In June, I wrote a piece for AlterNet, titled 8 Awesome Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. The gist: When a media outlet decides that atheism is important, they all too often turn to Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Then, when Dawkins or Harris puts their foot in their mouth about race or gender — again — the reporter cries out, “Atheism needs better leadership! Why doesn’t atheism have better leaders?” Atheism does have better leaders — so I profiled eight of them, to bring just a small fragment of the range and variety of atheist leadership to more people’s attention.
At the end of that piece, I wrote, “And these eight are the tip of the iceberg… I could write a new profile of a different atheist leader every week, and still be at it ten years from now.”
So I decided: Why not do that?
I don’t know if I’ll do it for ten years. But for at least a while, once a week I’ll be profiling and interviewing a different leader in organized atheism.
This week’s profile: Jim G. Helton.
GC: Tell me briefly what your organization does and what you do for them. (If you’re in a leadership position with more than one atheist organization, feel free to tell me about more than one.)
The group that I spend most of my time with is the Tri-State Freethinkers. We are a local group that has members from Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Our group can most easily be summarized through the acronym A.C.E.S., which stands for Activism, Community, Education, and Social. We provide a community for people and have been repeatedly praised for our well-rounded activities.
Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.
Equal Rights and separation of church and state are the two biggest issues we tend to tackle. They seem to go hand in hand. We have also partnered with several other organizations who are helping people in the community, including Planned Parenthood. We have taken a stance on several social issues, such as the humane treatment of animals and trying to stop the death penalty in Ohio.
Abstinence Only Sex Ed: Eliminating abstinence only sex education in public schools. We have had success with my son’s school. We are working on some of the districts now with the goal to be to take this to the state level next year.
Gideons Bibles: We have successfully challenged bible distributions in several public schools in Kentucky by passing out humanist and atheist books. As long as the press covers the event the Gideons cannot show up, according to their own by-laws.
CEDAW: The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. We helped get this resolution passed this spring and are hoping to have the ordinance passed this fall with funding. A couple key points from CEDAW are equal pay for women, access to healthcare, domestic violence support, and stopping human trafficking.
Baptists Park: The Mayor of Cincinnati has proposed to build a park on church property. We have sent a letter and contacted the FFRF.
Feeding the homeless: We have been working on a farm, growing fresh produce for those in need. Next month we are going to feed around 150 people. This includes buying all the food, preparing it, and distributing it.
Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?
I would like to see it organized enough to not only take on atheist issues, but also tackle social issues and have the power to effect elections. We are starting to see some of the national and local organizations work together on projects such as the Reason Rally. I would like this type of cooperation to happen on a regular basis.
What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?
Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?
Yes, because I have only been an atheist for less than three years. I think the difference with “new atheism” is that we are no longer staying silent — we are much more organized. Many more people are coming out of the closet every day.
Any questions you wish I’d asked, or anything else you’d like to add?
Advice I can give other leaders of organizations: There are a lot of good leaders out there doing amazing things. What separates the great leaders from the good leaders is the ability to inspire others. There are too many grassroots groups where the leader of the organization does everything. The reason the Tri-State Freethinkers have been so successful is we have built a team. I wanted to change the world and I thought the best place to start was in my own backyard.