So, I have a lot of “atheist” T-shirts. My wife calls them “billboards.” In a way, I suppose they are. But I didn’t grow up wearing religion on my (literal) sleeves; as a young Christian kid, I don’t think I can recall even a single shirt or hat or jacket patch that in any way proclaimed my religious identity. Part of that may have been the tight-lipped and conservative Germanic culture of my hometown, Cincinnati, or it may have been my family’s rather conservative theology. We were a Matthew 6:6 family, without a doubt.
When I got to high school, I saw a different perspective. Further out from the urban center (such as it was), the culture was still overwhelmingly Christian, but it was also much more public about its religiosity. Several of my classmates had “Lord’s Gym” shirts in regular rotation, and there were annual shirts promoting a local Christian youth theater group that were quite popular. Though I was a willing and, at times, enthusiastic participant in this culture, I never adopted the uniform. My clothes were, almost uniformly, branding-free.
That changed in college. As most students do in that context, I sought to explore my own individuality. I became heavily interested in designing my own T-shirt logos, and with the advent of inkjet printing, I was able to control all aspects of production as well. Soon, nearly every shirt I owned was branded in some way, whether a quote from a favorite movie (most likely Army of Darkness), a purloined image (for a while, a photo of the founder of a local mattress factory), or a novel design (a stylized gas gauge). But none of these were religious in nature, oddly enough.
Once I became involved in the freethought community, things changed a bit. I suppose I resisted for a while, but once I became personally involved with local organizations, I began to feel pride at being associated with the branding, whether it was amateurish or professional-grade. It really began to represent a significant and cherished part of my life, and suddenly I didn’t mind being a billboard anymore. Now I’m in a somewhat similar situation as I was in college – nearly every T-shirt now has some kind of freethought or atheist logo or message.
There’s still an unknown for me, however. How appropriate is billboarding for the next generation? By which I mean, it’s all well and good for me to parade around with my infidelity on my sleeve, but what about for my kid? Soon after he was born, we received a gift from some atheist friends near Tulsa, who sent (among other things) a bib emblazoned with their atheist group’s logo, and the slogan, “Damn Atheist!” The joke’s cute and all, and the bib is actually quite well-made (we use it all the time), but it sure drove my still-Christian mother up the wall when she saw it for the first time. I’m thinking that we’ll probably keep the baby billboarding to a minimum until he’s old enough to choose his own clothes for himself. Then he’ll take the same interesting journey as his father.