with him. Some of her writings included The Education and Position of Woman and Christianity: Defective and Unnecessary.

    Watts died at age 70 in 1906. His son, Charles Albert Watts, developed the Rationalist Press Association, still in existence as the Rationalist Association.

    “The object of Christ was to teach his followers how to die, rather than to instruct them how to live.”

    —from Watts' pamphlet "Christianity: Its Nature and Influence on Civilisation" (1868)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Gerald H.F. Gardner

    Gerald H.F. Gardner

    On this date in 1926, mathematician Gerald Henry Frazier Gardner was born in Tullamore, Ireland. He studied mathematics and theoretical physics at Dublin’s Trinity College. He earned a master’s in applied mathematics from Carnegie Institute of Technology (1949) and a doctorate in mathematical physics from Princeton (1953). Gardner worked in applied seismology for several decades and taught at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Rice University and the University of Houston.

    Gardner actively pursued equal rights for women. Along with his wife, the former Jo Ann Evans, he was an early member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for Women. Evans, a Ph.D. experimental psychologist, adopted the surname Evansgardner when they married in 1950.

    Gardner and the chapter in 1969 challenged sex-based employment ads in the Pittsburgh Press. Employment want ads used to list separate categories for “Male Wanted” and “Female Wanted,” which barred women from much professional work. Gardner specifically provided statistical analysis of the likelihood of women finding employment in such a structure. This led to a landmark women’s rights decision in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a Pittsburgh ordinance that prohibited sex-based employment advertisements.

    As a result, want ads were “desexregated” around the nation, a huge boon for women’s employment rights. Gardner contributed statistical analysis in other cases involving gender and race discrimination and considered this work the most important of his life (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 27, 2009.) He and his wife were Life Members who joined FFRF in the late 1970s and left a generous bequest. Gardner died of leukemia at age 83 in 2009. Jo Ann died in 2010.

    He “was an activist atheist, a proselytizing atheist. He thought that not saying you were an atheist hurt the cause of reality.”

    —Jo Ann Evansgardner, remembering her husband in his New York Times obituary (July 28, 2009)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Ed Buckner

    Ed Buckner

    On this date in 1946, educational researcher, author and religious skeptic Edward Milton Buckner was born in Fitzgerald, Ga. His father was an Episcopal clergyman. (One of his congregants when the family lived in Texas was astronaut Frank Borman.) Buckner, who said he started “gradually coming to my senses as an atheist” in the 1960s, received a B.A. from Rice University in Houston in 1967 and an M. Ed. and Ph.D. from Georgia State University. He married Diane Bright in 1968 and their son Michael was born in 1970. They are Life Members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

    Buckner was an assistant professor of urban studies at Georgia State University from 1980 to 1986. He taught research methods, statistics and computer use and was responsible for managing and conducting data analysis  from research projects. He then worked as a researcher for a public school system and later served as executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism (2001-03), as president of American Atheists (2008-10) and as American Atheists interim executive director for several months in 2018.

    An example of Buckner’s ability to be a burr under the saddle of government favoritism to religion was noted in November 2007 by USA Today. He and about 20 others protested “a revival-style vigil” outside the state Capitol, where Gov. Sonny Perdue prayed with hundreds of Georgians for rain to ease a severe drought as “Amazing Grace” played: “We ask God to shower our state, our region, our nation with the blessings of water.” Buckner told the newspaper: “I am embarrassed that my governor thinks ordinary Georgians praying is not enough, that we need to have a mixing of church and state to get the attention of the Almighty.”

    Two years later, he addressed the Cobb County Commission with a “prayer” of his own: “[T]hese invocations are a violation of the letter and intent of the Constitution of the state of Georgia, of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and of the 14th Amendment, ratified exactly 141 years ago today. Go and sin no more. Thank you.”

    Buckner has edited Freethought Press books and with Michael co-edited Quotations That Support the Separation of Church and State (1995). Father and son co-wrote In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty, published by Prometheus Books in 2012. Along with writing and editing, Buckner has debated and spoken in the U.S. and U.K. about freethought and secular humanism. What does he think about the Bible? “A dangerous set of books, full of beauty, moral wisdom and history, but mixed with viciousness, cruelty, myth and immorality.” (2010 interview with tabee3i, an online home for Metaphysical Naturalists “rejecting the existence of the supernatural”)

    PHOTO: By Diane Buckner 

    “The stigma attached to being an atheist based on atheists being hopelessly immoral, outrageously in rebellion against a loving God, and in league with Satan (possibly as foolish dupes rather than his evil minions) was pervasive. The stigma has not ended, the fear of and hatred of us has not abated, the ignorance and misunderstanding is still widespread.”

    —Ed Buckner, "A Look Back From an Old Guy Not in the Old Guard" (American Atheist magazine, Second Quarter 2013)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Richard Stallman

    Richard Stallman

    On this date in 1953, computer programmer Richard Stallman was born in New York City. Stallman is a leader in the software freedom movement. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a degree in physics in 1974 and did graduate work at MIT. He has received many awards and several honorary doctorates, including from the University of Glasgow and Lakehead University in Canada. He is known for founding the GNU Project (GNU’s Not Unix) in 1983 while he was at MIT.

    The GNU Project involves programmers working to create free software so a computer may run entirely on free software. The project met this goal in 1992 with Linux, a free operating system. The project continues to develop more software and advocate for free software, which is free to use, edit and distribute.

    Stallman, based in Massachusetts, also promotes other issues, including medical marijuana, and supports the Green Party. He also has sported a button that reads “Impeach God” and identifies as an atheist. According to his website, Stallman was in agreement with FFRF’s challenge of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives. “I think we have an excess of faith-based initiatives in recent years,” he wrote. (Stallman.org, Feb. 28, 2007.)

    Photo by Thesupermat under CC 3.0.

    “Religious people often say that religion offers absolute certainty about right and wrong; ‘god tells them’ what it is. Even supposing that the aforementioned gods exist, and that the believers really know what the gods think, that still does not provide certainty, because any being no matter how powerful can still be wrong. Whether gods exist or not, there is no way to get absolute certainty about ethics.”

    —Stallman interview with Slashdot titled “Thus Spake Stallman” (May 1, 2000)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano

    Jack Nichols

    Jack Nichols

    On this date in 1938, pioneering gay-rights activist John Richard “Jack” Nichols Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. He was raised in Chevy Chase, Md., and came out as gay to his parents as a teen. He lived with the uncle and aunt of Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi for three years and learned Persian. He dropped out of school at age 12.

    In 1961 he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, a new branch of the gay civil rights organization originally started in 1950. In 1965 he formed a branch in Florida. He led the first gay rights march on the White House in 1965 and participated in the first of the “Annual Reminder” pickets, which took place at Independence Hall in Pennsylvania on July 4th each year from 1965-69.

    In 1967 Nichols became one of the first Americans to talk openly about his homosexuality on national television when he appeared in the documentary “CBS Reports: The Homosexuals.” He disguised his identity because his father, an FBI agent, had allegedly threatened him with death if the government found out Jack was his son and he lost his security clearance. In 1968 he and his partner, Lige Clark, began writing a column called “The Homosexual Citizen,” which appeared in Screw magazine.

    Nichols and Clark moved to New York City in 1969 and founded the weekly paper GAY, the first such publication. In 1975 Clark was shot under mysterious circumstances while on a road trip through Mexico, leaving Nichols bereft. His murderers were never apprehended. Nichols continued to write and engage in activism, serving as news editor of the San Francisco Sentinel and senior editor of Gay Today, an online news magazine. Nichols died of complications from cancer of the salivary gland. (D. 2005)

    “I’m an agnostic. A non-believer, a heretic, an infidel. Well, you say, an agnostic stands somewhere between belief in God and non-belief. I stand closer to non-belief. When I think about my own religious nature, about spiritual matters, I never include the Sky God in my picture. I’m a humanist, which is like being a spiritualized atheist.”

    —Nichols' speech at a cancer survivor’s meeting in Cocoa Beach, Fla., 1993; reprinted on GayToday.com.
    Compiled by Dayna Long

    Henry Morgentaler

    Henry Morgentaler

    On this date in 1923, abortion doctor and pro-choice activist Henry Morgentaler, born Henryk Morgentaler, was born in Lodz, Poland. His parents were Jewish socialists. The Gestapo murdered his father in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. Morgentaler, his mother and two siblings were forced to live in Lodz’s ghetto, where his sister died, until 1944. The Nazis then sent Morgentaler, his mother and his brother to Auschwitz, where they killed his mother and the brothers did forced labor until they were sent to Dachau, which Allied forces liberated in 1945. 

    He emigrated to Canada in 1950 and graduated from the University of Montreal’s medical school in 1953. He began his career as a general practitioner but transitioned to family planning when he saw the need. He performed his first abortion in 1968 and opened his first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969.

    “I decided to break the law to provide a necessary medical service because women were dying at the hands of butchers and incompetent quacks, and there was no one there to help them. The law was barbarous, cruel and unjust. I had been in a concentration camp, and I knew what suffering was. If I can ease suffering, I feel perfectly justified in doing so.” (Morgantaler: A Difficult Hero, by Catherine Dunphy, 1996.)

    Morgantaler battled the Catholic Church, his clinics were raided by police and harassed by pickets and he was arrested four times for performing abortions. Each time he was acquitted by jurors but was sentenced to 18 months in prison when one of his acquittals was appealed. Morgantaler was released after 10 months when he suffered a heart attack.

    Another acquittal that was appealed went to the Canadian Supreme Court, resulting in a historic 1988 decision overturning a law restricting abortions to hospitals and to those in which the pregnancy endangered the woman. Even in Canada, his actions were controversial and after several abortion doctors were attacked and even murdered, he took many safety precautions, including wearing a bulletproof vest. 

    He was active in humanist organizations in Montreal, and in 1975 the American Humanist Association made him its Humanist of the Year. He received many other honors and recognition for his work, including induction into the Order of Canada in 2008. Morgentaler married three times and divorced twice. He had four children: Goldie, Bamie, Yann and Benny. At the time of his death at age 90, he was married to Arlene Leibovich. (D. 2013)

    PHOTO: rabbleradio under CC 2.0.

