What Skepticon Means to Atheism November 5, 2012

What Skepticon Means to Atheism

Hey gang. JT Eberhard here…

You’ve heard me and Lauren talk about what Skepticon means to us a million times. I’d like to take a moment to talk about what it means to atheism.

It means students and poor people getting access to their heroes. All Skepticon speakers know there is no green room: they sit in the audience with everyone else and socialize with everyone else. Sometimes it’s not ideas that inspire people, it’s feeling like you are at a hero’s level. I’ve been told so many times, “Thank you! I finally got to meet Greta Christina” or insert the name of another speaker.

If you watch the twitter hashtag (#sk5 this year), it’s full of people saying “HOLY SHIT! I’M TWO SEATS DOWN FROM PZ MYERS!” That stuff inspires people to be activists. There is no room at Skepticon for speakers who consider themselves above the audience.

Skepticon has advanced skepticism. Where else could I have given my talk on why the skeptic movement should adopt mental illness as a cause to such a warm and receptive crowd?

A year later, talk of mental illness permeates the movement. From mental illness meetups across the country to the Therapist Project, atheists have taken new information and integrated it to their compassion. As a result, the face of skepticism has been expanded forever. Thank Skepticon for that.

The Skepticon model also changed the way conferences are viewed. As I wrote just the other day

Five years ago, when Skepticon was conceived, we noticed a problem: the only major conferences available cost, at minimum, a few hundred bucks just to walk in the door. The problem wasn’t them charging money, because groups like American Atheists do phenomenal things with the income from their conferences. The problem is that there was no alternative for those, like myself at the time, who couldn’t afford that. The lack of an alternative created a class distinction where only those with a fair amount of money had access to their atheist heroes. Skepticon was invented as an antidote to that problem. We decided, sometimes after fighting over how easier things would be if we just charged a small amount, to keep it free, and to just work our asses off to keep it that way.

And it worked. While heading up the organizing effort, the most common emails I received contained overwhelming gratitude that there was finally a conference they could afford to attend. The crowds at Skepticon were unlike any other event (and those who have attended can attest to this). Whereas young people were the vast minority at conferences before, at Skepticon they came in droves. The ages in the crowd ranged from 9 years-old up to 91, and the sheer joy throughout the attending crowd was unlike anywhere else I’d ever been. That one could be a part of this event for free is undoubtedly culpable for Skepticon’s trademark high energy atmosphere.

This model has been picked up by other very successful conferences like Reasonfest, the Madison Freethought Festival, Skeptics of Oz, and the North Texas Secular Student Convention. All of them are run by students and are some of the biggest atheist events of the year.

Skepticon also serves as a gateway for rising talent. Yes, the lineup is full of superstars, but every year a few slots are reserved for up-and-comers. It’s a big part of how I got introduced as a public speaker after having previously only been a writer. At Skepticon 3, David Fitzgerald broke into the atheist spotlight, where he has deservedly resided ever since.

Skepticon 3 also introduced John Corvino, previously known almost exclusively for his gay rights advocacy, to the atheist movement.

But perhaps most importantly, Skepticon serves as proof that there is no such thing as small activism. It stands as a testament that a small group of dedicated individuals can accomplish enormous things. It’s a reminder that we all have the potential, regardless of our stature, to change the face of a movement. While it may be difficult for a burgeoning activist to see themselves as Hemant Mehta or Jessica Ahlquist, everybody can see themselves as a student, or with a day job, just like the organizers of Skepticon. The message of Skepticon reduces simply to: You do not need to be a celebrity or an expert to be an effective activist. “Big” activism is a product of dedication, not celebrity, and we’re all in this together.

Everybody at Skepticon is equal. It’s the friendliest environment in which I’ve ever been. Never is activism so much fun as it is under the Skepticon banner.

As the event’s co-founder (along with Lauren), Skepticon is a very personal affair for me. It is so important to me to thank everyone for supporting Skepticon, the creation to which I’ve given so much time and effort, by approving of its goals, donating to keep entry free, and/or by attending. That so many of you have, in return, thanked myself and the Skepticon team for the effort we put into the event…it means the world to me.

I hope to see many of you there for the event’s big fifth anniversary.

This is a guest post by JT Eberhard. He is a co-founder of the  Skepticon convention happening next week. If you’d like to make a donation to the largest free skeptic conference in the nation held in Springfield, Missouri, you can do so here. We appreciate your support!

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