(Photo: attendance on day 1 of Skepticon. Photo by Mark Nichols)
In November about 1,000 people attended Skepticon 3, with peak attendance coming in at over 800. It spanned three days and was the second largest skeptics conference of 2010 (behind the eighth iteration of The Amaz!ng Meeting). The difference was that Skepticon had no specific organization bankrolling the event, and admission was free of charge. Oh yeah, it was also put on entirely by a student group, the Missouri State University Chapter of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Students raised all the money to put on the event and opened the door to anybody who could make the sojourn to Springfield, Missouri.
Skeptics conferences are an important part of the movement. They not only grant people access to the icons of the movement, they also arm those in attendance with information; the key weapon for the side of reason. They also provide a sense of community for a group of people who can often feel isolated in a largely religious population.
However, there is a problem with conferences. To my knowledge, each and every one of them is held as a fundraiser for various skeptic groups. The problem is not that these groups are raising money—that is quite necessary as groups like the James Randi Educational Foundation, Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, and others do excellent work with that money. The problem is that with only events with an admission price tag of hundreds of dollars being run, a class distinction is created that tends to keep less affluent people like students out of the loop. Conferences like Skepticon, which are put on simply for the sake of putting them on, are essential to unmake that distinction.
But Skepticon takes it a step further. At Skepticon there is no backstage area (which created confusion for everybody who sent us emails asking for backstage passes). This means that the speakers are always accessible. They sit in the audience and are expected to socialize throughout the event. At Skepticon there was an overpowering sense that everybody had equal ownership of the growing skeptical movement, which worked to further diminish any sense of division between the old and the young, or the rich and the poor.
This formula has worked better than we could have ever imagined. In only its third year, Skepticon has enjoyed an exponential growth that shows no sign of slowing down. Various local freethought groups emerged throughout the state following Skepticon 2, even in small rural areas, and almost all of them journeyed to Skepticon 3. This has all happened in one of the most religious parts of the country. Springfield is home to the Assemblies of God headquarters as well as a multitude of religious colleges.
While the Skepticon team was willing to put in the hours to make this happen, we cannot conjure money—and conferences are not cheap to organize. Thankfully, people across the country came together and donated what they could. Still, it was a few large donations that put us over the top. The first such donation came to us from the Secular Student Alliance, which gave us $1,000 on top of lending us their experience whenever we asked advice. Already student groups have contacted the Skepticon team to inquire about how they might bring speakers to their campus, as we did three years ago before our annual event grew into Skepticon 3. The event has altered the perception of how much a student group can accomplish, and I think we can look forward to young people ascending to the helm of the skeptic movement, using grassroots tactics to involve everybody possible and thereby making skepticism more enticing and more available to the general population. Like us, they will not be able to produce money or experience out of thin air, which means that groups like the SSA will play an increasingly necessary role in stoking the fires of this augmented enthusiasm. This generation is the future of skepticism, and Skepticon has shown that it will be groups like the SSA that guide it.
J.T. Eberhard co-founded Skepticon and the MSU Church of the FSM. In January he will join the SSA as a Campus Organizer and High School Specialist. He is a contributing blogger at AtheismResource.com.