Annie Laurie Gaylor is the Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) with Dan Barker. She has been part of the fight against the encroachment of religion on secular culture, and human and women’s rights for decades. Here she talks with Scott Douglas Jacobsen about the FFRF and some personal history.
*This audio interview has been edited for clarity and readability and approved by the interviewee.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: To begin, was there a family background in non-belief? Or if there was a background in religion, in family, how did you come to not believe in a formal faith?
Gaylor: I am a 3rd generation freethinker on my mother’s side of the family. My brothers and I grew up without any religious indoctrination. We consider ourselves very lucky. My father was brought up in a religion but didn’t become too devoted. So my parents were of accord, and felt very strongly that it is almost child abuse to indoctrinate small children into scary concepts like original sin and everlasting torment, guilt, shame – before they can even understand abstractions.
In the same office building where my mother worked, the dentist said, “Oh, you have such well-behaved children. How do you account for that?” She suggested that you should not indoctrinate children. It shocked him quite a bit.
Jacobsen: But, growing up at a time when religion was taken for granted in the US, did you not have questions of your own?
Gaylor: Yes. When we would bring up religion to our parents, it was clear they did not believe, but they did not impose it on us. It would come up in the conversation naturally. We got the idea that religion was not for us, that it’s a bit ridiculous. But we knew that it was serious topic that we would one day be expected to make up our own minds about.
Jacobsen: Were you aware of the lack of status of women, in general, within religions at a young age?
Gaylor: Actually, I was, because my best friend was Catholic. My friend once complained that the only reason we had to go to school was because of this woman, and I realised much later she was referring to Eve. I knew vaguely who Adam and Eve were, and only realised belatedly that my friend was blaming school on Eve as if it were a sentence.
Women, or Eve, in her worldview were responsible for everything bad in the world. In that respect, that was a little wake-up call. I grew up free from all of the God stuff. I was, of course, surrounded by religion. As I grew a little older, I realised very quickly, in school, that we were the odd ones out for not having a religion.
Interestingly, there were two main reactions. One of them was envy. That was the most prevalent: “Oh! You don’t have to get up on Sunday to go to Sunday School at church.” It was a clear envy. The second reaction, “But how can you be an agnostic? Because you’re a good girl.” I was well-behaved. I didn’t get into trouble. So early on, I was encountering this ridiculous stereotype, which dogs non-believers still today: That you can’t be good without God, or that our morality must come from religion. So if you’re a moral person, it doesn’t equate that you could be a non-believer. I was the only agnostic girl in the class. There was one Jewish girl and one non-believer in a class of about 30 kids. So I was aware that I was in a great minority, but I never felt the least bit apologetic about it. I felt that this was a very natural way to be.
Jacobsen: This conviction continued with you throughout?
Gaylor: When I later studied women freethinkers in history, I was very struck by Ernestine L. Rose.The daughter of a Jewish rabbi in Poland, she was born behind a wall. She was a rebellious little girl by the age of 5 who didn’t take with religion and ended up coming over to the United States. She became the first woman to lobby for women’s property rights in New York State. In 1848, New York became the first state to enact property rights for married women. It had been introduced by a freethinking judge. Ernestine had come in by 1836 and went door-to-door trying to get women to support this legislation. It took 12 years. She was a famous feminist and an atheist. She was invited to speak, and very celebrated in infidel societies.
One her main speeches talked about how every child is born an atheist, and would remain so unless they are otherwise inculcated. I think she’s right. It doesn’t mean everybody’s born rational and necessarily able to critique religion based on reason, but, of course, dogma has to be inculcated in you, all of the religious concepts and stories. You are not born with those. So I feel like I was just given a head start.
Jacobsen: Of course, one of the most well-known female freethinkers in our history was Hypatia. There were severe consequences for her.
Gaylor: Yes. Of course, even later I think women freethinkers had to be very brave because we only see atheist and freethought in the 1500s, 1600s, and after the Enlightenment in the Western culture. They were still killing women as witches in the 1500s, 1600s, and into the 1700s. So these women were all aware of this terrible history of women being put to death as witches. In the face of this hostile climate, I think the fact that women caught up very quickly as leading exponents of freethought is very meritorious.
For eg., Mary Wollstonecraft from the 1790s, Ernestine L. Rose in the 1830s etc. In the 1820s, Frances Wright became the first woman to speak to mixed audiences of men and women going after the clergy. So women have been very leading advocates for free-thought. All these women were simply subject to all kinds of situations by the clergy. Ernestine gave one speech where 700 theology students mobbed the speech and turned off the gaslight. She was cute. She said, “There is one thing true in Bible. Let there be light.” Or something like that.
Jacobsen: That must have been quite a time to live through.
Gaylor: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was very active in the 1840s and was an agnostic, said, “The Bible was hurled at us from every side,” when they were talking about women’s rights. The feminist movement was largely initiated by women freethinkers, which makes sense because women were told that they had to be in silence and servitude. So it took heretics and infidels to be willing to brave the wrath of the clergy and to violate the strictures of the New Testament.
But I think the feminist movement owes an enormous debt to women freethinkers. I don’t think that’s as publicly known as it should be. That’s one of the reasons I put together this anthology: Women Without Superstition, the first anthology of women freethinkers. It was clearly a theme. It wasn’t what I necessarily started off with as a preconceived notion. But it came up over and over again.
The earliest women freethinkers and writers were also the earliest feminists.
Gaylor: My influence, besides my mother, was Bertrand Russell. Russell was the one that I had read. Even in the 1960s and 70s, when there was very little in the libraries about freethought, you could almost always find Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell. His popular writings from the 40s and 50s, almost single-handedly kept freethought alive in this country.
