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.
Joel, President of Metro State Atheists, was interviewed by for an article in the Rocky Mountain News regarding the the Colorado Coalition of Reasons secular billboards. The article, qouted below, was written by Bill Johnson.
The message is but eight words divided into two short sentences set against puffy white clouds on a blue and black background.
One of the men behind the billboard message says his life has been threatened because of it, which seems an odd thing since those doing the threatening all profess to be Christians.
Just eight words:
“Don’t believe in God?” the upper left of the billboard reads. “You are not alone,” the lower right says.
I have no idea how many times I have passed the sign in the days since it went up at Colfax Avenue and Quebec Street on Nov. 17, but I never noticed it until someone pointed it out the other day.
I don’t get the fuss. And yes, I appear to be alone in this.
The billboard is one of 11 in Denver and Colorado Springs paid for by a group that calls itself the Colorado Coalition of Reason, a self-described coalition of “freethinker, atheist and humanist” groups.
The sole purpose of the ads, the group maintains, is what it says: to let other freethinkers, atheists and humanists know there is a group out there for them.
Two of the 11 signs were supposed to go up in Fort Collins and Greeley, the group said. This was so until the moment the media company that owns the two billboards read the message.
The hate mail and nasty, threatening phone messages began almost immediately.
Much of it has been directed at Joel Guttormson, who mostly has been serving as a spokesman for COCORE, as they call it.
Twenty-two and a Metro State junior majoring in theoretical mathematics, Guttormson also is president of the Metro State Atheists, one of the 11 groups that make up COCORE.
“It’s been kind of wild, kind of outrageous,” he says of days since the billboards went up.
“It has been mostly Christians who’ve been calling and e-mailing,” Joel Guttormson said, “which is strange since the message is not directed at Christians or anyone from any religion.
“You know, if you see an ad for migraine medicine and you don’t have a migraine, why would you care?”
Almost all of the feedback, he said, has been from people who say the billboards denigrate Christians. He says he still has no idea how that is possible.
“We are not out to anger people,” Joel Guttormson said. “I don’t know why people think that. So much of it says we are evil and that we hate everybody.
“Have you seen the billboard? Tell me where any of them mentions evil or hate. Why is everyone so mad?”
John Matson, of Denver, was so mad after seeing the Santa Fe Drive sign that he dashed off an angry letter to the billboard’s owner.
“It is a despicable act to allow that sign,” the 60-year-old man said in an interview, “and for just a few pieces of silver.”
He went on COCORE’s Web site, and it made him even angrier, John Matson said. It is trying to gather, he said, “a constituency of what I call mob rule.”
“I know they’re atheists, and my opinion is they want others to believe the same thing. The billboard misrepresents their purpose,” he said. “Their agenda is wolf-in-sheep’s clothing political. Why don’t they just say it.”
Yes, he is a Christian, John Matson said.
“I also understand free speech. And I can also stand up and tell them that they are wrong.”
He has yet, he said, to hear back from the billboard company.
That is about the tone of much of what he has heard, Joel Guttormson said. He saves each call, files the e-mails in a folder.
“I read them, put them away and forget about it,” he says. “My sister keeps telling me I need to watch out for myself.”
He began investigating religion and faith early on, he said, and by high school he was a confirmed atheist.
People ostracized him. It is rare now that he even mentions it outside of his group, he said.
“I don’t tell people at work. I keep my mouth shut.”
Atheism, he said, scares people, the mere possibility that God doesn’t exist.
He remembers one woman running away from an event his group sponsored, “saying that if she listened to us, she would go to hell. I just sat there thinking, ‘Wow! We’re really that awful?’ “
He is braced for the next few weeks. It is what he calls the radical Christians that are making the most noise, Joel Guttormson said.
“I’ll spend more time defending this than anything else,” he said. “I’ve already learned that anything we do is not going to satisfy them. Anything we do or say is only going to make them more angry.”
I had only one more question:
Have the billboards, which will remain up through Dec. 14, worked?
“We’ve gotten fairly good response from a lot of like-minded people, including some people from out of state who heard about what we are doing,” Joel Guttormson said.
“The cool thing is we’ve even had some Christians step up and defend us. They know our message is no more offensive than one that reads:
“Believe in God? You’re not alone.”
