Interview with Richard S. Russell – Co-Founder, Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Richard S. Russell is the Co-Founder of Atheists and Agnostic of Wisconsin. Here we talk about his life, views, and work.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background, and personal background, especially with regards to atheism and religion in particular, in brief?

Richard S. Russell: I was raised in a household where my father was Presbyterian and my mother was previously Eastern Orthodox. But since there were no Eastern Orthodox churches around, they attended the Presbyterian Church. My sister and I went to Sunday School.

By the time I went to high school, I was teaching Sunday School, but I had begun to question almost all of it. By the time I got out of high school, I didn’t really have much of the belief left.

Jacobsen: With regards to Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin, why was it originally founded?

Russell: It started as a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as “FFRF Madison”. For whatever reason, we seem to have rubbed the FFRF national leadership the wrong way.

We could never figure out how we had done that. Maybe they were nervous, at the time, about having people who could just drop in on them at a moment’s notice. But we kept trying to make nice with them. They just became more and more suspicious of what we were up to.

We never understood what that was about. They said, “You can’t name your organization, the FFRF something.” We thought this was strange, as they already had an FFRF Pennsylvania and an FFRF New Jersey. So, we named ourselves Rationalists of Greater Madison, but still maintained as a chapter of the FFRF.

This came to a head in 1992 at their national convention, when a number of a people from our chapter were personally pilloried by the FFRF inner council. Again, we had no idea why this was happening. 

They came up with all sorts of excuses that we were a disruptive force. They, basically, ended that convention with a passing of a constitutional amendment that the Board of Directors of the FFRF can expel any chapter. And, a week later, we were notified that the board had in fact expelled RGM on a 7-2 vote. 

There was no hearing, no notice, no opportunity to say anything. The members of Rationalists of Greater Madison as individuals then dropped out of FFRF. We still have no idea what we did to piss them off.

This kind of purge is, of course, not at all uncommon in the atheist movement.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair of American Atheists threw out chapters of its own. FFRF itself comprised people excommunicated from AA. The idea of internal purges is disheartening.

Meanwhile, we had started to get participation from outside the Madison area. At that point, we said, ‘We can’t be that parochial anymore.” We decided to rename ourselves the Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin. 

Then we heard about the Atheists Alliance International, a group of local organizations that had also run afoul of AA but had banded together on the basis of democratic principles rather than top-down authoritarianism.

Jacobsen: Then this also leads to AAW being defunct?

Russell: I wouldn’t say it is defunct. I have gone off to do other things. I believe AAW as an organization is still continuing. I am no longer active with it. Carol Smith could tell you more. At some point, our existence had 90% concentrated in the Madison area. As we got more from the rest of Wisconsin, it became more difficult to host in-person meetings.

We tried to turn this into an email discussion group that only met a few times a year for celebrations. It became harder and harder to do things face-to-face. It put us on the road to dissolution, because we did not have personal contact.

Jacobsen: For those who may be questioning their faith and may be looking for an organization leaning towards skepticism, agnosticism, and so on, what can you tell them about social and communal activities and organizations?

Russell: There are a couple of different avenues available for people. The Unitarian Universalist society has what they call meeting houses. They hold meetings – I guess you would call them – not services. 

They hold the place for non-religious people that a church would hold for religious people. Sunday Assembly is for young couples who want something to do with their kids. We had a Sunday Assembly here in Madison. They ended up disbanding as well.

For an online resource, I am part of the Madison Skeptics Meetup. It is very strongly pro-science. We have 98% atheists. It helps us make contact with other people. Anyone can host a meeting. If others are interested, they can show up. 

My wife and I host an atheist lounge every month. We pick a topic and then have an hour of discussion. We host at a local restaurant. That has turned out to be quite popular. We will host a book discussion too. 

Our next one, for a book called Nudge will be held in March. In May, we have a series of books. They are small discussion groups help in the living room. But they are entertaining.

Jacobsen: As we move further into 2019, what are hopes and fears in the US for you?

Russell: The Supreme Court scares us. There are five Catholics on it which is bad news for reproductive rights and church-state separation. The hopeful sign is more young people are turning away from religion as mostly useless. The future is bright but the present has some problems.

Jacobsen: Do you think there is going to be a split happening between generations in a way, but also the ways in which the laws could be set while the younger generations coming up are more and more secular?

Russell: The evidence of progress is making the traditionalists crack down stronger on the progress against their traditions. It is a struggle uphill against an awful lot of entrenched interests. Those interests have control over the levers of power, have had for some time.

It is a resurgence of racism and religious fundamentalism in America. It is a cause for concern. No matter how much I see the beliefs of the young, they tend to not be activists. The activists tend to be older people who are more set in their ways and set in their religious traditions.

Those people have set molasses on the gears of progress. We are moving forward more slowly. It is the same problems that the progressive forces have had through all of history.

Jacobsen: What do you recommend for young people to enter the organizations, form the coalitions, and become more active, as this does impact their lives?

Russell: For young people, many of them are tied up with college trying to get skills that will be good in the job world. The idea that we, in the past, could graduate from college and get a job with a good and reliable employer. You’re loyal to them; they’re loyal to you. You get a pension and then retire. 

Those days are over. They will switch jobs 4 or 5 times if they get to retire at all. Those are things that they are grappling with. Activism is, frankly, way down on the list. They are trying to get in touch with families. They are on social media. There are a lot of demands on their attention.

I am not surprised there is not too much activism. What can be done? It is going to be focusing on climate change that will impact the second half of their lives. The fact is that climate change is helping only a coalition of the wealthy That coalition is a threat to their future existence.

But while it is really easy to see where the wealthy are helping themselves, they can have a great many religious allies; this needs to get out to the older people to keep making those points. The first point about the wealth influencing social policy is so blatantly obvious.

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

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Ozzie Stern on Unsplash

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