Wednesday, October 16

An Interview with Jim G. Helton – President of Tri-State Freethinkers

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So many terms float around the Web, but they’re generally overlapping, such as secular humanist, bright, and so on. For the Tri-State Freethinkers, what is the definition of a freethinker?

Basically, somebody who makes decisions using science, logic, and reason without dogma.

How did you become a freethinker?

It started with my wife. We were getting-married Catholic. And we were going through the process; she knew nothing about religion. The priest was explaining the Eucharist. My wife said, “You want me to drink who and eat what?” She was being serious.

[Laughing]

[Laughing] That started my doubts and got me out of my bubble. It was a 10-year downward spiral from Catholicism to Christianity to Deist to agnostic to atheism over a period of researching the Bible and questioning things. That’s what started my questioning.

Based on conversation with others, and based on reading about the topic extensively, what seems like the main reason for people becoming freethinkers?

It is different for a lot of people. For me, when I started researching the Bible, it wasn’t to disprove it. Being raised Catholic, I thought some of these are truths. Some of these are moral stories. I wanted to find the fact from the fiction. I was horrified when I found out it was pretty much all fiction—like none of it was true. It was eye-opening for me. For some, it is morality. That was also a part of it. When you start looking at the moral of the story, even though you say it isn’t true historically, people say to look at the moral of the story.

The Internet has been a huge boost for people to have access to information. That’s been huge. For Millennials, it seems to be the anti-equal rights stance the church has taken on issues, e.g. LGBTQ, women’s health care. It has pushed a lot of people away from the church.

What is the best argument for freethinking you’ve ever come across?

The best argument for it. It just makes sense. If you were using common sense and you were using logic and reason with no agenda, you would want to know the truth. It’s not necessarily where religion comes from. Religion starts with the answer and then they do everything they can to prove that it’s true. Science starts with a question & then searches for the truth no matter were it takes us.

If life was lived that way, and politics was that way, the world would be so much of a better place.

Now, you are the president of Tri-State Freethinkers. Did you found it?

Yes, my wife and I founded it 4 years ago.

What bumps and setbacks, and successes, came along with founding it with your wife?

It was an amazing thing. I got back from the Reason Rally and was motivated to do something. The original Reason Rally; and my wife wanted to do community service projects, but it was all churches proselytising. We founded Tri-State Freethinkers on the foundation of doing activism for myself, and community service for my wife. But we needed a way to bring people in, so we used education as a way to do that by having meetings.

Then we created some social events because we really enjoyed each other’s company. We have 1,900 members in our parent organisation within 4 years. We absorbed 3 other organisations, which gives us about 5,500 members, with some overlap. It has been an amazing journey. We’ve made national and international press based on protests against the Ark Encounter. We changed the public perception of what a freethinker & atheist is. But it has also come with a price. It cost me my original job.

I’ve received death threats. My family and kids have also received threats. That’s the baggage that comes with the territory, but I would say that’s few and far between compared to all of the good that we’re doing. It provides a sense of community for people. I would do it again if I could.

With the 5,500 members based on the absorption of the other organisations, what are some of the demographics? Who is most likely to be a freethinker?

So, age-wise, we’re very mixed. We have kids come to some of our events all the way up to seniors. We are very, very age diverse. We’re also not very heavily male-dominated. 70% of our board are women & about 50% of our members are women. Where we need to get better on diversity is with race. We live in Kentucky, which isn’t very diverse & other races tend to be more religious, it is even harder to break that barrier.

You mentioned the change in perception of the public in the local area of atheism, or freethinking, in general. As well, you noted national and international press for the organisation. What explicit activist causes has Tri-State Freethinkers taken up, what were they, and what were their successes?

We’ve taken on quite a bit. Our first one, we adopted the highway in front of the Creation Museum.

[Laughing]

[Laughing] We also followed up with the highway in front of the Ark Encounter. That got us a lot of press in the atheist and freethought community. In addition, we were doing a community service project. It brought people out to do atheist community service. People will do it. It was a huge turnout. That was the first thing we did. The second thing we did was challenging Gideon Bible distribution in the public schools.

We were successful in removing them from the public schools in Kentucky. Not all of them because they are like whack-a-mole. They pop up everywhere, but we have been successful in stopping it. I get calls from all over the country. I even got a call from Canada asking, “How can you combat the Gideons?” There are ways to stop them. We have become very, very good at it. So, that got us a lot of recognition on our success.

We tackled sex education. There were churches teaching abstinence only sex education in public schools. We have gotten very good at throwing out the churches that teach that. We struggled at getting comprehensive sex education implemented. It is an ongoing process. We have created a little noise there. We’re stilling working on that.

We put an international project together where people from around the world come in from the Ark Encounter. We were on Fox & Friends Live, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and all of the local TV. People from the UK and Sweden. We are in the Bill Nye Film that is coming out. It is a small piece, but we have a cameo in the Bill Nye film. We Believe in Dinosaurs documentary about the Ark Encounter. We have a fairly decent-sized role in that. We help pass women’s resolution in Cincinnati saying we have to pay them equally, give them health care and services, and so on. We hope to have the ordinance passed this year.

