Atheists, skeptics gather in Wisconsin

MILWAUKEE — Hundreds of atheists, freethinkers and other nonbelievers from around the Midwest will gather in Madison, Wis., this weekend for a conference marking the launch of a new umbrella group aimed at pulling together many of the area’s so-called “Nones.”

Not nuns, the Nones — that growing legion of Americans who answer “none” in surveys that track religious affiliation.

The Madison Area Coalition of Reason encompasses 10 member and allied groups, from the Humanist Union of Madison to the Madison Skeptics and the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The Madison coalition is one of at least 50 such groups in 30 states founded or promoted with funding from the Washington, D.C.-based United Coalition of Reason.

“The aim is to raise the public profile of these groups so they can better find their audience,” national director Fred Edwords said.

“We’re not here to convert people; our aim is to help people who already think like us know that there is a community out there,” he said.

A segment of that community — 601 and counting — has registered for the Madison coalition’s first regional conference, which begins Friday.

The three-day Freethought Festival features presentations on a wide range of topics, from secular parenting and morality to the historical Jesus and the separation of church and state.

Presenters include high-profile voices in the atheist/reason universe that encompasses a range of ideologies — atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, freethinking, humanism and more. Among them: bloggers PZ Myers and Hemant Mehta; Ellery Schempp, now 71, whose high school protest ended in the landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling banning public school-sanctioned Bible readings; and Sean Faircloth of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, a former Maine legislator whose new book “Attack of the Theocrats” takes on the religious right.

The national coalition also helped finance an Internet ad campaign that had the message “Freethought Festival 2012: Reason to Celebrate” popping up on Madison-area computers in advance of the gathering.

“We’ve been working on it for a year,” said Chris Calvey of the student Atheists, Humanists &Agnostics association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The association is playing host to the conference. “This is our coming-out party.”

More than 34 million Americans identify as “unaffiliated” with a religious group, according to researchers at Trinity College and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The number of Nones nearly doubled to 15 percent of the adult U.S. population from 1990 to 2008, according to Trinity’s 2008 American Religious Identification Survey — outranking every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists.

Regarding a belief in the divine, it said, most Nones are neither atheists nor theists, but instead are agnostics and deists, “and perhaps best described as skeptics.”

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