Thursday, June 16, 2011

Atheism in Stereotype

Back when I got my U.S. citizenship, one of the questions I was asked in my interview was whether or not I had any intention of bombing a location in the United States.  I wish I was joking, but yes, that did happen...  It was apparently too soon after 9/11 to regain their senses (only a mere 4 years!).  I asked if that was really a serious question.  After all, if I did have such an intention, would they really expect me to tell them?  Their response was that apparently some die-hard fundamentalists might well be proud of their anti-American intentions.  Proud enough to announce it openly.

Sure...  Whatever...

I mentioned that 1 ) It's incredibly stupid to even bother with that question, since you're banking on an unlikely occurrence 2 ) Profiling based on association to a single event and its perpetrators is just going to mess you up worse and make you more likely to miss a genuine threat, 3 ) I'm from friggin' India which doesn't fall into their supposed profile.  I got no reply to 1 and 2, but the reply I got to 3 was "It's all the same to me."  I sighed knowing that I was foolish to expect any better than that.  Given that they had apparently presumed that I was a Muslim Indian, I added however, number 4 ) That I was never a Muslim, but was born into a Hindu family and that I was an atheist.  The response I got was "What's that?"  After asking to make sure whether my interviewer was asking about "Hindu" or "atheist," I clarified that it meant "someone who doesn't believe in any god."

The response I got to that was ...  "That's a thing?"

The forms I filled out specifically had an entry for religious affiliation, to which I marked the circle labeled "Agnostic/Nonbeliever/Other."  Though since "Other" was in there, Hindu would also fall under that same tick, since it wasn't one of the options provided (though its illegitimate child, Buddhism, was).  Either way, the fact that the gov't paperwork acknowledged the existence of non-believers at least implied that this was ignorance on the part of one worker.

That was then...  How are things in 2011?

Some days back, I went through a security checkpoint as I was entering a room to watch a lecture.  As my ID was being looked at, the guy shined his light in my face and asked, almost unsurprisingly, if I was a Muslim...  I said I am an atheist.  And then came a bit of a shock.  He tried to wheedle out proof that I am an atheist.  How?  He asked me how old the universe is.

I replied with the straight answer -- "About 13.7 billion years."

He replied back -- "Okay, you're telling the truth.  You can go in."

Interesting.  So that's how one proves their atheism.  I never realized all this time.  What I found peculiar about this was not that just that this fellow seemed to believe that there was actually a way to prove that you don't believe in any gods, but that the way to prove that was to know the approximate age of the universe.  Perhaps he thought that being an atheist means you have to accept the validity of the Big Bang theory, and thereby know the rough age of the universe.  I was almost waiting for him to ask me to count backwards from 100 using only prime numbers...  btw -- 97, 89, 83, 79, 73, 71, 67, 61, 59, 53, 47, 43, 41...  okay, never mind.

I'm already used to being stereotyped on the basis of my appearance and apparently unpronounceable name.  Even my fellow countrymen have a difficult time with my name because it's incredibly rare, especially as a given name (it's more common as a surname).  The very fact that I'm unabashedly an "anti-theist" means I get stereotyped quite often as someone who seeks to rob other people of their rights and impose an atheistic utopia by militaristic means.  This stereotype was a new one, though.  Is this the new image of atheism?  That we're all familiar with the basics of cosmology?  That we're apparently intellectual enough that we know grade-school level science?  Or that we accept the fact that the Big Bang theory is the best currently available explanation for the beginning of the universe?  Or maybe that we accept what science says because it rather regularly stands in diametric opposition to religious beliefs?

Whatever the case, I find this exceedingly absurd not because it isn't right to presume that atheism implies that one is scientifically literate, but that the scientifically literate covers a population much much broader than atheists alone.  Hell, even a spigot of creationist excrement like William Lane Craig feigns acceptance that the universe is 13.7 billion years old.  And even if he's insincere about it, that he even can feign it is an indication that he is abreast of that knowledge (though to a demonstrably shallow degree).  At the very least, there could be stereotypes about being enamored of writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris.  There could be stereotypes about being able to identify the fundamental flaws of various religions.  Sure, not every atheist is atheist for intellectual reasons, nor have all of them rejected religion on the basis of actually studying those religions.  But at least these are stereotypes that have something to do with atheism.  Simply asking about the age of the universe is so...  generic.

It makes me curious, though.  Aside from the typical strawmanning that theists like to throw out in debate (e.g. Hitler, wanting to sin), what other really odd stereotypes are out there.