The young man, wearing a black dress clasped tight against his ankles by the wind and silver stilettos that expose his unpainted toes to the same, complains as we walk of his uncertainly tucked junk, which is slowly and softly uncoiling. An image beating against the roots of what’s normal and accepted here and likely to draw swells of cat calls and haranguing comments if the right truck goes by. But there are no cars and no people at all. After all, the dress is an afterthought, really—the thing that would really cause angst among the population is less physically apparent. But potential wardrobe malfunctions notwithstanding, he seems remarkably at ease, and walks and talks as if there were nothing that set him apart here in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
There are four of us—him, myself, another guy with long curled hair, and a girl with shorter red hair and a baby face, all of whom had met one another this weekend—and the conversation isn’t loud or coarse as it undulates between religion and the lack thereof, and how good sandwiches and booze would taste after all the hours at the expo center, touching only glancingly on how well he, Dustin, walks in stilettos or conceals his junk—if precariously—beneath his dress. But when, a few minutes later, as we’re sipping an alcoholic slushy that sits in the middle of our table like a hookah, the conversation bites into the serious, and Dustin, after rattling off a few lines from Rocky Horror Picture Show, talks about comings out.
“In the coming out process for being gay, first you have to come out to yourself, and then you come out to a close friend or family member,” he says, “and then you come out to all of your family and all your friends. And then you come out to everybody. And then every day is a coming out process because, like, a random person you meet on the street doesn’t know. Well, it’s the same thing for atheism. First you have to realize you are an atheist. And for me, that was almost as difficult as realizing I was gay and thinking that I was going to hell—and I was the thing my dad had warned me about. It was very disconcerting.”
The thing is, for whatever physical attributes chosen and donned on the streets of Springfield, Missouri make him different here, those internalized beliefs take the discrepancy several steps further. They’re the reason he’s still closeted in one respect, and the reason he’s come here this weekend along with more than a thousand other likeminded people. For him and so many others, the weekend is an opportunity to walk around freely, as opposed to, as Dustin puts it, “walking around on eggshells.”
This weekend, for the sixth time in six years, Springfield, Missouri, is playing host to Skepticon, an event billed as the nation’s largest free skeptics and freethinkers’ convention. That it exists at all, that it has the gumption, the stones, to do so here, is novel in and of itself; it provides for the folks who need it—the halls fill with people coming from every conservative nook and cranny for hours around. But it goes well beyond that or anything like it. In the six years it’s been around, its tendrils and hooks have sprawled out into so many spheres of community and interaction that it really reflects something much more than a battle over belief in Middle America. The worlds it brings together stretch on and on.
It was something I got a chance to see firsthand while living in Springfield this past year.
J.T., A Founder of Skepticon
I’m not gonna lie, when this event was started, it warmed the cockles of my cold atheist heart to know that the Assemblies of God national headquarters is here in Springfield. I’m not saying that I enjoy antagonizing them—ahem—I’m not saying I don’t enjoy antagonizing them. But what area needs a Skepticon but that kind of area, you know?
Before you get into Skepticon, you ought to know a few things about Springfield and religion. Namely, that it’s very difficult to talk about religion and Springfield, almost as difficult as it is to discuss Springfield without talking about religion. The two are so entirely bound up and melded in so many different respects that when you talk about one, you nearly always find yourself lilting toward the other. And if you’re looking in from the outside—if you’re someone who wasn’t raised running up against the Bible Belt’s confusing, outward manifestations of religion—and you’re trying to describe something so deeply embedded in the culture of a place, you tend to rely on the externalized projections of that thing as a sort of shorthand.
You might mention, for starters, how there’s a bowling alley called Lighthouse Lanes. How there are Christian tattoo shops. Plural. How the holiday season sees the abrupt appearance of nativity scenes in front of just about every McDonald’s you’re likely to encounter. How it’s not uncommon or surprising to see places around town with fish or crosses incorporated into the logos. How the Assemblies of God has its own credit union visible from one of the major freeways that bisects the town.
How, when you walk through a haunted house that has no indications of being anything other than secular, you see homes in shambles, murders, all the effects and implications of sinful lives, before finding Jesus Christ on the Cross in the last room. And how, after, there’s a mandatory prayer session and a one-on-one confessional-type-thing where you discuss your feelings about the tour, and your faith, with a stranger. The little orange Bibles, though refused, almost certainly find their way into palm of your clinched hand.
