Convention speech: Kimberly Veal — Metamorphosis: From incubation to organization

Here is an edited version of the speech Kimberly Veal gave on Sept. 16 at FFRF’s 40th annual convention at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis.

She was introduced by FFRF Staff Attorney Liz Cavell:

Kimberly comes to us from Chicago and hosts the “Black Freethinkers” podcast and is president of People of Color Beyond Faith. She worked with FFRF and the Chicago area chapter on a recent billboard campaign. Kimberly is currently creating a scope of work that focuses primarily on training, educating and employing women and girls of color as activists and organizers. Please welcome social justice activist, freethinker and humanist Kimberly Veal.

By Kimberly Veal

Kimberly Veal is president of People of Color Beyond Faith and president and host of the Black Freethinkers Radio Network. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Kimberly Veal is shown with FFRF Bookkeeper Eleanor McEntee. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

I would like to thank Freedom From Religion Foundation for working with me over the years. It’s been truly a privilege and an honor to be associated with this foundation and its lovely members.

Many of you may not be familiar with the “Black Freethinkers” podcast, but you should give us a listen. If you listen and don’t walk away offended, I was either having a bad day or you weren’t paying attention. The tagline for the podcast: “We are here to challenge you to think for yourself, not convert you.”

The name of my talk is “Metamorphosis,” because, over the years, becoming a part of this freethinking community, you go through this incubation period. That’s what it was for me because I was raised in a religious family. My mom was a minister. I was a minister. My grandfather was a minister, as were several cousins, and so on. My family is very deeply tied to the church.

When I was about 12, I would ask difficult questions, only to be sent to my room to allow the “Holy Spirit” to teach me to read my bible until I came back to my senses. After being forced to go to church one Sunday when I was 16, the pastor made a mistake and opened up the mike, which made its way to me. I asked, “Is it right for parents to force their children to attend church?” He said, “When a child turns 12, they’re able to make those decisions for themselves.” And I said, “OK, thank you, it was nice meeting you guys. You’ll never see me again.”

As part of that incubation period, you start reading, you start deprogramming yourself and unlearning certain things you had been taught over the years, and also things that are being reinforced by the media. If you’re an activist and an organizer and you’re not evolving or being enlightened or growing intellectually, then you’re just spinning your wheels. To know better is to do better.

One of the things that I learned when I started my research — and learning that there were more people of color who were nonbelievers than we had previously thought — is there are a number of atheists of color who still attend church. One of the reasons is that they enjoy the fellowship. That’s one of the things that I miss about no longer being a member of a church. I miss a lot of the service-related activities.

Many of them remain in church because they want to help out and donate to the community. In Chicago, we have the Greater Chicago Food Depository. One of the things that I want to work on with the church is getting the donations in and making sure that we can distribute that food and other items to the community. I’m a proud member and the communications director of Black Lives Matter Chicago, and our group has been doing quite a bit of outreach. But there’s a lot more to do.

My organization — People of Color Beyond Faith — focuses primarily on cultivating and maintaining relationships within the freethinking community, and that includes churches. There’s a church at the end of the block where I live. It’s a Unitarian Universalist church, so that kind of gives you some insight. Its pastor was an atheist and the membership included a myriad of faiths and nonbelief. It was just a congregation of people that came together. They wanted to do good for the greater community and greater humanity.

Anyway, the church has this garden, and when I found out what it was doing and what it stood for, I started sponsoring some of the plots to make sure that there was enough food being grown. It’s extremely important that we build these relationships, not only within our community, but with other groups.

Research and outreach

I began doing more research and outreach. Any time anyone sends me any money for anything, what I do is take that money, add on to it, and give it away. I support local groups and local organizations that are doing real work and I can actually see the fruit that they’re bearing. It’s very important, and that’s why I encourage people to find local groups and to help them out, send them some money. [Editor’s note: Kimberly was true to her word, as she donated her FFRF honorarium to three groups: The Black Youth Project, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, and Assata’s Daughters.]

And that was one of the things that I really enjoyed about the community, seeing a lot of these new organizations coming: Nonbelief Relief, the Clergy Project. Anybody who knows me knows I’m absolutely nuts about Daniel Dennett and the work he has done over the years. As a matter of fact, the work of Daniel Dennett, as well as Dr. Valerie Terrigal, is what ultimately helped me to come to this epiphany and be able to go out here and say, “Yes, I am an atheist.” The biggest problem for me was I didn’t know what to call it. And I’m not talking about the atheism. I’m talking about the battle that was going on in my mind. And Valerie did a seven-part series on, talking specifically about cognitive dissonance. I was like, “So that’s what’s happening here.” I felt liberated because I finally realized maybe I’m not crazy.