When everything else was being taken off the shelf, for eg., Ingersoll wasn’t there, but Russell’s writings remain very influential. So I would say that my personal hero, when I was growing up as a junior high school student, was Bertrand Russell. I didn’t really read Asimov that much. But I was pleased to meet him because was always an outspoken freethinker. His wife continues that tradition. I think he was more influential to someone like my husband Dan Barker. Dan. who was raised fundamentalist. would still read science fiction.
Jacobsen: Then you co-founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) with your mother.
Gaylor: Yes, we co-founded it in 1976.My mother and I started FFRF because we became aware of what it meant. She was the principal founder and was asked to go national with it in 1978. . I was in college when we founded FFRF. It was partly when Jerry Falwell was in ascendancy. We felt nobody was speaking out against his lies. His historic lies. What opened our eyes was my mother’s work for abortion rights. She wrote the first editorial in favour of legalising abortion in 1967, in Wisconsin.She was a statewide. well-known abortion proponent and I would accompany her to her interviews and speeches.
The capitol in Madison would be filled with nuns and priests and bussed-in school children. Every statement they made against contraception and abortion would start with “God”, for eg, “God says abortion is murder.” It was very obvious to us who the organised opposition to women’s reproductive rights was. My mother felt that the work done by women’s groups were great, but unless they were going to get at the root of the problem, which was religious sway over our civil law, that we would never make progress. So that was one of the main reasons we founded FFRF. It was our feminist experiences. Unfortunately, we are still fighting the same battle today.
Jacobsen: That’s right. Now, the current battleground on the issue of abortion and reproductive health rights is with the “Religious Right”. How do you think your mother would feel in the light of actions such as the “Global Gag” rule, which was enacted by the current Trump administration?
Gaylor: I think she would be completely vindicated! I mean, she would feel that we’ve sounded the alarm. She would feel how important it is to carry on. She felt that the enemy of women’s rights was religion. That unless we would actively confront that threat our rights were always going to be in jeopardy.She would feel even more strongly about how important it is that separation of church and state be honoured. Of course, she was dismayed that since Roe vs. Wade, we’ve been on the defensive almost from the beginning.
Here’s what she (Anne Nicol Gaylor) wrote:
In working for women’s rights I fought in a battle that would never end, because the root cause of the denial of those rights was religion and its control over government. Unless religion is kept in its place, all personal rights will be in jeopardy. This is the battle that needs to be fought. To be free from religion is an advantage for individuals; it is a necessity for government.
Something that she wrote in 1987, still very completely relevant and true.
Jacobsen: How do you feel about that?
Gaylor: It just proves how important this battle is. We’ve pointed out how important it is to keep religion out of government if we’re going to protect women’s rights. We knew we weren’t taking this victory for granted. We’ve lost a lot of ground. That we can never have freedom while we’ve got religion in government. Wherever you are, and whatever the religion is. I feel that FFRF is really, at base, working for the Enlightenment, or working to keep it going. It is a very important job. We’ve lost so much ground since the 50s. That’s the decade that I was born in. Ironically, I spent most of my life trying to undo much of the bad precedent that was passed by Congress in the 1950s.
Jacobsen: In the formation and evolution of the United States, what do you think has been most influential in rooting religion in this country?
Gaylor: This idea that we’re a Christian nation has really changed the perception in our country. In fact, we have a godless and secular constitution, but there have been many actions of Congress that have mis-educated the public, such as inserting “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. putting “In God We Trust” on the currency, then adopting it as a second national motto, when we had a perfectly good one, “E. Pluribus Unum,” which celebrates diversity – “Out of many, one.”
That was chosen by our Founders: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams. Thomas Jefferson chose that motto.
Jacobsen: But would you say there are other ways in which American history allows for religion to play an important role?
Gaylor: The National Day of Prayer, which directs the president to direct citizens to pray every year. It has created so much mischief. We sued over that. We had a victory, then it got turned around. We sued over the housing allowance law passed in the 1950s, which is the IRS advantage for clergy. The Internal Revenue Service gives churches the right to pay clergy with a housing allowance that they can deduct from their taxable income. They only good thing I can think out of the 50s is the Johnson Amendment. That’s what Trump keeps talking about overturning. It is codifying that tax exempt groups can’t engage in politicking. He had his executive order last week during the National Day of Prayer. We sued over it. Essentially, he said the IRS is not to enforce the anti-electioneering provisions against churches.
Of course, FFRF is a tax exempt group. So churches are being treated preferentially. So that gave us injury to sue. We sued over this before.
Jacobsen: When was the last time, in your opinion, that separation of church and state has been as much under threat as it is now?
Gaylor: The 50s were the Red Scare. After wars, it was a bad time for individual liberties. We haven’t really recovered from those inroads in the 50s, even though the population – the demographics – have changed a great deal. We’re talking about a quarter of the population that is non-religious. But the politicians and the courts haven’t caught up with the population. We’ had this ‘coup’ with the religious Right with the last election.
But they are not going to acknowledge the changing demographics. They are quite the opposite.
Jacobsen: What countries would you say we can look to as a model? What influences people’s departure from religion?
Gaylor: Iceland is ahead of the game in every way. Although, things can change quickly. The economic side, they really took a beating in 2008. They are very isolated. But they have been good at fighting off the evangelists who want to come and visit them. They used to be a very, very religious and austere place in the 50s, 60s, and in the 70s — the poverty level was part of that, but I think it’s an amazing country.
I guess, you can never completely count on things. The pendulum can swing quickly, but that’s also true in our favour. I think the election in 2018 could be quite pivotal in this country in stopping some of the assaults that are ongoing right now.
Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion about our conversation today?
Gaylor: I would say that we’ve got our work cut out for us. I truly believe the motto that FFRF has: Freedom depends on freethinkers.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time today, Annie.