Convention speech: Chris Cameron — A history of Black secularism

Author and Associate Professor Chris Cameron speaks about his book Black Freethinkers at FFRF’s convention at the Boston Park Plaza on Nov. 20, 2021. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Chris Cameron speaks with an FFRF member following his book signing during the convention. Order Black Freethinkers from ffrf.org/shop.
(Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Chris Cameron gave this speech (edited for length) on Nov. 20, 2021, at FFRF’s national convention in Boston. (To watch the speech, go to ffrf.us/speeches-2021) He was introduced by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Dan Barker: Chris Cameron earned his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina and he’s an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research interests are Africa American religious and intellectual history, slavery and abolition, religious liberalism and American

Chris Cameron (Photo by Ingrid laas)

secularism. He’s the founding president of the African American Intellectual History Society and has a group blog called Black Perspectives. He’s author of a fascinating book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism. Please welcome Professor Chris Cameron. 

By Chris Cameron

I

’ll give sort of a broad overview of the research I did in some of my main findings from my book Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism.

From March 21–26, 1953, Langston Hughes — poet, author and playwright of Harlem Renaissance fame — testified before Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations regarding the atheist and communist themes in his 1932 poem, “Goodbye Christ.” At one point during the testimony, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois wanted to know whether Hughes thought the book is dead, referring to the bible, and whether or not “Goodbye Christ” could be considered an accurate reflection of African American religious values. Dirksen noted that he was very familiar with African Americans. (He wasn’t.) And that he knew them to be innately very devout and religious people, in his words. 

Dirksen’s statement regarding the supposed innate religiosity of African Americans has become a widespread belief among scholars and in American popular culture. It is an idea that stretches back at least to the 1830s, when Unitarian Minister William Ellery Channing noted in his 1835 book Slavery that “The colored race is said to be peculiarly susceptible of the religious sentiment,” something that he argued led to an overly affectionate nature. 

Freethinkers, later in the 19th century, gave credence to this idea, with William MacDonald, editor of The Truth Seeker, proclaiming in an 1883 article that “There is no class of people in the world more religious than the Negroes. Their fervent African temperament makes them peculiarly susceptible to religious sentiment.” 

These notions are themselves rooted in the idea that African Americans are barbarous, uncivilized, controlled by their emotions rather than logic and reason, and thus incapable of grasping the subtleties of secular thought. As Presbyterian minister Charles Colcock Jones noted in surprise among encountering deism and skepticism in the antebellum slave community, these ideas were usually only found in the cultivated minds, the ripe scholarship and profound intelligence of critics and philosophers. 

My book, Black Freethinkers, builds off the pioneering work of contemporary scholars and Black atheists such as Sikivu Hutchinson and Anthony Pinn, to show that, despite the ubiquity of notions of Blacks as naturally religious, there is a long and storied tradition of secularism within African American culture.

Early Black freethought

African American freethought first arose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and it was a homegrown domestic movement. Unlike the European Enlightenment origins of freethought among intellectuals such as Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, Black freethought grew out of the lived realities of enslaved people and the conditions that Blacks endured within it. 

The increased evangelism to slaves that characterized the second Great Awakening of the 19th century also brought to the fore what many saw to be the hypocritical nature of their Christian masters, including the very practice of holding slaves, but also the way that their masters treated them. So, one of the key reasons that African Americans in the 19th century embraced freethought was an inability to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the presence of a benevolent and omnipotent deity. For many, if not all, slaves, the problem of evil was intimately related to their daily lives when they experienced brutal punishments, sexual assault or families being sold away. 

While many enslaved people did find meaning in religion, whether monotheistic ones such as Christianity or African-derived traditions such as Conjure, others rejected religion altogether. And I found quite a lot of evidence for this in some of the same sources that scholars use to explore the Black religious experience, namely slave narratives. When I went to these sources asking different questions than most other scholars, I found that these narratives also speak to the presence of atheism within 19th-century slave communities. 

One enslaved man named Austin Steward, for example, from Prince William County, Va., immediately after he discusses a brutal whipping that his sister endured on Sabbath, asks in his narrative, “Can anyone wonder that I and other slaves often doubted the sincerity of every white man’s religion? Can it be a matter of astonishment as slaves often feel, there is no just god for the poor African.” 

Another enslaved man named Charles Ball likewise reflects in his autobiography on the irreligiosity present within slave communities. He writes, “There is in general very little sense of religious obligation or duty among the slaves on the cotton plantations, and Christianity cannot be, with propriety, called the religion of these people. They have not the slightest religious regard for the Sabbath Day, and their masters make no efforts to impress them with the least respect for this sacred institution.” He goes on to say many slaves just prefer to rest on their one day off, have a few drinks, spend time with their families. Some even cultivated a garden plot. 

But he also speaks to another key factor pushing slaves away from religion, namely, the opposition of their masters. And there were different schools of thought on this. A lot of masters believed that inculcating a particular type of Christianity would make their slaves more docile in compliance. But then there were events like Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, whereby 69 whites were killed by a rebellion led by a slave preacher that led a lot of other masters to think that there are some really dangerous elements in Christianity, and we want to keep those away from enslaved people. 

Pro-slavery religion

Another key development that fostered the growth of African American atheism during the 19th century was the rise and increasing prevalence of pro-slavery religion. This became much more prominent after 1830, when the abolitionist movement sort of ramped up with the creation of groups like the American Anti-Slavery Society and the start of publications like William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator magazine. 

