Interview with Amitabh Pal – Director of Communications, Freedom From Religion Foundation

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Amitabh Pal is the Director of Communications for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Here we talk about his work and views with the FFRF..

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become involved in the secularist movements?

Amitabh Pal: I’ve been at the intersection of progressive politics and journalism my entire professional life. The separation of state and church has been always of importance to me. (I’m extremely proud of the fact that the three countries I’m from — the United States, India and Germany — are all secular.)  We were ardent defenders of secularism at The Progressive magazine, where I was at for a long time. One of the main projects we had during the Bush years, for instance, was calling out his “messianic militarism” and the damage it did the world as a chief cause of the Iraq War. We also had regular exposés of the Religious Right and its harmful influence. Anyone who cares for a better society has to work for secularism, and this is something I’ve done with zeal.

Jacobsen: How did you become involved in and work at the Freedom From Religion Foundation?

Pal: After many years at The Progressive, I was in the mode of transitioning out. I had worked with FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor as the editor of The Progressive’s op-ed service (the Progressive Media Project), for which she had a written a number of columns. So when I saw an opening at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization I was familiar with and deeply respected, I immediately applied for the position. I was delighted when, after the selection process, I was offered the job.

Jacobsen: Now, as an important footnote to this conversation, you are highly educated, which includes two master’s degrees. One in journalism; another in political science, these are important accomplishments. How does this inform your work as the director of communications at FFRF?

Pal: Obviously, the journalism degree impacts and informs all that I accomplish here at FFRF. The writing and editing I engage in were seeded at UNC-Chapel Hill (Go Tar Heels!). The coursework there gave me the skills I’m applying at the job day in and day out. But the political science degree has been very handy, too. The work we do is by its very nature political, and having a good grasp of the underlying dynamics helps me be a better writer and editor. I have a special interest in international issues, and so I’ve written blogs and press releases dealing with such matters (for example on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo). The more you learn, the more it comes in useful.

Jacobsen: Also, you wrote at the Progressive for many years. How did you work there? What did you do? What were the results of your writing and work there? (What did you learn?)

Pal: I was at The Progressive for almost two decades — and it taught me a whole lot. I started off as the editor of the Progressive Media Project, an op-ed service associated with The Progressive that sends out columns on a regular basis to hundreds of newspapers all over the United States and abroad. This prepared me not only to write and edit on a wide range of subjects but also to quickly turn around pieces, qualities that have come in very handy here at FFRF. Then, for more than a decade I was Managing Editor of The Progressive magazine itself. I specialized in doing long-form interviews for the magazine, interviewing such folks as Mikhail Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter, among many others. I wrote a lot of web columns, feature articles and book reviews. And, certainly, I further honed my editing skills. It was an incredible experience at The Progressive.

Jacobsen: You have a Hindu background. You can understand the religion and potentially the mix-up with politics too. The ways in which religion get involved in politics are complicated, but, nonetheless, they differ on a number of metrics and in different nations. Hinduism is prominent in India and mixed up with the Modi leadership. 

If you have any knowledge and can compare and contrast between the mix-up of Evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic Christian religion in American politics and Hindu religion in Indian politics, how do these differ? How are these similar? How are these the same?

Pal: I could go on and on about this! This is because I am literally writing a book on the populist majoritarianism of President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their attempted dismantling of the secular setup in their countries as a part of their political projects is a big focus of my book. The Religious Right In India is in command right now, just like its counterpart in the United States. The ironic thing is that in spite of its supposed hatred of Islam and Christianity, the Hindu political movement is trying to make Hinduism like these religions by imposing a central dogma and belief on a faith that has historically lacked these features. The result is proving disastrous — both for the religion itself and for India at large. The implications of the world’s two largest democracies heading in a calamitous direction should make us all very worried.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today? Any updates to the communications activities of the FFRF?

Pal: The Freedom From Religion Foundation is experiencing a tremendous growth spurt, and this is reflected on the communications front. We have a new TV interview show, “Freethought Matters,” which is broadcast in the Madison area and is posted on our YouTube channel. Among the people we’ve interviewed are Steven Pinker and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. We have a weekly Facebook Live “Ask an Atheist” feature, which can also be seen on YouTube. We have a pithy “Newsbite” segment discussing the highlight of our week that we post online. Our long-running radio show is going strong. (Check all of this out at www.ffrf.org.)  And our endeavors and triumphs in the service of freethought are getting more and more attention from major media entities and local outlets all over the country. Exciting times indeed!

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Amit.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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