Danny Cackler is a founding member of the Western Colorado Atheists in Grand Junction, CO. Recently, the group built and displayed a pro-Atheist Display in the Free Speech area of a local Grand Junction library. The display has garnered significant local attention, and has been mentioned nationally. He was interviewed this week by Marilyn Westfall of the Eloquent Atheist.
Q: Danny Cackler, it’s a pleasure to catch-up with you! Several years ago, you and I were members of the Unitarian Universalist Infidels, and we both participated regularly in the group’s Yahoo forum, which later morphed into theinfidels.org. Now you’re a member of the Western Colorado Atheists of Grand Junction, Colorado. About two weeks ago, your group put up an exhibit at the Mesa County Library. The display tries to correct misconceptions about atheism while projecting the benefits of a world without religion. Not surprisingly, it has stirred up considerable community interest. Tell us something about the inspiration for the exhibit. What let your group to create it?
A: WCA decided to reserve the Free Speech Space in the main library in February of this year after a local christian fundie named Carol Anderson erected a home-made construction of vitriolic anti-gay, anti-divorce religious rant (this, despite the fact that she herself was divorced). This woman’s display actually served as a catalyst for the formation of WCA. One of our first acts as a somewhat organized group was to reserve the space in the library for our rebuttal and we then began in earnest to put together something that would introduce the community to the atheist viewpoint.
Q: I found information on the exhibit in the town’s newspaper, the Grand Junction Sentinel (on-line). I thought the newspaper coverage was fair (as much as I read of it), but according to a few letters to the editor and bloggers, some people had the impression that Western Colorado Atheists deliberately put up an anti-Christian message at Christmas–which of course was untrue. Is there a lot of bias against atheism in Grand Junction? Or was the spread of disinformation due to a just a few irate theists? What is the general reaction of town, in your opinion, to your display?
A: A good deal of the disinformation and deliberate distortion of truth (i.e. that the timing was deliberate) comes from the lawyer for the New Life Church. However, you are right in the assumption that there is a lot of bias against atheism in Grand Junction. This area is very, very conservative, has only one political party (Republican, of course), and takes its religion (fundamentalist Christian) very seriously. Or so they claim.
Oddly enough, there has actually been very little in the way of documented reaction to our exhibit. That, we believe, is due to the nature of the exhibit itself. We avoided many items that would have been inflammatory and much of the information is simply presented for the viewer to ponder and draw their own conclusions. In other words, anyone wishing to express their opinion would have to do so in a well-structured and intelligent fashion or risk looking very foolish. In fact, the “controversy” over our display seemed to be largely manufactured and promoted by the local media, especially our very-right-wing(nut) Daily Sentinel. The editorial page manager who wrote the op-ed column saying that we deliberately selected December for our display failed to contact WCA or to talk to any of us at all prior to publishing his own rant. He also did not attend any of the library board meetings help prior the posting of the display, wherein the issue about our display was discussed at length. The televisions stations deliberately edited interviews with WCA members in such a way as to exploit any perceived inflammatory aspects of our display. One TV station showed a picture of a burning cross superimposed over a photo of the US Supreme court on its website to announce an article about our display. Not sure what that was all about.
There really has been very little opposition to our display. There have been no protesters inside or aside of the library. No one has attempted to vandalize it, despite the fact that we dedicated more than half of our available display space for public comments. Only a very small portion of that has been used. WCA’s full contact information is prominently displayed but we have not received any negative phone call, mail, or emails. In fact, the only contacts we have had about the display have been very complimentary. One 15-year old girl wrote that she thought what we were doing was fantastic, saying “we needed some opposing viewpoints in this town.” One older gentleman called and said he wanted to talk more with someone about atheism in order to understand it better. Overall, the Grand Junction community has been very civil, positive, and seemingly interested in our display.
Q: What kind of advice can you share with other atheist, humanist, and freethinker groups, about taking on projects like this one? Are there any “traps” that can be avoided, or good ways to handle “spin”? What kind of expense did your project entail, and how did Western Colorado Atheists handle costs? Did you advertise the event or work with the press?