Prior to that, there were certainly individuals who argued and took action against slavery, but the movement became much more widespread and much more organized after the 1830s, so defenders of slavery felt that they sort of needed to do the same. And they kind of ramped up their efforts and came up with a lot of religious defenses of slavery: The curse of Ham; the fact that Jesus never preached against it; but, probably, the main one was that slavery was a tool to Christianize uncivilized and savage Africans. While their bodies might be enslaved here on Earth, their souls will be free in heaven.

Most enslaved people felt they were destined to die in bondage unless they were delivered by some deity, and slave Henry Bibb noted in his autobiography that when that doesn’t happen, they cannot believe or trust in such a religion. So, most of the evidence that we have for freethought comes from these slave narratives. 

A lot of the people are sort of anonymous. You get writers like Bibb or Charles Ball reflecting on atheism within their communities, but we don’t necessarily know who these people are. There are some exceptions. Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown are probably the two main ones that we know of, but our freethought in the 19th century among African Americans wouldn’t necessarily be an organized movement. You have bits and pieces and pockets of atheism here and there. That would start to change during the 20th century, especially with the rise of the Harlem Renaissance or the new Negro Renaissance, a literary, artistic and cultural movement that spanned the years from roughly 1919 to about 1935. The Harlem Renaissance itself was a product of the Great Migration to the North, which saw approximately one and a half million Black Southerners migrating to northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. 

New approach to racism

So, after World War I, one development that we saw was anti-communist hysteria that ran rampant throughout the country, and any association of anti-racist efforts and activism that was quickly associated with communism. So, there is an increasing prevalence of race riots in 1919 and 1920, and it led a lot of Black leaders to try to take different or creative approaches to solving the problem of racism. And one was the rise of cultural politics. If we’re going to be the victims of race riots by openly protesting against racism, maybe another tack to take, Black leaders said, is to show our equality, to show our fitness for citizenship through our artistic and literary productions. This is one sort of impetus behind the Harlem Renaissance. And it became such an important moment because it had the effect of bringing together a lot of religious skeptics and freethinkers who might have been isolated in their small Midwestern or Southern communities. 

But now, all of a sudden, they’re in a place like Harlem, or they’re in a place like Chicago with like-minded, educated, cosmopolitan people. 

The Harlem Renaissance was rife with writings by atheists. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, the man widely heralded as a father of the Harlem Renaissance, and James Walden Johnson, novels, plays, poems allowed freethinkers to express their critiques of religion in kind of creative ways where they could almost disassociate themselves from it. They could say, “Oh, that’s just a poem.” Or, “I’m just being creative” or “That’s just a novel. It isn’t necessarily my ideas.” 

One of the most important sources to explore freethought during this Renaissance period was Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand. The central character in this novel was a woman named Helga Crane. It begins with her stating her dissatisfaction with the school in Naxos, an anagram of Saxon, and the main thing that causes her discomfort with the school is religion and the respectability of the middle-class African Americans around her. She doesn’t like that. She’s forced to go to church, to wear certain types of clothes, to act a certain way. She quickly leaves there. She goes to Chicago. She thinks she might be able to build community there with other African Americans and goes to a large Black church. She’s pretty much spurned and ignored by everybody there. Throughout the novel, every time she’s encountering religious people, they’re always pretty negative. And even at the very end, the same is true. She makes a very rash decision toward the end of the novel to marry a revival preacher from Alabama named Rev. Mr. Pleasant Green. She moves from Harlem down to this rural community in Alabama. She’s the preacher’s wife. In three years, she has four children, including a set of twins. And after the fourth, she’s pretty much laid up on her deathbed, realizing how her life is just absolutely terrible. It’s not what she wanted for herself, and it all boils down to her decision to accept this heteronormative, patriarchal life, which itself was based on Christianity. At the very end, she writes, “With the obscuring curtain of religion rent, she was able to look about her and see with shocked eyes this thing she had done to herself. She couldn’t, she thought ironically, even blame God for it, now that she knew he didn’t exist.” 

This is one example of how literature becomes a really important source for Black freethinkers, especially, to be able to express their ideas without it necessarily being associated with them personally.  

Embracing communism

During the 1910s, in the 1920s, we see an increasing number of African Americans embracing socialism and communism, and this worked hand in hand with the rise of African American secularism during this period because socialists and communists were very antithetical to religion. The Comintern, the Communist International in 1926, put out a very explicit directive that we expect communists to be atheists. If you went to a communist meeting anywhere in the United States, and probably most places in the world, and they knew you went to church or they knew you were religious or something, you would be ostracized and shunned. You’d be expected to put your religion away. And socialism and communism became increasingly appealing to African Americans because, at least theoretically, they subsumed issues of race under issues of class. 

Many African American intellectuals and Black secularists also embraced communism, including Claude McKay, Louise Thompson Patterson, A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, publishers of the Messenger magazine, and Hubert Harrison, who was widely held during his time as one of the most towering Black intellectuals of the day. Harrison played an important role in Harlem politics and saw himself as an apostle of freethought to African American communities. 

And with Hubert Harrison and with early 20th-century Black freethought, this is where you start to see the traditions of Black and white freethought beginning to converge a little bit. This is where you see African Americans starting to come to their religious skepticism through an engagement with readings by Thomas Paine or Robert Ingersoll.

Indeed, Hubert Harrison saw himself as a figure very much akin to Paine, somebody who could take really kind of complicated ideas, boil them down for his broad audience in New York City and try to convert African Americans to secularism. He thought that Black people had suffered more than any other group in this country under Christianity, and that they should be the very first ones to embrace freethought. 

