Manufacturing a martyr

One of the valuable lessons that the atheist community has learned in the last little while is that it is possible to provoke a controversy where one didn’t exist before. The formula is pretty simple – make some largely innocuous public statement about atheism, wait for the predictable overreaction from a group of religious folks who just can’t seem to help themselves, and then enjoy as people fall all over themselves to try to shut the atheists up without violating the law. Every time an atheist bus campaign or billboard goes up, we see the same cycle of provocation, backlash, and blowup. It is an extremely useful method of sparking conversation in circles that weren’t talking before.

Now, to be sure, there are often completely non-exploitative motives behind these campaigns as well. Considering the number of atheists out there in the wold who feel completely alone – as though they are a solitary island of sanity in a sea of faith. Letting them know that they more closely resemble an archipelago with other atheists is both comforting and liberating. There is value in bucking the status quo and forcing the majority to contend with the fact that not everyone shares their myths, and that not everyone thinks of their delusion as worthy of praise and deep, abiding respect. That being said, nobody is so strategy-blind as to think that there is no ulterior motive behind the pronouncement that belief is silly (despite occasional protestations to the contrary).

Well it turns out that we are not the only people capable of exploiting such human frailty:

A Christian student suspended from a high school in Nova Scotia for sporting a T-shirt with the slogan “Life is wasted without Jesus” vows to wear it when he returns to class next week. William Swinimer, who’s in Grade 12, was suspended from Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin in Lunenburg County for five days. He’s due to return to class on Monday.

The devout Christian says the T-shirt is an expression of his beliefs, and he won’t stop wearing it. “I believe there are things that are bigger than me. And I think that I need to stand up for the rights of people in this country, and religious rights and freedom of speech,” he told CBC.

I have to applaud this kid – the tactic is devastatingly effective in reverse as well. He used a largely-innocuous statement, that a life without belief in the divinity of a Palenstinian carpenter (who may or may not have actually existed) is a life spent in vain, to provoke a predictable reaction from a secular school system. It perfectly straddles the line between defensible religious expression and Christian supremacist doctrine. The school ineptly decided to come down on the kid heavy-handed – I suppose thinking that he would meekly curl up and accept the punishment. But no, someone called the papers and now it’s a national story.

You must admit, the school’s defense of its actions is pretty feeble:

Nancy Pynch-Worthylake, board superintendent, said some students and teachers found the T-shirt offensive. “When one is able or others are able to interpret it as, ‘If you don’t share my belief then your life is wasted,’ that can be interpreted by some as being inappropriate,” she said.

Oh my stars and garters! Someone at a high school wore a t-shirt that some might find offensive! Sound the alarms, everyone! For all their talk of liberals going too far and calling in the PC police, this is one time when that tired refrain might actually have some traction. The content of a 17 year-old kid’s t-shirt is not something that should involve the school superintendent.

Of course anyone with half a brain (a fraction it seems that the teachers in this board fall well short of) could have forecasted this response from the first move. This is a high-school kid, not a master political strategist. Of course he doesn’t care about whether or not he’s allowed to wear a shirt. I sincerely doubt that anyone seeing that shirt was nearly as offended as Ms. Pynch-Worthylake would like us to believe. Most of the students probably just think that Mr. Swiminer is a little jerkoff with a streak of religious zealotry that will fade once he gets to university and cracks a couple of psych textbooks. But instead, they decided to push a fight, and now this kid has exactly what he wants: a grandiose fight over the nature of free expression.

The school, if it had been smart, could have taken a page from any number of atheist groups and learned an important lesson: there is no fight when there is no reaction. How many times have you seen someone (myself included) point out that these kinds of stories would not happen if people just didn’t react to them? If the school had just ignored him, or instructed the teachers to make a brief statement to their classes that overt displays of religious sentiment are permissible but tasteless and juvenile, this kid would have eventually tired of his game and tried to find some other way of getting under people’s skin.

If they really had wanted to punish him, they should have gone after him American History X style and assigned him a 5000-word essay on religious persecution of Christians worldwide. Force him to contrast ‘not being able to wear a passive-aggressive t-shirt’ with ‘actually being persecuted’. Get him to put his sudden fear for the freedom of expression to the test – link him up with a group like Amnesty International and give a presentation to the school on the importance of religious pluralism in secular society. Who knows – they might have actually taught him something. Instead, they decided to handle this problem the stupid way and elevate one youthful act of rebellion into a cause celebre for every religious nut with a victimization fantasy.

None of this, I hope, will be interpreted as a personal attack on this kid. He’s a teenager, and seemingly a fairly bright one at that. The fact that he’s wrong about Jesus is not entirely unreasonable – he’s 17. I was wrong about Jesus at that age too. He clearly has an intuitive grasp on political theatre, and he played a clever trick on a bunch of ‘authority’ figures who really should have known better. The fact that his little manipulation worked says more about the people running the school and the board than it does about him. Who knows – with exposure to the right ideas, he might be running a CFI branch in 10 years or so. Let’s just hope this stunt gets some church groups to pitch in and pay for his college education.

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h/t to Riptide for the link

UPDATE: Apparently the kid is from a whole family of assholes, so I retract a good portion of my grudging admiration.


