SALT LAKE CITY — Simran Jeet Singh spent years assuming he didn't belong at South by Southwest, one of the country's most popular celebrations of music, movies and technology. He didn't feel cool enough to fit in with its crowd of indie musicians and entrepreneurs, joking that he'd have to launch a career in comedy to earn an invite to the annual event in Austin, Texas.
The 10 panels, which took place on March 12 and 13, addressed topics like faith in film and the possibility of life on other planets, exploring how religion intersects with technology and culture.
"I'm pretty enthused that organizers saw religion as a piece that was missing and decided to include it," said Singh, who helped lead a discussion on faith in the workplace.
The timing for launching faith-based sessions is surprising, because religious practice is on the decline across the United States, especially among young people in their twenties and thirties. South by Southwest organizers said the programming was inspired by audience interest and the success of individual religion-related panels in the past.
"Last year, we had Bishop Paul Tighe from the Vatican discussing digital innovation and several other sessions on the Islamic faith," wrote a South by Southwest conference spokesman in an email. "Many attendees commented that they wanted to see more of this type of programming."
Singh and other religious speakers said they felt a bit strange at the hip gathering, sporting crosses and head coverings instead of tattoos or band T-shirts. However, they celebrated the chance to share their faith in front of a diverse audience and spark new conversations.
"There is so much conflict in our society right now fueled by religious rancor and religious distrust. It's wonderful to turn that rancor into dialogue," said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, who spoke on a panel about Jewish-Muslim relations.
Religion-related programming is rarely a feature of secular music festivals or technology conferences. Churches may set up outreach events pegged to the major gatherings, but they don't often get asked to send performers or speakers.
"Generally, at events like this, there seems to be some sort of allergic reaction to religion," Singh said.
That may be because a growing share of young people don't affiliate with a faith group. In 2016, 39 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 to 29, and one-quarter of adults overall, claimed no formal religious identity, according to Public Religion Research Institute.
In spite of these trends, religion has received more attention, not less, at South by Southwest in recent years.
At first, this shift had little to do with festival organizers. Event planners simply honored the results of the "PanelPicker" process, which allows the South by Southwest community members to vote on panels they want to see in the lineup. Several faith-related panel proposals made the cut.
This year, event organizers adopted a more intentional approach to religion. They reached out to religious organizations that had applied to lead panels in the past, as well as to faith leaders suggested by previous South by Southwest participants. The goal was to host discussions that would meet attendees' religious needs and fit the spirit of the overall event.
"Faith and spirituality are an important part of many of our attendees' lives. This gives them programming that allows them to be inspired at South by Southwest," the spokesman said. The inaugural group of faith-based sessions were part of South by Southwest's social impact track, which features panels on how to build a better world.
Organizers credited audience feedback with inspiring this new approach. Singh believes it also stemmed from the world at large's growing interest in understanding religious diversity.
"I think people are starting to realize their inability to grapple with the complexities of religion and how that creates problems in workplaces, in politics and in public," he said. "I see this (new programming) as a good-hearted attempt to address gaps in our understanding."
Other religious speakers brought similar assumptions to South by Southwest, noting that their expectations about the audience's willingness to learn helped calm their panel-related jitters.
"I had a general sense that the people who find themselves at South by Southwest are open-minded and interesting," Rabbi Kligfeld said. "I just wanted to be polite and mature and help people think a little bit differently."
The Rev. Lucas Mix, who is ordained in the Episcopal Church and spoke on the panel about life in outer space, said he wasn't worried about convincing audience members to embrace his faith. Instead, he focused on reminding listeners of the importance of soul-searching, whether or not it leads to religious belief.
"My theology-related goal was to convince people that whether you call it theology, philosophy or a search for values, it matters how we look at the world and what we care about," the Rev. Mix said.
South by Southwest organizers said they'll wait to hear back from this year's festival attendees before making faith-related plans for next year. Moving forward, religion will continue to be part of their event in some form, they said.
"What form (faith-based sessions) take in terms of presentation may change," the festival spokesman said. "We will have a better idea once we evaluate after this year."
It's important to keep religious programming from becoming a sideshow to the main festival, Singh said. In a mostly secular context, faith-based panels risk sticking out like sore thumbs.
"There's a fine line between including religion for the sake of a display and doing so for the sake of a substantive, meaningful conversation," he said.
Just as organizers are being intentional with their planning, religious panelists need to be intentional about their participation, the Rev. Mix said. Faith groups can benefit from South by Southwest's spirit of innovation, but they shouldn't sacrifice their own strengths to fit in.
"Most religions that I'm aware of that have been really successful are focused on face-to-face communications," he said. "I think the tech community is very focused on replacing face-to-face communications" with online technologies.
While aware of potential conflicts in the future, religious panelists said this year's South by Southwest experience was very positive. They noted that people in the audience for their presentations seemed excited and engaged.
"I had several wonderful conversations with participants after the session ended," the Rev. Mix said.4 comments on this story
A few hours after his panel ended, Rabbi Kligfeld stood in line for a screening of a documentary on Bill Murray's career. He watched the hustle and bustle unfolding around him, pleased that a serious discussion on Jewish-Muslim relations had been part of it.
"This is a gathering of curious citizens of the world who decided to spend a few days together eating, drinking, dancing, talking and viewing," he said. "Ours wasn't the sexiest event of the day … but it created a moment of connectivity. That's only a good thing."