UNION, Ky. -- What would a church look like for people who don’t believe in dogma or holy scriptures, who consider themselves guided by reason alone?
We’ll find out one day, if Jim Helton has his way. The Union resident and president of the Tri-State Freethinkers wants a building for his group’s headquarters, and he would love to start with an old church.
The cross would have to come down, he said, but the steeple could stay. The sanctuary would serve as a place for the group’s monthly meetings and special events.
Having a building – a sanctuary for atheism, so to speak – would complete the vision that Helton had in late 2012, when he created Tri-State Freethinkers.
After the former Roman Catholic “came out” as an atheist in 2011, the late Edwin Kagan, a noted local atheist and former National Legal Director of American Atheists, urged him to attend Reason Rally 2012 in Washington, D.C.
Helton did so, and returned “all fired up” to organize his fellow freethinkers. But what local groups existed then just wanted to “bitch about religion,” he said, of which he’s a fan, but “no one seemed to want to do anything.”
The group began with a dozen members, and now has about 1,500, he said.
It’s one of the largest, most active secular groups in the country, said Lyz Liddell, executive director for the Reason Rally Coalition Inc., which produces the reason rallies.
Helton spoke about the group last weekend in Washington at an ancillary dinner for Reason Rally 2016.
“They are like a mega-church-sized secular community,” Liddell said of Tri-State Freethinkers.
Helton created the group to give freethinkers something that churches give believers – a community that meets for fellowship and support, as well as for aid in time of need.
He wanted it to serve as a forum for education, community service, social events and activism – and it does all those things.
The group will have 32 events this month, he said, and on average it has 25 per month. The social events include playing disc golf on Sundays and game nights on Fridays.
Once a month, the group meets at the Newport on the Levee conference center and hears a guest speaker. July’s speaker is atheist David Silverman, a regular on Fox News.
Last year, the group did more than 50 community service projects, Helton said, including feeding the homeless as part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati.
Local churches that are part of the network house families for a week at a time. Because the Freethinkers don’t have a building, they provide meals and company for families that stay at Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church.
“They’ve been great,” said Stacey Burge, the network’s executive director. They have done what the network asks of its volunteers, she added – provided great food, showed kindness and not been judgmental.
“When it comes to common goals like equal rights … we’re willing to put our differences aside and work with the faith community, as long as they do not proselytize,” Helton said.
Those collaborations have led to some great conversations, including when the Freethinkers helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati.
Their co-workers were devout Christians, but out of respect for the Freethinkers, they didn’t pray before starting work and at lunch, “which was really cool,” Helton said.
“Most of them had never met an atheist before,” he said. “We had a great time working along with them.”
Much of the time, however, the Freethinkers aren’t collaborating with religious groups but confronting them, over things such as distributing Bibles in public schools or the Ark Encounter park in Williamstown.
Last year, the Freethinkers raised $10,000, in three days, to put up billboards in response to the Ark Encounter.
They would have shown an image of Noah’s ark with people drowning around it, and a quote from Genesis 6:13: “So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people.’” They would have been headlined, “Genocide Incest Park,” and tagged with the Freethinkers’ website, tri-statefreethinkers.com.
The goal was to get people thinking about the story of Noah’s ark, in which God destroys everyone but Noah’s family, Helton said.
The billboards were never put up, Helton said, because the Freethinkers couldn’t find any billboard companies willing to do it. Even a mobile billboard operator, who would have driven around the park, backed out because he feared for his safety, Helton said.
The Freethinkers do plan to hold a similarly themed banner when they protest the Ark Encounter’s planned opening on July 7, Helton said.
One benefit from the billboard flap was that it gained international media attention for the Freethinkers, which helped boost membership.
Choosing causes that will get press has been part of Helton’s strategy to grow the Freethinkers, he said. Those have included things like adopting the highway in front of the Answers in Genesis museum in Boone County.
Other causes include support for Planned Parenthood, for fact-based sex education in public schools and against capital punishment.
Helton, 43, makes his living as a real estate investor through his company, Wolfpack Properties. But he spends most of his time volunteering with the Freethinkers.
“I’ve seen the difference it makes in people’s lives, in having that sense of community,” he said.