It takes some time before you’re able to pick up on the fellowship and good works that have come as a result of all this religion, either directly or indirectly. And during the nine months I lived in Springfield, I did see a great many of them—from the innumerable counts of Southern hospitality to the wide-scale efforts of group homes for troubled youth, or from the soup kitchens for the homeless to the general emphasis placed on helping your neighbor, no matter the cost.
But it’s still difficult to talk about all of this because of the nature of religion in Springfield. Because religion in Springfield, as in so many areas around the middle of America, is not so much a concept or series of rote, ritual actions relegated to the Sabbath as it is a force that dictates and instructs how life is led. It may seem trite to say that religion is a lifestyle—or much less than that, even, something so well understood as to be indisputable—but the god-honest truth is that in Springfield it’s less an expression than an experience.
Knowing all of this made it all the more baffling that something like Skepticon could exist here. That something so far removed and diametrically opposed to the native religious experience—one whose primary perception was largely that of a boogey-man-type figure whose threat to the established way of things was incalculable—could not only set down but take root and flourish through the grass-roots efforts of a few kids was flat-out baffling.
Seeing the kittens changed all of that for me.
Alex, 31, atheist
Where I work, especially, all I hear about is…we have one guy in particular who thinks that everybody there is a Christian. He has no concept that somebody might believe something different than him. So he’s always going around saying, my Christian brother, my brother in Christ, and all of this stuff…and even if nobody here was an atheist, there are probably people who believe something else. There may even be Jews. There may be a few Muslims. But it doesn’t even cross his brain because he’s never been exposed to anything else.
They showed up in gigantic and adorable relief just up the road from the Assemblies of God Credit Union. Three larger-than-life felines tearing through a slab of paper, watching the drivers on the highway watching them, advertising—though announcing might be the better word here—Skepticon. On the surface, these billboard cats were reflections of everything that the convention seemed to be founded on—the glib dismissal of very serious subject matter with an irreverence that had seeped into the bedrock of the thing from the start.
“Everyone expects this grand mythology, but really it was just a bunch of kids up to no good,” says Laura Lane, one of the cofounders, when I catch up with her later. “We would protest those preachers that would come to [the Missouri State] campus. They would show up and we would show up as pirates, and be like, well, heaven has a beer volcano and there’s a stripper factory and ours is superior—and we have graphs. That is science and our religion is as valid as yours.”
She remembers it got to a point where the preachers weren’t coming quite as much, when Brother Jed, one of the foremost evangelists, was one of the last ones still showing up. So, in following with the qualities that had inspired everything up until that point, Laura and the other founders held a carnival: Jed Fest.
“We had balloon animals, and you could take your picture with the flying spaghetti monster, and you could throw water balloons at J.T. for like 50 cents, and some girl brought out her jar of change so that she could throw that many water balloons at him, because he pretty much had destroyed her faith by arguing with her all the time, so she really hated him.”
When it came time to figure out what to do with the money, they decided to donate it to Heifer International. And that’s when it clicked. That they could take “all this energy and all these shenanigans and take it to the next level.” They invited a bunch of skeptic and freethinker bloggers they wanted to meet. It worked, so they figured, well, heck, why not try it again. And a few years later, this is what they have: the largest free skeptic convention in the country that, in the words of one of the founders, got started by a “bunch of college nobodies.”
None of this would have happened—not at this kind of scale—without the catalyst of the Internet. Because just as it’s impossible to have any conversation about Springfield without mentioning religion, so, too, is it impossible to discuss Skepticon without the web that enabled it. It is, after all, what allowed that group of college kids who just wanted to bring their freethinking heroes to campus, to create—and perpetuate—something like Skepticon.
The truth is that there are countless instances of Internet intervention, both direct and indirect, in the thing’s history. Take, for example, how when something fouled up in the finances and Skepticon risked getting cancelled just days before this past year’s convention, a call went out to the Internet and more than $6,000 was raised over the course of two days. Or the kitten billboard, which had its genesis in the Internet, both with respect to the funds raised to manifest a meme over Springfield’s collective head and the process by which the subject matter was chosen. (The kittens won out over frogs and puppies in an ad hoc competition/poll called the “Inoffensive Atheist Billboard Challenge.”) But even for all of the ways the Internet has impacted Skepticon, arguably none have been so potent as the impression made on the thing’s spirit.
