On Symbolism - Why I'm OK With The A


One of the blogs I read regularly is Atheist Revolution. Vjack updates his blog consistently and has a clear way of writing which focuses on news and issues that are relevant to me most of the time. One of his recent posts about the atheist appropriation of the scarlet A as a symbol for atheism, the use of the same symbol by a movie coming out and the possible impact this might have on the atheist community got me thinking about symbols in general, especially my own aversion to them.

If you are unfamiliar with the origins of the scarlet A and atheism, I'll give a quick run down. The scarlet A was a symbol used in Nathaniel Hawthorn's book The Scarlet Letter. The heroine of the story, Hester Prynne, has a child out of wedlock and so she's forced to wear a big red A on her clothing so that others may easily identify her as a evil evil adulteress. Hester is often regarded as a tragic figure who was mistreated and judged because of choices she made in her life which really only affected herself and were made, as you find out in the book, because of what amounts to entirely understandable circumstances.

The atheist use of the A really gained popularity when it as referenced by Dawkins as a way to participate in the OUT campaign:

Stand OUT and organize activities and events in your local area. Join an existing local neighbourhood atheist organization, or start one. Put a bumper sticker on your car. Wear a T-shirt. Wear Josh's red A if you like it as much as I do, otherwise design your own or find one on a website such as http://www.cafepress.com/buy/atheist; or wear no shirt at all, but please don't carp at the very idea of standing up to be counted with other atheists. I admit, I sympathize with those sceptics on this site who fear that we are engendering a quasi-religious conformity of our own. Whether we like it or not, I'm afraid we have to swallow this small amount of pride if we are to have an influence on the real world, otherwise we'll never overcome the 'herding cats' problem.

And it makes sense as a symbol atheists would adopt. Not only is it an obvious choice in a very basic, Sesame Street kind of way (A is for Atheist - muppet dance!) but I think a lot of atheists feel sympathetic to Hester's plight of being judged and largely rejected by the Puritanical society in which she lives because of circumstances that shouldn't matter. I think it's great that atheists have an easily identified symbol that allows them to recognize one another easily, especially in places like the south where being an atheist can seriously negatively affect a person's standard of living.

Still. I don't like it.

I think it may have to do with my own personal history of growing up without religion in a family that was very anti-mindless American pride. My dad was a PTSD afflicted Vietnam vet with, shockingly, issues with the government and people who support the government unquestioningly. I was raised to believe that no symbol is sacred and to question anyone who rallies behind symbols as if they are unassailable. I was raised to believe the ultimate expression of American freedom was to burn the flag because the flag is just a thing and what's really important is what the symbol represents, not the symbol itself.

However, I don't think many atheists are doing this with the symbols floating around out there that are associated with atheism. Maybe it's because the atheist movement hasn't gained enough momentum or maybe it's because atheists tend not to be as indignantly protective of symbolism as religious people or even some of the more intense patriots. As long as atheists continue in this vein, I'll continue to support the use of the scarlet A, the asterisk, the atomic symbol, or whatever people are sporting to make their godlessness known.

So to re-cap: I get why people like it. I'm in no way against it. I'm just not into it.