When I would talk to believers, they would say, “Well, all the rest of us believe this, you’re the only one believing that, so what’s really going on, Kim?” And being able to put words to it was lifesaving, at least it was for me, so I will always be indebted to them for that.

I led a couple of freethinking groups out in Chicago. But trying to organize atheists is like trying to herd cats. It’s like, we’re going this way, but we want to see what’s going on over there. So it was rather difficult. The more I read and became part of the secular community and explaining to people — especially when you’re talking about marginalized groups, specifically black and Latino, Hispanic, even Indigenous communities — is the lack of outreach and the lack of support that they receive.

Some people say there’s a lot of support. In theory, yes. But let’s take the example of Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist blogger. He wrote several articles about Chicago Latino atheists and other groups around the country. The problem wasn’t the article; the article was great. It was the comments section, and this is what we deal with on a continuous basis. “Why do you have ‘black’ in front of your name?” “Why do you have ‘Muslim’ in front of your name?”

It becomes increasingly frustrating having to have that conversation over and over again. A friend of mine created a black atheist FAQ so, when people start asking questions, we can send them a link. We tell them to read that.

I was listening to the convention talks earlier this morning. The FFRF legal team was talking about separation of church and state and what’s been transpiring, especially now that we have Trump in office. And one of the things that he’s trying to do is abolish the Johnson Amendment. And for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, the Johnson Amendment is basically an amendment that was put in place by President Johnson in order to, through the IRS, force pastors and preachers not to endorse political candidates and not to disparage politicians.

I think what Donald Trump wants to do is abolish that amendment to allow these pastors to endorse candidates. But there is a second part that goes with that. He wants to allow churches to receive political donations, to receive money, in effect turning the church into a political action committee. This is something that we definitely need to keep an eye on.

This is a really scary time. And when you are a social justice activist and organizer, it’s become even more perilous. They’re passing these ordinances and laws making it illegal to protest in any way whatsoever, even economic boycotts. They call it “economic terrorism.”

Constructive criticism

I’m here to give some constructive criticism. Just because you’ve been given constructive criticism, it doesn’t mean what you’re doing is bad, but that there’s room for growth. That’s one of the reasons why I feel that a lot of the work that we have to do in an atheist/secular/freethought/humanist community is to make sure that it’s scaleable. Our work, our mission, our agenda needs to be able to bring in other people and attract other people.

The secular community has horrible public relations. We need to do better about PR because I’m finding out that more and more people are more tolerant of who we are than we actually realize. There are things that we definitely have to do better. There have been some interesting things that have happened since I’ve become part of this community.

One of the examples is from 2010-11, when many of the atheists of color first started finding each other on Facebook. We would go into these different social media groups that were particularly mainstream and would talk about social justice and other areas of concern.

When you take on titles like humanist or freethinker, that primarily tells people what you believe in. We would have these conversations in these social media groups. I would have some white atheist say to me, “Well, I used to be a racist. I used to be a sexist and homophobic. All of these negative things. But when I left religion and became an atheist, all of that went away.”

Basically, they were tying those negative characteristic flaws to religion. I understand this excitement because I was the same way. When I finally admitted that I was an atheist, I felt this freedom. But I also felt the negative, as though I was about to lose my family, my community, my standing, and also a part of myself.

It makes you think. It makes you examine everything that you have ever learned and were ever taught. So you’re just minding your business, inching along, and next thing you know you’re going through that metamorphosis. You’re reading, you’re learning, you’re disengaging from other things and you just go through this really difficult transition period. And when you emerge, you are this little butterfly and you don’t know where to go. You don’t know what to say. You don’t know who you belong to. You’re flying around trying to figure out where you belong, what you should be doing.

That’s why I think it’s extremely important that we have more safe spaces, that we afford people a soft place to land. I’ve been seeing more of that over the years. Initially, all I saw was the socializing aspect of atheism — having a barbecue, hosting a potluck, bar hopping. All of that is fine and wonderful. But I was looking for people who were more service oriented. And then I ran across this guy who was doing outreach to the homeless. I thought that was absolutely wonderful. He told me about these other groups, these other people. And I thought, “Maybe there is a spot for me.”

