Monday, September 24, 2007

Atheism branded

published on the
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In the present atheist-awareness situation there has been a lot of discussion about a possible atheist logo or symbol. Every group needs some visual representation for easy recognition in a political arena, a public debate, or the marketplace. A visual sign such as a symbol or a logo summarizes in a nutshell a group's common cause, in a way that is easy to read and understand. But do atheists really need a symbol? Just for the sake of argument, let's say we do.

The problem is - how to define atheists as a group? Atheists are non-believers, as simple as that. But it is not just a denial (an anti-something), nor general non-believing in anything, it is a world view that does not include any kind of deity or a supreme and supernatural being. Atheists have never been an organized group that fought religion, but rather a disparate group of individuals who do not believe in god. They come from various already recognized groups: scientists, philosophers, skeptics, historians, artists, writers... . And through the course of history, as far as I know, there has never been a long lasting symbol attached to atheism. There is a good reason for this. It never was an "official" group. Dawkins' remark about herding cats is quite correct. Atheists are mainly skeptics and hard-core individuals without tendencies of gathering in groups. We often don't share all the same ideas/interests. But we do share some of them.

With the emergence of online atheist discussions, chats and publications, you can feel already feel a sense of a group. And that group wants to be recognized. On a couple of Internet forums I have found very interesting discussions about what should be the symbol or the logo for atheism. But first of all, let us make an important distinction between these two.

Symbols are complex phenomena that includes emblems, metaphors, attributes, analogies, symptoms, and parables. Symbols summarize and represent various more or less complex ideas and concepts. Interpretations of symbols are very elusive and very often are just clouds of probability. Very often a symbol has its visual representation in a form of a graphical symbol. Such a sign is very often embedded in the cultural communication code, but its meaning could vary depending on the culture, context and moment in history. White symbolizes happiness and light in some cultures, while in others it symbolizes mourning. The color red can mean "stop", "danger" or "blood" depending on the context and usage. One of the most well known symbols to switch meaning through history, the swastika changed from a rather positive solar wheel to the symbol of the Nazi party. Some symbols tend to be very stable, like a Christian cross. The durability and stability of the symbol very often depends on the stability of the set of values it represents. Symbols are often very old concepts, developed through the ages with many layers of meanings. Some of them (mainly graphical symbols) could be very recent, like the "@" symbol, which brings the immediate association with an electronic mail communication. Graphical symbols sometimes do not have a direct semiological connection with the value it signifies (like @ and email). More generic and older symbols tend to maintain homogeneity of the signifier and the signified. Also, the genesis of a symbol is not usually a planned and programmed action, but is very often a result of the natural-cultural selection and spontaneous public consensus.

The logo, on the other hand, is the much more recent invention of commercial visual communication. It is a graphical symbol very often accompanied by logotype (typeface set in a unique manner) and it serves as a label for companies, products, political parties, various organizations and groups - any entity that needs to be noticed on the market. Resemblance between the graphical logo and the values of the particular product or a group that logo is associated with is sometimes optional. The connection is very often created through the means of the forced association of mass media. Repeated commercials and advertisements for Nike create a connection between a "swoosh" logo and the particular sportswear. Nike is the ancient Greek goddess of victory (one link here) and the symbol itself reminds us of movement (another link there). But many of the logos do not have such a convenient explanation. To put it very roughly, just brand yourself with whatever, like you would brand a cow, and you're ready to go.

I don't think atheism/atheists will get a recognized symbol any time soon. First of all you cannot apply a logo to such a complex and diverse category of people and thoughts. So, it would need to be a symbol, a graphical symbol. I have seen a lot of "symbols" invented by forum users and enthusiasts and they vary from light bulbs, unicorns and different math symbols to funny illustrations of Adam giving God a finger (c.f., Sistine chapel ceiling). They also vary in the quality of their execution and graphical precision, but they all seem to aim towards the ideas of science, skepticism, illumination, light and knowledge. Some of them are just mocking religion, like slashed crosses or Darwin Fishes and Spaghetti Monsters. The symbol of the circle with a slash overlay is very clear and attractive, but it implies total denial or even forbidding, which is not a very suitable for atheism, as it gives it the charge of being anti-something and therefore doomed. Pansy is very often used for secular organizations because of its name ("thought" in French). I myself like the symbol of a cat, because cats are unpredictable, individual and hardly herded. Just like atheists. A cat would probably get a lot of poison remarks from any counter-atheist when you consider other qualities of a cat: elusiveness, predatory, unfaithful. (There's an extensive collection of proposals at Internet Infidels Discussion Board)