From there, my book turns to a discussion of secularism and the Black Power movement during the 1960s and 1970s. And just as in earlier periods, Black freethinkers are central players in civil rights, and we can see this, especially with the Black Power movement. Black Power emerged out of the civil rights activity of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966. SNCC had had been created in 1960 and was initially led by Christian activists such as James Lawson and John Lewis, who were committed to the philosophy of nonviolence. This philosophy and approach soon began to change, however, especially after James Forman took over the group. 

Forman grew up in rural Mississippi, and he started moving away from religion as a young man. In a scene repeated in many autobiographies and memoirs of Black freethinkers, Forman writes in his book The Making of Black Revolutionaries, that, at the age of 12, he was attending a revival service. Some of his friends shouted out that they had gotten religion, and the older people shouted this, too. He says, “I did not have the courage to tell my grandmother that I thought this was all nonsense. I simply observe what had been happening around me and knew that I, too, could fabricate some tears in this emotionally charged atmosphere. So, I covered my face with my handkerchief and cried, ‘Lord, have mercy.’ It worked. I was taken off the mourners bench and the people talked of how many children got saved that day by the grace of the Lord.”

Langston Hughes has a very similar story about growing up in Joplin, Mo., and attending a revival service there. Richard Wright has one. James Baldwin. This is sort of a recurring theme among Black freethinkers — the pressure from their community to convert to Christianity. But, also, the moments where they fake this conversion actually becomes the moment where they become atheists or they become agnostics. 

Black Power movement

Forman would formally embrace atheism after studying philosophy at Wilson Junior College in Chicago, and he would bring his secular perspective to his civil rights activity. He became the executive secretary of SNCC in 1963 and grounded his activism in secular humanism as he believed that Christianity was a prime reason that Blacks were in a subordinate position in the United States. 

In 1966, Forman, along with Stokely Carmichael, led the transition of SNCC from a religious to a secular organization and inaugurated the Black Power movement, the major goals of which were promoting Black economic advancement, a pride in Black culture, independent Black political action and armed self-reliance, or a rejection of nonviolence. 

The main institutional expression of Black Power as an ideology was the Black Panther Party for self-defense. This was formed in Oakland, Calif., in 1966 in response to issues of police brutality and police murdering unarmed African Americans. And it began as an explicitly secular organization — not that it promoted secularism, but that it was based off of secular humanism and a desire for human beings to do for themselves without the assistance of a deity. Some of its main goals were ending health disparities within African American communities. They created clinics and ran ambulance services and created schools for African Americans. And probably the most famous of their endeavors was the free breakfast program for children that was run throughout the nation. 

And Huey Newton, one of the founders of the party, is very explicit in his autobiography that these were sort of humanist endeavors. Newton, along with Stokely Carmichael, David Hilliard and Eldridge Cleaver, some of the key leaders of the Black Panther Party, were all very outspoken in their atheism. And the newspaper of the party, the Black Panther, also contained poems and other writers by Blacks secular thinkers. Like earlier freethinkers, they saw the church as conservative, and they advanced a humanist politics that rejected the authority of what they termed “Uncle Tom boot-licking preachers.”

While we often see the civil rights movement as a religious movement dependent on ministers and churches, an examination of Black Power in the Black Panther Party, especially in urban regions such as Oakland or New York City, shows that secularism was often just as, if not more, prominent than religion among these activists. 

And indeed, even if we look at the traditional civil rights movement in the South, it was actually the case that only a small minority of Black churches engaged in open political activity. In a pioneering work, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, historian Barbara Savage notes that the fact that we’ve come to see the civil rights movement as a religious one is a miracle in and of itself. 

Despite views of Blacks as naturally religious, freethought has been a vital and significant component of Black culture and politics since the 19th century. This history is not an obscure one, as sources on Black freethinkers are readily available in print and online. And it’s a history that’s not of obscure people. As you know, some of the people I discuss in my book include Frederick Douglass, Hubert Harrison, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Huey Newton and Alice Walker, some of the leading intellectuals, some of the leading political figures in African American culture.

It’s vital to understand and teach this history to show Black skeptics today that they are part of a long and prominent tradition of Black freethinkers. Thank you.

Fun times in Boston

FFRF Lifetime Member Ellery Schempp offers a hearty laugh while speaking with Barbara Alvarez, FFRF’s reproductive rights intern, during the Saturday dinner at FFRF’s national convention in Boston on Nov. 20. Schempp was the initiator of the landmark 1963 United States Supreme Court decision of Abington School District v. Schempp, which declared that required public school sanctioned Lord’s Prayer and bible readings were unconstitutional.

(Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Linda Greenhouse speech: Cheesecake, anyone?

Linda Greenhouse (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Linda Greenhouse holds her Clarence Darrow Award, given to her at FFRF’s national convention in Boston on Nov. 19, 2021.

Journalist and author Linda Greenhouse was introduced on stage by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor during FFRF’s convention on Nov. 19:

“Veteran Supreme Court observer and commentator Linda Greenhouse has earned this year’s Clarence Darrow Award. You know her for her Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Supreme Court for 30 years and for her continuing and important biweekly column on the court for The New York Times.  

“A fierce defender of reproductive rights, her books include Justice on the Brink: The Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Rise of Amy Coney Barrett, and Twelve Months That Transformed the Supreme Court. 

“Linda finds deft and effective ways to question the role of religion in the political or judicial agenda. Linda, you are FFRF’s legal touchstone and we are so grateful to you for your acumen, your empathy, for sharing wise, frank expertise and warnings about the evolving state of the Supreme Court, especially your writings on the Establishment Clause.”