    “In Canada, you have fewer religious fanatics, there is much less violence in Canada and it’s a much more tolerant society.”

    —Morgentaler, quoted in “Sniper Attacks on Doctors Create Climate of Fear in Canada” (New York Times, Oct. 29, 1998)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano

    Corliss Lamont

    Corliss Lamont

    On this date in 1902, Corliss Lamont was born in Englewood, N.J. His father, Thomas W. Lamont, was a chairman of J.P. Morgan & Co. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1924. He went on to obtain his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1932. Lamont supported many radical causes, including socialism, and although he never joined the Communist Party, he was strongly opposed to the persecution of communists.

    He served as the director of the the American Civil Liberties Union from 1932 until 1954. He was a founder in 1954 of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. After being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee because of a book he had written, The Peoples of the Soviet Union (1946), he was cited for contempt of Congress. The indictment was dismissed by the Court of Appeals on the grounds that he was outside the jurisdiction of the committee.

    Lamont wrote many books, pamphlets and essays, including many on humanism. His influential book The Philosophy of Humanism (1949), was based on a course he taught at Columbia in the 1940s and 1950s on naturalistic humanism. Other books on humanist subjects include his classic The Illusion of Immortality (1935), which argued against the imortality of the soul. He also wrote A Humanist Funeral Service (1954) and A Humanist Wedding Service (1970).

    He was an active member for many years of the American Humanist Association and in 1977 received its Humanist of the Year award. He died of heart failure at age 93 in 1995.

    “The greatest difference between the Humanist ethic and that of Christianity and the traditional religions is that it is entirely based on happiness in this one and only life and not concerned with a realm of supernatural immortality and the glory of God. Humanism denies the philosophical and psychological dualism of soul and body and contends that a human being is a oneness of mind, personality, and physical organism. Christian insistence on the resurrection of the body and personal immortality has often cut the nerve of effective action here and now, and has led to the neglect of present human welfare and happiness.”

    —Lamont, “The Affirmative Ethics of Humanism,” The Humanist (March/April 1980)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Matt Dillahunty

    Matt Dillahunty

    On this date in 1969, public speaker and internet personality Matthew Wade Dillahunty was born in Kansas City, Mo. He was raised in a Southern Baptist home. He was a fundamentalist Christian for over 20 years, but after serving from 1987-95 in the U.S. Navy and working in high tech, he found a need to reaffirm his faith in order to continue a life with the ministry. This attempt to fortify his faith turned into a long-term investigation to understand reason in terms of his religion.

    From 2006-13, Dillahunty was president of the Atheist Community of Austin, Texas. The ACA is a nonprofit organization with a variety of goals including developing and supporting the atheist community, providing opportunities for socialization and friendship and working with like-minded organizations to oppose discrimination against atheists. Not only does the ACA serve its local community, it provides an online portal of free resources accessible to the community at large.

    One of its most-effective outreach projects is “The Atheist Experience” TV show, a weekly program geared towards a nonatheist audience. Dillahunty has been hosting the show since 2005 and was a co-host of “The Non Prophets” internet radio show prior to that.

    He also founded The Iron Chariots, an online encyclopedia intended to provide information on philosophical apologetics and non-apologetics. Additionally, he contributed to the novel Deconverted: a Journey from Religion to Reason (2012), an autobiographical account of a Protestant Christian who eventually creates a popular online atheist community called The Thinking Atheist. Dillahunty travels nationwide as a member of the Secular Student Alliance’s speaker’s Bureau. In 2012, he won the Catherine Fahringer Freethinker of the Year Award from the Freethinkers Association of Central Texas.

    In Episode 771 of “The Atheist Experience” (July 22, 2012), Dillahunty called the Catholic Church “a nonsensical organization; a bunch of fat lazy do-nothings who have been living off the public dole for centuries. The fact that they can do good is a testament to the fact that there are good people who will do good. But the organization is corrupt, it is poison to its core and it serves no essential good purpose – no true purpose. It’s lie after lie, promoting harm to real people …”

    In 2011 he married Beth Presswood, an “Atheist Experience” colleague and co-host of “The Godless Bitches” podcast. They divorced in 2018.

    PHOTO: Dillahunty in 2014 at SashaCon; Mark Schierbecker photo under CC 3.0.

    “Faith is the excuse people give for believing something when they don’t have evidence.”

    —Dillahunty, "The Atheist Experience" Episode 696 (Feb. 13, 2011)
    Compiled by Tolulope Igun

    Henry “Hank” Zumach

    Henry “Hank” Zumach

    On this date in 1942, freethought activist Henry Herman “Hank” Zumach was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Henry P. Zumach and Ann Katherine (Roraff) Zumach. With only fourth grade and sixth grade educations, both parents managed to attain lower level management positions. His mother was a practicing Catholic and his father was agnostic. Zumach grew up in the La Crosse area and attended Catholic schools for five years, starting in the fourth grade. (Due to his high IQ scores, he was allowed to skip fifth grade.) His parents allowed him to attend public high school after he decided that he could not believe the parochial school’s religious teachings.

    Married and with two children, in 1965 he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with majors in psychology and business administration. His working career included human resources management for two large industrial companies, then teaching industrial safety laws, then starting and owning a residential roofing company. He retired in 1997. Zumach served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves from 1959 to 1965.

    While he’d long been supportive of state-church separation and his doubts about religion started when he was about 12, it was after he retired that Zumach decided to become more involved when he saw a news story in the La Crosse Tribune about a local couple helping the Freedom From Religion Foundation sue the city for allowing a Ten Commandments monument in a city park. The husband had died and his wife, Sue Mercier, felt unable to continue as the sole plaintiff, so Zumach started making phone calls and convinced 21 others to join the suit. “I accepted the role of spokesperson for the plaintiffs and the lawsuit became the largest Tribune story two years in a row.”

     While U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2003, despite the city’s sale of the small piece of land containing the monument to a private fraternal group, she was overturned in 2005 by an appeals court. The court, however, did not dispute the part of Crabb’s ruling that display or ownership of the Ten Commandments by the city was unconstitutional. A dissenting appellate judge called the land sale a “sham” bordering on “fraud.”

    Zumach co-founded the La Crosse Area Freethought Society in 2008, eventually arranging for members to write monthly columns on secular topics for the La Crosse Tribune, which published them for six years. He retired as its president in 2016. In 2015, working with the American Humanist Association, he established the Henry Zumach Award for Freedom From Fundamentalist Religion to recognize individuals and groups that have taken a stand against religious intolerance and bigotry.

    The first recipient was the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo that was attacked by Muslim extremists for publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, in consultation with the benefactor, now oversees and administers the annual award (recipients here). It was instituted at $10,000 but was later set at 5 percent of the endowment. By 2022 the award had grown to $35,000.

    Zumach was the recipient of an FFRF special award in 2016 as a Freethought Extraordinaire. He lives in La Crosse with his longtime domestic partner, Betty Hammond, and has a son, Todd, and a daughter, Kelly.

    “I gradually came to realize that many of the things I was taught during five years attending Catholic schools did not make any logical sense, and were, in fact, contrary to the basic teaching of ‘treat others as you want to be treated.’ “

    —Zumach speech to FFRF's 39th annual convention, Pittsburgh (Oct. 8, 2016)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Hubert Harrison

    Hubert Harrison

    On this date in 1883, Hubert Henry Harrison was born in St. Croix, in the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands). After his mother’s death, Harrison left the West Indies for New York in 1900, where he earned a high school degree. From 1911 to 1914, he was active in the Socialist Party and, as perhaps its most prominent black member, he founded the Colored Socialist Club. Harrison was active in radical causes, as well as the fight for racial equality.

    He eventually left the Socialists due to the movement’s support of segregated local chapters in the South. He formed several black radical groups, the Liberty League in 1917 and the International Colored Unity League in 1924. Harrison’s intellectual influence was widely felt in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, where he was known as the Black Socrates, as well as the father of Harlem radicalism.

    Harrison stated that his own doubts about religion were prompted by a reading of Thomas Paine. After he stopped believing in the bible, he was briefly a deist, before finally becoming an agnostic. Though he found Catholic ceremonies attractive and believed in the spiritual part of the human experience, he said in his essay “Paine’s Place” (1911): “I doubt whether I will ever be anything but an honest Agnostic, because I prefer, as I once told you, to go to the grave with my eyes open.” (Quoted in Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht, 2003)

    “The Negro Conservative: Christianity Still Enslaves the Minds of Those Whose Bodies It Has Long Held Bound,” a 1914 article on atheism, discussed the paradox that African-Americans were largely religious despite the American church’s support for slavery and, later, institutionalized racism. According to Harrison, at the start of the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1920s, atheism, agnosticism and other forms of radicalism were becoming more common in black Harlem.

    He died at age 44 in Bellevue Hospital in New York of complications from an appendectomy. (D. 1927)

    “It should seem that Negroes, of all Americans, would be found in the Free-thought fold, since they have suffered more than any other class of Americans from the dubious blessings of Christianity.”

    —Harrison, “The Negro Conservative” (1914), quoted in "Doubt: A History" by Jennifer Michael Hecht ( 2003)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Pete Seeger

    Pete Seeger

    On this date in 1919, Peter Seeger was born in Manhattan to musicologist Charles Seeger and concert violinist Constance de Dyver Edson Seeger. Best known for his legendary contributions to folk music, he wrote such songs as “If I Had A Hammer” and the anti-war song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” He popularized the German folk song “Die Gedanken Sind Frei,” which celebrates freedom of thought. He was committed to social activism throughout his entire life, lending his music and his voice to the civil rights movement, anti-war efforts and the environment.

    Seeger was exposed to folk music early on, as his father and stepmother collected and transcribed rural American folk music. He attended Harvard University with the intention of becoming a journalist but dropped out after two years and moved to New York City. He began to work with other folk performers and his career was launched.