Many of the proposed symbols that I have found rely on mythology and religion accordingly - atheist symbol should not be related to any kind of belief in supernatural beings, right? - and have different meanings in different cultures. Atheism as an aspect of the free thinking world should transcend cultural peculiarities. Let us see some of the proposals and meaning they are actually charged with.

The symbol of the unicorn in ancient China was a royal symbol related to the royal sense of justice. A horn that hits the guilty ones. In the Christian mythology the horn represents penetration of the divine into the profane. A mental phallus attached to the head. It also symbolizes the Virgin that was impregnated by the holy Spirit and her protection. There is often a very contradictory notion between the protection of virginity and the potency of the symbolical phallus. I remember unicorns as very strong symbols in Tennessee Williams' "Glass Menagerie" as well as in Ridley Scott's movie "Blade Runner".

If we strip the Darwin Fish of its ironic connotations we just get a fish that is a very strong symbol in most of the cultures and world religions. Fish was the avatar of Vishnu, a symbol of the corn god of the Indians of middle America, a token of happiness (along with a stork) in China. The early Christian fish was mostly related to the acronymically used word for the fish in Greek - Iesus Christos Theu Yios Soter.

The letter "A" is very much in use (A as in Atheist), but it has infamous connotations of the scarlet letter "A" known only to the westerners. Phoenicians took the "bull" hieroglyph and turned it into the first letter of the alphabet, A. As a Greek variation, alpha, it was combined with omega (another symbol used for atheism) to represent the beginning and the end. The letter "A" is used in Dawkins' The Out Campaign. The letter is slanted and, to be quite honest, reminds me very much of the "A" of AIGA (the American Institute of Graphic Arts). The letter "A" in a circle is a well known symbol of anarchy, thanks to the punk-rock pop cultural proliferation, I might add. It's not that there is no connection between anarchy and atheism, but the two symbols shouldn't be mixed.

Lemniscate, the math symbol for infinity or just "the lazy eight" was introduced by John Vallis in the XVII century and it is based upon the Roman numeral for 1000. It is also related to the small-caps already mentioned omega. The lazy eight has a very strong relation to the ouroboros, a snake that is devouring its tail, an ancient symbol of infinity, symbol of the Gnostics and could also be found on some Unitarian church emblems. The popular conception is that it represents Moebius strip.

The lightning symbol is charged with a variety of religious symbolism. Lightning is a symbol of the power and energy that creates balance. According to some Pygmy myths it is a divine phallus, and in some other cultures it is a punishment. Zeus' lightning stood for spiritual enlightenment. In Vedic tradition it is connected to water and purification. Many gods were thunderers, like Celtic Taranis or Nordic Thor. The lightning in the Tower card of the Tarot pack symbolizes god's wrath and fall of the man. The contemporary meaning of the graphical symbol is just electricity.

So, we need a logo. But as I said you cannot put a logo on atheism just like you cannot burn a brand on "illumination" or "skepticism". But, you can put a logo on various atheist initiatives as has already been done. "American Atheists", founded in the 60's, have an "atomic swirl" logo with an open bottom end (openness to new possibilities) and a letter "A" in the middle. It is quite modernist and scientific iconography, probably very popular at the time. Today, it reminds me of radioactivity. It is also used for marking military graves of atheists. Atheist Alliance International has the "@" sign for a symbol. I don't quite get the connection here. The Out Campaign for atheist outing is already discussed above. (Secular web) has a drop of water (how many times have you seen that?) with the slogan "a drop of reason in the pool of confusion". The community of the people with a naturalistic world view, The Brights, has a sun-like symbol. It reminds me of the Macedonian flag, and when used on dark background, the "sun" becomes dark. They use some sort of ghostly dots of light as an addition to their visual identity. And so on and so forth, every organization has it's own symbol according to its mission/vision statement.