Linda Greenhouse gave this speech (slightly edited) at FFRF’s national convention on Nov. 19. 

By Linda Greenhouse

My brief talk has a title: “Cheesecake, anyone?” I will explain that title soon. But first, I want to mention something that occurred to me as I heard other convention presentations today. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received several shout-outs — well-deserved, because by the end of her time on the Supreme Court, she was the most committed separationist among the justices. But I want to remember another distinguished woman who served on the Supreme Court: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who left the court in early 2006. She is still alive at 90, living with dementia.

In the summer of 2005, Justice O’Connor wrote an opinion concurring with the majority in a case called McCreary County that invalidated a Ten Commandments display on the wall of a Kentucky courthouse. Justice David Souter’s majority opinion found the display to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. Justice O’Connor agreed. This is what she wrote:

“At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate. Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

FFRF asks people to ask this question. It could be an FFRF motto.

And now to my talk.

Even were I not receiving this wonderful award, it would be an honor and a pleasure simply to be here, among people who are not shy about challenging the surge in religiosity that is sweeping across our supposedly secular country. In my new book and in my opinion columns, I look at this growing problem with a focus on the Supreme Court’s role. But of course, the court is a reflection, not a source of the problem. Supreme Court justices don’t fall from the sky, and the makeup of the current court is a reflection of our domestic politics.

I don’t mean to let the court off the hook for its series of decisions that have placed religion in a position of privilege that would have astounded our Constitution’s Framers, to whom conservative judges and justices purport to pay so much homage. I’m only suggesting that “We the People” paved the way to the Supreme Court we have today, either by active participation in or by passive acquiescence to the wave of religiosity that deposited the most recent justices onto the court’s bench. 

What distinguishes FFRF is its refusal to stand silently by. To stand silent, as most people do, even those who are troubled by what they see, is to enable. Religion, as I’ve written, is the last taboo in American society. Unlike when most of us grew up, we can now talk unabashedly about sexual identity, gender nonconformity, money, race, social class — anything but religion. To comment on the fact that the last three Republican presidents have placed a total of five conservative Catholics on the court — and I mean doctrinally conservative, not simply politically conservative — and you risk being considered rude or even bigoted. But to remain silent in the face of this astonishing fact is to become an enabler. What I admire about FFRF is that you refuse to be enablers.

Now, what could I possibly mean by the title for my talk? Last month, one of our great federal appeals courts declared that Jewish prison inmates had a legal right to be served cheesecake on the Jewish holiday of Shavous.

Yes, you heard that right. It’s the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which covers Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan, which is where the case of Ackerman v. Washington arose. I’m guessing that some in this audience have some acquaintance with Jewish tradition and practice, as I do. For those from Christian backgrounds, Shavous is Revelation, the handing down of the Ten Commandments.  What on heaven or Earth does this have to do with cheesecake? This is the story.

The Michigan Department of Corrections makes vegan kosher meals available to any prisoner with a religious objection to the standard prison diet. This is a universal meal for prisoners with any religious objection, whether based on Jewish, Muslim or other religious dietary requirements. Two Jewish inmates challenged the prison’s practice, claiming that, based on their religious beliefs, they were entitled to kosher meat on the Sabbath and to a dairy meal on Shavous — not just a generic dairy meal but, according to one of the inmates, cheesecake. 

Testifying at trial, one of the inmates, who claimed familiarity with Jewish law, first said that “Shavous is generally associated with cheesecake in the Jewish community,” but later amplified that remark to say that eating cheesecake was, in fact, required. The district court ordered the prison system to provide kosher meat to prisoners requesting it on the Jewish Sabbath and to provide cheesecake on Shavous. 

The prison system appealed, challenging the sincerity of the prisoner’s claims. The 6th Circuit affirmed, crediting the inmates’ sincerity and noting that both had grown up eating kosher food at home. Two of the three judges on the appellate panel were appointed by Donald Trump, but, in fact, that’s largely irrelevant, as I will explain. Writing for the panel, one of those two judges, John Nalbandian, said that while the kosher meat claim for the Sabbath was an easy question, the cheesecake claim was “trickier.” The judge observed that “religious texts don’t say that cheesecake is mandatory.” He cited a note in the Code of Jewish Law that “some have a custom to just eat some dairy” on the holiday of Shavous. 

Why didn’t that end the judges’ inquiry? Why didn’t a finding of “no religious requirement” equate to a finding of “no entitlement”? Aha, and I quote: “But there’s also evidence suggesting that these prisoners do, in fact, sincerely believe that cheesecake is required on Shavout” [a more modern spelling of the name of the holiday]. Noting that the District Court judge had accepted the prisoners’ sincerity on this point, Judge Nalbandian said: “That’s all that is required. Even if we may have come out differently on this issue if we were sitting as district judges, we affirm under the applicable standard of review.” 

Theoretically, Michigan might have rebutted this finding by showing that the state had a compelling interest in not yielding to the inmates’ request. The state offered a financial interest: meeting the dietary demand would cost $10,000 a year. The 6th Circuit rejected that effort, noting that the prison system’s annual food budget was $39 million, and that an addition $10,000 represented “just a tiny 0.02 percent in that multi-million-dollar-food-budget bucket.”

Now, I’m no expert on Jewish law. But I was married in an Orthodox synagogue, and I’m here to tell you that Jews no more require cheesecake on Shavous than Christians require colored eggs on Easter. Fun to have, in both cases, but how did we come to a point where a federal appeals court issues a 23-page opinion addressing a matter that to a person without a stake in the outcome would appear frivolous, even ridiculous?