The irreverent spirit so impressed in the groundwork—to the point that it’s no surprise to find even the more serious subject matter injected with lightheartedness—seems to characterize so much of twentysomething online discourse. It’s the dominant ethos of our youthful Internet, and perhaps our youth culture, too. It’s that resonance which has helped spur Skepticon’s digital spread and contributes to its widespread appeal, which seems to widen all the time, extending well beyond its digital walls.
Because even as Skepticon has grown and matured, taken on new contours and colors, its tone, so essential to its mission, has remained intact. In its whimsy, its play, it takes on something of the character of those troublemaking kittens on the billboard: the whole thing rebuffs and refuses to abide by the rules of the outside world.
Alex, 31, atheist
And then I went to a comedian that I love very much…and for the first time I saw the word atheist and I saw the idea of non-belief, that somebody just didn’t believe because of the criteria of belief didn’t match, because not everything had been answered to make somebody believe something, that they just dismissed, as much as I could dismiss not believing in Oden. Or Thor. Or Zeus. Because there’s nothing to support it…when I saw atheism in those terms, my whole world started to change, I realized that was kind of how I felt, that yeah, I held onto this belief because I’m afraid of hell. And I was scared for the longest time because I was pushing myself down a path and I prayed about it, and I said, if you don’t want me to go down this way, give me something. Give me something that will prove to me there is something there.
“Hey Kids! Help Terry the Socially Conservative Pterodactyl connect the dots to navigate our AWESOME schedule of events
Panel: How should Rationalists Approach Relationships and marriage
Lunch Omnoms 2: Electric Boogaloo
Sean Caroll – Higgs Boson and the Fundamental Nature of Reality
Super Hero Jessica Ahlquist
Hemant Mehta – The Rise of the Young Atheists
Dinner Omnoms: Omnoming Hardererest”
In the variety of exhibitions and speakers at Skepticon is the peculiar sense that it’s still not sure what to do with its adolescent freedom of expression and action, and is still unsure what to do with its hands—the histories of werewolves and the explorations of LSD’s colorful effects occupy the same space and are given the same consideration and (mostly) attention as any other lectures. Because the attitude and air throughout the conference—or convention, it’s never made clear—is one of trial and error coupled with the desire to please, and aversion to offending.
And it’s that surface innocuousness which contributes to the following: it doesn’t seem revolutionary. It doesn’t seem as though it’s engendering discord or anything like that. It seems like a bunch of people, fairly geeky, friendly as a general rule, some of whom are wearing green stickers—indications that they don’t want their photos posted online—because they’re afraid of extending the weekend beyond the confines of this place and of this time and the potential repercussions and ostracization that might follow. It does not seem like a big deal, even though it is.
There are only a few outward expressions of the lack of belief—the flying spaghetti monster hat with noodly woolen cords spilling down over a guy’s ears; the “I Un-Liked Jesus” T-shirt worn by an older man, who does seem fairly out of place here among such a young crowd. You have to imagine the majority of the personal feelings are internalized—that for many, this is the first time they’ve been permitted, or feel they’ve been permitted, to speak openly, and know whatever ear they find will offer unconditional acceptance.
Clusters of like-minded people, with persons splitting off time to time to pursue other conversations, move past as other clusters move away and out to lunch; so many of them have the same aura about them, exuding the same air of geeks and nerds no matter how they’re dressed, though most are dressed the part. Most walk by and some have dyed hair and two wear trench coats and one drops a black hat onto the bare head of his friend; and many wear t-shirts, and some are young, most are young, some are old.
There’s the feeling it could just pop out of thin air and appear, that if the right combination of people were to show up in any given place, felt the same sense of community and shared interest, saw the same post online, that it could happen anywhere.
