Contrary to Belief

by on November 15, 2013

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Essays Nonfiction
skepticon

What Skepticon, the nation’s largest free skeptic and atheist convention in the buckle of the Bible Belt, tells us about community and belief in the Internet age.

“Hey Kids! Help Terry the Socially Conservative Pterodactyl connect the dots to navigate our AWESOME schedule of events

Saturday:

[…]

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

Jennifer Oulette

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.

***

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