    At age 20 Seeger married Toshi-Aline Öta, with whom he had four children. Due to his affiliation with the Communist Party in the 1940s, he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 and indicted for contempt of Congress in 1957, though the indictment was overturned a year later. In his testimony, he said, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

    Seeger continued to write music and perform around the world into the 21st century. In 1972 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. In 1994 he was honored by the Kennedy Center. He was also awarded the National Medal of Arts that same year. In 1996 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the category of Early Influences.

    When asked about his religious views in a Beliefnet interview (March 16, 2007), Seeger described himself as a pantheist, saying, “I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God.” (D. 2014)

    PHOTO: Seeger performing in 1978; Brian McMillen photo (cropped) under CC 4.0.

    Give Me That Old Time Religion
                 (Pete Seeger)

    Give me that old time religion
    Give me that old time religion
    Give me that old time religion
    It’s good enough for me.

    We will pray with Aphrodite,
    We will pray with Aphrodite,
    She wears that see-through nightie,
    And it’s good enough for me.

    We will pray with Zarathustra,
    We’ll pray just like we use ta,
    I’m a Zarathustra booster,
    And it’s good enough for me.

    We will pray with those Egyptians,
    Build pyramids to put our crypts in,
    Cover subways with inscriptions,
    And it’s good enough for me.

    We will pray with those old druids,
    They drink fermented fluids,
    Waltzing naked though the woo-ids,
    And it’s good enough for me.

    We do dances to bring water,
    Prepare animals for slaughter,
    Sacrifice our sons and daughters,
    And it’s good enough for me.

    I’ll arise at early morning,
    When my Lord gives me the warning,
    That the solar age is dawning,
    And it’s good enough for me. 

    “I leaf through [the bible] quite often — if only to shake my head in disgust. I quote Leviticus to people who think that every word in the Bible is absolutely gospel and you need to obey every word. In Leviticus it says you must kill a bull if you’re going to really love God. And you must kill it in a certain way, or else you will be killed.”

    —Seeger interview, Beliefnet (March 16, 2007)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Harvey Milk

    Harvey Milk

    On this date in 1930, openly gay politician Harvey Milk was born in Woodmere, New York. He attended school at New York State College for Teachers in Albany, where he studied math and history. After being discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1955, Harvey spent subsequent years hiding his sexuality from his family and his work. During this time he was employed as a public school teacher, a stock analyst and a production assistant for Broadway musicals. Milk didn’t become active in politics until age 40 when he moved to San Francisco.

    There he opened a camera shop on Castro Street in the center of the city’s growing gay community. In 1975 he narrowly lost his second race as a candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In 1977 he easily won a third bid. During the peak of his political career, Milk supported anti-discrimination bills, established day care centers for working mothers, converted military facilities into low-cost housing and spoke out on state and national issues for LGBT people, women, racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized communities.

    Harvey was assassinated in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone by former city supervisor Dan White, a rabid opponent of gay rights. White was sentenced to only seven years and eight months in prison after being found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and not murder. After serving five years, he was released in 1984. He committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1985.

    Milk was very critical of organized religion and did not attend religious services. Randy Shilts wrote in The Mayor of Castro Street (2008) that “Harvey never had any use for organized religion.” In one of his recorded wills, Milk said of his funeral: “I hope there are no religious services. I would hope that there are no services of any kind, but I know some people are into that and you can’t prevent it from happening, but my god, nothing religious.” In 2008 Sean Penn starred in the biographical film “Milk.”

    He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was inducted in the California Hall of Fame, with May 22 designated as Harvey Milk Day. (D. 1978)

    “About six months ago, Anita Bryant in her speaking to God said that the drought in California was because of the gay people. On November 9, the day after I got elected, it started to rain. On the day I got sworn in, we walked to City Hall and it was kinda nice, and as soon as I said ‘I do,’ it started to rain again. It’s been raining since then and the people of San Francisco figure the only way to stop it is to do a recall petition.”

    —Milk keynote speech in San Diego to the gay caucus of the California Democratic Council (March 10, 1978)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor; photo by Oldrich, Shutterstock.com

    Jack Kevorkian

    Jack Kevorkian

    On this date in 1928, Murad Kevorkian, later known as Jack, was born to Armenian immigrants in Pontiac, Mich. “My parents never foisted religion on me. My father never was religious much. My mother was — the old country religion. But not fanatic. But I never believed in God. I never believed in Santa Claus.” (Interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, Sept. 2, 2009.)

    He earned his M.D. from the University of Michigan in 1952 and later specialized in pathology. He wrote a series of articles in the 1980s for the German journal Medicine and Law, detailing his reasoning on the ethics of euthanasia. His first known assisted suicide occurred in 1990, and the state of Michigan revoked his medical license a year later as a result. Believing that the right to die was not a crime, Kevorkian assisted in the pain-free suicides of more than 130 people with terminal illnesses.

    He spent eight years in prison (out of a 10- to 25-year sentence) after being convicted of second-degree murder for one of these suicides. He was released on parole in 2007, on the condition he would not help anyone else commit suicide.

    Kevorkian maintained that his harshest critics were “religious fanatics or nuts.” (“Kevorkian Speaks After His Release From Prison,” N.Y. Times, June 4, 2007.) In his keynote address at the 1990 Freedom From Religion Foundation annual convention, Kevorkian said, “Religion is telling law what to do, and law is telling doctors what to do. Religion dictates to law, and law dictates to ethics. No wonder we have problems. That’s insanity!”

    He described the history of euthanasia and abortion as standard procedures in the secular medical world until Christianity injected its influence on the profession several centuries later. He described this shift as “the origin of all the crises we’re having.” In an interview on FOX News, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, Kevorkian responded: “Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter at all. When I’m dead, nothing matters.” (Sept. 2, 2009)

    He told the Jackson Citizen in 1990: “My aim is to establish a rational policy of planned death. … We have no planned death. We have no policy, and it’s not rational. I want to fight suffering and eliminate it.” (D. 2011)

    PHOTO: Kevorkian at the National Press Club in 1996; Kingkong photo under CC 2.0.

    “If a doctor has a certain philosophic principle, religion or otherwise, that limits what he or she can do or say for the benefit of the patient, then he’s not a full doctor. … A real doctor could divorce professional life from spiritual life.”

    —Kevorkian, keynote address to FFRF's national convention (Oct. 6, 1990)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch and Scott Grinstead

    Sanal Edamaraku

    Sanal Edamaraku

    On this date in 1955, secular activist and author Sanal Edamaruku was born in Thodupuzha, India, to freethinking parents who were raised as Hindu and Christian before embracing nonbelief. In 1960 they filled out Sanal’s school admission form with “no religion” and “no caste,” making him the first-ever officially registered nonbeliever in India. He earned a master’s in political science in 1977 from the University of Kerala and an M.Phil. in 1980 from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

    Edamaruku became active in the Indian Rationalist Association as a teen and served as general secretary starting in 1983 and succeeding his father, Joseph Edamaraku, as its president in 2005. He edited its publication Modern Freethinker and wrote numerous articles and several books dealing with rational thought and debunking paranormal claims. He founded Rationalist International in 1995 and serves as its president. Dubbed by some as the “Indian James Randi,” Edamaruku publicly criticized frauds perpetrated by Christians and Hindus and so-called Indian godmen.

    In 1994-95 he and his team traveled through hundreds of Indian villages and cities, explaining how “miracle-mongers … exploit the ignorance of common people about certain natural phenomena to fool the gullible and win their unquestioning devotion.” A British TV crew documented the campaign in the film “Guru Busters.”  In 2012 he investigated the “miracle” of a crucifix at a Mumbai Catholic church dripping “holy” water. He and an engineer colleague traced it to an overflowing drain connected to a toilet pipe — not a miracle, just bad plumbing.

    Catholic groups filed blasphemy complaints that led to Edamaruku leaving India for Finland later in the year to avoid possible imprisonment and death threats. He left behind his daughter and a grandchild. In 2013 a rationalist colleague was murdered, which definitely precluded Edamaruku’s return.

    Randi and Richard Dawkins have called Edamaruku a rationalist hero. He’s a fellow of the U.S. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and an honorary associate of the Rationalist Association of the UK. He’s appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Asia Week, The Guardian and the Washington Post and on TV channels like Discovery, BBC and CNN. Hear his interview here with FFRF’s Freethought Radio, starting at 25:00 (June 13, 2019).

    PHOTO: Edamaraku in Helsinki in 2013. Public domain photo by Robert Brotherus.

    “Rationalists do an important job in a society such as ours by liberating millions from irrational fears. They are helping build a modern, civilized, responsible India.They are aiming to create a society where people can rise above religion, caste and gender and become more humane.”

    —Edamaruku blog, SanalEdamaruku.com (Sept. 6, 2018)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Harvey Fierstein

    Harvey Fierstein

    On this date in 1952, actor, comedian, playwright and LGBT activist Harvey Forbes Fierstein was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He debuted in the Andy Warhol play “Pork” in 1971. He has since been in over 60 off-off-Broadway plays, including his own productions. One of his three-act plays, “The Torch Song Trilogy,” in which he played a gay man, opened off-off-Broadway in 1980, transferred to Broadway and won Fierstein two Tony Awards, an Obie, a Dramatist Guild Award, two Drama Desk Awards and a nomination for the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award.

    The hugely successful play was made into a movie in 1988, with Fierstein writing the screenplay and co-starring with Matthew Broderick and Anne Bancroft. He earned his third Tony for his book of the musical “La Cage aux Folles.” He picked up a fourth Tony for his portrayal of Edna Turnblad in the Broadway version of “Hairspray” (2003).

    In addition to his theater work, Fierstein is a popular face (and voice) in films, including such hits as “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993), “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994), “Independence Day” (1996), “Death to Smoochy” (2002) and “Duplex” (2003), which starred Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore. His trademark voice has lent its popularity to TV shows like “The Simpsons,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “Family Guy” and animated movies such as Disney’s “Mulan” (1998), “Kingdom Hearts II” (2005) and “Farce of the Penguins” (2006). He won an Emmy for narrating the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984). 

    Fierstein is a leading gay rights activist and has consistently made his views on religion known. In an interview about playing Tevye in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” when asked if he was generally religious, Fierstein said: “No, but I am Jewish. … I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in heaven or hell.”

