MILWAUKEE – Hundreds of atheists, freethinkers and other nonbelievers from around the Midwest gathered 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 is the 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 began Friday.

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

Presenters included high-profile voices in the atheist/reason universe that encompasses a range of ideologies: atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, freethinking, humanism and more.