Of Atheism and Symbols

I'm an atheist, that's what the scarlet A over on the right means. That label carries a lot of baggage with it but means very little to me. It's just the default response to "what religion are you?" - I'm an atheist. Taken literally that's not an answer. Buddhists and Jains can be atheists but still religious. It's interpreted as what I mean to say: "I'm not religious nor spiritual and I'm a bit more blunt about it than an agnostic." The phrase 'non-believer' - which the President was kind enough to use once amidst a day full of prayers and beseeching the Almighty - gets used quite a bit to encompass atheists/agnostics/Pastafarians/etc.

I don't like that term, though. It reinforces the most harmful misconception about atheists - that we're all nihilists. We believe in nothing, and go through life doing only what furthers our own ends with no care for the consequences to others, following a base and crass materialistic philosophy that rejects any higher moral or ethical principles.

That's a misconception that better people than I have explained. It does get to the heart of the matter for me: we've banded together as atheists because that's the feature of our beliefs that society finds most disturbing. People go around asking "what's your religion?" but they should be asking "what do you believe and why?" (but it's hard to compile those answers into survey data). Atheists are just as moral as the rest of humanity and find just as much wonder and beauty in the world for a whole variety of different reasons.

But there are commonalities. I find my line of thinking very similar to that of Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Hemant Mehta and a lot of other people who have been labeled as militant "New Atheists" (putting up friendly signs on public transit now counts as militancy). Freethought, skepticism, humanism and secularism overlap in this category. Free and bold inquiry are valued, science held as the best method for knowing the cosmos, and human and individual growth and betterment sought after.

There are a lot of similarities between the queer community and the nascent non-religious community. In both cases its members ascribe to themselves such a wide variety of labels it's hard to pin down a good collective name. GLBT (which sounds like a sandwich to my ears) gets used a lot, but some insist on putting the L first, othertimes you'll get LGBTQ or LGBTQQ (queer and questionings), there's also an A or SA for 'allies', let's not forget the polyamorous and pansexual... You can end up with LGBQTTIAPO. Minority Sexual and Gender Identities (MSGI) never caught on, and queer has been settled on (by many if not most) as a good catch-all.

Doing the same thing with the non-religious, you can get AABFSSIHN (atheists, agnostics, Brights, freethinkers, skeptics, Spinozans, ignostics, humanists, nonreligious). Like queer, the summary term is about what makes us distinct - queer sexual/gender identities and lack of belief in the supernatural.

As time goes on I imagine a good term will pop up. I have my suspicions it will be Atheist, with the proper noun saying more about what we believe than its literal what we don't believe.

All this gets to a big problem for me as an atheist: I really like symbols, emblems and insignia. Atheism doesn't have much available.

This means there is a lot of room for new ideas, though. The scarlet A has been settled on as our rainbow flag, but I still think it has a lot of the same problems as just the term atheist: it doesn't say much about what we do believe. It's also too Romanocentric for a global movement.

The US military has seemingly decided this is the de facto symbol of atheism, unfortunately. I really don't like it. One, it just cuts off at the bottom which I think looks very silly. Two that's an outdated (even if very neat looking) atomic model. Three, it's American Atheists. They're just one group in one nation.


The atom is a good choice, though. Modern thought, particularly Atheist thought, owes a lot to the ancient Greeks. Atomism (while it might end up being strictly false) is an important part of a lot of Greek materialist philosophies. My favorite Greek - Epicurus - did a lot of thinking on atoms. We could take the symbol of the hydrogen atom, but that symbol has a lot more connotations to the general public now.

I used to like this one a lot: the Happy Human. Humanism is a good movement and label. It's a lifestance that says a lot about what the person believes in, the IHEU are there but loosely organized, and saying 'secular humanist' sends Bill O'Reilly into cardiac arrest. It's good but for one thing - anthropocentricity.

I believe in humanism as the broad category of ethical philosophies. That same humanism is ascribed to by many people in many religions. I actually fit very nicely into Humanism itself, but I don't want to define myself that way. Anthropocentricity is one of humanity's greatest misconceptions about the universe. It was not created to suit us, it does not exist to serve us, it's not our domain by default, and we aren't its center. It's not our status as homo sapiens that sets us apart from the other animals, its our intelligence. The ability to look, inquire, examine, think and invent, and to imagine things far beyond what we can perceive. I don't like calling myself a Humanist because, optimist that I am, I don't think that transcendental quality will always be unique to humans.

Freethought is the underpinning of Enlightenment thought and has had its own symbol since the late 1800s: the pansy. Needless to say, there are some major reasons this hasn't caught on as a symbol. It's not bad at all, but its connotations aren't suited for a movement that's trying to be more assertive about its existence.

It is very hard to come up with a symbol for Atheism due to its nascence and heterogeneity. What do Atheists believe in? "Science" jumps to the front, and indeed the common accusation is that science is just the atheist's religion. There's actually a mote of truth to that: the same "spiritual" experiences others find in religion are found for many atheists in the universe, which science has done the most to reveal to us. It's far from being a religion, but it's a source of comparable emotions.


The Sun's a good symbol. Naturally it permeates every human culture and every religion. It encompasses a lot of Atheism: enlightenment, the glory of nature, and the vastness of the universe. The debate over whether the Sun or Earth was at the center of the solar system (another case where anthropocentricity kept down the truth) involved early freethinkers like Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and the martyred Giordano Bruno, and represents a triumph of science over dogma. Like the rose, though, it's one of those symbols so inundated with meaning it's almost meaningless. Still, the rose works well for socialists.

Out from the Sun there's the Earth. It's a good symbol of human unity and how tiny and unique we are in the vast universe. It's also a tad vague, though. Maybe the heliocentric model of the solar system would be a good symbol. Again though, I'm optimistic enough that I'd like to avoid schisms with possible Mars-born atheists in the far future.

While it has the same Latinate bias as the A, I like the I as a potential symbol. In its lowercase form with a dot it can be interpreted as a candle or simplified body and head.



Unfortunately my favorite is copyrighted.

2 responses:

What a great post!

I guess I'm an agnostic who just wants people to get along, although I admit with all the wackiness from the religious side of the fence these days your position is looking better and better.

Regardless, I'm ok with you being an atheist. Do I need a special bumper sticker for that? ;)

Monday, May 4, 2009 at 6:15:00 PM PDT  

Thanks! I was actually kind of trepidatious about posting it at first.

I think that's the "Darwin-fish and Question-fish coexisting peacefully in a hatchery" sticker.

There are way too many variations on that fish.

Monday, May 4, 2009 at 6:23:00 PM PDT  

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