As is often the case, a Wisconsin State Journal (WSJ) article sent me on an interesting thought trajectory last week.

In a New Years Day 2011 article, WSJ author Chris Rickert wrote, “I approached a handful of more-or-less randomly chosen (Madison) people who aren’t exactly celebrities (but aren’t exactly unknown either) about coming up with resolutions for Madison.”

The Greek word "atheoi" αθεοι ("those who are without god") as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians 2:12, on early 3rd-century Papyrus"

When thus approached, Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) atheist Annie Laurie Gaylor suggested the following resolution for Madison: “just say no to the (St. Paul’s Catholic Student) Center‘s unreasonable demand for a tax-free, 14-story dormitory and religious addition.”  Apparently this Madison atheist’s primary concern for 2011 seemed to be preventing the replacement of UW Madison’s Catholic student headquarters. (!)

Questions immediately came to mind:

St. Paul's from 1909

  • Why would opposition to the Catholic Student center be so high on an atheist organization’s priority list?   (The replacement will be funded by private donations, and replaces an existing Catholic Student center, which has been in existence at that location since 1909.)
  • Why is MY Catholic religion being singled out by the atheists?  (The atheist’s objections did not include other campus religious groups or buildings, or their tax-exempt status.)
  • Isn’t the atheist being inconsistent? Isn’t atheism a religion as well?  Aren’t atheists simply opposing OTHER people’s religions in preference to their own? Why would they particularly single out Catholicism?

Searching the UW Madison student organization website, atheists came up as the second listing under RELIGIOUS student organizations– Atheists, Humanists & Agnostics @ UW-Madison. So atheism is listed as a religion at UW, along with Catholic student groups, Muslim student groups, and others.

If the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is so opposed to religion, what are they specifically opposed to?

According to dictionary.com, religion is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

  • Is FFRF opposed to exploring the cause, nature and purpose of the universe?
  • Does FFRF deny the right of others to believe in a superhuman agency (as 80% of Madison and 80% of America does)?
  • Is FFRF opposed to a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs?
  • Are atheists not contradicting themselves, since they also adhere to a system of beliefs and are listed under UW Madison religious organizations?

My curiosity piqued, I visited the Freedom From Religion Foundation(FFRF) website  “about” page, where I found the statement:

“The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.”

Abraham Lincoln

Hmmm….according to FFRF, so much for considering contributions to Western civilization by Jesus Christ, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Johann Sebastian Bach, Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, G.K. Chesterton, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Clarence Thomas, Pope John Paul II, Mother Theresa………?

The FFRF “about” page goes on to claim ownership of prison reform, humane treatment of the mentally ill, abolition of capital punishment, the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, and more, for people who are “free of” religion.

Johnny Cash

A brief historical tour of these topics does not support FFRF’s claims—no one group had a monopoly on reform in these areas, and numerous religious people were involved, including famous names like Abraham Lincoln and Johnny Cash.


A visit to Wikipedia’s entry on FFRF indicates that FFRF maintained a sign in the Wisconsin State Capitol during the Christmas season, which reads:

FFRF sign at Wisconsin Capitol


“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 the heart and enslaves minds.”

-A disturbingly intolerant statement about many religions, particularly for a city like Madison, which prides itself on its University, its intellectualism and its tolerance!

Consider a simple substitution in the last sentence of the sign:                                    Atheism is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” instead of Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens the heart and enslaves minds.”

How would FFRF tolerate the exhibition of that in the State Capitol on a gold sign for children to view?

The first line of the FFRF verse is also inconsistent with FFRF’s supposed mission; Winter Solstice, capitalized, refers to pagan celebrations, which are religious.  Is FFRF promoting pagan holidays, while opposing Christian ones like Christmas?  Hardly sounds like freedom from religion.

The FFRF Christmas season sign is an inconsistent curiosity at best, and surely would not be appreciated by 80% of Madison, who are Christian, when they bring their children to see the Christmas tree at the Capitol each year!