But of course that’s only true to a fault. In its own small and subtle ways, Springfield is there. It’s in the expectation of conflict, what happens when it doesn’t come about, when everyone there doesn’t come to blows, when it pushes aside what’s supposed to happen when two entities so intrinsically opposed are steeped against the other in a small space. In the case of Springfield and the powder kegs of race relations and other relations dealing with sex and gender and identity and all the others—religion included, of course—they don’t always come to a head. There’s the potential, but even when there are sparks shooting off toward the growing stockpiles, there’s not necessarily going to be an explosion.
“It needs that religious pressure cooker to forge those friendships,” as Skepticon organizer Micah puts it. “Skepticon is a big project and we have a tight corps of volunteers who are like family. But the rest of the year, you have people like Springfield Freethinkers—they have skeptics in the pub, they’ll have a skeptical game night, they have skeptical book clubs. You can find somebody who you can hang out with, do things that you enjoy and they will not judge you for your skepticism or your atheism or whatever.”
A place like Springfield is something like a crucible; it’s not enough to be different and keep it at that. When you’re in a place like this and your way of thinking isn’t just different but seen as evil or whatever, you’re going to seek out other people who share it, who can show you the lifestyle isn’t as errant or aberrant as others might suggest. It’s an idea that’s not so different than that Christian concept of fellowship—the idea of being in a family or part of something larger.
But Skepticon is larger than any purely local group might be. Like so many others who use the conduit of the Internet to form communities around shared interests, ideas, and values—no matter how quirky or niche in everyday life—the folks attending Skepticon have turned to the digital realm to expand their congregation, bringing together other likeminded folks whose ideas might clash with community values. It’s a step beyond what would have happened in places like Springfield before—bridging the virtual to the real, and making all of this much more concrete for people without.
It’s interesting to note the breadth of reasons that people have come out for Skepticon, because for every suggestion that it’s a very serious deal with all sorts of social and ideological underpinnings—only five businesses agreed to be listed on the back of the flyer as sponsors and offer some sort of a deal for attendees, because the specter of atheism scared the rest away—there are all the equal and opposite responses that this is just a fun thing to do. Not least among those are the folks who can’t discuss this stuff elsewhere.
Mark Nichols, Co-Organizer, Springfield Freethinkers
The more people hear about it, they say they can’t believe such a thing exists here. ‘I thought I was the only one,’ ‘I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this before’— I can’t say how many times I’ve heard that. But once it’s out there it just energizes and it just goes, and over the next six months, there will probably be 50 new student groups that pop up over the country and they start having their own conferences, they realize it can be done without a lot of resources…I hate to use the word magical, but there’s this sense that something is happening.
I feel like I have an army now.
In two rings around the hall there are vendors with signs of varying sophistication, some handmade, others professionally printed, all displaying names like the Student Secular Alliance, the Center for Inquiry, the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Recovering from Religion, The Brick Bible, We Are Atheism, the NWA Humanist Association, Springfield Freethinkers, Joplin Freethinkers, and it’s frequently necessary to remind yourself that you’re still in Springfield, Missouri.
When you speak to people from the area, members of the freethinkers group in particular, you start to hear a story that bridges narratives and people and is so common that you can’t help but wonder if perhaps people got together in advance to work out all the potential kinks. It’s the story of how people became atheists—specifically, people who were raised as fundamentalists.
Across from the booth where people record their coming out stories, I speak with a young man named Alex, the vice president of the local group called Springfield Freethinkers. And the thing about Alex is he talks without prompting about all this stuff and it comes out in paragraphs. It’s as if his life story has already been rehearsed and this is just one more rendering of the story. (These are just a few snippets of our conversation—his conversion three and a half years ago was a tortured process, and a lot more complex than the quotes here let on.)
“For me, I was raised Pentecostal for many years…for many years, I was raised Pentecostal, we went to many Pentecostal churches, went to the camps, got filled with the holy spirit, that type of thing…I mean, I was in it pretty deep.
“An atheist was a person who rejected God, not somebody who didn’t believe…a nonbeliever was just someone who hadn’t heard the message, they were two completely different things. There was no such thing as a person who could hear the message and logically reject it out of hand, as if…there’s nothing to it. [The] only thing there was people who hadn’t heard the message and people who had heard the message and hated God and didn’t want anything to do with that. Those were the two concepts I had.
