Metro State Atheists: Making noise, making a difference in Denver
by Joel Guttormson, Metro State Atheists at MSCD
Many things happen during a college semester: mid-terms, finals, work and…activism? Yes, activism! That is the case for us, Metro State Atheists (MSA), an affiliate of the Center for Inquiry. Besides the classes, work, and other academic responsibilities that we endure, we participated in some secular activist activity that put me in the spotlight both locally and nationally.
Not many can argue that 2008 wasn’t a historic election, not only for the entire country, but also for Colorado as we hosted the 2008 Democratic National Convention. However, that wasn’t the only history being made—at least trying to be made—in Colorado. Amendment 48, or the Personhood Amendment, was on its way to become the first legislation in the United States to not only completely ban abortion but also redefine the term “person”: “to include any human being from the moment of fertilization.” When our group became aware of this initiative early in the summer, we immediately knew that we had to do all we could to prevent this from passing. That is just what we did, come the fall. We contacted the political group “Protect Families Protect Choice,” to offer our support, and they responded by giving us informational material as well as yard signs, stickers, etc. We then had two informational tables set up two weeks out from the election urging people to vote no on Amendment 48. This caught the eye of our local news, Channel 9, which was in the process of doing stories on the different amendments on the Colorado ballot. They asked to interview me about Amendment 48 the next day on campus as a part of their series that aired live online. Come November 4th, Amendment 48 failed miserably, much to our pleasure. We’d like to think we had a hand it its demise, seeing as we worked quite hard on campus to that end.
Next, without much warning, came what would turn out to be the most media coverage we have ever received. MSA is a part of the Colorado Coalition of Reason, or COCORE, which put up 11 billboards in the Denver metro area and Colorado Springs. The message was similar to those seen elsewhere around the country. The billboards needed only eight words, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone,” to ignite a controversy that took two local newscasts (11/13/08, 11/18/08) and a half-page opinion article in the Rocky Mountain News to clear up. The fervently religious were utterly offended that such a message was allowed in Denver. The story received national media attention when the Channel 7 news story made its way onto CNN.com. We saw our first hate mail ever, from Christians no less, calling us evil and full of hate. I got phone calls too! However, instead of being mean-spirited phone calls, they were supportive. A man from South Carolina called me, telling me that he appreciates what we are doing and asked me, as a fellow atheist, if there were any similar organizations such as MSA or COCORE in his area. Another call was from a Jew lending his support to the cause. This project was a great learning experience and we enjoyed the huge amount of media coverage it got. It made more of an impact that we could have hoped for in our wildest dreams.
The last and most recent event wasn’t really an event, so to speak. After rediscovering my cousin Becky via Facebook, I learned that her pastor is Bob Enyart who appeared on the same newscast as I regarding the aforementioned billboards. She told me that ever since she told Bob that I was her cousin, he has been wanting to have me on his show on 670 AM, KGOV. She then served as a go-between to make the proper arrangements for me to be on the show. In short order we arranged a date and time. I appeared on Bob Enyart Live on January 7th, 2009. We talked about atheism, the billboards, and about how I became an atheist. This was an advantageous interview as Bob has offered to advertise our events to people of an opposing viewpoint, which we believe is critical to our cause.
In closing, I’d like to stress the importance of organizing. Although the task of secular activism and attempting to effect change can be tough, and at times seem impossible, it can be done, even if it’s just change at the local level. Think big, but take baby steps. The American Revolution wasn’t born, fought, and won in a day. We need to stay vigilant, learning from every victory and, perhaps more importantly, from every defeat. When a minority is fighting a majority who commands all the power and resources, it amplifies the importance of cohesive, organized goal-oriented activism by many orders of magnitude. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I believe this is insufficient and passive. You must not only be the change but also be willing to work for it. Thus, I appeal to you all: work with us, fight hard, and we can bring about the change necessary to make this country what it once was!
Joel Guttormson is President of Metro State Atheists and a theoretical mathematics major, linguistics minor at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Joel also volunteers for CFI as a campus regional coordinator.
Below is an e-mail we received the Coalition For Secular Government "MEDIA RELEASE: COALITION FOR SECULAR GOVERNMENT Nearly 40% of Colorado Voters Seek to Destroy Reproductive Rights Sedalia, Colorado / October 7, 2008 Contact: Diana Hsieh, co-author of "Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life" and founder of the Coalition for Secular Government, Diana@SecularGovernment.us or 303.304.0689 A poll of likely voters shows strong support for Amendment 48, the ballot measure that would grant the full legal rights of persons to fertilized eggs. The survey, conducted on September 28th by Rasmussen Reports with 500 likely voters, shows that 39% plan to vote for the measure, 50% to vote against it, while 11% are unsure. (See <http://tinyurl.com/4huary>.) Such strong support for Amendment 48 should surprise anyone familiar with the barrage of criticism published in Colorado media in recent weeks. Critics of the measure have warned voters of its destructive effects on Colorado's laws if passed and enforced. They have shown that it would usher in a near-total ban on abortion, outlaw the birth control pill and in vitro fertilization, and subject pregnant women to police controls. Yet these latest poll results are basically unchanged from a June poll, also by Rasmussen. (See <http://tinyurl.com/4mm59r>.) Diana Hsieh, founder of the Coalition for Secular Government and co-author of "Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life," argues that the broad support for Amendment 48 is driven by a deeply-held faith pretending to be "pro-life." The most recent Rasmussen poll showed that 41% of Colorado voters believe that "life begins at conception." That number explains the strong support for Amendment 48, despite the media barrage against it. "People who endorse that slogan regard a fertilized egg as a new, whole person with a right to life," Hsieh said. "They regard the enormous sacrifices forced on real men and women by the measure as insignificant -- or even ennobling. Their vote is based on faith, without regard to the real-world requirements of human life and happiness. It's not 'pro-life' at all." "To effectively combat measures like Amendment 48, the whole 'pro-life' ideology must be challenged at its root," Hsieh said. "A mushy slogan like 'it simply goes too far' is unconvincing, even misleading. It doesn't speak to the fundamental dispute. Worse, it suggests that some compromise -- like banning most abortions -- would be acceptable." "Instead, reproductive rights must be defended on principle, based on the objective facts of human nature. With regard to abortion, the fact is that a fetus or embryo is only a potential person so long as encased within and dependent on the woman. Once born, the infant is a new individual person with the right to life. That view ought to be the basis for the laws of a free society. Any alternative -- any attempt to grant rights to the embryo or fetus -- would violate the rights of pregnant women." For a principled defense of reproductive rights, see the Coalition for Secular Government's issue paper, "Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person," available at <http://www.seculargovernment.us/docs/a48.pdf>, particularly the section "Personhood and the Right to Abortion," pages 10-13." - Chalmer