  1. says

    Wow, the only way that response by the school would be at all warranted or intelligent, would be if there was a blanket rule along the lines of “no messages or advertizing on clothing worn in school;” and of course, if said rule had been consistently enforced beforehand. And the school officials didn’t cite any such rule, so their actions here were astronomically stupid.

  2. Rory says

    On Friendly Atheist, one of the posts on this story makes the claim that Swinimer has a history of harassing other students about religion and telling people that they’re going to hell. The school’s reaction is still clumsy and plays right into his hands, but I wonder if they would have behaved the same way if someone else had been wearing the shirt.

  3. slc1 says

    He used a largely-innocuous statement, that a life without belief in the divinity of a Palenstinian carpenter (who may or may not have actually existed) is a life spent in vain, to provoke a predictable reaction from a secular school system.

    Excuse me, Yeshua of Nazareth was a Jewish Carpenter.

  4. David says

    I’ve been following this story for a while now, and details keep surfacing that suggest it isn’t really about the shirt, that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. This kid apparently has a history of complaints against him for harassment.
    Further, when the school said “ok, let’s have a frank and mature discussion about where we went wrong and where you went wrong and how we can do things better” his dad pulled him out of class. The school may have screwed up by giving him the opportunity to become a martyr, but it seems to me that his family is equally screwing up his martyrdom.
    Pretty much everyone I’ve heard talk about this (forum threads and news comments are far from statistically significant, but best I can do right now) is siding with the school on this: telling someone their life is a waste and they’re going to hell is offensive and the kid was rightly punished, and now he’s just whining because he isn’t getting what he wants. Not exactly being a martyr, it seems to me that he’s actually making Christians look bad by misrepresenting them, but that’s my take on it and I’ve been very wrong before.

  5. says

    Good thoughts, although I would certainly love to hear more of your perspective considering the additional information Hemant posted yesterday (which kind of pinned down the rat I’d be smelling the entire time, for me anyway).

    The only thing I’d add is that, as an educator, using homework as a punishment is considered a Bad Idea, merely because it conflates what you already do in the classroom as a negative and makes students view ALL assignments as varying degrees of punishment. Obviously, it’s a sliding scale and not an absolute (nothing about teaching is), and I think an older kid with a little more emotional maturity might be able to handle a punishment like that.

    It’s just difficult to create punishments in cases like this, since punitive measures are often dressed up versions of having to write “I will not call students names” 100 times on the blackboard. I’m with you – I would want this student to LEARN from his mistake rather than complete the punishment and move on with his oblivious existence.

  6. karmakin says

    This. If it’s a martyr, in the end it’s acting like a bad martyr. Actively preaching and telling people they’re going to hell is a step too far for most Canadians, I think, which changes the dynamic of this entirely.

  7. d cwilson says

    Of course, this kid will have millions of Christians worldwide flocking to support his freedom of speech, whereas if he’d been suspended for wearing an innocuous atheist T-shirt, those same Christians would be applauding the school’s action.

  8. Gregory in Seattle says

    Actually, Palestine existed only between 1920 and 1948. The alleged carpenter techncially came from the Roman province of Galileia.

  9. slc1 says

    The problem with describing Yeshua of Nazareth as a Palestinian is that there has never been a nation called Palestine in the history of the world. Palestine refers to an area in the Middle East, the boundaries of which have expanded and contracted over the centuries. It would be more accurate to describe him as a Judean, or Galilean (Martin Gardner referred to him as the Galilean carpenter turned itinerant preacher).

  10. says

    As the other commenters and Hemant Mehta pointed out, there’s more to this story than a tshirt. Let’s be good skeptics and try to dig past the first story that plays into the kids persecution complex.

  11. says

    Note: this comment was (bafflingly) posted AFTER I wrote the update saying that there is indeed more to this story, and linking to another post that explains more details.

  12. says

    If they give this kid an American History X-style assignment, I hope they hire Avery Brooks to do it. It’s not the same without his unique presence.

  13. says

    My phone didn’t pull the update this morning when I read the post, but in light of your retractions I issue my own retraction.

  14. says

    Aha! Technology problems. Yeah, I wrote this on the weekend when many of the details were still forthcoming. My sloppiness is to blame.

  15. karmakin says

    For what it’s worth this wasn’t a surprise to me at all, not because of the shirt, but because growing up in Nova Scotia, I had two extended experiences with Pentacostal youth, and know first-hand how aggressive they can be. (Actually it was much worse because in both cases they thought that converting me, for whatever reason, would be a nice feather in the cap. I suspect they thought I’d be an “effective” recruiter for their side)

  16. F says

    The content of a 17 year-old kid’s t-shirt is not something that should involve the school superintendent.

    I’ve seen it involve the Secret Service here in the States. But you’re right about t-shirts, in most cases anyway.

  17. kevinalexander says

    If I saw this kid when I was in high school, I would not be offended, I would say to myself ‘Yeah, one more clueless dick that I don’t have to compete with. Just improved my chance of getting some this weekend.’

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    From Michael Grant, The History of Ancient Israel:

    Often Palestine, known as Syria Palaestina to the Greek historian Herodotus, is as convenient a designation as any. Originally signifying Philistia (land of the Philistines), the term was extended inland so as to comprise the whole country.

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