“I have never felt so liberated…but it is so scary. It is extremely scary, people I’ve met who have had the same situation, they…we feel like we can’t come out to family members that are religious because of the fact that they have this one viewpoint of us—which is the one that I had—which is that we reject the God. And that would become something different, that we’re Satan worshippers or something. And I think that’s why these movements are so important—Skepticon—having groups, because not only is it a safe place for people like us. But it changes images. It lets people know that there are people out there who don’t believe and they are not going around killing people. That they are not bad. That they are not worshipping the devil. That they are not eating babies.
“That is so important to change it, to change the image of the word [atheist], because it gets condemned in religious circles. It gets a very bad image. And rightfully so. I would say the reason they do that is because they’re taught that non-belief is the ultimate sin. That non-belief is a direct ticket to hell and anybody who doesn’t believe is an enemy of their god. And in a sense they’re right.”
After the tape recorder’s gone off, he points out two women pushing trashcans, which roll over the floor and create a ruckus, a big sound that echoes throughout the hall banging easy off the linoleum. Alex notes the same women, who are working at the convention center, had stopped by the Freethinkers table earlier today and asked, quite earnestly, if they were still able to have children. (They are.) And you realize that there’s a lot more to this event than you ever thought before—more than irreverent youth culture and defensive derision and community-born-out-of-the-Internet. As much as anything, the free-flowing mania of Skepticon is about how group identity can bolster an individual’s humanity—and expand the boundaries of life in which each person can live.
Micah, Skepticon organizer
What I really want to see at Skepticon is the opportunity to humanize the people who disagree with us, ’cause right now the only Christians that show up at our event are protesters, and that is not good…that is not a useful reminder that even the people who disagree with us are good people. Because most people are really good people. They just have some bad ideas about the world. There are people who disagree with us who are totally worth working with.
In that interaction at the Freethinkers table lies the fulfilled expectation of what Springfield is and how it’s supposed to react—the immediate dull-witted, appropriate, and expected rejoinder spouted from someone with no right to ask questions. But in listening to such an account, it’s difficult not consider the fairly isolated nature of the comment. To be sure, there were some protesters (I should note that I didn’t see any myself, though I did hear of a guy who was distributing religious tracts in gutted copies of On the Origin of Species), but they didn’t appear in the way you’d expect.
For as physically close as they are, the wall between Springfield and Skepticon—reality and the virtual—never seems to collapse entirely. That’s not to say there haven’t been other times when those two worlds have touched—the kittens above the freeway; the posting that appeared a few years ago in the window of a gelato place saying they wouldn’t serve the attendees (the owner immediately took the sign down, though not before the Internet got hold of it)—but Springfield was more of a presence than a setting, something symbolic for speakers and attendees to latch onto rather than something concrete.
There’s a not so uncertain danger in saying all of this, though. Because, for as easy as it is to remark on the divide between the convention and the place hosting it, imposing such distinctions between Springfield and Skepticon makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that there is considerable common ground there between them. (This is, of course, to say nothing of the fact that so many of the attendees and organizers live in the area,)
Set side by side—that is, this niche community, grounded online, and these religious communities, grounded in Springfield—you realize how one is founded on a community, and the other is founded on a community, and ultimately what the two provide for the people who embrace them is some sense of place, acceptance, common ground, etc. You realize both offer answers to questions (albeit different ones), but of the same pressing and philosophical nature.
(Consider, for example, one of the opening lines from the panel on relationships: “And one of the things I really wanted to address with the panel is a common misconception I think many of us have heard: Reason can’t figure our love, that there’s something beyond science, beyond rationality, that love and relationships…and you can’t figure them out. And that’s, I think all of us would agree, absurd.”)
It’s because Skepticon distills so much of that desire for understanding and belonging that it seems to be a hodgepodge—much like the Internet that fueled it, it represents a billion different viewpoints and opinions and approaches. And perhaps it’s for that reason that things are as silly as they are. In the seemingly innocuous dinosaurs and puns there’s an easily achieved and established and understood rapport between the people involved.
If you were to do the same to Springfield—if you were to distill the place down and fit it into a limited space—you’d find religion (and lots of it, let’s be honest), but there’d be plenty more than that. Odds are good that you’d probably find many of the same values as those you see expressed at Skepticon, albeit perhaps not with the lens through which the Internet seems to view everything. And while there would bound to be some crazies—Todd Akin might even make an appearance—I have to imagine that, if stripped of those pretensions and filters strapped on daily life that keep so much below the surface, the similarities would outweigh whatever differences existed between the two.