The fact of the matter is that when it comes to religious claims, nothing is frivolous or ridiculous. And given where the Supreme Court has driven the law, the chain of reasoning that produced the outcome in this case was completely plausible and even predictable. The case was litigated under a 20-year-old federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. The law provides that the government must show a “compelling interest” to justify imposing “a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.” “Religious exercise” is defined as “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” Given that statutory language, it’s hardly surprising that the Supreme Court has interpreted the law as triggered by any “sincere” belief, no matter how unfounded. And if all that matters is “sincerity,” who, after all, is to judge?

The law essentially enables judges, if so inclined, to take themselves out of the role of judging. To this effect, it mirrors a companion federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was the law at issue in the Hobby Lobby case that the Supreme Court decided in 2014. This was the case about whether a corporation with a religious owner could exempt itself from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide birth control as part of the employee health insurance plan. The owner of Hobby Lobby claimed that he couldn’t possibly abide by this mandate because certain forms of birth control cause abortion. This does not happen to be true. But it was, ostensibly, the man’s belief. So, the court credited it and ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor, to the detriment of thousands of women all over the country who work for such employers and as a result have been deprived of an employment benefit contemplated by Congress and enjoyed by women who are lucky enough to work for companies that obey the law.

My point in telling you the cheesecake story, then, is really about a lot more than cheesecake. In context, the 6th Circuit opinion was not crazy. It was, as I said, completely predictable. It’s the law itself that has gone off the rails in full view of anyone who cared to watch. Prisoners can be denied decent medical care, can be abused by guards, of course forfeit their right to vote — but, by God, let them eat cheesecake. 

Something is seriously out of balance, and by the end of the current Supreme Court term it is highly likely to become even more so. The situation urgently requires our attention. I’m comforted by the knowledge that FFRF will keep doing its part.

Don’t miss out on FFRF’s convention!

We are closing in quickly on FFRF’s 44th annual convention in Boston that begins Friday, Nov. 19! Sign up now if you haven’t already, as seats are filling up fast! You won’t want to miss out on all the great speakers and entertainment lined up for that weekend.

(Reminder: The event is limited to those who are fully vaccinated for Covid-19. See page 28.)

The conference will open informally on Thursday night, Nov. 18, with early registration and a two-hour appetizer reception at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. Registration resumes at 7 a.m. Friday, Nov. 19, with early morning coffee, tea and breakfast pastries. The full, two-day program formally opens at 9 a.m. Friday and continues through Saturday night. The membership meeting will take place at 9 a.m. Sunday, followed by a short meeting of the State Representatives, concluding by noon.

The convention will include a report on FFRF accomplishments by Gaylor and Co-President Dan Barker, an hour-long legal report by FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert and FFRF’s attorneys, a little music at the piano by Barker, FFRF book and product tables, the traditional drawing for “clean,” pre-“In God We Trust” currency, and some complimentary food receptions. 

FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel, author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, will lead a workshop on Christian nationalism and its ties to Jan. 6. 

Receptions

There will also be two optional author receptions. After “An evening with Margaret Atwood” Friday night, a short private reception for Ms. Atwood will take place, limited to 100 individuals. Tickets to the reception are $500 and will include a copy of The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale..

Friday evening will end with a complimentary dessert reception and hot beverages for all participants.

Gloria Steinem will be interviewed by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor on Saturday afternoon, taking some audience questions, followed by a half-hour reception limited to 50 individuals. (Act quickly as that reception is nearly sold out.) 

Mail in the handy registration on Page 28 or register online at ffrf.org/convention-2021.

Speakers

Below are shortened bios of this year’s convention speakers. To read more about each speaker, please go to ffrf.org/convention-2021 and click on “Speakers 2021.”

Margaret Atwood is the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake. 

Atwood will receive FFRF’s “Forward” Award, which is reserved for those who are moving society forward. 

Randa Black of Florida has won FFRF’s Nothing Fails Like Prayer contest and will recite at the convention her secular invocation.  Black is a professional actor, appearing in hundreds of television commercials and episodic TV shows. 

Christopher Cameron, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is author of the new book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism. 

Ann Druyan is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director specializing in the communication of science. She was the creative director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project and program director of the first solar sail deep space mission. 

Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D. is an educator, author, playwright and director. She is the author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles.  Hutchinson will receive FFRF’s “Freethought Heroine” Award.

Megan Phelps-Roper, author of Unfollow: On Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, was raised in the Topeka, Kan.-based church known for its protests. Phelps-Roper will receive the $10,000 “Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism” award.

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist, experimental psychologist, linguist and popular science author. He is a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. His latest book is Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. 

Sasha Sagan is author of the new book, For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World. She is a graduate of NYU, and has worked as a television producer, filmmaker, writer and speaker. 

Sushant Singh is an Indian actor and presenter known for his work predominantly in Hindi cinema. He has appeared in almost 50 movies since 1998. Singh will be receiving the Avijit Roy Courage Award, which includes a crystal plaque and $5,000. 

Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer. Steinem, who’s been billed as “the world’s most famous feminist,” is a journalist who co-founded Ms. Magazine in 1972. Steinem will receive FFRF’s “Forward” Award. 

Katherine Stewart is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. She writes about religion, politics, policy and conflicts over the separation of church and state for The New York Times opinion section. 

