IRVING, Texas, July 13--When four former Catholic altar boys started an atheist "church" here a few years ago, they didn't think they were doing anything special. They just wanted a place where they and other nonbelievers could gather for fellowship, just as other churchgoers do.

But five years later, the North Texas Church of Freethought, nicknamed the "church for the unchurched," has become a model for other atheist congregations, sparking interest in similar ventures around Texas, the nation, and the world.

"It's an idea that I had for many years," said Dr. Tim Gorski, one of the four founders of the group, which is believed to be the nation's largest atheist congregation. "I had no idea it would get to be as successful as it's become."

How successful? About 40 people attended the first service in Irving's Wilson World Hotel in 1995. The church now boasts a membership of 150 and is raising money toward owning its own building.

And in March, leaders helped launch a congregation in Houston. Atheists in England and New Zealand have also contacted them about starting a church.

"We're the prototype," Gorski said proudly. "But we advertise in the newspaper. And we have an extensive website. And we have people who pass the word along by word of mouth."

Freethought co-founder and executive director Mike Sullivan said that although the philosophy of atheism is obviously not new, the possibility of having a "church of unbelievers" is. He said that modern-day technology is responsible for the growth and interest that the North Texas group has inspired.

"I don't think a project such as ours would have been possible without the internet," Sullivan said, who estimated that the group gets 200 "hits" per day on its homepage. "The internet spreads knowledge and information so quickly." Houston's Freethought Church was formed, for example, after its organizers found the North Texas group's webpage. They say its leaders played a huge role in the development of their congregation, which follows the North Texas blueprint, down to the lunch gathering after each monthly service.

"We don't have the turnout that they have yet, but they were very instrumental for us," said co-founder and executive director Art Fay, who said services are drawing 15 to 18 people. "We wanted to use their materials because of the success they've had in five years."

Jim Ashmore, services director for the Houston organization, said the North Texas group's encouragement was critical.

"They provided the model and said that this could be done, that atheists and freethinkers could be organized into a church," Ashmore said. "I didn't believe that it could be."

Sullivan said the church offers atheists, humanists, and other "freethinkers" many of the same things that theistic places of worship provide, including a disbelief in false gods. But he said atheists take that precept one big step further.

"We've rejected all other gods plus one more," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said atheists find belief in the God Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship unreasonable.

"The beauty of this church is that the entire world of human ideas is open to us," Sullivan said. "We are not limited by one thought or belief."

Sullivan and Gorski said they understand that for many people, the idea of atheists going to "church" is a foreign concept. But they said nonbelievers share a need for fellowship.

"I think we missed church," Gorski said. "We missed the chance to get together and fellowship. Theological propositions are not like mathematical propositions, where there is only one right answer. When I thought about God, I didn't have to believe one way or the other."

John Hendricks, a former Presbyterian, has attended the meetings for four years.

"It's like people that aren't religious, they still need a community to come together," Hendricks said after a recent service. "We're not a bunch of angry atheists. There are a lot of smart people here."

Freethought members come from all racial backgrounds, and Sullivan is proud that many members are younger people with families.

"We are not an organization founded on being against something," Sullivan said. "We're an organization founded on being for something: reason, tolerance, and the search for truth."

Sullivan also stressed that the fellowship "is not a club" and requires no dues. The nonprofit organization does not collect offerings during services, but it does solicit and accept donations to pay the group's operating costs. According to the group's website, members can designate that 1% of their purchases at Kroger and Tom Thumb grocery stores be donated to the church through the groceries' Kroger Cares and Good Neighbor programs.

About 75 people usually show up for the hourlong services at the hotel, or "mini-symposiums" as Gorski calls them, where topics range from ethics to behavior to current events to religion. He said that the church is always exploring avenues for various topics and that almost anything, including the Bible and God, are open for discussion.

A recent service began with a performance by two cellists, followed by a couple singing a folk song--no hymns, remember--and then a spoof on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Gorski spoke to the casually dressed group about the theory of freethought, telling them, among other things, that "real freethought is thought" and that "freethinkers understand that nothing we think is beyond question." He also told them about freethought "heroes" who lived centuries ago.

Meanwhile, in a room across the hall, Gorski's wife, Deborah Boak, was instructing the children's Sunday school class.

"There are two things we try to do," Boak said. "Establish critical thinking skills, and the other part is moral thinking. We probably share 90% of what other churches think [about right and wrong]. We believe that once you make a commitment to do what is right, you don't need a god hanging over you to force you to do it. The people here are comfortable believing you can be a good person and lead a good life."

Unlike most of the people who attend Freethought services, member Clinton Smith said that he has been an atheist since childhood.

Though his dad was a preacher, he lived in Germany with his stepdad, who was an atheist. "When you're growing up, you do what your parents do," said Smith, who has been a member of the fellowship since its founding.

Smith's girlfriend, Martina Kolmeder, said that she joined the group after a long spiritual journey.

"I grew up very religious," Kolmeder said. "I tried everything. Then I read Bertrand Russell's book "Why I Am Not a Christian." Russell's book changed my life. But it was very difficult for me to turn away [from Christianity]. People told me that if you turn away from God, you're going to hell. Now I don't worry about that."

Gorski said that he realizes that Christians' thoughts about freethinkers or atheists run the gamut from benign acceptance to outright contempt. He said that's fine, though, because he has reciprocal feelings about most Christians. And he said that just as they ponder his fate, he wonders about theirs.

"Our question is, is it possible to know anything with absolute certainty?" Gorski asked. "As long as you're alive, nothing is ever final."

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