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.

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.

 

 

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