    In a 2022 People magazine interview, Fierstein stated, “I’m still confused as to whether I’m a man or a woman,” and said that as a child he often wondered if he’d been born in the wrong body. “When I was a kid, I was attracted to men. I didn’t feel like a boy was supposed to feel. Then I found out about gay. So that was enough for me for then.”

    PHOTO: by David Shinbone photo under CC 3.0.

    “We are lucky enough to be living in a country that not only guarantees the freedom to practice religion as we see fit, but also freedom FROM religious zealots who would persecute and prosecute and even physically harm those of us who do not believe as they do. … Predicating patriotism on a citizen’s belief in God is as anti-American as judging him on the color of his skin. It is wrong. It is useless. It is unconstitutional.” 

    —Fierstein, "In the Life" broadcast by Generation Q (November 2004)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Alexandra Lúgaro

    Alexandra Lúgaro

    On this date in 1981, Alexandra Lúgaro Aponte — attorney, atheist, businesswoman and political activist — was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to América (Aponte) and Luis Lúgaro Figueroa. 

    After graduating from high school at age 15, she earned a degree in business administration from the University of Puerto Rico, followed by a juris doctorate in 2005. While engaged in her law practice, she received a master of laws (LL.M.) in public and private comparative law in 2014 from Complutense University of Madrid. Its thesis: taxation of income derived from illegal activities in Spain, the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

    During that period she was also executive director of the Metropolitan New School of America and América Aponte & Associates — the latter founded by her mother — and president of Im-mortalis Corp. Lúgaro’s work focused on educational consulting for nonprofit and government clients. Her mother’s firm had contracts with the U.S. Department of Education for $46 million in funding for various tutorial programs.

    Lúgaro gave birth in 2010 to her daughter Valentina through in-vitro fertilization with an anonymous donor. She married professional photographer Edwin Domínguez in Thailand in 2011 and announced their divorce in 2015.

    She entered the political arena in 2015 as the first-ever Independent candidate for governor of Puerto Rico. The office traditionally had gone back and forth between the two major parties. Her platform, based on public education and economic development, supported same-sex unions, reproductive choice and legalization of marijuana for medical, social and economic reasons.

    A religious group named PR for the Family condemned the platform after Lúgaro came out as an atheist: “You can’t call yourself a Christian and vote for this candidate,” it said in a December 2015 post. (Primera Hora, Nov. 27, 2016) She won just over 11 percent of the vote. In 2020 she ran as the candidate of the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizens’ Victory Movement), finished with 14 percent of the vote and announced her retirement from politics.

    After the first election, she had started managing reggaeton singer/rapper William Omar Landrón Rivera, aka Don Omar. He retired in 2019 after selling over 70 million albums. She became executive director in 2021 of the Foundation for Puerto Rico’s Center for Strategic Innovation. Motto: There is no future in rebuilding the past. 

    “I’m a supporter of our constitution, which enshrines the separation of church and state,” she has said. (Latin Post, April 21, 2015) “This is a principle constantly being criticized. But the separation of church and state, I believe, means there should exist, within a democratic state, a way in which we are all treated equally. The separation of church and state prevents the state from meddling in church affairs. In the same way, the church can impose rules on its members but not the rest of society.”

    PHOTO: Lúgaro 2016 campaign photo under CC 4.0.

    JOURNALIST: Do you attend any church?
    LÚGARO: No, not at the moment.
    JOURNALIST: Do you believe in God?
    LÚGARO: First of all, I think that it is not relevant to the candidacy and I have always said it because I want people to be clear that I am here to represent Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists … I have to ensure that all people are equal before the law. However, if you ask me about my personal quality, I don’t believe in God.

    —Responding to José Santiago Gabrielini of Nueva Isla online. (Primera Hora, Nov. 27, 2016)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Wafa Sultan

    Wafa Sultan

    On this date in 1958, Wafa Sultan was born in Banias, Syria. Sultan received her degree in medicine at the University of Aleppo, where she says she lost her faith in Islam after seeing one of her professors gunned down by the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1989 she and her husband emigrated to Los Angeles with their children.

    Sultan has written essays critical of Islam, some published on the reform website Annaqed (The Critic). In 2005, Sultan gained notoriety for her appearance on Al Jazeera debating a Muslim cleric and asking, “Why does a young Muslim man, in the prime of life, with a full life ahead, go and blow himself up? In our countries, religion is the sole source of education and is the only spring from which that terrorist drank until his thirst was quenched.”

    In 2009 she published her first book in English, A God Who Hates: The Courageous Woman Who Inflamed the Muslim World Speaks Out Against the Evils of Islam. She describes herself as a cultural Muslim. In 2006 she received FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award.

    “I receive too many emails from women in the Islamic world, telling me: ‘Go ahead, we are behind you,’ but unfortunately they’re afraid for their lives.”

    —Sultan, speaking to FFRF's 2006 national convention
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski; photo by Brent Nicastro

    Paul Broca

    Paul Broca

    On this date in 1824, Pierre Paul Broca was born in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, France. He began attending medical school when he was only 17, graduated at 20 and later earned degrees in mathematics, literature and physics. Broca went on to become a professor of surgical pathology at the University of Paris and was an accomplished anatomist who advanced understanding of speech production in the brain. His most important achievement was discovering Broca’s area, a region of the brain responsible for speech production.

    His work was also influential in cancer pathology and treatment of brain aneurysms. Broca founded the Anthropological Society of Paris in 1859, and his findings in anthropology often contradicted biblical teachings. Broca himself died, ironically, of a brain aneurysm. His brain was preserved after his death, becoming the inspiration for Carl Sagan’s 1974 book Broca’s Brain.

    According to The End of the Soul by Jennifer Michael Hecht (2003), Broca thought that the more educated humans were, the less religious they would become. Broca also firmly supported natural selection: “Far from blushing in shame for my species because of its genealogy and parentage, I will be proud of all that evolution has accomplished.” (D. 1880)

    “[Religion is] nothing more than a type of submission to authority.” 

    —Broca, "Bulletins de la Société d’anthropologie de Paris"
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Stokely Carmichael

    Stokely Carmichael

    On this date in 1941, Stokely Standiford Churchill Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture, was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, to Mabel “May” and Adolphus Carmichael, respectively a steamship stewardess and a carpenter and cab driver. His parents moved to New York when he was 2 and he was raised by his grandparents before joining his parents in Harlem at age 11. They attended a United Methodist church.

    His time at the Bronx High School of Science “led Carmichael to sever his traditional religious notions and pushed him toward secular humanism,” wrote Christopher Cameron in Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (2019). Impetus came from “the curriculum at Bronx Science, which Carmichael stated was ‘heavily focused on Western rationalism, scientific materialism, and the scientific method, all of which I found logical and thus intellectually satisfying.’ Because of this curriculum, Carmichael claimed, ‘my religious feelings gradually lessened.’ “

    After graduating in 1960, he enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he joined a chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and became active in the civil rights movement. In 1961 he went to Mississippi along with other Freedom Riders, was arrested and served 49 days behind bars in the notorious Parchman Farm prison.

    Despite attending many Young Communist League meetings, he never joined, according to Cameron: “His own devotion to religion was waning, but he knew that was not the case for most black people in the United States, and he [wrote in Ready for Revolution that he] ‘did not want to be alienated from my people because of Marxist atheism.’ … Carmichael came to believe that if he was going to be a serious civil rights activist, ‘then any talk of atheism and the rejection of God just wasn’t going to cut it.’ “

    He continued his activism, succeeded John Lewis as SNCC chairman in 1966 and gave his first “black power” speech at a March Against Fear rally organized by James Meredith. After stepping down as SNCC chair, he wrote the book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (1967) with Charles Hamilton. He started distancing himself from the Black Panther Party after serving for a time as its “honorary prime minister.”

    In 1968, now calling himself Kwame Ture, he married the South African singer Miriam Makeba and they settled in Conakry, Guinea, in west Africa. Makeba was named Guinea’s delegate to the United Nations. After divorcing in 1973, he married Marlyatou Barry, a Guinean doctor. They had a son, Bokar (b. 1982) before divorcing.

    In a long essay in Life magazine in 1967, photojournalist and filmmaker Gordon Parks wrote how Carmichael’s mother once confronted him about the danger of his activism by saying, “I’ve got one son. Let other Negroes give of theirs for a while.” He answered, “What’s all this religious stuff you taught me about Abraham sacrificing his son. If you really believe that, you shouldn’t mind sacrificing your own son.”

    In his last years, Carmichael promoted the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party founded by Ghanaian politician Kwame Nkrumah to unify the continent politically. He often returned to speak at Howard University and other U.S. campuses. After a 1996 prostate cancer diagnosis, he was treated in Cuba and at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York before returning to Guinea.

    He died of cancer at age 57 in Conakry. Julian Bond, NAACP chair, said Carmichael “ought to be remembered for having spent almost every moment of his adult life trying to advance the cause of black liberation.” D. 1998.

    “They were all reading the funnies while I was trying to dig Darwin and Marx.”

    —Carmichael, on why he quit a neighborhood gang in high school, recounted by Gordon Parks in Life magazine (May 19, 1967)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Harriet Johnson

    Harriet Johnson

    On this date in 1957, Harriet McBryde Johnson was born in eastern North Carolina. Johnson was a civil rights lawyer in Charleston and a disability rights advocate. She advocated for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and spoke powerfully about her own experience with her disability. Johnson was born with a degenerative neuromuscular condition — she was unconcerned with the specific diagnosis — and used a motorized wheelchair as an adult. She represented disabled people in court, ran for local office and was active in the disability-rights group Not Dead Yet, which advocates against physician-assisted suicide and opposes the idea of euthanasia of severely disabled infants.

    Johnson was involved in a private correspondence with philosopher Peter Singer, also an atheist. The two debated the idea of euthanasia of severely disabled infants at Princeton University in 2003. Johnson published many opinion pieces and personal narratives in national newspapers, such as The New York Times, and wrote two books, Too Late to Die Young (2005) and Accidents of Nature (2006). She also spoke out against the “charity mentality” surrounding disability, and was publicly opposed to the “Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.” D. 2008.