A: With regard to advice and tips/traps – We spent about $32 to enlarge and print the 39 or so pages the limit 11 x 17 size. This was paid with voluntary contributions collected at our monthly meetings. Our advice is simply ‘just do it’. Also, do not allow yourself to be baited in any interviews into saying anything negative or inflammatory. Just explain what atheism is, why we are atheists, what we believe (and what we don’t) and stay on point. Address any negative or misleading articles or op-eds immediately with the person who is responsible. If necessary, go to the next highest person in the food chain and keep moving up until you get someone who can and will respond to your position. Always, always ask for a published correction. Try to keep to three talking points maximum when dealing with the press and media. And always talk in brief sound bites so that your words will be more difficult to edit.
Q: What are the membership numbers for Western Colorado Atheists and when was it founded? What other projects has it initiated? Is it part of any sort of atheist, freethought, or humanist network in Colorado or surrounding states? Is there a sense among the membership that the positive life-stance of atheism is on the rise among people in the Western U.S.?
A: About Western Colorado Atheists – The WCA was ‘founded’ in February of 2007 by Anne Landman, a local and sometimes vocal advocate of free speech, free thinking, and an all round good sport. Brief announcements were published in the classified sections of local papers and we’ve had about 40 to 50 people call. We now have about 35 active folks on our roster and usually anywhere from 9 to 15 people attend our monthly meetings. More people are contacting us all the time, especially as we get more press and media attention and as we get our meetings posted regularly in the local papers. Some people just like being part of the discussion on the email list and don’t usually attend the meetings. It certainly appears that a group such as ours has been needed for a long time. Atheists, as a whole, have felt very alone and marginalized in the West and, until we came along, there was no one to talk with and with whom to share concerns. We are affiliated with American Atheists and are listed on their website. We are also beginning to send out feelers to other organizations in Colorado and other western states and hope to form other alliances and associations in the new year. Judging by what is being published on the internet and elsewhere, there appears to be a growing interest in Atheism. However, in terms of organization, the very nature of what we postulate and the kind of people that we attract do indeed lead to comparison of our efforts to that of herding cats.
Q: When we were both contributing to the Unitarian Universalist Infidels forum, you offered thoughtful advice for atheists, regarding the “culture wars.” You didn’t want to see us distracted by the question of God or Jesus–that is, drawn into a debate about whether or not these divine entities existed. You penned a hilarious passage, making your point: “You know, you can get a bull to move out of your pasture one of two ways….coax and cajole him with treats and other distractions or, take the plunge, kick him squarely in the nose….either way, he will, in fact, move out of your pasture. However, in the case of the latter, he will most likely kick your ass into the proverbial mud-hole. I am an atheist in every sense of the word. However, I see no benefit in trying to kick bulls in the nose to prove my point. My point is already proven (science, physics, et al). The theists have not yet, and never will, proven theirs.”
A: About the bull, yes, I still contend that coaxing and cajoling is much more effective than punching him in the snout to get him to either more along or, at least, get out of the way so that the rest of us can move along. Obviously, the other folks in WCA agree – witness the structure and content of our library display. Since we are declared atheists and not diluted with agnostics, humanists, or others, our message tends to be more direct and therefore simpler than that of most freethinkers. We have had a few in our group suggest that we broaden our group to include other than atheists – however, that is not currently high on our list of priorities..
Q: What do you and Western Colorado Atheists hope to do next? What’s on your agenda and is there anything we all can do to help you succeed?
A: For next year – We hope to incorporate as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Then our contributions will be tax deductible and we can get better rates – especially on things like a booth at the downtown summer Farmer’s Market Festival, a local event happening each Thursday where you can get some good produce, assorted baked goods, munchies, and samplings of local politics, action groups, advocates and the like. We hope to help spread awareness of our own group and atheists in general at this and other community events. Being a bit more organized will certainly help in that endeavor. We also hope to set up our own web site as well and would certainly appreciate any help we can get to do so.
By staying focused, consistently presenting our views in an articulate, measured manner, we hope to become a real presence and a vocal force in Western Colorado.