PJ Slinger, the editor for the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), speaks to Conatus News about his work and activism.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become involved in the non-religious movement?
PJ Slinger: It wasn’t until I started at FFRF in 2015 that I “became involved.” Before that, I was a vocal proponent of nontheism, whether it was in discussions with friends face-to-face or, later, on Facebook with “friends.” It got to the point that anytime I was in a conversation and religion came up, people would immediately look to me, like, “Ooh, what do you think about that?”
Jacobsen: What about the Freedom From Religion Foundation? What intrigued you about its activities?
Slinger: I hadn’t heard of FFRF until I moved back to Madison, Wisconsin in the year 2000. (I had lived in Minnesota for about a decade before that, after graduating college from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in journalism.) I got a job at The Capital Times newspaper (where I held various roles throughout my 15 years there), which had a subscription to Freethought Today, the 10-times-a-year newspaper of FFRF. So I glanced through it and found myself drawn to FFRF because it was so in line with my thoughts. I would always look forward to the day that would arrive, and eventually, the newspaper’s editor would just put it directly on my desk when it came in the mail.
At that point, I was less interested in the activism part of what FFRF stood for than the nontheism aspect. I always found a lot of interesting articles and comments that helped me in my discussions with others.
But I also soon learned that fighting for state-church separation was part and parcel of being a freethinker. Before that, I was ambivalent about, say, a Christian cross being on public property. I figured, what’s the big deal? But then I came to the logical conclusion that allowing these small transgressions was no different allowing larger state-church violations. I realised that the small-scale violations were wrong for the same reasons as the bigger ones and that it wasn’t a matter of degree. If it was a First Amendment violation, big or small, it needed to be rectified.
Jacobsen: How did you become involved in the work and activism there?
Slinger: A bit of luck, I suppose. While working at The Capital Times, each reporter and editor (of which I was at the time of this story) was required to interview a prominent or interesting person from the community for an in-depth Q&A. On this particular occasion, I chose Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF. She came into the newspaper office, and we sat down and talked about FFRF’s activities, the new multi-million dollar building expansion that was happening and where she saw FFRF heading in the future. As we concluded the interview, we discussed FFRF in general, and I brought up Bill Dunn, who at that time was editor of Freethought Today. I had worked with Bill at The Capital Times before he left for FFRF. Annie Laurie then mentioned that he was getting close to retiring and that they would be looking for a new editor. My eyes grew wide, no doubt! About 18 months later, The Capital Times offered buyouts (a sign of the times in the newspaper business, unfortunately) and I took it, completely forgetting about a potential job at FFRF. About a week later, I got a call from Annie Laurie, asking me to come in for an interview. I couldn’t have been happier!
Jacobsen: What have been some of your more recent activities through the organisation?
Slinger: As editor of Freethought Today, I work mostly behind the scenes. Part of my job is to promote, in the paper, the great things FFRF is doing in our battle to keep church and state separate. It’s on me to give our members (33,000 of them!) something that keeps them informed of everything we do at FFRF, give them articles of interest relating to nontheism or church-state issues, and entertain them with cartoons, photos and other items relevant to our mission. I feel it’s a good mix of serious news, information and fun.
It’s amazing how much content there is on a monthly basis. We publish 24 pages, but that number could easily be higher.
Jacobsen: As someone raised Methodist but being an atheist nearly your whole life, you have also spent time as a copy editor, sportswriter and online editor for The Capital Times. How does this inform your work through FFRF and help with the advancement of the secular movements and the church-state separation communities?
Slinger: I feel fortunate to have worked at The Capital Times, a progressive newspaper, where things like state-church separation are important. It’s there that I began to understand minority communities, be they racial, gender, economic or religious. As an atheist, I saw the similarities among those communities in how and why the majorities held power and what was needed to break those cycles of control. While choosing to be an atheist is considerably different than being born black or LGBTQ, just being part of the minority (for now) nonreligious community has helped me understand and empathise with those groups.
Jacobsen: What is the next big step for the FFRF in its battles with those who have tendencies toward the theocratic rather than the democratic?
Slinger: Well, that’s a loaded question! We are currently in a time of great unease about the future of state-church separation. With the administration we currently have in the White House and the beyond-strange Christian evangelical backing of it, it seems as if we are losing ground day by day, even as FFRF continues to pile up victories in our legal battles. It’s clear that in our current political climate, religion — specifically Christianity — holds a more prominent position in governmental decisions and outcomes. More and more states are spending time and money to have things like “In God We Trust” banners put in schools, rather than tackling the real issues that confront public education. There is no shortage of these kinds of things happening all over the country.
But part of me remains optimistic, based on the studies and reports that show the number of nonreligious people in America is growing at a rapid rate, mostly because of the younger generations. I am hopeful that as time progresses, reason and logic will be used as determining factors in governmental decisions rather than religious platitudes.
I feel that the ultimate goal for FFRF is not to have to exist at all. Unfortunately, it appears our work is only becoming more necessary. So FFRF has to keep pressuring politicians to keep religion out of government, and if we have to go to court to do it, well, that’s what we do. But it’s an uphill climb.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Slinger: I’d like to invite anyone who has an interest in helping FFRF fight these battles to join our organisation. We are a five-star nonprofit that uses your membership dues (only $40 a year!) wisely and judiciously. It’s a great way to support the upholding of our First Amendment.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mr Slinger.
Image Credit: Chris Line.