I was thinking to myself, if I had all these inputs like a printed design brief on my desk, what would I do? What should be the unique signifier of atheism? And should I think of a symbol (a crazy task) or design a logo? (Well, I can't think of any particular group of atheists I would work for.) Let's say it could be a symbol and it could be adapted for commercial use too.

The first thing that comes to my mind is that a visual representation should not be a solid block, as the Christian cross is. It should represent the ever changing form of atheism on the one hand, and the stability of its essence on the other hand. If religion is a solid block, then atheism is an ever shifting sand. A solid block is easy to represent visually. Actually, it's a symbol already. Sand is about moving, changing shapes and moving borders, accepting possibilities. Something like the mentioned cloud of probability. It is harder to visually represent such a thing, but it is possible. It changes shape, but within clear borders and with a recognizable visual ingredients. There are very good examples of amorphous logos that still keep their essence no matter how we bend them. Such as Hanover Expo 2000 logo or Seed Media Group identity by Stefan Sagmeister. Such logos are very often animated and varied in print.

The other possible solution that came to my mind is an empty container that can be filled with whatever we find suitable. Like a square or a circle. We can fill it with cat/atom/bulb and if the "container" is clear enough the logo in it's entirety will always be recognizable. It is flexible enough and on the other hand it could be rather clear.

Any suggestions?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Personal history of disbelief

A view from Southeast Europe

published on the
link to the original article>

I was born in a now non-existent country called Yugoslavia (the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), and at the time it was the only European communist country that didn't belong to the Eastern Bloc. It happened to be lodged in between the NATO and Warsaw Pact blocs, playing safe with both sides. The most plausible position on religion, according to the ruling socialist government, was to be an atheist (which gives atheism an ideological frame). The religious practice of one of the main three monotheistic religions (Catholicism, Islam, Orthodox Christianity) was allowed, but not very well looked upon if you wanted to prosper in the Party. The Party didn't burn churches or ban religious rituals, as far as I know.

There I grew up in Vojvodina (the northern autonomous province of the Republic of Serbia) in a very diverse and multi-ethnic community in the small town of Becej. Although the majority of Serbs (the nationality listed on my birth certificate) belong to the Orthodox Christian Church, the first church that I ever entered was actually a Catholic Christian one. We used to live in a mostly Hungarian neighborhood in Becej and all my nannies were Hungarians. One of them took me once with her to a local church. I was four and I remember the strong smell of incense, the crowd, sitting in the benches and putting some coins in a tray that was attached to a pole. I didn't quite understand what was I doing there.

My father, a former party member, is an atheist. My mother always declared herself as an Orthodox Christian. The only religious holiday that we observed in our house was Easter. The best part was of course coloring the eggs and arranging them in the basket coated with grass. And there was a traditional competition over who would break whose egg with his own. We called it banging eggs, with a giggle, picking the egg with the supposedly strongest shell and practicing the best technique. It was kind of fun.

When I turned eleven my mom decided that I should be baptized according to the Orthodox Christian tradition. But in secrecy, because dad probably wouldn't agree with the idea. I was baptized in the house of my mom's cousin, a weird and very religious lady who used to sweep the courtyards of the Orthodox church in Becej. The priest performed my baptism ritual in my aunt's living room with choreography that included everyone walking around the coffee table. After that I was officially a Christian, at least in the eyes of my mother. I was clueless what the whole thing was about, except that it was secret and therefore fun. The cousin gave me an illustrated Bible for kids. It was full of cool pictures and fairy-tale like stories. My mom gave me a regular unillustrated copy with an instruction to put it under my pillow while sleeping at night. I also got advice to say The Lord's Prayer before I went to bed. The general idea that I had in my mind at the time was that I am addressing some old guy with kind words and that everything will be just fine because of that. Hmmm, OK.