    “As an atheist, I think all preferences are moot once you kill someone. The injury is entirely to the surviving community.”

    —Johnson, quoted in The New York Times (Feb. 16, 2003)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Faye Wattleton

    Faye Wattleton

    On this date in 1943, reproductive rights activist Alyce Faye Wattleton was born in St. Louis. Her mother was a Church of God minister who frequently preached in various locations, and her father was a construction worker. She spent much of her early childhood in the care of family and church members in different states while her mother evangelized.

    Wattleton graduated from Calhoun High School in Port Lavaca, Texas. In an interview for O, The Oprah Magazine (December 2001), she said: “I was raised in a very sheltered, narrow environment. No smoking, drinking, dancing, movies. My mother taught me a lot of things, but they had big presuppositions built in — like her expectation that I’d be a missionary nurse in a religious order.” Her mother believed no profession was worth pursuing unless it also had a religious purpose.

    She received her B.S. in nursing from Ohio State University in 1964 and her M.S. in midwifery and maternal and infant health from Columbia University in 1967. She later said that studying for a midwifery master’s was “perhaps the most dramatic phase and turning point in my life.” In between degrees, she taught maternity nursing in Dayton, Ohio.

    Wattleton was named executive director of Planned Parenthood in Dayton in 1971, married jazz musician Franklin Gordon in 1972 and gave birth to their daughter Felicia in 1975. They divorced when Felicia was 6. In 1978 she was named president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America — its youngest and first African-American president and its first woman president since founder Margaret Sanger. She held this position until 1992. She then led the Center for the Advancement of Women and hosted a Chicago-based talk show.

    In 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Her memoir Life on the Line was published in 1996. Wattleton co-founded and directed EeroQ, a quantum computing company. She was the American Humanist Association’s 1986 Humanist of the Year and received the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Humanitarian Award and Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award. 

    In a 2017 interview with W magazine, Wattleton was asked if she was surprised that Planned Parenthood was still under attack by conservative Christians and politicians. “The woman who founded Planned Parenthood went to jail seven times,” she responded. “The progression of this organization in advancing women’s possibilities has always been under attack.” 

    PHOTO: Wattleton in 2019 at the New York premiere of the PBS documentary “Reconstruction: America After The Civil War.” Photo by Lev Radin/Shutterstock.com.

    “If I was to be a nurse, [people with beliefs different from mine] needed my care and not my judgment. They needed my compassion and understanding and not my moral values. So I began to really think in a broader context than the narrow religious upbringing of my parents.”

    —Wattleton, speaking at a St. Louis bookstore about "Life on the Line" (C-SPAN, Oct. 22, 1996)
    Compiled by Barbara Alvarez

    Fred Edwords

    Fred Edwords

    On this date in 1948, humanist leader Fred Edwords was born in San Diego. He has dedicated his life to advocating for the atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist and freethinking communities. In the late 1960s he attended San Diego City College and the Bill Wade School of Radio and Television, going on to work as a radio newscaster and then as an underground filmmaker. Edwords directed the United Coalition of Reason, which was founded in 2009 and works to promote the community of reason and separation of church and state.

    Edwords worked for the American Humanist Association for over 20 years, serving as executive director and then as editor of The Humanist, the organization’s magazine. He was president of Camp Quest, a children’s summer camp that promotes reason, critical thinking and other ideas embraced by the humanist and secular movements. The camp’s motto is, “Camp Quest. It’s beyond belief!” He and Mary Caroll Murchison married in 1980 and have two daughters.

    PHOTO: American Humanist Association photo under CC 3.0.

    “Much of human progress has been in defiance of religion or of the apparent natural order. The defiance of religious and secular authority has led to democracy, human rights, and the protection of the environment. Humanists make no apologies for this. Humanists twist no biblical doctrine to justify such actions.”

    —Edwords, “What is Humanism?” (1989, retrieved from the American Humanist Association website)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano

    Vern Bullough

    Vern Bullough

    On this date in 1928, Vern Leroy Bullough was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. He earned a B.A. in history and languages from the University of Utah in 1951, an M.A. in history from the University of Chicago in 1951, a Ph.D. in the history of medicine and science from the University of Chicago in 1954 and a B.S. in nursing from California State University-Long Beach in 1981. Bullough was a sexologist and historian, as well as a professor of nursing, sociology and history. He was Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Social Sciences at State University of New York at Buffalo and was one of the founders of the Center for Sex Research at Cal State.

    Bullough received numerous awards for his work, including the prestigious Kinsey Award in 1995. He was a strong supporter of civil liberties who worked with the ACLU and the NAACP. Bullough has published and edited numerous books, many co-written with his first wife, Bonnie Uckerman Bullough, who was also a nurse and sexologist. Their collaborations include The Subordinate Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women (1973) and Sexual Attitudes: Myths and Realities (1995).

    Bullough was co-president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union from 1994-97 and its vice president in 1997-98. He received a Distinguished Humanist Service Award from the IHEU in 1992. Bullough was an honorary associate of the Indian Rationalist Association, and also worked with the Humanist Academy. He wrote the 1994 essay “Science, Humanism, and the New Enlightenment.”

    He had married Bonnie, his high school sweetheart, in 1947. They had two sons (David, 1954, and James, 1956). They expanded their family through the adoption of Steven (1958), Susan (1961) and Michael (1966). James died tragically when hit by a car in 1967 in Egypt during Bonnie’s year as a Fulbright Scholar. She died in 1996. Bullough later married Gwen Baker. He died of cancer at age 77 in 2006.

    Photo: Oviatt Library, CSU-Northridge 

    “[Vern Bullough] will be sorely missed as one of the leading secular humanists in North America and the world.” 

    Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry and Council for Secular Humanism, quoted on the IHEU website.

    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor and Bonnie Gutsch

    Lawrence Lader

    Lawrence Lader

    On this date in 1919, Lawrence Lader was born in New York City. He graduated from Harvard University in 1941 and later served during World War II. Lader was a writer and journalist who worked for Reader’s Digest and The New Republic and wrote many books about abortion rights. His 1966 book Abortion was among the first major works published about the then-taboo subject. It was influential in the Roe v. Wade decision: The Supreme Court cited Abortion numerous times in its decision.

    Lader co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America). Lader’s other titles include The Margaret Sanger Story and the Fight for Birth Control (1955) and Bold Brahmins: New England’s War Against Slavery, 1831-63 (1973). He and his wife, Joan Summers Lader, had a daughter, Wendy.

    According to Anne Nicol Gaylor, co-founder of FFRF who served with Lader on the NARAL board of directors, Lader was a freethinker. In 1987 he published Politics, Power, and the Church: The Catholic Crisis and Its Challenge to American Pluralism. Lader wrote, “The Catholic hierarchy still rejects pluralism when many of its moral beliefs and dogma are in dispute. Through legislation on divorce, school prayer, abortion, and a host of issues, it has sought to legalize its moral codes.”

    Lader was awarded FFRF’s Freethought Pioneer Award in 1989 for his 1988–89 lawsuit against the Catholic Church, which asked for the church’s tax-exempt status to be removed because of its political lobbying. The lawsuit was lost on standing. He died of colon cancer in 2006.

    “Catholic power, allied with Fundamentalism, has threatened the American tenet of church-state separation and shaken the fragile balance of our pluralistic society.”

    —Lader, "Politics, Power and the Church" (1987)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Margaret Downey

    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. 

    “Religion, after all, is based on superstitious nonsense, and people sitting in church pews praying to a god are no different from people sitting in a circle conducting a séance.”

    —From Downey's essay "My 'Bye Bull' Story" in "50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists" (eds. Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, 2009)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Howard Zinn

    Howard Zinn

    On this date in 1922, historian, author and peace activist Howard Zinn was born in New York City to Jewish immigrants. As a 17-year-old, Zinn attended a political rally in Times Square at the urging of neighborhood Communists and was knocked unconscious by police. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, received an Air Medal and, upon returning home, placed his medal and military papers in a folder on which he wrote “Never again.”

    Zinn attended New York University and received a doctorate in history from Columbia University. He became chair of the history and social sciences department of Spelman College, the historically black college for women in segregated Atlanta, in 1956. He participated in the civil rights movement, served on the executive committee for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and inspired many of his students, including Alice Walker.

    Fired for “insubordination” from Spelman in 1963 (for his criticism of the school’s failure to participate in the civil rights movement), Zinn took a position teaching history at Boston University, which he held until retirement in 1988.

    An aggressive and early opponent of the Vietnam War (and war in general) and champion of liberal causes, Zinn’s 1967 Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, was the first book calling for immediate withdrawal from the war with no exceptions. His A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980 with a small printing and little promotion, was a best-seller, hitting 1 million in sales by 2003. In his 1994 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn wrote, “I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it.”

    While his publications were numerous, some of the highlights include the plays “Emma” (1976), about radical feminist and atheist Emma Goldman, “Daughter of Venus” (1985) and “Marx in Soho: A Play on History” (1999), and books such as Artists in Times of War (2003), History Matters: Conversations on History and Politics (2006), and Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian (1993).

    Zinn received the 1958 Albert J. Beveridge Prize from the American Historical Association for his book, LaGuardia in Congress; the 1998 Eugene V. Debs Award from the Debs Foundation; the Upton Sinclair Award in 1999; and the 1998 Lannan Literary Award. Zinn’s wife and lifetime collaborator, Roslyn, died in 2008. Zinn died of a heart attack while swimming at the age of 87 in 2010.

    Zinn at the Pathfinder Bookstore in Los Angeles in 2000. CC 4.0

    “If I was promised that we could sit with Marx in some great Deli Haus in the hereafter, I might believe in it! Sure, I find inspiration in Jewish stories of hope, also in the Christian pacifism of the Berrigans, also in Taoism and Buddhism. I identify as a Jew, but not on religious grounds. Yes, I believe, as Pascal said, ‘The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.’ There are limits to reason. There is mystery, there is passion, there is something spiritual in the arts — but it is not connected to Judaism or any other religion.”

