In activism matters we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-founder and long term activist with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
What was your first experience of activism?
At 14, picketing to “desexigrate” the want ads. The Supreme Court had declared “Male-Wanted/Female-Wanted” want ads in newspapers — the primary source of finding jobs in the 1960s — to be unconstitutional. But both daily newspapers in Madison, Wisconsin had refused to reform. So my mother, then working as an ad hoc activist with the National Organisation for Women local chapter, organised a picket. It was great fun, it was successful, and ever since I’ve always enjoyed a good picket. I also had started to staff as a volunteer managing tables on campus, again through my mother’s activism, with emphasis on reproductive rights, and abortion rights tables as she campaigned across our state to legalise abortion.
You co-founded FFRF as a college student did you think this would be your career?
No, I certainly did not. My mother was a full volunteer for 5 years before taking a salary. We started the group in 1976, and I became editor of the newspaper in January 1984, although I was associated with it as a volunteer from that point on, including writing a book for FFRF with proceeds donated, “Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So.”
Both my mother, Anne, and I have said for years that we want to do ourselves out of a job. It was our expectation, in fact, when we started FFRF that it would only take a few years to remind our nation of its secular roots and underpinnings. Dan Barker (co-president with me now) and I still feel this way and we’ve imbibed this attitude (we hope) in our staff. However, given the current court situation, we also joke to our staff of about 27 full-timers that there is unfortunately “job security”.
Does being involved with an organisation for so long and in different stages of its development give you a unique perspective?
We have seen in the United States when hardly any public personae or celebrity would identify as a nonbeliever, to the point where it’s commonplace in many communities, and with many young people. We also know how hard it was to grow FFRF, when we thought 3,000 members was a lot and today are at 35,000. We know from this that every member counts. When I get to answer the phone and talk to a prospective member or take a new membership over the phone (which I still get to do after hours), that really means something to me. I literally value every membership knowing how much time and work and outlay of funds it has taken to grow FFRF. It also gives a perspective that someone young or new to the movement can’t really understand — although in the United States atheists and nonbelievers are still lowest on the totem pole with social acceptance, it’s become a lot easier and less controversial to “come out of the closet”.
How have the challenges facing atheist, humanist and secularist activists most changed in that time?
The main accusation, “How can you be moral if you don’t believe in God,” remains the same. It’s easy enough to answer but it’s just a perennial stigma, that somehow atheists are immoral, when in fact our morality is grounded in reality and consequences, not seeking some reward or to avoid punishment in an afterlife. That makes nontheistic morality much more “moral,” in my opinion.
In terms of legal challenges in the United States, they continue to grow worse and worse on the state/church front, now on abortion. The courts have been captured by the right, by Christian nationalists and by the Federalist Society, embraced by Republicans in office. It’s a bit confounding to me that the courts have been more welcoming to LGBTQ rights while taking away abortion rights, including blessing marriage equality at the Supreme Court level. But we are of course seeing LGBTQ individuals targeted in state after state for religious reasons, especially trans individuals. But society as a whole has become far more welcoming to LGBTQ people, and it’s our hope that society will also embrace secular Americans in the same way.
What do you think the biggest differences are between being an individual activist, and working with or for an organisation?
Individuals can be free agents, don’t have to get the ok of board members or staffers, or go through an editing process and everything required by an organisation to upload press releases, etc. Sometimes that lets individuals react a lot faster or be that “one voice” making a difference.
But the downside is not having a group ready to tap to join you in a picket or protest, to help defray costs, or speak with a more powerful voice. The idea behind FFRF is to collectively flex some muscle. Certainly at the congressional and lobbying level, the more people you represent, the more representation you can expect.
Being an activist can be draining at times, what keeps you motivated?
Making a difference and having a platform to dissent is the opposite of draining. It can be more depressing not to be part of the public debate and not to have a way to express yourself and the views of other nonbelievers, feminists, etc. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted: “The dissenter’s hope” is “that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
And of course we have hundreds of state/church victories every year at FFRF, thanks to our legal intake team, and that is a real high, not to mention winning lawsuits (still). We know we make a difference. FFRF’s motto is “Freedom depends on freethinkers.”
What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist or secularist space?
Vision, the willingness to work hard as a group or team, and being honest, being grateful to have a job in a non-profit sphere or to be a volunteer in a movement that is really a part of the Enlightenment.
What do you think atheist groups can do to support the development of future leaders and activists, particularly among women and other underrepresented groups in the movement?
Women have always been disproportionately represented in freethought in terms of writing, starting or running groups. Right now there are three women who run secular groups in the United States: myself, Roblyn Blumner at CFI and Debbie Allen at Secular Coalition for America, with some smaller groups run by women, and people like Sarah Haider formerly president of Ex-Muslims of North America. The same is true in the UK and EU — many women are founders of secular groups or run them. So that needs to be remembered, and I think one reason that is true is that women have the most to lose when religion controls government, as we see in Poland and increasingly are witnessing in the United States.
In terms of development, keeping women visible by inviting them to address meetings, be on boards, is one very obvious way. Another is to acknowledge women’s issues that intersect with secularism, such as abortion and reproductive rights. We have done all these things at FFRF, which was founded and run by women from its inception till 2004 (then Dan and I have co-directed FFRF), and yet male membership still far surpasses female. However, our membership surveys show 98.8% support reproductive rights and women’s equality so our male members are clearly supportive and feminist-oriented. So that makes me proud.
FRF has been a good and visible friend to women’s rights, but we still don’t have equal numbers of women members. But clearly women, as polls still show, are more religious than men (at least in the United States) and we see that reflected in membership numbers. Regardless of membership figures, we are in part fighting for women’s rights in fighting against religious sway over our laws, and that will eventually be acknowledged and appreciated by women.
What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?
Be an activist, do what you can to make a difference, cultivate writing and communication skills in letters to editor, blogs, etc. But in terms of practical hiring, you have to have the skills any organisation is looking for, so all the “devotion” in the world to freethought won’t make a difference if you don’t possess the skills needed. Being a freethinker seems like the minimal needed when you apply to work at a freethought organisation but it won’t make up for qualifications. Just like other organisations, we hire a variety of persons to fulfil jobs in IT, communications, clerical/administrative, legal, etc.
Picture information: Person in Red Long Sleeve Shirt Wearing Silver Ring, Thirdman