Ultimately, the diversity of one is not unrelated to the diversity of the other, only refracted through the different lenses appropriate to each. The culture of the Internet isn’t different—it just takes what’s latent in so many of our communities and makes it manifest. Even seemingly homogenous communities like Springfield.
David Fitzgerald, Longtime Skepticon Speaker
I mean, it’s a town with four or five Bible colleges, churches everywhere, our candidates are all religious, it’s all day everyday. And they’re like, well, fuck that. Because J.T. is the firebrand. J.T. Eberhart is the atheist firebrand.
The end of the weekend doesn’t seem like it’s gone with a bang but with the trickle-out effect of a group of people gradually dispersing and going their separate ways. J.T Eberhard, one of the main founders who’s lessened his role as an organizer to focus more on speaking engagements and blogging, mentions that people have been partying the whole weekend through, though the only evidence is the haggard parts of his face. As we’re speaking, there are more than a few people who approach and seem thrilled to see him in the flesh on the cushioned bench lodged against the wall, where a young man and older woman are cuddling, cooing, etc. As the three speak about next year, how great this one was, J.T.’s fiancée approaches and he suggests they get married. She rolls her eyes just slightly, not so obtrusive as to play up the drama, but in a way that’s good-natured and coy.
When the conversation regains its momentum and moves forward, when he talks about the energy in the room, it’s in spite of most of the broken-up crowd, the sluggish torpor and dragged feet of so many hours spent after one thing—there’s energy to be found, to be sure, though it exists more in pockets; the fatigue after three days in palpable. There’s the sense the event is coming to a close; people are slumped against the wall.
At that moment, we start talking about ownership, and, like Alex, J.T. speaks in paragraphs (though that’s probably because speaking has become a second career):
“You know, everyone owns Skepticon, the owners own Skepticon, the attendees own Skepticon, like I said, nobody’s doing this for a profit, we’re doing this for the movement, and it wouldn’t be shit if people weren’t coming here and participating in it. People donated to help us to put it on, or to help people who can’t afford it just walk in the door. The speakers have ownership—they forego huge honorariums to come speak here for free. This belongs to the movement. It belongs to everybody, so whatever sense of ownership that I feel, while it may be different from someone else’s sense of ownership, I don’t think I have more ownership than anyone else.”
The conversation then moves into whether something like Skepticon could happen anywhere else, and he says that of course it can—the truth is that they’ve started distributing plans that will allow others to recreate it. The only thing is that it’s just as important for it to continue to be in places like Springfield.
“But I hope it never moves out of areas that are full of religious people because I think those people need what we do the most. And the presence of a Skepticon in that town like that is not only great for all the atheists who think they’re alone, but it announces our existence to the rest of the religious world, who I think a lot of times try to ignore us or marginalize us or try to bury us beneath stigma.”
When he says this, it’s almost impossible not to think back on something Micah had mentioned earlier in the weekend: Skepticon “needs that religious pressure cooker to forge those friendships.”
And there’s certainly some truth to that, but it’s not the only way it works. Communities form when people need them most. When they’re looking for answers. When they’re uncertain. And that’s something you find in religion—or, here, the lack thereof. Skepticon works because you grip hands and form bonds through proximity, and perhaps shared interest, though odds are better it’s for the shared purpose: You were there and, for that reason, could connect with any of the rest, who were ready and willing always to reciprocate. It’s the sort of place where all the gloves have been dropped and, because you have a face, this ineradicable thing that binds you to what you say, you can’t leave it behind. And even if you could, I don’t think you’d want to. Ceding an identity at a place like this, where so much of what it’s based on is that all-embracing concept, flies in the face of what it stands for. The meaning of an event such as this is that you’re able to be who you want to be.
And it’s from the frenetically coursing lifeblood, borrowed from the Internet and wrangled down from the ether to earth, that it works. Because of the proximity of the people present and tireless efforts of its planners—who, for all their eccentricities, care so much about this—that it ultimately coalesces and hardens into what it is here. It is religion and belief and refuge and respite, and it is from everyone something different and it’s from that scattershot appeal that its energy derives.