    —Tikkun magazine interview, "Howard Zinn on Fixing What's Wrong" (May 17, 2006)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Claire Eglin Culhane

    Claire Eglin Culhane

    On this date in 1918, Canadian activist Claire Eglin was born in Montreal to Russian-Jewish immigrants. She and her brother were the only Jewish students at Maisonneuve School, she told an interviewer. “At Christmas time, we were rejected because we didn’t believe in Jesus Christ. At Easter, we were sometimes pelted with rocks because ‘the Jews crucified Christ.’ ” She began her activist efforts as a teenager, helping with relief efforts in Quebec during the Great Depression and protesting to end the Spanish Civil War.

    Despite anti-Semitic discrimination and other obstacles, she graduated from high school, learned how to drive, and trained as a nurse. Eglin Culhane also took a business course to work for a family company. She later found consistent employment by specializing in new systems of medical records. She married union organizer Gerry Culhane and they had two daughters. The couple later divorced.

    Eglin Culhane established a tuberculosis hospital in Vietnam during the war, picketed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa against the war, staged sit-ins at prison wardens’ offices, hosted a cable TV show called “Instead of Prisons,” and spoke extensively on the subject of prisons as social control. In 1968, she met with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to discuss Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War. She came under police scrutiny and a file on her expanded to several hundred pages, a fact she was proud of.

    One of her final public acts was to take sides with Aboriginals in a dispute with local officials at the OKA Reservation in Ontario. She wrote several books, including Barred from Prison (1979) and Why Is Canada in Vietnam? The Truth About Our Foreign Aid (1972). Biographer Mick Lowe’s 1992 book was titled One Woman Army: The Life of Claire Culhane. In her own book, No Longer Barred from Prison: Social Injustice in Canada (1991), she wrote, “We can only proceed, individually and collectively, to make whatever improvements are possible in our respective areas of concern, sustained by the hope that others are doing the same.”

    She was inducted into the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. She was also a member of the BC Humanist Association. She died in Vancouver in 1996.

    “Once when asked about religion, she replied, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ “

    —"A Humanist Portrait: Claire Culhane" by Glenn Hardie, Humanist Perspectives (Spring 2013)
    Compiled by Glenn Hardie and Sarah Eucalano

    Jerry DeWitt

    Jerry DeWitt

    On this date in 1969, Jerry DeWitt was born in DeRidder, La., the progeny of a long line of Pentecostal preachers. DeWitt was an evangelical pastor of two churches in DeRidder for 25 years. His journey to atheism was gradual, doubts beginning to form when he contemplated the idea of hell. He secretly joined the Clergy Project, a confidential online community for active and former preachers who no longer hold supernatural beliefs. When a photo of DeWitt and Richard Dawkins circulated, unintentionally outing DeWitt, he embraced his status as the first “graduate” of the Clergy Project, though not without cost.

    After coming out publicly as an atheist in 2011, DeWitt lost his wife, his job and many friends and relatives. Soon after he became the volunteer executive director of Recovering From Religion, serving until 2012. Speaking to Oklahoma freethinkers in 2012, he said, “Pretending has an adult word that we call faith. What religion calls faith is really pretending to believe.”

    In 2013 he wrote a book about his experiences, Hope After Faith and hosted the first meeting of the Community Mission Chapel, a so-called “atheist church” in his home state. DeWitt travels to freethought gatherings around the country, deploying the oratory skills he acquired from preaching to share his story and his thoughts on “the five stages of disbelief.” “I loved God for 25 years, but yet in my search was not able to find any true evidence or proof of his existence or intervention,” he told CNN (July 22, 2013).

    “Skepticism is my nature, freethought is my methodology, agnosticism is my conclusion after 25 years of being in the ministry, and atheism is my opinion.”

    —DeWitt, CNN interview (July 22, 2013)
    Compiled by Noah Bunnell

    Simon Singh

    Simon Singh

    On this date in 1964, Simon Singh was born in Somerset, England, after his parents immigrated to Britain from the Punjab region of India. He majored in physics at the Imperial College in London and received his Ph.D. in 1991 in particle physics from Cambridge University and at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva. He eventually became a writer with a focus on math and science. The BBC science department hired Singh in 1990.

    He directed the 1996 BAFTA award-winning documentary on a math theorem titled, “Fermat’s Last Theorem.” NOVA showed the documentary in the U.S. under the title “The Proof,” which received an Emmy nomination. Singh turned the documentary into his first book, called Fermat’s Last Theorem in Britain and Fermat’s Enigma in the U.S. In 1999 he published his second book, The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy From Mary, Queen Of Scots to Quantum Cryptography. He wrote Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need To Know About It in 2004.

    His article in April 2008 criticizing chiropractic, an alternative medicine that uses manual therapy, resulted in the British Chiropractic Association suing for libel in a case that Singh won after two years. He became an advocate for fairer libel laws via the Libel Reform Campaign in Britain and co-wrote Trick Or Treatment?: Alternative Medicine on Trial in 2008. Singh is active in the skeptic community. He married journalist Anita Anand in 2007. They live in London with their two sons.

    Photo by Richardc39 under CC 3.0.

    “For tens of thousands of years, humans have stared up into the heavens and wondered about the origin of the universe. Up until now every culture, society, and religion has had nothing else to turn to except its creation myths, fables, or religious scriptures. Today, by contrast, we have the extraordinary privilege of being the first generation of our species to have access to a scientific theory of the universe that explains its origin and evolution.”

    —Singh, CNN.com op-ed, "Why I'm dreaming of a white-noise Christmas” (Dec. 24, 2010)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano

    Rosemary Matson

    Rosemary Matson

    On this date in 1917, feminist, activist, humanist and grassroots organizer Rosemary Matson was born at the family farm in Geneva, Iowa. Matson set an example for others by acting virtuously and advocating for world peace, equal opportunity and the right of women to have a voice. She lived in many places, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Berkeley, Calif., and, finally, in her longtime home in Carmel Valley, Calif.

    Matson was a longtime member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the National Organization for Women. Through these organizations, she conducted outreach, served on committees and created programming. She also co-wrote a 100-page guide for a Unitarian Universalist (UU) course on patriarchy that used Unraveling the Gender Knot: Challenging the System that Binds Us by Allan G. Johnson as the text.

    Matson did not identify as an atheist, and she and her husband Howard Matson became prominent figures in the UU’s Women and Religion Movement. However, she worked to remove sexist practices from Christianity and performed weddings and memorial services as a humanist minister, using nonsexist practices and nontheistic inspirational statements. She was honored with a UU Ministry to Women award in 1998 and received many other awards for her decades of leadership in peace and social justice movements.

    She overcame breast cancer and was honored in the 2006 collection “Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975.” She died at age 97. (D. 2014)

    “A new global ethic is absolutely essential at this critical juncture in history. But it can only come about with a more balanced social system — a balance between feminine and masculine characteristics, behaviors and perspectives.”

    —Rosemary Matson, "Women reborn — a humanistic revolution," essay in The Humanist
    Compiled by Tolulope Igun

    Christopher Reeve

    Christopher Reeve

    On this date in 1952, Christopher Reeve was born in New York, N.Y. His acting career had an early start at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey when he was 9. Reeve graduated from Cornell University with a degree in music theory and English, and later attended the Juilliard School of Performing Arts. Reeve became a prolific theater actor, most notably performing in the Broadway play, “A Matter of Gravity” (1976), along with Katharine Hepburn.

    Although Reeve acted in about 150 plays, he is most famous for his films — especially the immensely popular “Superman” (1978) and its three sequels, in which Reeve played the title role. His other films include “Somewhere in Time” (1980), “The Aviator” (1985) and “Village of the Damned” (1995).

    Reeve appeared in numerous television shows such as “Smallville” and “Sesame Street” and he directed the film “In the Gloaming” (1997). He married Dana Morosini in 1992 and they had one son, William, born in 1992. Reeve also had two children with Gae Exton: Matthew, born in 1979, and Alexandra, born in 1983.

    In 1995, he was paralyzed from the neck down after a horseback riding accident that injured his spinal cord. Following his paralysis, he became a disability activist who narrated the documentary “Without Pity: A Film About Abilities” (1996). Reeve was appointed Chairman of the American Paralysis Association in 1996, the same year that he and his wife founded the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which funds spinal cord research.

    “It’s frightening to me, the organized religion,” Reeve told Charlie Rose in a 2002 interview when he spoke about his childhood fear of church and its images of a violent god. Reeve added, “My father was not religious at all, so I really did not bother with questions of faith and spirituality.” He became a Unitarian Universalist after his accident. He died at age 52 after an antibiotic for an infection sent him into cardiac arrest and a coma. (D. 2004)

    “[F]amily, friends and well-wishers from around the world assured me that prayers and my faith in God would comfort me. I tried to pray but I didn’t feel any better, nor did I make any kind of connection with God.”

    —Reeve's memoir, "Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections On a New Life" (2002)
    Compiled by Sabrina and Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Featureflash, Shutterstock.com

    Ta-Nehisi Coates

    Ta-Nehisi Coates

    On this date in 1975, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in Baltimore, Md. His father, William, was a former Black Panther who stayed at home to care for their large family while his mother, Cheryl, was the family’s breadwinner. Coates wrote about his childhood in his memoir “The Beautiful Struggle” and the impact that ongoing violence and crime had on him and his siblings.

    Coates enrolled in Howard University but dropped out to become a journalist. After joining The Atlantic magazine, he became one of its widely read writers about race, history and politics. He won the 2012 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism and the 2014 George Polk Award for his feature article “The Case for Reparations,” in which he wrote, “More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” He left his position as national correspondent for The Atlantic in 2018.

    Coates was a Martin Luther King Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2013-14. He gives talks across the country about writing, race, politics, and white supremacy in America. He and his wife Kenyatta Matthews have a son, Samori Maceo-Paul Coates.