David Tamayo is co-founder and president of Hispanic American Freethinkers in 2010. He was vice president of the Reason Rally 2016, former host of the TV show “Road to Reason – A Skeptic’s Guide to the 21st Century.” 

David Williamson is co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC). Williamson and other winning plaintiffs in the Brevard Co. lawsuit will accept FFRF’s Freethinker of the Year Award.

Phil Zuckerman is the associate dean and professor of sociology at Pitzer College, and the founding chair of the nation’s first Secular Studies Program. He has authored several books, including What It Means to be Moral.

Margaret Atwood

Covid-19 rules – vaccinations required

The event is limited to FFRF members and their guests who are fully vaccinated* for Covid-19. Please be sure to indicate on the registration form whether you have been vaccinated. FFRF reserves the right to request proof of vaccination. *Only exception: If you are under a physician’s explicit instructions not to be vaccinated for Covid-19 due to health/immunity issues.

The great news is that atheists as a group in the United States are the most likely and willing to be vaccinated. We fully expect the event to reach “herd immunity.” FFRF staff members are fully vaccinated.

Please note that the Boston Plaza Hotel is adhering to all federal, state and local guidelines and does not at this time require its staff to be vaccinated.

The hotel has indicated it will follow whatever protocol, as yet unknown, is required by the government at the time of FFRF’s convention.

Although FFRF will not require masking for vaccinated individuals, unless CDC, Massachusetts or Boston rules change and require them, convention participants of course are free to wear masks. FFRF will be offering its popular masks, with the slogans “FFRF,” “Science is Golden” and “In Science I Trust,” at no cost during the convention.

The conference room will be set up for about 800 seats in the usual theater format, which does not allow for social distancing. 

However, FFRF will inform participants of any requirements requested by authors during book signings, such as masking or social distancing.

Convention information

Hotel reservations

The convention hotel is the Boston Park Plaza, 50 Park Plaza at Arlington St., Boston. The convention rate is $189 single, double, triple or quad. Suites are $389 and up. Attendees should call the Central Reservations Office (617-379-7129). Please ask for “Freedom From Religion Annual Convention.” The hotel will discount self-parking to $30 per day at Motor Mart Garage.

The cut-off date for reserving rooms is 5 p.m. Eastern on Oct. 18, 2021. FFRF urges you to plan ahead and reserve early to avoid disappointment.

Meals

In addition to offering several complimentary food or dessert receptions, the convention will include four optional group meals. FFRF does not mark up meal prices, which include 17 percent gratuity, 10 percent taxable administrative fee and 7 percent sales tax.

A robust and tasty box lunch, $60, will be offered at Friday noon for participant convenience, concurrent with Andrew Seidel’s Christian nationalism workshop.

Choices include:

• Grilled Chicken Caesar Wrap

• Turkey BLT Wrap

• Grilled Vegetable Wrap

Wraps will be served with roasted vegetable penne salad, Cape Cod potato chips, a piece of whole fruit, a freshly baked cookie and choice of assorted soft drinks or bottled water.

A Southern barbeque buffet, $65, with vegetable chili and cornbread muffin, rotisserie chicken with BBQ sauce and greens, carved brisket with mac and cheese and fruit kabobs will take place from 5–7 p.m. Friday.

FFRF’s Non-Prayer Breakfast, $45, includes scrambled eggs, bacon and breakfast potatoes, assorted pastries, juice, coffee and tea, with vegetarian/vegan options.

The Saturday banquet dinner of $95 will include Maple Glazed Statler Breast of Chicken with buttermilk mashed potatoes, seasonable autumn baby green salad with roasted beets, quinoa, goat cheese, apple cider vinaigrette, and Boston Cream Pie. The vegetarian option is Butternut Squash Ravioli.

A two-hour lunch on your own is scheduled for Saturday to permit some fresh air, sightseeing or relaxation between events.

The Boston Park Plaza itself offers a variety of dining options: Kozy Korner for drinks, lunch or dinner in Off the Common, the uber-modern steakhouse Strega Italiano just off the lobby, and classic Irish pub J.J. O’Connor’s, just outside the entrance. The Back Bay Boston neighborhood offers a variety of restaurants.

Plan time to sightsee

The Boston Park Plaza is in the officially recognized neighborhood of Back Bay Boston, built on reclaimed land in the Charles River basin. It’s home to a number of restaurants, glitzy stores, skyscrapers, the commercial strips of Newbury Street and Boylston Street, the residential brownstones of Marlborough Street and Copley Square, a grassy plaza within walking distance. The hotel is about a mile from the Charles River Esplanade, a waterfront haven for runners.

The Boston Park Plaza

You may wish to take a self-guided Freedom Trail tour of historic Boston sites, or sign up on your own for a guided tour on Thursday or Sunday at thefreedomtrail.org or choose any number of other tour options.

Speaker lineup features star-studded cast

Ann Druyan
Sasha Sagan
Katherine Stewart
Margaret Atwood
Steven Pinker (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

You aren’t going to want to miss this year’s incredible lineup of speakers at FFRF’s 44th annual convention happening Friday, Nov. 19–Sunday, Nov. 21 at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. (The event is limited to those who are fully vaccinated for Covid-19. See page 24.)

The conference will open informally on Thursday night, Nov. 18, with early registration and a two-hour appetizer reception. Registration resumes at 7 a.m. Friday, Nov. 19. The full, two-day program formally opens at 9 a.m. Friday. The membership meeting will take place at 9 a.m. Sunday, followed by a short meeting of the State Representatives, ending by noon.

