Interview with Donald Lacey – State Director, American Atheists Arizona

by | January 11, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Donald Lacey is the State Director of American Atheists Arizona. Here we talk about his early life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you? Did religion play a role in it?

Donald Lacey: My earliest memories began in 1957 when I was almost 5 years of age. We were an Air Force family living in Denver. My father was a Staff Sergeant and my mother didn’t work.

We lived in a small rented house near Lowry AFB. I had a sister that was a couple of years younger and it was at this time that religion started playing a role in my life.

Our family recently converted to Catholicism. I can almost remember my baptism. Being true to the Catholic precepts, my parents stopped using birth control.

Thus, my youngest sister was a surprise in February 1958 and the end of my father’s religious adherence to the rules of Catholicism. My mother stayed with it, but my father stopped going to church all together.

I was raised Catholic by my mother. Blind belief in the religious teachings did not last long. I began questioning before my first communion when I was introduced to the Baltimore Catechism.

Q: Who made the world?

A: God made the world.

Q: Who is God?

A: God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things.

Q: What is man?

A: Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.

Q: Why did God make you?

A: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart.

First, the questions were of little interest to a 6-year-old, but mostly, the answers were illogical and unsupported by anything in my experience. Asking other questions were not allowed by the nun teaching the lessons.

My parents had primed me to fear her. They told me that the nuns could physically discipline me. I had no choice but to remain silent and memorize the prayers.

Religion during my early life represented conflict and forced subjugation to an unreasonable demand that I believe the unbelievable, but it also represented my only interconnection to the world outside my family.

It allowed me to be on my own at times, and I participated in activities such as church choir and being an alter boy. I enjoyed being a Boy Scout and going to church bazaars.

A break in the confusion and turmoil occurred in the fourth grade. I was in Catholic school in Pocatello Idaho. We were learning about the Greeks and their religion.

Their gods lived on a mountain. It occurred to me that if they wanted to prove that their gods were real, all they had to do is climb a mountain.

I couldn’t believe that people who had such an opportunity would blindly follow their religion. I asked Sister Mary Henrietta, “Did the Greeks in fact believe that their gods were real?” She answered, “Yes.”

Then I asked, “In a thousand years, how are people going to take the things that we’re taught to believe in?” The question died in the air with no answer, but I knew then that we were destined to outgrow superstitious beliefs.

I came out to my parents as a non-believer in 1968, as a freshman in high school, at the age of 14. It was clear to me that going to CCD classes was a waste of time and I didn’t believe in anything that the church had to offer.

This is when I had my one and only discussion with my father about religion. He told me that I was an Agnostic. The word sounded good and by his understanding of the word, it seemed to fit my situation.

I didn’t believe but I wasn’t saying that there was no God. My feelings haven’t changed. I still don’t make the claim that there is no God or gods but now, I know that means that I’m an Agnostic Atheist.

Jacobsen: If you reflect on pivotal people within the community relevant to personal philosophical development, who were they for you?

Lacey: My philosophy grew out of interactions with many individuals and I was not coerced into not believing in God or gods. My father did not push his non-belief on me.

Whether it was because of idealistic principles or to maintain a harmonious relationship with my very Catholic mother, is not certain.

I never saw him get into a religious discussion with anyone but through him, I understood that one could be a non-believer and still be accepted by his friends, his coworkers, and his bosses.

I found the influential members of the community only after I had decided to become a non-believer but like my father, it really didn’t define me during my working years.

I didn’t get into many religious discussions and the people around me never knew where I stood regarding religious belief. My current activity in the community came after I had made the decision to retire.

First, I found people in the Skeptical community. I became interested in James Randi and Michael Shermer. I particularly liked them because they were striking at the heart of the issue—people believe in dumb stuff!

James Randi attacked superstition, not just religious belief and Michael Shermer made a career out of figuring out why people have irrational beliefs.

I found the influential Atheists through my association with the Skeptical Community. They were not “pivotal” in that I was already a non-believer. They were, however, people within a larger community.

I mostly agreed with their ideas and I tried to learn from their experience. Their existence is evidence for a large, often unseen, community of freethinkers and it beneficial just knowing that.

The people I consider influential:

  • James Randi
  • Michael Shermer
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Sam Harris
  • Peter Boghossian
  • Margaret Downey
  • Ellen Johnson

There are many more, but these are the ones that come to mind immediately.

James Randi and Michael Shermer, as I mentioned, are influential in the popularization of Skepticism.

Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris brought the idea of questioning the universal appeal of religion through their writings. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Letters to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.

Peter Boghossian in his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, shows how people are best convinced through Socratic questions about personal beliefs.