Alliances and education

Last year, I was one of the strategists for the Black Friday economic boycott of businesses in downtown Chicago, and through my guidance for social media, I actually got us coverage on MSNBC and “Democracy Now.” This year’s going to be even bigger. We’ve built up these alliances. We’ve built up these relationships with other people, but we’re also educating people. And I feel that that is my goal. This is my calling, if you will — to educate people on what’s happening.

Atheism in and of itself is not enough. There’s more to it than that. One of the reasons I transitioned out of atheist organizing and more into social justice organizing is because  of the lack of support that the black community received when Trayvon Martin was killed: crickets and tumbleweeds. I didn’t see much from the secular community when it’s usually opinionated about everything. And when Mike Brown was killed, nothing. Eventually I saw some statements and press releases that were released and that was great. That was a start. However, if you go to the comments section, you’ll read things like, “Well, they probably did something to deserve that. The police are the good guys, those guys were thugs.” Every excuse in the book.

Many of these same people were the ones basically bashing President Obama because he refused to say “radical Islamic terrorism.” Yet these same people have absolutely nothing to say when Donald Trump refuses to say “Nazis,” “white supremacists,” “klansmen.” I don’t understand. And what happened in Charlottesville, I was really ashamed of the nonresponse.

One of the reasons I make a lot of people upset who listen to my podcast is that within these smaller communities, they place pressure on marginalized groups to support them in what they’re doing. Yet they are not addressing certain issues. They’re not addressing the racism, they’re not addressing the sexism, the homophobia, the transphobia and, yes, there is homophobia and transphobia within the LGBTQ community. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

Well, my time is up, but there is much more.

I’m just going to read a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., and this is where I stand on many things: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the white citizen’s councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice, who prefers a negative piece which is absence of tension to a positive piece which is presence of justice, who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ Who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom, who lives by a mythical concept of time and constantly advises the Negro to wait for a more convenient time. Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I’ll give you one example of this. I would ask you all to go out and please take a look at Sam Harris’ opinions on The Bell Curve and his opinions on Black Lives Matter.

Many of you say that you don’t understand why you can’t attract more black and brown people to the community. That right there is one of the reasons why.

Thank you.

FFRF referenced in Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, Origin

Origin, by Dan Brown
Dan Brown

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is mentioned by name in author Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, Origin.

Brown became an international star after the 2003 release of The Da Vinci Code, one of the top-selling novels of all time. In 2006, the book was made into a movie that has grossed more $750 million, which puts it among the top 75 highest-grossing movies of all time. The movie features Tom Hanks as the lead character, Robert Langdon, who is a Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology. Origin is Brown’s fourth book to have Langdon as the protagonist. The other two are Angels and Demons, and Inferno.

Origin is currently No. 3 on The New York Times bestseller list for fiction (both hardcover and e-books).

The novel tells the story of Edmond Kirsch, a 40-year-old atheist billionaire and futurist whose high-tech inventions and amazing predictions have made him a renowned global figure. He plans a worldwide announcement that will supposedly answer the two fundamental questions of humanity: “Where did we come from?” and “Where are we going?” But before he can make his announcement, chaos ensues.

“Navigating the dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion, Langdon and Ambra Vidal must evade a tormented enemy whose all-knowing power seems to emanate from Spain’s Royal Palace itself . . . and who will stop at nothing to silence Edmond Kirsch,” reads the synopsis of the book on Dan Brown’s website. “On a trail marked by modern art and enigmatic symbols, Langdon and Vidal uncover clues that ultimately bring them face-to-face with Kirsch’s shocking discovery . . . and the breathtaking truth that has long eluded us.”

Here is the reference to FFRF in the book:

“Over the last decade, books advocating rationality over blind faith had sprung up on nonfiction bestseller lists. Langdon had to admit that the cultural shift away from religion had become increasingly visible — even on the Harvard campus. Recently, the Washington Post had run an article on ‘godlessness at Harvard,’ reporting that for the first time in the school’s 380-year history, the freshman class consisted of more agnostics and atheists than Protestants and Catholics combined.

“Similarly, across the Western world, anti-religious organizations were sprouting up, pushing back against what they considered the dangers of religious dogma — American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation,, the Atheist Alliance International.