We’ve taken on equal rights issues. We are doing the March for Science. We were behind the Women’s March here in Cincinnati. So, with equal rights, we try to get involved from an activism standpoint to bring out our members.

What is the general perception of freethinking in America?

90% of people don’t know what it is. That’s why David Silverman from American Atheists doesn’t use it because nobody knows what it is. [Laughing] That’s exactly why we chose the name because people don’t know what it is. A lot of people join our group because they agree with our social issues. But if we said we were an atheist organisation, they wouldn’t come to us. So, we don’t ask what your religion is. We don’t ask if you have any.

With most people, once they get in the social circle and start talking, they realise they have the same values. They’re probably either deist or agnostic. They just didn’t identify as an atheist, just because of the terminology. Personally, I identify as an atheist, but as a group we’re open to beyond atheists. A lot of people that hang around us end up identifying as atheists as well, but we don’t ask and we don’t care.

We do so many things it’s hard to name them all. We’ve taken on the death penalty. We are for dying with dignity. We support Planned Parenthood. We’re there almost every week. We don’t expect everyone to agree with us on every issue to be part of our group.

By my read of the United States in recent history and currently, there are rather extreme religious perspectives—religious fundamentalism. At the same time, the majority of religious individuals are like most non-believing individuals. They live their lives decently and get along with their neighbour. What are some activities that you’re coordinating with religious groups for good causes?

For instance, you were mentioning feeding the homeless. Are there initiatives akin to that where you’re building bridges like that among communities, between communities?

Let me go back a question because it will tie in together. I think when people take action, they worry about offending people or trying to appeal to a wide range of people. When we do something or we do an action, for instance, we protested the Ark Encounter by putting up a billboard and it was on the site for a day. It got everybody’s attention. People were like, “You’re going to piss off the Christians.” We were like, “Don’t care.” “You are only appealing to your base.” “Yes.” “You are only doing this for hardcore atheists.” “Yes, that was my goal.”

We want it because those hardcore people that would come out for that are the ones who are going to run the organisation. They are the ones who are going to work 1-20 hours a week volunteering for free. That’s my appeal. That’s what I wanted. I wasn’t extending an olive branch to my Christian neighbours. They were not my target. I still knew the creationists were going to go. At the same time, our interfaith committee says, “We have a meeting with the church.”

I’m like, “I’ve got a meeting with the mayor next week.” “This is going to make it harder for us.” I’m like, “I agree.” We were feeding the homeless once a year. We need to do it once per month. We need to do more community service. That is our outreach. We are at a church every month feeding homeless people. We’re with Habitat for Humanity who has never met an atheist before. Then it creates dialogue. We were building a porch with a Christian group. I’m like, “We’re never going to get this porch done.” He’s like, “Jim, you just gotta have faith.” I’m like, “I have no faith, that’s the problem.” Then we both laugh. At the end of the day, the porch got done. He’s like, “See, all you had to have was a little faith.” I’m like, “You call it faith. I call it I convinced 6 more people to help.” But we can argue who gets credit.

[Laughing] But it got done, that’s the point.

It creates dialogue. It breaks down these barriers. When we do that, we do a lot of interfaith outreach. We say, “Do you agree with us on women’s issues?” I went to the state council with a Catholic nun. We’re fighting against the death penalty. A couple of months later, the Catholic church is protesting Planned Parenthood while we’re supporting it. If we find allies on an issue, I don’t care who they are.

We will partner and accept them for that issue, which I think gives us a lot of credibility. We’re going after legislation. We are going after state legislation for sex education. So, we take a multipronged approach from our activism. We are trying to reach our base that people here in the community, nonbelievers, are just like them and that we care about the community as well. We do social events like a movie night. We do a multipronged approach, very targeted, of who we are targeting and why.

We don’t worry about the people who are not targeted. The Ark Encounter, the Christians aren’t happy about it. When we are at a church feeding people, some of the atheists aren’t happy, but they aren’t our target. We do very targeted approaches on how to grow the group and the movements as a whole, and we are not afraid to do so and to reach people we feel need reaching.

How can people get involved with Tri-State Freethinkers?

With the Tri-State Freethinkers, all of our meetings are on Meetup.com. For example, February is 28 days, we had 29 meetups in February. We are probably one of the most active groups in the country. Meetup.com, you type up ‘Tri-State Freethinkers.’ You Google us. There are more pages. We also have, if you’re not close us, http://www.tristatefreethinkers.com/.

There’s a ‘support us’ page, where people can support us financially. Or because what we do is relevant to other states and organisations around the country, you can email me or call us about sex education, Gideons, and women’s rights issues. We share this information freely with other groups. Also, our Facebook page is where we post most of our news stories. On average, we get from 50,000 to 500,000 hits per week depending on what we’re doing at the time.

The news is Facebook. The events are Meetup. The website if you need a resource for some of the previous things.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Helton.

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About Author

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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