Springfield may sometimes be called the buckle of the Bible Belt, but hundreds of atheists are making themselves right at home here this weekend.
They’re gathering downtown at the Gillioz Theatre for what’s billed as Skepticon IV, the largest skeptic conference in the Midwest. About 1,100 people are expected to be at the event, including people from as far away as Hawaii, Florida and California.
Like any convention of like-minded people, be it accountants or investigative reporters, there’s lots of socializing and schmoozing.
“You meet people, and they’re immediately like the best friends you’ve ever had and you meet them for a weekend,” said Sarah Hargreaves, president of the Kansas City Atheist Coalition.
There were presentations on death and sex and anger, a field trip to the Creation Museum of the Ozarks in Strafford and a nighttime gathering for “drinking skeptically.” Notables appearing at the convention included biologist PZ Myers, who is a critic of the creationist movement, and Rebecca Watson, who writes for the blog Skepchick.org.
Dan Barker, a speaker who once was a minister, told the crowd he’s applying for the position of Holy Ghost.
“I was one of those nuts,” Barker said of his time as a minister. “I was one of those people who really thought it was true.”
Springfield is home to the headquarters of the Assemblies of God and Evangel University, which is affiliated with the denomination.
“A lot of people grew up in a very constrained environment,” said Jeffrey Markus of Springfield, a computer technician. “I didn’t know what options were there. My assumption was that I was Christian, but when I started to look at things I realized how silly things sounded. After many years of challenging things, I realized I was an atheist.”
One of the conference attendees, who is making a documentary with fellow Skepticon attendee John Jennings about atheism, compared it to Christianity which also contains many people with different beliefs.
“There’s agnostics,” they said. “There’s secular humanists. There’s pragmatic atheists. They’re all under the same umbrella.”
Jennings, who grew up in Highlandville, said he hopes the documentary will clear up misconceptions about atheists.
“Atheists have as good of values as religious people,” Jennings said. “They believe this comes from within themselves rather than outside from God.”
Members of a Kansas City atheist group said the non-profit has held events like a blood drive and plans to deliver Thanksgiving meals to the needy.