Langdon had never given these groups much thought until Edmond had told him about the Brights — a global organization that, despite its often misunderstood name, endorsed a naturalistic worldview with no supernatural or mystical elements. The Brights’ membership included powerhouse intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, Margaret Downey and Daniel Dennett. Apparently, the growing army of atheists was now packing some very big guns.

FFRF is pleased to be among those “big guns.”

Himu Brown: As Bangladeshi atheist blogger, I fear for my life

Here is an edited version of the letter he wrote to FFRF seeking aid from Nonbelief Relief. (Himu Brown in a pseudonym.)

By Himu Brown

was a typical Muslim — praying five times a day, fasting, and being involved in religious activities. One of my teachers introduced me to the writings of Aroj Ali Matubbar, the iconoclast of the freethinking movement of Bangladesh. After reading his writings, I was startled to find my old practiced religious beliefs were nothing but fallacies! What I believed from my childhood was wrong!

The internet also introduced me to a new era of knowledge. I joined an atheist online community to debate religious people. I started to read the blogs of famous atheist bloggers and enjoyed their strong writings with powerful logic. Then I began commenting on their posts to support them.

I started preaching the truth, rationality, scientific facts to my friends, students, and many others. To spread freethinking, I formed a group with several others called Aroz PathChakra (The Discussion Club of Aroj Ali Matubbar) in Barisal, my hometown. Unfortunately, these activities somehow got leaked to the local Islamists, which is the reason for my current dire situation.

Death threats

The Islamists were so furious that they started to make hit lists, published in the Islamic blogs, and made death threats against us.

So, some trusted atheist bloggers formed a private group on Facebook. Despite the Islamists’ constant threats, we were brave enough to face them with the power of truth and rationality.

But they were helpless and afraid of our writing, so they started to plot against us. They were waiting for a chance to abolish the atheists and freethinking community from the country. In 2013, the Islamist parties formed secret sleeper cells to kill the bloggers. Our situation became more critical.

The first attack was on Jan. 14, 2013, and the victim was renowned atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin, who was knifed, but somehow survived. I was alarmed, and, for the first time, I felt unsafe. On Feb. 5 that year, the Shahbagh Movement began against the acquittal of war criminal Kader Molla, who had commited atrocities during the 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence. At that time, I was in Barisal and we, the secular people of Barisal who supported the Shahbagh Movement, decided to protest the verdict.

Islamist political parties plotted against the bloggers who had started the movement. So, they chose one atheist blogger to be killed to spread panic and stop the movement. On Feb. 15, 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider, one of the Shahbagh activists, was brutally murdered by the Islamists.

On Feb. 25, 2013, I was informed that there was a hit list of atheists in Barisal. I was alarmed and stopped going outside. The next day, I was called from an unknown number and an unknown voice threatened me with death.

Being afraid, I informed my fellow bloggers and our secret Facebook thread members. They advised me to not move alone and delete all anti-Islamic posts and comments. Some suggested informing the police, but I did not dare, as I heard that the government was planning to take action against the atheist bloggers.

On March 31 of that year, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to punish those who made online insults against Islam. The cabinet approved an ordinance that would empower law enforcement to arrest any person without warrant and increase the highest punishment to 14 years from seven years.

Because of this, I had to stop all my blogging activities and leave Barisal to save my life. I had to take a job in a rural nongovernment educational institution as an English instructor.

During this time, my wife gave birth to our daughter on July 3, 2014.

Feeling vulnerable

On Feb. 26, 2015, after the murder of Avijit Roy, the founder of the Mukto Mona blog, I became terrified and felt vulnerable, but could not express my mental condition to anyone, even my wife.

The killings of Wasikar Babu and Ananta Bijoy Das, two more bloggers and online activists, made me feel that my country was totally unsafe for atheists and freethinkers.

After July 26, 2015, when I went to my educational institution where I taught, I found that one young person was following me. But I ignored this. After completing my classes one day, I saw others that were coming behind me. I felt uneasy, so I hailed a motorcycle driver and he helped me get home.

After this happened several more times, I could not tolerate it anymore. I stopped going to work. After informing some of the senior bloggers and trusted friends, I went to Dhaka to find shelter.