So, we have never had hate mail before. One article in CNN seemed to be enough to prompt the over dramatic frenzied mob of angry evangelicals. Actually, its not that bad. We didn’t get to much hate mail. In fact, a good deal of it was positive. Here are some excerpts from some of the more entertaing hate mails.
Here’s one from Mary Tilley
In regards to the recent article I just read about your ridiculous billboards. First of all, I’m a Christian and I don’t go around
Ostracizing those who are not so you’re way off base when you state that we as Christians ostrasize anyone who is not.
I have lots of friends who are muslim, jewish and hindu. I respect them and their way of worship and belief. I may not
Believe what they believe but I do respect them…at the very least…they believe in SOMETHING. You are a fool if you do
Not believe in anything because to believe in NOTHING is to believe in SOMETHING! I think most atheists (although
Not all of them), are lacking some kind of attention they didn’t receive as children and are trying to get it through any
Means possible. So really, the opposite it really the truth regarding what you state about atheists being “afraid” to come
Out…as if we’re all going to circle them and pounce them over the head with a bible and crucifix (give me a break okay).
I believe that there are those so called “atheists” who claim they don’t believe in God because they are too afraid to
Admit that there is something greater then themselves. In fact, there are those atheists too that actually DO believe but
Are too afraid to say they believe out of fear of being ostracized by other atheists.
2nd of all, you contradict your way of thinking and your way of belief by saying that you would have to “see to believe”.
I suppose that air your breathing isn’t really air, it’s just a figment of your imagination (or in fact there is no imaginiation, just
A irrational thought or perhaps a bad dream?). No common sense whatsoever.
3rdly, Christians have much more evidence that Christ existed than atheists have that he didn’t. If that weren’t even true,
We’d have something you don’t have…faith which is evidence of the unseen. Look around you and you will see that you were
Made by something bigger than your ego. The fact that you don’t believe doesn’t make it any less of a fact that He exists
And He made you and He IS going to have HIS WAY. You may think you are celebrating the “good life” but deep down inside
Of you and y ou know what I’m talking about…is that nagging question. This isn’t the movies mr. Goreman or whatever your
Name is…it’s reality and you’re in it…living it and God is watching everything you do and we as Christians are not going to
Run into the streets screaming like a bunch of idiots, please mr. goreman put down those billboards. We as Christians don’t need
Billboards to shout out to the rest of the world what we believe in. We are sound in our beliefs. We have HIM, we don’t need
A billboard. But, if that indeed is what it takes for you to feel like you are needed, loved and accepted by the rest of us…have
At it…you’re wasting your time…precious time. Instead, you could be helping the needy in your area by giving that money
Your using for those ridiculous billboards to puff up your already bloated egos, to those who are less fortunate than you.
Oh, but I forgot you’re an atheist…
I read the story on Cnn.com. It’s amazing that their are groups such as yours. I can imagine. A bunch of brainy geeks sitting around a table saying “You don’t believe, I don’t either, Isn’t that great.” Then what the heck do you people do ? After you acknowledge to each other and confirm you are believers of nothing other than yourselves.
I guess you sit around and knock anyone that believes that their is a higher power other than the three people sitting at your table.
Please spend your time productively and positively. If you just did that it would make the world a much better place.
What saddens me that you cannot see – is that your group is only doing this to instigate emotion from Christians and others who believe in God. You are not doing this for any real, positive reason – it is just unbridled evil and hatred. YOU are the person without tolerance – YOU are ther person who is whining – YOU are the bigot. Unless you are quicker than us – we are starting a movement to make .01 cent contributions to your groups through your paypal links – that is one penny you receive for every charge paypal will charge you. We are about to do this all week long – you and yours will have quite the bill to pay with paypal. Best of luck…Oly
You are quite the despicable group of folks, are you not? To filth the countryside with billboards against God is an offense against those of us who believe in Him. Your arrogance and your lack of humanness is atrocious. You’ve a right to believe what you will – but to make mockery of beliefs that founded our nation – your freedoms – is blatantly un-American. You obviously feel no shame for your actions – but perhaps we can do a little something about advertising your members, boycotting their homes and businesses? Would you be so kind as to send us your membership list please? You’ve nothing to fear, of course, since you have no fear of God.
Well thats all for now. Enjoy your weekend.