The convention will include a report on FFRF accomplishments by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Co-President Dan Barker, an hour-long legal report by FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert and FFRF’s attorneys, a little music at the piano by Barker, FFRF book and product tables, the traditional drawing for “clean,” pre-“In God We Trust” currency, and some complimentary food receptions. 

FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel will lead a workshop on Christian nationalism and its ties to Jan. 6. 

Speakers

To read more about each speaker, please go to ffrf.org/convention-2021.

Margaret Atwood is the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake. Atwood will receive FFRF’s “Forward” Award. 

Randa Black of Florida has won FFRF’s Nothing Fails Like Prayer contest and will recite her secular invocation. Black is a professional actor, appearing in hundreds of commercials and TV shows. 

Christopher Cameron, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is author of the new book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism. 

Ann Druyan is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director specializing in the communication of science. She was the creative director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project and program director of the first solar sail deep space mission. 

Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D. is an educator, author, playwright and director. She is the author of Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical.  Hutchinson will receive FFRF’s “Freethought Heroine” Award.

Megan Phelps-Roper, author of Unfollow: On Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, was raised in the Topeka, Kan.-based church known for its protests. Phelps-Roper will receive the $10,000 “Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism” award.

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist, experimental psychologist, linguist and popular science author. He is a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. 

Sasha Sagan is author of the new book, For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World. She has worked as a television producer, filmmaker, writer and speaker. 

Sushant Singh is an Indian actor and presenter known for his work predominantly in Hindi cinema. Singh will be receiving the Avijit Roy Courage Award. 

Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer. Steinem, who’s been billed as “the world’s most famous feminist,” is a journalist who co-founded Ms. Magazine in 1972. Steinem will receive FFRF’s “Forward” Award. 

Katherine Stewart is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. 

David Tamayo is cofounder and president of Hispanic American Freethinkers in 2010. 

Jay Wexler is a professor at Boston University School of Law. 

David Williamson is co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC). Williamson will accept FFRF’s Freethinker of the Year Award.

Phil Zuckerman is the associate dean and professor of sociology at Pitzer College, and the founding chair of the nation’s first Secular Studies Program. 

Receptions

There will also be two optional author receptions. After “An evening with Margaret Atwood” Friday night, a short private reception for Ms. Atwood will take place, limited to 100 individuals. Tickets to the reception are $500 and will include a copy of The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Friday evening will end with a complimentary dessert reception and hot beverages for all participants.

Gloria Steinem will be interviewed by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor on Saturday afternoon, taking some audience questions, followed by a half-hour reception limited to 50 individuals. That $500 ticket will include a copy of Ms. Steinem’s newest book, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off! Thoughts on Life, Love, and Rebellion. 

Mail in the handy registration on Page 24 or register online at ffrf.org/convention-2021.

Pre-registration deadline is Oct. 31, unless the convention sells out earlier. 

Convention information

Hotel reservations

The convention hotel is the Boston Park Plaza, 50 Park Plaza at Arlington St., Boston. The convention rate is $189 single, double, triple or quad. Suites are $389 and up. Attendees should call the Central Reservations Office (617-379-7129). Please ask for “Freedom From Religion Annual Convention.” The hotel will discount self-parking to $30 per day at Motor Mart Garage.

The cut-off date for reserving rooms is 5 p.m. Eastern on Oct. 18, 2021. FFRF urges you to plan ahead and reserve early to avoid disappointment.

Meals

In addition to offering several complimentary food or dessert receptions, the convention will include four optional group meals. FFRF does not mark up meal prices, which include 17 percent gratuity, 10 percent taxable administrative fee and 7 percent sales tax.

A robust and tasty box lunch, $60, will be offered at Friday noon for participant convenience, concurrent with Andrew Seidel’s Christian nationalism workshop.

Choices include:

• Grilled Chicken Caesar Wrap

• Turkey BLT Wrap

• Grilled Vegetable Wrap

Wraps will be served with roasted vegetable penne salad, Cape Cod potato chips, a piece of whole fruit, a freshly baked cookie and choice of assorted soft drinks or bottled water.

A Southern barbeque buffet, $65, with vegetable chili and cornbread muffin, rotisserie chicken with BBQ sauce and greens, carved brisket with mac and cheese and fruit kabobs will take place from 5–7 p.m. Friday.

FFRF’s Non-Prayer Breakfast, $45, includes scrambled eggs, bacon and breakfast potatoes, assorted pastries, juice, coffee and tea, with vegetarian/vegan options.

The Saturday banquet dinner of $95 will include Maple Glazed Statler Breast of Chicken with buttermilk mashed potatoes, seasonable autumn baby green salad with roasted beets, quinoa, goat cheese, apple cider vinaigrette, and Boston Cream Pie. The vegetarian option is Butternut Squash Ravioli.

A two-hour lunch on your own is scheduled for Saturday to permit some fresh air, sightseeing or relaxation between events.

The Boston Park Plaza itself offers a variety of dining options: Kozy Korner for drinks, lunch or dinner in Off the Common, the uber-modern steakhouse Strega Italiano just off the lobby, and classic Irish pub J.J. O’Connor’s, just outside the entrance. The Back Bay Boston neighborhood offers a variety of restaurants.

Plan time to sightsee

The Boston Park Plaza is in the officially recognized neighborhood of Back Bay Boston, built on reclaimed land in the Charles River basin. It’s home to a number of restaurants, glitzy stores, skyscrapers, the commercial strips of Newbury Street and Boylston Street, the residential brownstones of Marlborough Street and Copley Square, a grassy plaza within walking distance. The hotel is about a mile from the Charles River Esplanade, a waterfront haven for runners.