Unfortunately, I could not stay there long, as I found some unknown people were observing me from the roof of the opposite building. Changing my location, I took shelter at my father-in-law’s house in the town of Patuakhali. But there, I also discovered two or three people always stood near my in-laws’ house trying to keep tabs on me.

Then another blogger was killed on Aug. 7, 2015. The killers even entered his home. Hearing the news, I lost all my confidence and was psychologically broken. I again changed my location, leading an unfortunate and panic-stricken life. With the help of Front-Line Defenders and Forum Asia, a well-known human rights organization, I was able to get safe temporary shelter in Nepal, but had to leave my parents, my small child and my wife in a vulnerable situation.

When the group relocated me, it told me that it was temporary help only for three months. Understanding my helplessness, however, Forum Asia extended its support for another three months. I requested to Amnesty International via Sayeed Ahmed of Front-Line Defenders to help aid in the relocation of my wife and child. When the support of Forum Asia was over in February 2016, my wife and child were relocated to Nepal with grants from Amnesty International.

Due to these circumstances, we are very anxious about our future. We don’t know how we will survive here. We don’t have any job options, as refugees aren’t allowed to work legally.

Sometimes, I think of going back to Bangladesh, but it is not possible for many reasons. The situation is worsening for atheists like me.

In such a critical situation, I am totally at a loss. I cannot return to my own country, and yet I don’t have another safe place where I can live without fear. I cannot continue my writing.

I appeal to your humanitarian organization to help me and my family, so that I can survive and live. I want to save my life not only for myself and my family, but also so that I may contribute to humanity. If I am compelled to return to Bangladesh, Islamists who know me as an atheist won’t hesitate to kill me.

Jackie Brown: Letting go of a lifetime of religious guilt

Jackie Brown

I come from a long line of devout Christians. Before I was born, my grandfather donated a piece of land in our small town in New Mexico so that a church could be built there.

My parents were married in it in 1959.

That church — with long wooden pews, the hymnals with the thin pages edged in red, the preacher’s pulpit with the fake flowers in front and the baptismal behind — was part of my life from the day I was born. I knew every nook and cranny, every room and every corner — the nursery where new mothers would nurse their babies, the numbered doors of the Sunday school classrooms that lined both sides of the small auditorium. Just inside the glass front doors, before the row of double doors that separated the vestibule from the rest of the church, were pictures of church members and their families. The small label underneath each picture put names to our faces. I was as comfortable there as I was at home.

Long list of sins

On the surface, the church seemed innocuous and inviting, even accepting. But the doctrine of the Church of Christ included a lengthy list of activities that were off limits, labeled sins, that could result in eternal damnation. The list of no-no’s was long, including, but not limited to, smoking, drinking alcohol, dancing, premarital sex, homosexuality, cursing, divorce and live instruments in the church building. All hymns were led by an elder or a deacon, and all were sung a capella.

According to biblical teachings, wives were to be submissive to their husbands, and men were the heads of the household, and of the church. Women were not allowed to speak from the pulpit or lead singing, and the thought of a woman doing either of those things was completely foreign to me. This was my normal.

I knew all the hymns, went to vacation bible school every summer, memorized my bible verses for Sunday school, attended devotionals and took trips with the church youth group. I felt conflicted as I got older and was attracted to boys. I was ashamed for flirting. Outwardly, I was a good Christian girl, but inside, I always knew I was falling short, and guilt was my constant companion.

My father was indeed the master of the house. My mother obeyed him, as the bible commanded, and never questioned him, or raised her voice to him, even when he raised his. My mother took me and my three sisters to church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. I can count on my hands the number of times he accompanied us over the years. The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on me.

It was at church where we learned that if a man looked at a woman and felt lust, it was her fault because her clothing was too revealing or she wore too much makeup. Our attire was restricted to long skirts, high-collared tops, knee-high socks and flat shoes. Makeup wasn’t allowed, and our hair was often cut short. My father prohibited the use of tampons when my sisters and I were teens. I had no control over my body or how I looked, and that became increasingly difficult the older I became.

Instinctually, I knew that something wasn’t right.

Fires of hell

When I was in first grade, one of my classmates, along with the rest of his family, died in a house fire. This hit me particularly hard because he and his family did not belong to the church and I had been taught that anyone who did not would spend eternity in the raging fires of hell. I believed that my friend and his family would never, ever escape the pain of the fire that had taken their physical bodies. It didn’t matter that they were good people. They would burn — forever.

