1. It was better than going to church.
Sure, there was plenty of music and dancing and feel-good stuff, and yes, there was even a mock church service by Sam Singleton. But this was first and foremost an amazing educational event where people learned about things like molecular biology, Baye’s theorem, math education, rationality experiments, Solomonoff induction, poker strategy, as well as hot political/social issues like death, Hollywood rationality, sex positivity, atheist anger, and mental illness. Come on, when was the last time church-going challenged anyone to think this deeply, or to think at all?
2. The speakers were absolutely incredible.
Simply the best and brightest in their particular fields. Many, like PZ Myers, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, Hemant Mehta, are wildly popular bloggers. Eliezer Yudhovsky is the author of the most popular Harry Potter fan fiction in world and an artificial intelligence researcher at the Singularity Institute. Dan Barker was a former preacher who now works with the Clergy Project, a group that helps closeted atheists in the church. Spencer Greenberg is a mathematician who founded Rebellion Research, a company that develops machine learning technology for investing. There were so many amazing speakers there that it would take too much time to talk about them all!
3. Too many people showed up.
Skepticon started as a small event a couple of years ago with merely two speakers. It has grown exponentially since, and this year, we nearly filled one of the largest theaters in the city. Who would have thought that people would actually show up in the middle of nowhere in America?
4. It was so far away.
Road-trips are fun, and nine-hour road trips are even better! Well I kind of cheated and flew to St. Louis, but we drove back to St. Louis and took Megabus back to Chicago. Thanks to SA-ers Chana Messinger and Brian Green (no, not the physicist) for an unforgettable time.
5. We stood up against atheist discrimination.
The owner from Mio Gelato, a gelato vendor right next door to the Skepticon event, thought that skepticism was limited to questioning the existence of UFO’s or disproving astrology. So he unknowingly walked into the Sam Singleton event (an amazing comedic event, btw) and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In response, he posted a sign on his window that said “Skepticon people NOT welcomed to my CHRISTIAN business.” Soon enough, people were taking picture of this sign, and his Yelp score took a nosedive, and this was all reported in the local media as well as the blogosphere. Afterwards, the owner posted a quick apology, and, after more public pressure, finally issued a long, thorough apology.
Two things to say about this: first of all, yes, discrimination against atheists is so not fucking okay. This case is no different than posting a sign that says “Blacks not welcome to my white business” or “Jews not welcome to my Islamic restaurant”. Giving excuses like “I was offended when I voluntarily walked into a black church” or “Hamantash and Latke made me throw up last night” is NOT okay.
Secondly, I’m glad we stood up as a community. Two decades ago, this kind of bigotry was not only common, but also occasionally supported by popular figures like the President. Since then, we’ve made a lot of progress. I’m also glad that the owner learned his lesson and that he has apologized publicly for his indefensible actions. I do not think we should excuse him. I do not think we should forget. But I hope we can, instead of holding grudges, move on and learn collectively from this experience.
6. I met unbelievably smart and talented people.
Skepticon is a spectacular social event. I remember meeting wonderful student skeptics from KU, MSU, UofI, Depaul, and an engineering college in Indiana that I can’t remember the name of. I also met many non-student skeptics not just from the Missouri area, but also from places like Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, etc. I met people from CFI, Unitarian Universalists, and other skeptics/freethinkers. I met Jesse Galef who works at the national SSA and co-writes Measure of Doubt. I also had the amazing opportunity to have dinner with several speakers from the event, namely Eliezer Yudhovsky, Spencer Greenberg, and Julia Galef. During dinner, we talked about game theory, the infinite hat problem(s), the axiom of choice, Godel’s incompleteness theorem, etc. etc. It was super!
7. We had an influence on Springfield, MO.
Besides the Mio Gelato incident, the experiences I’ve had with people from Springfield were overwhelmingly positive. The Christian activists outside our event did not cause any trouble at all. Also, many restaurants in Springfield opened early on the weekends just to accommodate us! One even gave us a special menu (I ordered a Skepticon salad, for example, but wasn’t sure if it was really a salad). In return, some of these businesses had one of their best weekends ever in terms of sales!
8. It made me proud to be part of this movement.
What more can I say? America is changing, whether you like it or not. Religion is losing its grip on the human mind, and especially with the advent of the internet, it now has to compete, for the very first time in history on such a large scale, in the free marketplace of ideas. Wherever skepticism leads us, there is no doubt that this movement has already had a profound effect on American political and social thought, and it will continue to do so. There will be a time in America when Christians (and religious people in general) will be a minority, and if the current trend continues, that day is approaching very quickly. I left Skepticon 4 with a great sense of optimism and a sigh of relief that we really are a movement that continually questions itself, continually tests itself, and continually tries to improve itself. We’re skeptics, we’re proud of it, and we have no apologies.