OK, if you’re an atheist…

…don’t do what this guy did.  He’s Timothy Brown, a 37-year-old husband and father from Ipswich, England.  This self-described atheist was recently arrested after pursuing a year-long campaign to convert his neighbor away from Christianity.  He did this by vandalizing the Jesus fish on her car, pissing in her yard, and letting his dog crap there (and for all we know, maybe he crapped there, too).  An atheist he might be, but a rationalist he isn’t.

As embarrassing as this is for those of us who also self-describe as atheists, it does dredge back up the decades-long debate about what atheism means and whether or not it’s a useful label.

First, let’s be clear: Timothy Brown is clearly a man with severe mental difficulties that are no doubt caused by some combination of genetic bad luck, biochemical imbalance and/or unfortunate life circumstances.  “Atheism” doesn’t run around telling people what to do; in fact, one of the most common criticisms of atheism is that it doesn’t tell people to do anything.  Ironically, the other most common criticism is that atheism leaves the non-believer with the conclusion that it’s okay to do anything, that all moral choices are devoid of meaning and therefore equal. 

Of course, the latter criticism is a non sequitur, while the former is really just a characterization.  Atheism doesn’t tell us to do anything.  Some atheists like to say that atheism is a conclusion, not a belief, and that’s true to a certain extent, but some of those same athiests like to tweak the faithful by pointing out that since babies aren’t sophisticated enough to believe anything, they are de facto atheists and have to be inculcated with theism by their (sometimes) well-meaning but misguided parents.  So which is it: a conclusion or the default setting?  Both?

I’ve said before I prefer the term “rationalist” or “freethinker” (which has a long-established, perfectly serviceable dictionary definition) or even “humanist” (with a little “h”) over “atheist”.  I cannot reject Timothy Brown as part of the atheist community, because his actions are neither consistent with nor inconsistent with not believing in a god.  But as a rationalist I can reject Timothy Brown’s actions, since they are indisputably irrational and counterproductive to peacable human relations.

Anyway, we should feel sorry for Timothy Brown, since he’s obviously out of his gourd and in no way representative of the mainstream (if there is such a thing) of the athiest community.  It’ll be interesting to see how much, if any, hay the religionists try to make out of this poor kook.

Should we take any comfort in the fact that religious nuts are much more common, and that their delusions are usually fed by very specific instructions created and fostered by otherwise “sane” theists?

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