In my early teens I used to watch a lot of horror movies (I'm still a big fan). But the backlash was that I couldn't sleep at night without my lights on. So I addressed the Lord to protect me from the Alien, the Blake (The Fog), the Jason (Friday the 13th) and some gross demons from Lamberto Bava's film "Demons". Later on I added Freddy Krueger to the list. But the worst was about to come: The Exorcist. An absolutely horrible experience of watching the girl vomiting and listening to the demonic voice coming out of her. By that point I was not quite sure about the existence of God, but the devil seemed horrifyingly convincing. I prayed my ass off to be protected from that ultimate evil and it didn't help at all. (Years later I realized that both God and the Devil are two sides of the same coin. And that the grip of fear is the very matter that the coin is made of.) Soon I forgot about the prayers. The bible ended up on the bookshelf along with the Sci-Fi books.

In high school I became keen on science, math and art. Later on we got a very good literature teacher and I got hooked on Albert Camus and the entire existentialist French philosophy. Life without meaning and a total non-existence of the afterlife? Quite a frightening but attractive concept to a brooding and art-inclining adolescent. We have a certain time given to us and we should use it the best we can. We can also end it whenever we want. I remember also a previous literature teacher who reproached me for describing Anna Karenina as brave for committing suicide. But it was a kind of liberating thought that we really own our own lives. Overall I had a very uneventful and peaceful childhood in the idyllic eighties, full of free exploration and curiosity.

The nineties began with a bloody war that resulted in Yugoslavia breaking apart. Every nation of ex-Yugoslavia yearned for it's own national identity and it's own clean piece of land at whatever cost. I realized that the new born national pride included big doses of religious identity. It was, in addition to every other reason for war (land, power, money) a war between Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians and Muslims. In Europe? At the end of the XX century??? At that point I was still pretty ambivalent towards religion. The sight of priests blessing tanks and soldiers was not a pretty one. And it turned me against religion.

I moved to Belgrade, the former capital of Yugoslavia and the new Capital of a new Yugoslavia (which was actually just Serbia and Montenegro), to study architecture. Belgrade is just 125 kilometers to the south of my hometown but everything was totally different. There were mainly Serbs and religion seemed to be quite a thing around there. I was shocked when a friend invited me to a party at his house to attend the traditional Serbian Orthodox celebration of his family's patron saint. What??? You guys really do practice religion here? The intellectual snob in me weakened a bit. It was just a party after all.

We had a great professor of geometry at university. He once said:
"Don't believe what I say. See for yourselves."
"But this is an exact science!"
"Especially because of that!".
So, science can be questioned too? 2+2=4, or maybe not? The world seemed to fall apart, but it was so exciting. Questioning everything actually gave me a totally new perspective of the world. I felt even more free. And, it may sound absurd, I felt much more stable than ever.

At university I also took a course in the history and theory of art and architecture. Every year students in the course go for a study trip to Mount Athos in Greece, the heart of Orthodox Christianity. The art that I was interested in was only XX century art. All these byzantine icons were just badly drawn to me, but I was curious to see what it was all about and it turned out to be a valuable experience. All four of the other students and the professor were religious believers, all except for me. One monk told me that faith consists of three aspects: rational, emotional and intuitive. OK, I understood the rational aspect, but I probably misssed the emotional and intuitive. And that's why I am a non-believer? Interesting. Another monk told me that love is innate to every human being. "I see you and therefore I love you, because you are the mirror of my existence." Not a very convincing logical statement, but very romantic. Soon I realized that he's not the only monk with romantic rhetoric aimed toward young students. And "badly drawn byzantine icons" turned out to be quite an interesting phenomena. According to the interpretation of my professor they are not just representations, they ARE what they represent. Nice catch. So when I am kissing the icon of Christ I am kissing the Christ himself. Really? Cool. A friend with a "Have you found God?" face told me upon my return that I look so radiant and spiritualized. "No, honey, that's just good food and the Greek sun."