    In 2015 he recieved a MacArthur “Genius” Award. His signature book, a New York Times 2015 best-seller, is Between the World and Me, which takes the form of a poignant letter to his teenage son. In it he wrote, “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

    His 2008 memoir about his father and himself is The Beautiful Struggle. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017) collected new and previously published essays on the Obama era. In 2016 he co-wrote a critically acclaimed graphic novel series titled “Black Panther and the Crew” for Marvel Comics that revived its Black Panther character, the first black superhero in mainstream American comics, first appearing in 1966. Coates continued as head writer until Marvel canceled the series in 2017 after six issues. Marvel capitalized on the revived popularity of the character with the 2018 hit movie “Black Panther,” with a sequel scheduled for release in 2020.

    Photo by Eduardo Montes-Bradley.

    “I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.”

    —Coates in a column titled “The Myth of Western Civilization” (The Atlantic, Dec. 12, 2013)
    Compiled by Dayna Long

    Bob Geldof

    Bob Geldof

    On this date in 1951, Robert Frederick Zenon Geldof was born in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland. He attended Blackrock College and became a music journalist for Georgia Straight in Vancouver, B.C., after graduation. Returning to Ireland, he became the lead singer of the punk rock band the Boomtown Rats (1975–86), known for the songs “I Don’t Like Mondays” (1979), “Rat Trap” (1978) and “Up All Night” (1981).

    In 1986 he went solo and published his autobiography Is That It?. He portrayed Pink in “The Wall” (1982), based on Pink Floyd’s album. He married journalist Payla Yates in 1986 and the couple had three children: Fifi, born in 1983, Peaches, born in 1989, and Pixie, born in 1990. They divorced after Yates left him for INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence, who committed suicide in 1997. Yates died of a drug and alcohol overdose in 2000. Peaches died of a heroin overdose in 2014.

    Geldof is a philanthropist and anti-poverty activist. In 1984 he formed the musical group Band Aid, which raised $8 million to aid Ethiopia. Geldof also helped organize the Live Aid concerts in 1985, which raised over $150 million to combat African famine. He followed with the Live 8 concerts in 2005 featuring over 1,000 musicians. He was elected a member of the Commission for Africa in 2004, received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 Brit Awards for his musical accomplishments, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times and was knighted in 1986.

    When asked in an Independent article (July 10, 2006) if he was a saint or a sinner, Geldof replied, “Being an atheist I can’t be either.” In a 2011 interview with the Manchester Jewish Telegraph, he explained: “I was a quarter Catholic, a quarter Protestant, a quarter Jewish and a quarter nothing — the nothing won.”

    After several successful business ventures, he formed the private equity firm 8 Miles in 2008, investing solely in Africa and domiciled on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. The firm has come under criticism for operating out of a country seen as a tax haven instead of locating in Africa.

    “I actively disliked the Church and its institutionalized morality which I felt bedeviled Ireland.”

    —Geldof in his autobiography "Is That It?" (1986)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor; photo by Prometheus72 / Shutterstock.com

    Dan Savage

    Dan Savage

    On this date in 1964, gay rights activist and writer Daniel Keenan Savage was born in Chicago. Savage is famous for his sex advice column “Savage Love,” which is syndicated in more than 70 publications. He is also known and respected for his longtime advocacy for LGBT rights. He drew media attention in 2012 when he gave a talk to a conference of high school students and encouraged them to “ignore the bullshit in the bible about gay people.”

    Savage earned degrees in theater and history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He later moved to Madison, Wis., where he met Tim Keck, the co-founder of the popular satirical newspaper The Onion in 1991. Keck asked Savage to write an advice column for the paper. Savage agreed and the column eventually became “Savage Love.”  

    In 2010 he and his husband Terry Miller started the “It Gets Better” project in response to a series of teens who committed suicide because they were bullied about their sexual orientation. Over 150,000 people submitted videos encouraging LGBT teens that their lives will improve and they will find acceptance. The videos have received over 50 million views, and many prominent people such as President Barack Obama, Ellen DeGeneres and the singer Kesha submitted one.

    Savage and Miller married in 2005 in British Columbia and renewed their vows in 2012 when Washington state legalized same-sex unions. They have a son, D.J., adopting him as an infant in 1998. D.J.’s homeless birth mother chose them from a group of 80 prospective parents profiled by a Washington-based agency.

    Savage was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 2013, the same year he attended FFRF’s national convention to accept an Emperor Has No Clothes Award. (Read his acceptance speech, “The Day My Catholic Family Fell Apart Fast.”)

    “My father was a Catholic deacon, my mother was a lay minister and I thought about becoming a priest. I was in church every Sunday for the first 15 years of my life. Now I spend my Sundays on my bike, on my snowboard or on my husband. I haven’t spent my post-Catholic decades in a sulk, wishing the church would come around on the issue of homosexuality so that I could start attending Mass again. I didn’t abandon my faith. I saw through it. The conflict between my faith and my sexuality set that process in motion, but the conclusions I reached at the end of that process — there are no gods, religion is man-made, faith can be a force for good or evil — improved my life. I’m grateful that my sexuality prompted me to think critically about faith. Pushed out? No. I walked out.”

    —Savage, quoted in "What God Wants," The New York Times (April 14, 2013)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano; photo by Ingrid Laas

    James Fergus

    James Fergus

    On this date in 1813, James Fergus was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland. He became a U.S. citizen in 1839 and in 1862 he settled in what would become Montana. He became an influential politician, cattle rancher, miner and judge. Fergus began questioning his family’s Presbyterian religion as a child and his “freethinking agnosticism” grew stronger after he left Scotland at age 20. “I am better known for my unbelief than any man in the territory, except [fellow Montana pioneer] Granville Stuart,” Fergus wrote in an 1883 letter.

    His freethought views were so strong that when a Christian relative offered him a large sum of money if Fergus would tell him that there could be a God, Fergus refused. Although he needed the money, he replied to his relative, “I have come to the conclusion that there is not enough money in Scotland to make me tell a lie.”

    He held several political positions and founded Fergus County. His wife, Pamelia Dillin, whom Fergus married in 1845, was also a freethinker. They had four children: Mary Agnes, Francis Luella, Andrew and Lillie.

    Fergus actively supported the separation of state and church. During his time as a Territorial Council member, he opposed using taxes to fund a chaplain for council meetings and in 1884 he opposed including God in the Montana Constitution. He wrote an editorial in 1888 for the Fort Benton Record vigorously opposing converting Native Americans to Christianity.

    Fergus is quoted as saying in 1883, “The Christian religion brought about a long period of ignorance still known to us as the Dark Ages, during which thought was curbed, common education banished, and conscience given over to a rude, vulgar and ignorant priesthood. And whatever good Christianity may have done since, much of the degeneracy of mankind during this period must be laid at its door.” (All quotations from the Fergus County History and Genealogy website.) D. 1902

    “Religion is declining, with no better proof than I am here today. Two hundred years ago, I would have been burned at the stake. What was considered heresay [sic] by our fathers is tolerated now. The hell that frightened us in childhood has vanished into space. Heaven is not in our geographies. Therefore, we see the old faiths losing their hold on the human mind.”

    —Fergus, Society of Montana Pioneers speech, 1885 (quoted in the Lewistown News-Argus, 1994)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Roxane Gay

    Roxane Gay

    On this date in 1974, feminist writer and professor Roxane Gay was born in Omaha, Nebraska to Haitian immigrants. Her father was a civil engineer whose career meant that the family moved often. She has described spending much of her time reading and writing, and she fell in love with literature at an early age. She attended Yale for a year but left at 19, finishing her undergraduate degree in Nebraska, near her family. She earned a doctorate in rhetoric and technical communication from Michigan Technological University.

    Gay founded the Illinois-based independent publisher Tiny Hardcore Press, is a contributing editor for Bluestem Magazine and a co-editor for PANK, a nonprofit literary arts collective. She has written for Salon, Jezebel, the American Prospect and the Rumpus. Her short stories have been featured in numerous collections, including Best American Short Stories 2012 and Best American Mystery Stories 2014.

    In 2011 she published Ayiti, a short story collection. In 2014 she published the novel An Untamed State and The New York Times best-seller Bad Feminist, a collection of essays about feminism, race, gender and pop culture. Time magazine declared 2014 “the Year of Roxane Gay.” She is a nationally ranked Scrabble player and a professor of English at Purdue University. Though Gay describes her younger self as “a good girl who went to church,” she no longer believes in God.

    SLOWKING photo: Gay in 2014. GNU Free Documentation License 1.2

    “I try to understand faith and religion. I was raised by wonderful Catholic parents who were deeply faithful and taught us that God is a God of love. Even though I am lapsed, I respect that others turn to God and religion for guidance, for solace, for salvation. What I cannot respect is when that faith dictates how others should live their lives. I cannot respect when such faith tells some people that their lives are unworthy of dignity.”

    —Gay, quoted in The Guardian, "Indiana is not protecting religious freedom but outright zealotry" (March 27, 2015)
    Compiled by Dayna Long

    Alton Lemon

    Alton Lemon

    On this date in 1928, Alton Lemon, who would go on to win a major state/church victory before the U.S. Supreme court, was born in McDonough, Ga. He grew up in Atlanta. As a youth, Alton played on the same basketball team as Martin Luther King Jr. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Morehouse College in 1950. He was an aerospace engineer for the Naval Air Development Center in Pennsylvania, and an automotive design engineer at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md.

    Mr. Lemon also worked as an Equal Opportunity Officer for the U.S. Department of Energy. He was a citizen participation adviser for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and he was at one time the program director for the North City Congress Police-Community Relations Program in Philadelphia. Alton also served in the U.S. Army and saw duty in the Korean War. Alton Lemon served both as president and vice president of the Philadelphia Ethical Society at one time, served on the board of the Parents Union for Public Schools and was an active participant in the American Civil Liberties Union. He was married to Augusta Lemon for more than 50 years.

    Alton Lemon was an “honorary officer” of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a position reserved for freethinkers who have won Supreme Court cases in favor of the separation of church and state. He received a Hero of the First Amendment Award at the 2003 FFRF convention (although health problems at the last minute prevented him from accepting it in person).

    He won the case Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), which successfully challenged a Pennsylvania law, the first such law in the nation providing public tax funds to religious schools for teaching four secular subjects. As a member of the ACLU, Mr. Lemon volunteered to challenge the law, which resulted in a decision that is a watershed for the Establishment Clause, and which historic decision bears his name. The Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the parochial aid.