I had nightmares in which I saw my friend screaming, pain contorting his face. We were only 7 and hadn’t even had the opportunity to sin yet. His light blue sweater hung on the hook by our classroom door for a long time, reminding me of him daily, and the thought of him writhing in that fire haunted me for a very long time. It was probably then that I started asking questions.

I left home after I graduated from high school. It was then that I found the courage to explore what I perceived as the divergence between what I knew to be true and the alternate truth that had been hammered into the fabric of my being, practically since birth. I was emotionally and mentally traumatized by an internal conflict I was too afraid to voice for fear of disappointing my family, losing my friends and being different from the community of people I’d known my entire life.

It was daunting to think of turning my back on everything I’d known. Who was I if not a Christian? Who was I without the church, my family and friends? Without those things, I had no identity.

I tried — I really did. I talked to friends and family, one of whom told me that believing was a choice I could make, even without facts to support that belief. She told me she chose to believe because it gave her peace and made her happy, and I was truly happy for her. I would never begrudge anyone that kind of peace and happiness. I often wished for it myself. Instead, all I felt was turmoil and sadness, considering the enormous chasm — filled with science, logic, reason and truth — that stood between me and the faith I longed for.

Guilt and fear

Old habits die hard, so in spite of my ever-increasing doubts, I would take my two daughters to church because I was afraid there was a chance they would be damned because of me. Guilt and fear dictated my actions until it occurred to me that I was passing that on to my girls. It was a startling realization, but an obvious one once I thought about it. I did not want my daughters to ever experience what I had. Instead of removing all of their power, taking their identities and individuality, I wanted to give them what I never had as a child — the ability to think critically, make their own choices based on truth, not on fear.  I did not want them to be brainwashed like I was.

I started researching religion in earnest when I was in my 30s. I watched every documentary I could find, read every book on the topic I could get my hands on. Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code had a significant impact on me, even though it was fiction, and Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous” gave me a perspective I’d not had before. It was liberating.

It was a long road that took many years. Eventually, the guilt that had been part of me for so long was gone, and I was filled with something I had longed to feel for so long — peace.

I feel it all the time now, when I’m standing in the middle of the forest, or when I feel the sun on my face. I feel it when I’m with my close friends and those family members who have accepted me as I am and I realize that I love, and I am loved. I have become more open-minded and accepting, and thereby more compassionate.

Realizing that there was no heaven or hell, or an omnipotent being watching me every second, opened up a world for me I never could have imagined as a child, and I wish the same for every person who has been raised, every child currently being raised in a strict religious environment. I want to hug them and tell them it’s OK not to be perfect, that there is no hell, and that heaven is what we make it.

Jackie Brown is an FFRF member from Arizona.

Winter solstice and Bill of Rights ‘nativity’ displays 2017

FFRF is again proud to be celebrating the winter solstice season by placing signs and “nativity” scenes on public property to counter Christian displays.
At the Wisconsin State Capitol, FFRF’s Andrew Seidel, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Sam Grover stand with the FFRF’s Winter Solstice sign, which is being displayed for the 22nd consecutive year. The sign features FFRF’s traditional message by its principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor. It reads:
“At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
“There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
FFRF erected for the first time a lighted “A” (for atheist, agnostic) display outside its office in downtown Madison, Wis., in early December.
The 8-foot display is in the Rose Zerwick Memorial Courtyard and Garden visible from the street. FFRF thanks staffers Roger Daleiden, graphic designer, and Colin McNamara, legal fellow, for putting up the eye-catching display.
The Bill of Rights “nativity” and winter solstice sign was set up by FFRF Member Will Meyer at the Grundy County Courthouse in Illinois on Nov. 26 and will be up until the end of December.
For the first time, FFRF’s Bill of Rights “nativity” display went up in the Public Square in Cleveland. FFRF Members Marni Huebner-Tiborsky (in the open blue coat) and Sam Salerno (far left, kneeling), director and secretary/vice president of the Northern Ohio Freethought Society, respectively, sponsored the display.
For the third year in a row, the “May Reason Prevail” statement by Anne Nicol Gaylor is displayed at the Reason Station in the atrium of the Warren, Mich., City Hall.
In 2011, the city of Warren banned the sign. After two court cases, Reason Station director Douglas Marshall was allowed to place the wording on the Reason Station table as a display.
FFRF’s Metropolitan Chicago Chapter, directed by Tom Cara, set up a solstice display at the Daley Center Plaza. It was erected Nov. 21 and will remain up until Dec. 28. The display includes the light-up “A,” which sits above the Winter Solstice/Founding Father “nativity” signs. This is the fourth year for the display, countering a Christian nativity scene on display since 1984.
On Dec. 1 in the Atlanta area, FFRF placed a “Reason’s Greetings” message on a lighted 14-by-48-foot digital billboard on Interstate 75. FFRF member Jack Egger was pivotal in getting the billboard up, paying the cost.
This Bill of Rights “nativity” display was put up at North School Park in Arlington Heights, Ill., and will remain until Dec. 30. “FFRFMCC has been placing a display each year since 2012 in the public forum area of the park to counter a privately-erected creche by the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee,” Tom Cara noted. “This is an organization which had pressured the Arlington Heights Park District to allow them to place a nativity in the public park, threatening the Park District with a lawsuit if they tried to prevent them from doing this.”
FFRF’s Winter Solstice display is back at the Illinois Capitol for the ninth year in a row. The exhibit was installed by FFRF Member Kathryn Koldehoff in Springfield on Dec. 1 and will be up until Dec. 31.
In 2008, Illinois members asked FFRF to erect an equal-time display in protest of a decision to permit a religious group to plant a nativity scene in the Capitol during the holiday season. A manger scene and Christmas tree were already set up in the Capitol when FFRF installed its display this year.

