Reasonfest '11, proof that the future belongs to the students

Recently in the atheist movement there has been a rising issue: how to get more young people involved?  Skepticon gave us an answer: make it free.  David Silverman followed Skepticon’s lead for the American Atheists National Convention, dropping student registration to just $20 (and throwing in free membership).  The result was 250 students piling into cars and traipsing to Des Moines in April for a stellar event.

Last night in Lawrence, Kansas was the first night of Reasonfest ’11, an event put on by the KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists (SOMA).  Like Skepticon, they have assembled a rock star lineup of speakers and, like Skepticon, admittance is free.  As we conference organizers know, Friday night is the slow night as people travel to the event.  And still the headcount revealed an attendance of 580 happy heathens.  Sadly, they had to turn away 30 people due to the high turnout.  By comparison, the attendance for Skepticon 2 peaked at 400.  But Reasonfest is only in its first year (hopefully the first of many)!  Only FSM-knows how many people will show up on the busy day!

There is nothing wrong with major atheist organizations using their conference as a fundraiser – those organizations do phenomenal work, and many of them such as the Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Secular Student Alliance then redistribute some of that money to student groups.  Skepticon could not have happened without financial support from these groups, and I’d wager the same is true for Reasonfest.  But the price tag to fundraiser conferences is often in the hundreds of dollars just to walk in the door, and the existence of only those types of conferences so far has created a class distinction that does not favor most of the population – especially students.  The existence of this new model of conference, one that is put on for the sake of having an event, unites the affluent in our movement with the people who can’t afford to attend conferences normally. It unites the young with the old.

Frankly, and not because of my personal connection to Skepticon, I think this is the best damn thing to happen to our movement in a long, long time – and it’s being brought to us by students! With actions, creativity, and elbow grease, students are insisting that this movement belongs to them as well, and they will contribute to it in new, inventive ways.  The students want to be involved, and they will find ways to do it.

This is the primary reason why I always forgo an honorarium when I speak and why I’m willing to sleep on a couch rather than insisting on a hotel room.  When the groups save money, that generally translates into a better event for those in attendance.  That attitude makes events like Skepticon and Reasonfest possible, and when those events come off, atheism/skepicism wins.  All the speakers who have contributed their time to these events without charge should be praised for their generosity – it denotes a real commitment to every person in this movement.  And nobody can argue with the results.  These types of events are doubtlessly a huge part of the future of the movement, and I’d encourage all the atheist speakers out there, from Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris, to consider blocking off time to contribute to these free-to-attend student-run conferences.

Students leave these conferences not just with a desire to contribute to the movement, but also with an augmented belief that they are able to contribute.  When the Reason Rally comes off next Spring you can bet the student/young persons attendance will be through the roof.  You can also bet that the Midwest, where these conferences are blooming, will be disproportionately represented by an army of freshly-inspired activists on account of events like Reasonfest.

Hats off to Conrad Hudson and to SOMA for running a spectacular event.  The atheist movement as a whole owes them a considerable sum of gratitude for putting in a lot of hours for free so we can enjoy the fruits of their labor.  They are on top of things and have been for months.  Conrad is nothing short of a machine, whose attention to detail and tireless work ethic, I confess, make me a little jealous every time I speak to him.  I don’t know how he does it, but I’m glad he does.

There is another such event coming up in two weeks, also in the state of Kansas.  Rapture Day, like Reasonfest, will feature a rock star cast (I’ll be speaking there too) and, like Reasonfest, there is no cost to attend.  Recall that Reasonfest had to turn people away on the slow day.  So if you intend to be at Rapture Day, it would be shrewd to go register to make sure you get a seat!

I gave a talk last Summer at the SSA Annual Convention in which I said that anybody, any student group, could put on a Skepticon-type event.  The only thing stopping them was believing that such a thing was impossible.  Conrad Hudson of SOMA and Sean Gillespie of the Air Capital Skeptics are living proof that, as theists tell us, belief works.  I am indescribably proud of both of them.

If you’ve got some extra cash lying around, consider donating to Reasonfest, Rapture Day, and/or Skepticon IV to help keep these events alive.  Let’s make sure there’s a Reasonfest ’12, alright?

These events and these students are the future of our movement – and the future is unquestionably now.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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