    In one of the enduring legacies of the Burger Court, it also codified existing precedent on the Establishment Clause into a test called the “Lemon Test.” This was not new law, per se, but a kind of noble attempt to clarify and make the Establishment Clause idiot-proof. The “Lemon Test” has been invoked in virtually every lawsuit FFRF has ever taken. Despite attacks against it and attempts to modify and chip away at it, the Lemon Test endures. It is our best friend. (D. 2013)

    “If any of the three prongs of the Lemon Test are violated by an act of government, it is unconstitutional:
    1) It must have a secular legislative purpose.
    2) Its principal or primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion.
    3) It must not foster excessive entanglement between government and religion.”

    The Lemon Test, promulgated in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 US 602 (1971)

    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo donated by Alton Lemon

    Andrew Dickson White

    Andrew Dickson White

    On this date in 1832, Andrew Dickson White was born in Homer, N.Y. He graduated from Yale University in 1853 with a B.A. and returned for his M.A. in history in 1856. He became a history professor at the University of Michigan in 1856 and was elected a New York state senator in 1864. White co-founded Cornell University with Ezra Cornell and became its first president (1866-85). White was also the first president of the American Historical Association (1884-86), president of the American delegation to the Hague Peace Conference in 1899 and U.S. ambassador to Germany (1897-1902).

    In 1859 he married Mary Outwater, who died in 1887. White married Helen Magill in 1890. He had four children.

    Upon founding Cornell, White announced that he wanted the college to be “an asylum for Science — where truth shall be sought for truth’s sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion.” (God and Nature by David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, 1986.) He strongly supported science and secularism, lecturing about “The Battle-Fields of Science,” which he describes in his autobiography as a lecture about “how, in the supposed interest of religion, earnest and excellent men, for many ages and in many countries, had bitterly opposed various advances in science and in education.” (Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White Vol. 1, 1904.)

     In 1896 White wrote A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom, which further examined the tumultuous relationship between science and religion. He wrote, “In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and science.” D. 1918.

    “I simply try to aid in letting the light of historical truth into that decaying mass of outworn thought which attaches the modern world to mediaeval conceptions of Christianity.”

    —White, "A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom" (1896)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Roy Torcaso

    Roy Torcaso

    On this date in 1910, Roy Torcaso, a leader in the church-state separation movement, was born in Enumclaw, Wash. Torcaso, an atheist, filed his Supreme Court-bound lawsuit in 1959 when his application to be a Maryland notary public was denied on grounds that he refused to say he believed in God. This was a requirement to hold public office in many states, including the state of Maryland. “The point at issue is not whether I believe in a supreme being, but whether the state has a right to inquire into my beliefs.” (Washington Post, June 21, 2007.)

    His case, Torcaso v. Watkins, eventually came before the Supreme Court, which in 1961 ruled unanimously in Torcaso’s favor and said Maryland’s requirements for public office violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments and Article 6. The Constitution’s Article 6 states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public trust under the United States.”

    Torcaso continued to be an advocate in the humanist movement. He was a board member of the American Humanist Association and a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Executive Council. He was featured in FFRF’s documentary “Champions of the First Amendment.” He also officiated secular weddings.

    A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, Torcaso was a bookkeeper up until the time of his well-publicized trial. He lost his bookkeeping job during the trial because his employer, a Bethesda construction company, did not want to be associated with him and his beliefs. This led to financial difficulty for the Torcaso family, but he continued to fight for his rights even when his children were ostracized by some of their neighbors.

    Torcaso fought for racial integration of his neighborhood, attended pro-choice rallies, and supported the right-to-die movement. Torcaso had three children and was married for 60 years. His case inspired his daughter, Linda Bernstein, to become a lawyer. “He was an activist to the end of his life. He just did not believe that religion should enforce its views on the whole of society,” Bernstein said in a June 2011 interview with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. D. 2006.

    “I do not believe in any form of the supernatural or divinity.”

    —Torcaso in “Champions of the First Amendment,” a 1988 film by FFRF
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano

    Stephen Symonds Foster

    Stephen Symonds Foster

    On this date in 1809, Stephen Symonds Foster was born in Canterbury, N.H. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1838 and went on to enroll in Union Theological Seminary, where he became disheartened with the pro-slavery views of many churches. The principal of Union Theological Seminary offered Foster a bribe to stop discussing his position on slavery, but Foster declined and left the seminary after only a year.

    He helped to organize the New Hampshire Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society and was a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, along with his wife, Abigail Kelley. Foster and Kelley were also strong supporters of women’s rights and the temperance movement. The family lived on a farm called Liberty Farm in Massachusetts, which they used to help slaves escape on the underground railroad.

    Foster was an outspoken abolitionist who critiqued churches for their support of slavery, often interrupting services to rail against it. In 1844 he published the pamphlet “The Brotherhood of Thieves; or, a True Picture of the American Church and Clergy,” an exposé of the anti-abolitionist views of churches and the clergy. In the introduction he described it as a “testimony against the popular religion of our country.” D. 1881.

    “During the 1844 New England Antislavery Convention, Foster held up a collar and manacles and declared, ‘Behold here a specimen of the religion of this land, the handiwork of the American church and clergy.’ “

    —"The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism" by George McKenna (2007)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Nate Phelps

    Nate Phelps

    On this date in 1958, writer and LGBTQ activist Nathan “Nate” Phelps was born in Topeka, Kansas, to Margie (Simms) and Fred Phelps, the sixth of their 16 children (three were stillborn). His father was the notorious founder in 1955 of the homophobic and nativist Westboro Baptist Church, which was Primitive Baptist in origin and fueled by hyper-Calvinism. At age 7, Nate could recite the names of all 66 books of the bible in 19 seconds.

    Fred Phelps, who had a law degree from Topeka’s Washburn University, was emotionally and physically abusive to his wife and children. When the barber strap he beat the children with to instill biblical discipline frayed, he started using the handle of a mattock, a tool shaped like a pickaxe with an adze and a chisel on the head. He led the church, which never had more than about 70 members, until he was forced out in a power struggle shortly before dying in 2014 at age 84.

    Nate waited until midnight on his 18th birthday to leave the family in his Rambler Classic car he’d kept hidden. He then worked at several jobs before joining his older brother Mark, who’d left the household earlier. They started a printing company near Kansas City in 1978. 

    He and the business where he would work for about 25 years moved to southern California in 1981. He got married in 1986 to his wife Tammi (which led to his father calling him an adulterer because she was divorced). They had a son, Tyler, in 1987, and twins Hayley and Hunter two years later. They and Tammi’s three older children were raised in an evangelical church “where I began my search for the kinder, gentler God of mainstream Christianity,” Phelps said. (Freethought Today, November 2020)

    After a “painful” marital breakdown in 2005, fueled in no small part by his increasing religious doubts, he moved to British Columbia (still his home as of this writing in 2021): “I had recently read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and for the first time in my life I was willing to consider that I might be an atheist. That was such a horrible, terrifying word that I would not say it out loud.” (Freethought Today, ibid.) 

    Phelps was hired as Calgary branch director of the Centre for Inquiry Canada in 2009, served on the board of directors for Recovering from Religion and spoke at the Reason Rally in Washington in 2012, where he said the events of 9/11 ended his religious beliefs. “In the fierce storm of emotion that rolled across this country, one realization rose to the surface of my mind with blinding clarity: Certainly this mechanism of unassailable blind faith is one of the greatest risks mankind faces today.”

    He was the 2020 recipient of FFRF’s Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award for his years of speaking out publicly for freethought and humanism. The $10,000 award is endowed by FFRF Member Henry Zumach. Phelps was a guest on “Freethought Matters” on Feb. 18, 2021.

    “I would argue that Westboro Baptist Church is just giving voice to the same destructive ideology at the foundation of even the most moderate iteration of that faith. How do we sit idly by considering that reality?”

    —Phelps, writing in Freethought Today {November 2020)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Candace R.M. Gorham

    Candace R.M. Gorham

    On this date in 1980, author, mental health professional and secular activist Candace Rene Miller Gorham was born in North Carolina. Her family was religious and as a child she went door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness. She also started having mood disturbances, which by early adulthood led to severe depression and anxiety that became debilitating. She was confirmed in her father’s Methodist church before gravitating to a nondenominational one with Pentecostal beliefs. She was ordained as an evangelist at age 21, a year after she was married, then was “promoted” to eldress and prophetess.

    She preached, spoke in tongues, healed the sick and drove out demons. Gorham would come to see this behavior as “psychological abuse” of people — the belief that “hellhounds would come out of hell and grab your children.”  She would later come to see that according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, she met all 27 criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s almost impossible to come out of a conservative, biblical, literalist type environment without some level of PTSD.” (Freethought Matters, April 30, 2018)

    After earning a degree in secondary education from North Carolina Central University, she taught high school English. Her therapist convinced her to enroll in the community counseling master’s program at Wake Forest University, which she completed while focusing on black women’s mental health. She had started to deeply question her religious beliefs and her faith began to crumble. She moved to Bermuda and taught middle school English for two years. 

    In 2011 Gorham decided to reach out to other women suffering from the oppression of religious dogmatism and launched the Ebony Exodus Project, which was the title of her 2013 book, subtitled Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out On Religion — and Others Should Too. It tells the stories of women she interviewed, interspersed with topics detailing religion’s effects on mental, emotional and physical health, sex and flawed thinking patterns. Black women bear a particular burden because of religion’s cultural as well as theological hold on the community.

    In addition to her work as a counselor, she’s a member of the Clergy Project, the Secular Therapist Project, the Black Humanist Alliance and the speakers bureau for the Secular Student Alliance. She has a daughter (age 15 as of this writing in 2019) and they live in Durham, N.C. 

    “Through a long, slow, painful process, I moved through stages of being an unaffiliated believer, to being a non-Christian theist, to being an agnostic, to finally being an atheist.”

    —"The Ebony Exodus Project" (2013, Pitchstone Publishing)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

Freedom From Religion Foundation