You may wish to take a self-guided Freedom Trail tour of historic Boston sites, or sign up on your own for a guided tour on Thursday or Sunday at thefreedomtrail.org or choose any number of other tour options.

Covid-19 rules – vaccinations required

The event is limited to FFRF members and their guests who are fully vaccinated* for Covid-19. Please be sure to indicate on the registration form whether you have been vaccina

The Boston Park Plaza is site of FFRF’s 2021 national convention, Nov. 19-21.

ted. FFRF reserves the right to request proof of vaccination. *Only exception: If you are under a physician’s explicit instructions not to be vaccinated for Covid-19 due to health/immunity issues.

The great news is that atheists as a group in the United States are the most likely and willing to be vaccinated. We fully expect the event to reach “herd immunity.” FFRF staff members are fully vaccinated.

Please note that the Boston Plaza Hotel is adhering to all federal, state and local guidelines and does not at this time require its staff to be vaccinated.

The hotel has indicated it will follow whatever protocol, as yet unknown, is required by the government at the time of FFRF’s convention.

Although FFRF will not require masking for vaccinated individuals, unless CDC, Massachusetts or Boston rules change and require them, convention participants of course are free to wear masks. FFRF will be offering its popular masks, with the slogans “FFRF,” “Science is Golden” and “In Science I Trust,” at no cost during the convention.

The conference room will be set up for about 800 seats in the usual theater format, which does not allow for social distancing. 

However, FFRF will inform participants of any requirements requested by authors during book signings, such as masking or social distancing.

Boston beckons for FFRF’s exciting convention

Steven Pinker (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Sikivu Hutchinson
Gloria Steinem
Anny Druyan
Margaret Atwood

When you think of Boston, what comes to mind first? The marathon? Baked beans? The Red sox or Celtics? 

Well, for Freedom From Religion Foundation members, maybe it’ll be that FFRF’s 44th annual convention will be held there from Friday, Nov. 19–Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. (The event is limited to those who are fully vaccinated for Covid-19. See back page for details on “Covid rules.”)

“We look forward to a celebratory event and warm reunion with members,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’ve put together an amazing line-up of leading authors and freethought and secular activists.”

The conference will open informally on Thursday night, Nov. 18, with early registration and a two-hour appetizer reception at the Boston Park Plaza. Registration resumes at 7 a.m. Friday, Nov. 19, with early morning coffee, tea and breakfast pastries. Registration continues throughout the conference. The full, two-day program formally opens at 9 a.m. Friday and continues through Saturday night. The membership meeting will take place at 9 a.m. Sunday, followed by a short meeting of the State Representatives, concluding by noon.

Headliners previously announced include distinguished author Margaret (The Handmaid’s Tale) Atwood, freethinking feminist Gloria Steinem, Power Worshippers author Katherine Stewart and Secular Studies pioneer Phil Zuckerman. Joining that list are now veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, whose new book, Justice on the Brink: The Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Rise of Amy Coney Barrett, and Twelve Months That Transformed the Supreme Court, will be just released, as well as FFRF Honorary President Steve Pinker, whose latest book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, will also be hot off the press. Greenhouse will receive FFRF’s Clarence Darrow Award for her outstanding legal reporting and analysis.

Additionally, the mother-daughter duo of Ann Druyan and Sasha Sagan will end the conference Saturday night following the banquet dinner. Druyan co-authored with Carl Sagan many classic science books, and writes and produces the award-winning “Cosmos” TV series.

Druyan will receive FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award, reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion. Her daughter Sasha is author of the well-received new book, For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World.

FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel, author of Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, will lead a workshop on Christian nationalism and its ties to Jan. 6. Professor Chris Cameron will speak about his book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism. David Tamayo, co-founder of Hispanic American Freethinkers, will speak. 

Activists honored at the event will include secular students, Freethinkers of the Year such as FFRF member David Williamson and other recent successful state/church plaintiffs and Black Skeptics Los Angeles founder and author Sikivu Hutchinson, who will be receiving FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award. Indian actor Sushant Singh, who has protested against Hindu nationalism, is scheduled to receive the Avijit Roy Courage Award.

Megan Phelps-Roper, author of the new book Unfollow: On Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, will receive the Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award.

The event will include a report on FFRF accomplishments by Gaylor and Co-President Dan Barker, an hour-long legal report by FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert and FFRF’s attorneys, a little music at the piano by Barker, FFRF book and product tables, the traditional drawing for “clean,” pre-“In God We Trust” currency, and some complimentary food receptions. There will be opportunities for socializing and meeting with authors during book signings.

There will also be two optional author receptions. After “An evening with Margaret Atwood” Friday night, involving a moderated conversation with author Katherine Stewart, a short private reception for Ms. Atwood will take place, limited to 100 individuals. Tickets to the reception are $500 and will include a copy of The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Friday evening will end with a complimentary dessert reception and hot beverages for all participants.

Gloria Steinem will be interviewed by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor on Saturday afternoon, taking some audience questions, followed by a half-hour reception limited to 50 individuals. That $500 ticket will include a copy of Ms. Steinem’s newest book, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off! Thoughts on Life, Love, and Rebellion. Both Atwood and Steinem will receive FFRF’s “Forward Award,” reserved for those who have moved society forward.

The schedule and updates will be published in upcoming issues of Freethought Today and on FFRF’s website, ffrf.org/convention-2021.

Pre-registration deadline is Oct. 31, 2021, unless the convention sells out earlier. We encourage you to plan ahead.