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.