I mentioned before I left that I may wear my atheistic club t-shirt for my return trip home as a sort of social experiment. I’m not sure what I really expected – maybe some funny looks or the occasional glare. The front of the shirt isn’t too in-your-face just because the font is sort of small, but the back is kind of provocative: it has Robert Ingersoll’s quote “The history of intellectual progress is written in the lives of infidels.”
Well, I wore it. Caught the bus to the Pullman, Washington airport (tiny place, only conference people leaving) then left for Seattle. Then Seattle to Chicago, then desperately running to my plane to go to Indianapolis (made it!). I hadn’t noticed any reactions, really. This could be for a couple reasons. One, I was working on four hours of sleep, so maybe I wasn’t as perceptive as usual. Two, the back of the shirt is the more controversial side and I don’t have eyes in the back of my head, so maybe I missed all of the glares. Or three, people in airports are too busy worrying about their own flights to care about some chick’s atheist shirt.
As I was getting off of my plane in Indianapolis, a guy probably in his late 30s or early 40s moved in front of me, turned to me looking at my shirt, and mumbled something. All I heard was “*mumble* shirt.” For all I knew, it could have been “nice shirt” or “fucking shirt” or who knows what. I just sort of smiled awkwardly, but then he kept talking.
“Non-theist, eh? So is that not quite an atheist?” he asked. When I’m talking to people where I don’t know their views on issues, I tend to give very dictionary-like answers. “Well, non-theist is an umbrella term for atheists, agnostic, or other nonreligious people. It includes all of them.” “Hmm, what’s that other one?” he asked. “Secular…secular something.” “Secular humanist?” “Yeah, that’s it! Well, cool shirt, I like it.” I felt really relieved at that point. “You don’t know how good it is to hear someone say they like it. I get the opposite response more often.” He laughed and we walked to the baggage claim together. It only took about a minute for me to be sure that he was some sort of non-theist. We ended up discussing Dawkins, Dennett, various atheist philosophy, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and my work with the club. Apparently his dad was a philosophy of religion professor, so he actually knew more than your average non-activist atheist might. We ended up talking for nearly 20 minutes (baggage took forever) and it was pretty awesome.
I’ll probably never see this guy ever again, but it was really fulfilling to randomly meet another nonreligious person who you could have a civil conversation with. I guess that’s why I like wearing the shirt to begin with. I don’t want to get the glares and dirty looks, which I have certainly gotten. I still remember the mother with three small children who was staring at me like I had horns growing out of my head. No, I put up with the dirty looks for the rare friendly one. Those make it totally worth it.
Social experiment a success =)
(Also, related post by Hemant on reactions to atheist shirts)