How many atheists are there, anyway? Wikipedia claims 2.5% of the world’s population, 2% of the U.S. population.

And of these, how many are so militant that they cannot tolerate a Christmas tree or a “Merry Christmas” wish?  The couple of atheists/agnostics I know have no problem with Christmas, and they participate in Christmas celebrations and Christmas giving with enthusiasm.  They are quite tolerant of the Christian majority in America, and enjoy the spirit of the occasion.  So what percentage of Americans does the FFRF really represent?  It is certainly lower than the total of all atheists, 2%.  The FFRF website lists their North American membership of 15,500, which is 0.003 of 1% of the population, or one in 33 thousand people.

City-data.com demographics list Madison as 53% Catholic, 22% Evangelical Lutheran, and only 10% of the population outside of Christian denominations.

So as we delve further into the facts, we discover that in the City of Madison, which is 53% Catholic and 80% Christian, and in the State of Wisconsin, which is 29% Catholic and 80% Christian, the insignificant number of militant atheists want to prevent Catholic students from replacing their Catholic student center at their own cost when membership swells.

Catholic students in front of St. Paul's

Perhaps it is the tax-deductible status of the Catholic Student Center that offends FFRF?  The Catholic student center is located between its brethren structures, Calvary Lutheran Student Center, and Pres House, the Presbyterian Student Center.  All three are religious institutions and all three are tax-exempt.  The FFRF is also tax exempt, and the UW Madison atheist student organization (listed under Religious Student Organizations) is tax exempt. So tax exemption cannot be the problem.

Does FFRF think that UW or the City of Madison will be paying for the new structure?

FFRF’s Annie Julie Gaylor stated:“(St. Paul’s Catholic Student) Center’s unreasonable demand for a tax-free, 14-story dormitory and religious addition.” — but St. Paul’s Catholic Center is not demanding anything from anybody.  They already own the location since 1909, and the new building will be paid for by private donations.

So the Catholic Center is not unique in its tax-free status. The Catholic students are not demanding anything from anybody.  Perhaps it is the expansion that FFRF is opposed to?

St. Paul's today


The expanded taller structure reflects the increase in Catholic students participating in the Catholic Center, and this is not surprising in a town which is 53% Catholic and a State which is 29% Catholic.  29 to 53% of the UW campus would represent about 11,000 to 21,000 students.  Does the FFRF, representing between 0.003% and  2% of the population (this would correspond to between 1 and 800 students), wish to deny the 80% Christian majority access to religious organizations and dormitories to support the student population’s interests and priorities?

In a world in which litigation has much power to intimidate, small groups such as the FFRF have made some headway toward abolishing the rights of self-expression guaranteed to us by the Bill of Rights of the United States:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

The FFRF, with their $5 million fund balance, their half-million dollar yearly income, and 15,000 (North American) membership, is a small organization at best.  Yet FFRF has made some inroads towards stifling the freedom OF religion guaranteed to us in the United States– primarily by filing lawsuits against public expressions of religion.

FFRF should be reminded that the preposition used by the founding fathers in the Bill of Rights is freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. They should be reminded that they are the guests among a majority of religious people in this country, who exhibit more much tolerance towards FFRF than is reciprocated.  And in preparation for the next time our freedom OF religion is threatened by frivolous FFRF lawsuits, we should start a Freedom OF Religion Fund to pay for the defense of the Bill of Rights against militant atheists like FFRF.  We 80% Christians and 90% religious people in this country, as well as the 8-10% tolerant atheists/agnostics/unsure believers, would prevail against the aggressive and intolerant attitudes of groups like the FFRF if we woke up, got organized and took action.

FFRF should take a lesson in tolerance from Bishop Morlino, another one of the people consulted by WSJ for this article’s New Year’s resolutions for Madison.  Bishop Morlino did not suggest stifling FFRF’s plans, challenging their tax-exempt status, or interfering with FFRF in any way.  Bishop Morlino suggested some daily quiet personal introspection for everyone in Madison– which Annie Laurie Gaylor would be wise to consider.