Meet a Member: Volunteer extraordinaire — Former board member stays busy helping others

Nora Cusack

Name: Nora Cusack

Where I live: Madison, Wis.

Where and when I was born: Born in State College, Pa., in 1952 to grad student parents. Grew up in California; moved to New York at age 13 and graduated high school there; started college in Madison and never left.

Family: Husband of almost 45 years, Brent Nicastro, age 72, retired photographer. Elderly cat, Touza.

Education: I started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969, but never got a degree. I earned an associate degree from Madison Area Technical College in printing, was hired immediately and embarked on a 25-year career in graphic arts. I’m a lifelong learner, including auditing UW courses.

Occupation: Retired from paid work. I am a former small-business owner. After my business partner and I sold our graphic arts company in 1996, I have primarily been doing volunteer work, save for a five-year stint as a staffer for FFRF in the 2000s. Past volunteer experiences have included: elementary school reading tutor; permanency plan reviewer for kids in out-of-home placement; helping the Wisconsin Supreme Court produce the first statewide compilation of Volunteers in the Courts; past board member of FFRF, Wisconsin Women’s Network, NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, Community Shares of Wisconsin. Currently co-administrator/treasurer of the Women’s Medical Fund, an all-volunteer, statewide, nonprofit abortion fund. I’ve also been an election poll worker for many years.

Military service: None. My husband served in the Army during the Vietnam era.

How I got where I am today: After my business partner & I sold our business, I discussed with my husband taking time out from the paid workforce & volunteering for a couple of years. A couple of years has turned into 20-plus years. Volunteering for social justice causes is sometimes frustrating but usually very satisfying work. I like being not only a witness but a participant in democracy.

Where I’m headed: Continuing to work for social justice.

Person in history I admire and why: All the women, famous and not, who have worked for reproductive justice.

A quotation I like: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” — Gloria Steinem/Florynce Kennedy.

These are a few of my favorite things: Reading, politics, cooking, gardening, watching UW basketball.

These are not: Hypocrites who are opposed to government interference in all things except women’s autonomy over their own bodies. Religious folks who want to impose their personal beliefs on others.

My doubts about religion started: I’ve never had religious belief. I am a second-generation atheist. Both my parents earned Ph.D.s in the sciences, so I grew up with a rational scientific view of the world.

Before I die: I’d like to see social justice achieved. I’d like election gerrymandering to end so that democracy can be restored.

Ways I promote freethought: Being out as an atheist, without proselytizing. I like people to get to know me, see that I am a nice, moral, honest person, then find out that I’m an atheist. Maybe change some stereotypes.

Why are you a member of FFRF? Because atheists need an effective defense against violations of state/church separation and an organization that educates about atheism. Too many people have negative judgements of atheists and think they have never met one. I’ll borrow a saying from abortion activists (“Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion”) and say, “Everyone loves someone who is an atheist.”