After the fall of one of the last European dictators, Slobodan Milosevic, I realized that Serbia in the meantime had turned into quite a religious country. After 10 years of nationalistic brainwashing everybody went religious. Nouveau riche went to church with huge golden crosses around their fat necks, former intellectuals started to rant deliriously about Jung and Christianity, popular criminals staged spectacular weddings in temples, everybody observed a fast before religious holidays (you can hardly find food in bakeries that is not just water and flour).... The clergy finally got their 15 minutes to grab some power. Well, who would blame them? They had been quite unpopular for the previous 50 years. Priests were now taking a role in important political decisions and negotiations. Religious teachings were introduced in schools. Even one Minister of Education (!) a few years ago proposed to remove Darwin from the high school curriculum. Fortunately, she was ridiculed. I thought, "OK, let them have some space for whatevergodyoubelievein's sake." But a priest led a violent gang against the participants of Gay Pride in Belgrade that ended up in blood and broken bones while policemen watched the show from the sidelines. Father Gavrilovic, the ringleader, was passionately preaching about the misuse of "that divine organ". Very passionate about the penis? There were also several cases (finally revealed) of priests abusing kids, but they all mysteriously got away with that. And all these representatives of something that I thought of as an "idle metaphysical speculation", started to peek in my bed and to shape my life. The politicians now understand the value of displaying their new born faith and are misusing it big time. Religious words here and there will win you plenty of votes.

Hang on a minute! This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around... anymore.

Finally, I became fully aware of my profound atheism. I had always been an atheist even when I was asking the lord to save me from Freddy. There just was not any need to label myself an atheist. But suddenly now I have a lable. And in the present course of religious fundamentalism I can sometimes be very anti-theistic. Especially when you clearly see the difference between individuals who believe in some deity (I really don't mind) and the organized religion (in forms varying from an afternoon social sport or a greedy political option, to a mass-murdering squad and doomsday psychopaths). Stating that you are an atheist in the world that I am coming from is as natural as saying that you are human. And it is as valid as any religious belief (with the important difference that atheism is not a belief). Although atheism may be slightly losing popularity in my country, "atheist" is the proud label of a free thinker. It's an aspect of a free and skeptical way of thinking.

And then I encountered the US of A. For the first time I considered myself lucky to be born in a country where I could choose. And having no one to blame for my choice, but myself. In America, I realized that there was much less "religious freedom" than I had believed existed when I was growing up. Calling yourself an atheist is at best like saying that you are gay at the Republican convention. This, in a country so clearly concerned about separating religion from the state? OK, I understand that atheism still has a strong ideological "red menace" undertone. (I just remembered a funny line from Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" quoting Julia Sweeney: "I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I'd said I didn't believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether."). But communism no longer seems like a threat. America has replaced it with a new one (you have to keep people busy with fear). And this new threat seems to be a religious one. So, if you are an atheist are you avoiding the holy war?

I also realized the meaning of the word "science" has a different meaning in the U.S. Everybody's talking about evil scientists, monstrous experiments and greedy pharmaceutical companies. For me science is a discipline of reason and proof. And of course it can be questioned like everything else, just like my geometry teacher once said.

The question of "nation" is very different, too. In America, "nation" is belonging to a construct called "country", no matter what ethnic, racial or religious group you belong to. In Europe "nation" is almost a synonym for ethnicity. It is tightly connected with the religious beliefs and traditions.

The strange thing for me is that on the one hand, America still has total freedom of religious confession. It has resulted in a diverse religious landscape that seems totally ridiculous to the too-old too-white-Christian Europe. On the other hand, religion seems like one of the basic threads of the American social tapestry regardless of the nominal secularity of the state. When people are given too much freedom, the only glue they can find is religion? How about reason too?

Land of the free (thinking) and home of the brave (to be whatever you want)?
But I believe (yes, I do believe in something) that it is still possible to find mutual appreciation between common sense and metaphysical speculations.

There is a campaign for encouraging atheists in highly religious environment to come out, The Out Campaign. Read about it at