Margaret Downey were pivotal in bringing together their Atheist organizations while they were in charge ending years of needless competition in the community.

Jacobsen: What about literature and film, and other artistic and humanities productions, of influence on personal philosophical worldview?

Lacey: I rarely read, and I enjoy films for mainly entertainment. I do however listen to many podcasts on religion, science and technology. I also enjoy podcasts with historical content and politics.

Jacobsen: How did you come to find the wider borderless online world of non-religious people?

Lacey: Online I’m still presented with limitations such and language and customs. I’m met international members of the community during conferences and community themed cruises.

However, I’ve only met a few. I’m aware of the plight of people around the world facing difficulty due to being a member of the freethinking community, but my main concerns and activism revolve around the people in this country, the state of Arizona, and the city of Tucson.

Jacobsen: How did this lead to American Atheist Arizona?

Lacey: When I made my commitment to retire from work, I decided to dedicate more time to the freethinking community. My first involvement was a cruise with the JREF (James Randi Education Foundation). They called the cruise “Escape from the Bermuda Triangle.”

After that cruise, I started attending conferences hosted by JREF and the American Atheists. Once the American Atheists and the AAI (Atheist Alliance International) stopped their competition, I started attending the AAI conferences.

The American Atheists State Director for Arizona expressed interest in stepping down and I applied to fill his position. That was in 2007.

Jacobsen: Within the current position as the State Director for American Atheist Arizona, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Lacey: Until very recently, the job of the state director was up the person in the position. Now, we have a National Field Organizer, Jim Helton, who is providing more guidance. He has a program his calls “ACES” which stands for “Activism, Community Service, Education, and Social.” Activism included direct political engagement.

Community Service works on the negative perception through charitable acts. Education aims at addressing the misconceptions held by many. Social provides the support that many people lose when leaving religious communities.

I also “answer the mail” and address the concerns of people in Arizona that could use my help and the help of the national organization. Sometimes the concerns are about discrimination.

Sometimes people object to a religious organization operating in the public schools to proselytize to the students. Each situation requires a different approach. In most cases, a letter on the organization’s stationery is all that is required.

Jacobsen: What are some of the provisions for the community there? How does this manifest in the online sphere as well?

Lacey: I’m associated with American Atheists. I’m also the coordinator for the Tucson Atheists Group and helped create the (SC4AZ) Secular Coalition for Arizona. The SC4AZ has its own secular lobbyist and works with 17 other freethought organizations in the state.

It fights to maintain the separation of church and state. The group is primarily a social support organization, but it contains a sub-group called TACO (Tucson Atheists Community Outreach).

Its charter is to provide charitable community service for Tucson. We also work with the group FreeThought Arizona which hosts notable speakers monthly. Each of the mentioned groups has an online presence.

Jacobsen: What unique issues for secularism face Arizonan atheists? What specific inclusivity issues face atheists in Arizona? In particular, how do some of these reflect the larger national issues?

Lacey: Arizona has a severe challenge. Our legislature is cowed by an organization called The CAP (Center for Arizona Policy)—a deeply religious organization. CAP has lobbied for many legislative challenges to the separation of church and state.

Until the SC4AZ came on the scene, the organization was unopposed in its efforts. It often bragged about the number of CAP sponsored bills were passed each year. We are doing better now but it wasn’t long ago that the gains made by CAP made national news.

Jacobsen: How can secular American citizens create an environment more conducive and welcoming to secular women, secular youth, secular people of color, secular poor people, and secular people with formal education less than or equal to – but not higher than – a high school education? 

Lacey: Here in Arizona we have as many secular women involved as secular men, particularly in leadership positions. For example, in the Tucson Atheists 60% of the leadership team are women. In Phoenix over 50% of the leadership team are women.

The environment created by the community does not limit the participation by women, youth, people of color, secular poor people, and the less educated people. There are obstacles, but they exist outside the freethinking organizations.

For example, I recognize that families with kids are under represented in my Tucson Atheists community. Organizers have created events conducive and welcoming to families, but the events are not well attended.

It is reasonable to assume that families have other, more pressing priorities. Young people and retired people are over represented. Perhaps the young people and retired people have more time to devote to such causes.

Jacobsen: How can the secular community not only direct attention to ill-treatment of religious followers by fundamentalist religious leaders but also work to reduce and eventually eliminate the incidences of ill-treatment of some – in particular, the recent cases of women – within the secular community?

Lacey: The secular community is not in any position to change what happens inside religious institutions and I’m not personally aware of any women that have been ill treated within the secular community.

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

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:

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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