Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Adolescent Protest is Toxic

In a profile of Maryland student Ian Gibson in the July issue of American Atheist, we learn that he proudly defied the prevailingly pious atmosphere on May 4th, the National Day of Prayer. Rather than keep quiet with his revulsion for the proceedings, he wore a subtly critical tee-shirt under his jacket. He writes:

"... as soon as I saw the hands-clasped, heads-down group talking to themselves I ripped off the coat like I was Superman."
My initial reaction to this escapade was triumphal applause. Go get 'em, etc. But as I thought about the incident, I realized that Mr. Gibson's act failed as protest and as an act of rational criticism. Atheists often respond with indignation to the suggestion that their professed worldview is a religious one, but isn't the proud and defiant defense of his beliefs shown by our young compatriot here just as fundamentalist as the culturally-determined prayerfulness of his classmates?

What teenager doesn't imagine himself a superhero, endowed with a superhuman righteousness? It's a foolish thing, to hold up a discontented student as a model of atheistic integrity, when there is no way to tell whether Mr. Gibson is acting as an autonomous and rational person, or as an adolescent content to rally against the closest form of authority at hand, whether parental, governmental or theistic. Without delving deeper than the "amazing rush" of expressing beliefs "in a loud and obnoxious way", the American Atheists profile wastes an opportunity to remind readers that it is not merely a lack of belief that unites atheists, but rather a devotion to critical thought. A commitment to reason produces atheism just as it produces justice, freedom, sensible public policy, and humane treatment for each other. When atheists define themselves through the wearing of wiseass tee-shirts, they are obscuring the thinking behind the critical.

An entire gallery of anti-this and anti-that 'political' tee-shirts can be seen and purchased at zazzle.com/igibson. There, you'll see the other side of the Toxic shirt sports a much more productive motto: "Don't pray in my school, and I won't think in your church."

Ultimately, I have to remain agnostic on the issue of Ian Gibson and his Religion is Toxic sentiment; I'm prepared to believe that his was a reasoned and deliberate act of protest against his Pharisaic culture. Unfortunately, it's more likely that he was motivated by the falliable zeal fueling so many protesters on either side of any debate: "I'm right and good, you are wrong and stupid." I for one am unwilling to define atheism as the belief that religion is toxic. We're altogether too interesting, complex, humane, and intelligent to be reduced to belligerence.

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