Meet Margaret Downey, founder of the Freethought Society, a group for nontheists headquartered in West Chester.
Good grief: “Atheism is the last taboo in our society; to say you’re an atheist still has a negative connotation," Downey said. “We’re not God people. We’re good people.”
Potential energy: Downey said theists find it “very disturbing” that she doesn’t believe in an afterlife. “But I have no fear of death," she said. "I have a fear that I’m not going to live to my potential.”
Margaret Downey was dressed all in white as suffragist Alice Paul, registering students at Haverford College to vote last month, when a young man asked about the stack of bulletins on her table that read: “Freethought Society News.”
Downey explained that the Freethought Society, which she founded in 1993, is a group for free thinkers, atheists, agnostics, and other nontheists, a term for those who deny or question the existence of a God.
The student grabbed a newsletter and signed up for the society’s email list.
“Have a blessed day!" he said as he walked away.
The irony was not lost on Downey.
Downey, 68, of West Chester, founded the Freethought Society after waging a court battle in the 1990s against the Boy Scouts of America, which had rejected her son’s application because their family is nontheist. Her public fight for inclusion led other nontheists to ask her to start a freethinkers group.
Ultimately, Downey didn’t win the battle against the Boy Scouts, or another she later waged against Chester County for a plaque of the Ten Commandments on its courthouse. But she created a national network of nontheists that, for 26 years, has promoted and protected their rights.
It hasn’t always been easy. In a storage unit, Downey’s got a thick folder of death threats she’s received from people who claimed to be “doing God’s work” by threatening her life.
Those letters remind her of the religious people who harassed her mother, who was Puerto Rican, and her half-sister, whose skin was much darker than her own, over their ethnicity and language while she was growing up in Baton Rouge, La., in the 1950s.
“My mother was terrorized by all these people who claimed to be Christian one day and were hateful the next and I’d ask so many times ‘Why? Why?’ ” she said. “I began to think about ‘What is morality? What is good treatment of people?’ "
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Downey said her mother believed in God, but her religion would change depending on what church was handing out food or clothing in any given week.
But Downey didn’t know what she believed — or more precisely, didn’t believe — until a family friend helped her define it when she was 11.
“One day we were in the car and I said: ‘I looked up everything I could and I read those things in the Bible my mom said I should and I don’t believe any of it. It’s such nonsense,’ " she recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, Margaret, that’s because you’re an atheist.’ "
For the first time, she had a name for what she felt and she knew she was not alone.
According to the Pew Research Center, those in the United States who identify as atheist or agnostic rose to 7 percent from 4 percent between 2007 and 2014. The number of Americans who said they had “no religion” rose to 21 percent from 8 percent between 1990 and 2014, according to the National Opinion Research Center.
Downey — a mother of two and grandmother of three — moved to West Chester in 1990, when her husband’s insurance job brought their family to the area from California.
Downey has represented nontheists at U.N. conferences and she said she was the first secular humanist celebrant in Pennsylvania, allowing her to officiate weddings and funerals.
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She also founded the Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Center, a farcical mobile clinic — typically held on Friday the 13th — that aims to cure people’s superstitions by having them walk under ladders, dance inside with open umbrellas, and break mirrors.
“We have to dispel charlatans and tarot card readers and counter their woo-woo,” Downey said.
Despite differences she’s had with religious people over the years, Downey thinks nontheists and believers have more in common than not.
“If we look at the things we all appreciate about life, like the love and friendship of family and friends, we can find common ground,” she said. “Those are the things that pull us together."