Thursday, January 20, 2011

Atheism in Popular Culture

Hey all,

I promise to get back to my critique of the conservapedia page on evolution soon, probably tomorrow, but tonight I wanted to bring something up that has been on my mind recently and that is the representation of atheists in pop culture which is where I think many of the criticisms of atheism come from, though I'm sure that churches do their share as well.

There are not many atheist characters on TV shows, and of the ones that I watch I can name three main characters, and one supporting character. All three of these characters have a few things in common:

1. They are very intelligent.

2. The are aware of their intelligence and often gloat about it.

3. They are awkward in social settings, and don't get a long with many people either because they are anti-social or do not understand accepted social norms.

4. Each of these characters either had a strained relationship with their father, or their father is deceased.

5. All three are scientists.

Could you figure out who I was talking about? Well they are Gregg House from House, Temperance "Bones" Brennen from Bones and Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, the supporting character is Sheldon's "girl friend" Amy Farrah Fowler also on the Big Bang Theory.

Why is this? Why are atheists in pop culture generally intelligent, arrogant and socially awkward, and how does this affect how atheists are treated in mainstream society?

Let's address the first question, why? Well since these shows come from the U.S. I think that there is about an 80% probability that the staff of these shows are Christian given that the population of the U.S. is 80% Christian. Why can't these characters be normal every day people? Well take a look at the list of the reasons for atheism I tackled not too long ago in my post "The A Word" and see how many of them are in the list above.

1 & 5. Intelligence and being scientists.  All of these characters are scientists, Medical Professional, Forensic Anthropology, Theoretical Physics and Neurobiology, and I believe Conservapedia listed scientism as a cause, in which science has become a new god... Which is not the case, all of these people have evaluated the evidence and found the evidence to be lacking... that's what scientists do.

What is ironic is that these characters are surrounded by other scientists who happen to be believers. House often has religious arguments with his colleagues, for a while in season 4 one of his fellows was Mormon. Brennen's partner is Catholic, and in an episode in season 1 Brennen, her partner, and all their colleagues are all trapped in the lab until Christmas Eve and discuss their faith, after Brennen brings up the Christ myth. In the Big Bang Theory Sheldon's roommate, Lennard does not openly profess a faith, however his other friends Howard is Jewish and Raj is Hindu.

Skipping 2, which will be discussed when addressing my second question.

3. Social awkwardness, I really don't know how to address this, perhaps it's because the prevailing belief of atheists is that they don't have the community that religious people do, and this affects them to the point where they have a hard time getting a long with others. Again conservapedia comes through stating that atheists tend to be quarrlesome and socially challeneged men...though they just talk about the non apologetic atheists, but the stereotype may be there.

4. Poor relationship with father. Also from conserapedia's page of the causes of atheism. House was abused by his father, and had a complete contempt for the man. Brennen's father was absent for a very large part of her life and was a bank robber and murderer and is now working on attempting to build a relationship with him. Sheldon's father died when he was young, while we don't know anything about Amy's father, but have met her mother.

What affect does this have on atheists in general? Well it creates a stereotype of atheists as overly intelligent, arrogant, socially awkward scientists, which is not a realistic representation of atheists. I know that in my case when I say I'm an atheist the assumption is that I'm a scientist of some kind and have an understanding that they don't about life's origins. I admit I am in a scientific field, anthropology, and am still a student, but what I am interested in is palaeopathology which is the study of disease in bones.... which really doesn't have much to do with evolution, but more about being able to recognize things that are not always apparent. Seriously fungal infections are hard to pin down, and other conditions, like scurvy can be missed.

That aside, there is an assumption that anyone who professes to be an atheist has answers that theists don't and that is why they don't believe. So the assumption is there that we know everything about physics, abiogenesis, evolution, and everything about everything. When we as atheists are willing and okay with the answer "I don't know." Theists are not, and it is that simple.

When it comes down to it, it is also easier to think that these people are maladaptive to the rest of society because they don't have a god in their life which shows them how to get along with others. Which is insane, all of these characters don't see the point of these social norms and chose not to participate. When you think about it there are probably many things which are considered social norms that many of us don't participate in because we don't see the point, and this will probably be obvious if you visit a place with a culture unlike your own. But these shows paint the picture of arrogant socially awkward people which do not reflect the average atheist.

If there is anything that you think I missed, or characters I may have overlooked feel free to leave a comment... I haven't gotten any comments on any of my posts yet so I don't really know how I'm doing.

Until next time,


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