An Atheist Symbol

Even the less observant readers will have noticed that prominent red letter "A" decorating the sidebar beneath the picture of the devilishly handsome rogue who is sleeping with my wife.

It's okay, though. I'm sleeping with the devilishly handsome rogue's wife, too. And she's hot.

Anyway. The "A".

It's the symbol of Richard Dawkins' OUT campaign, which seeks to encourage atheists to get loud and proud.

I first heard about it over at Pharyngula, where the usual argument ensued.

It is, indeed, true that getting atheists to do anything together is like herding cats. It stands to reason, if we were inclined to run with the crowd, we'd be religious.

Anyway, the usual problems with any symbol designed to represent atheism were raised.

First, that it's an "A". Whilst the word for atheist begins with an "A" in most languages, there are some in which it does not, and, of course, there are those languages which do not use the Latin alphabet, so "A" doesn't represent the word atheism everywhere.

Second, the "A" doesn't really represent atheism. It's just the first letter of the word, it doesn't really represent us or what we are.

Then there's the fact that it's a scarlet letter. Yeah, we get the whole "ironic twist" thing, but some aren't comfortable with it.

The atom symbol favoured by American Atheists is often rejected by non-Americans for that same reason, that it represents American atheists.

Some propose using the "no" sign (red circle with a slash through it), usually over a crucifix or collection of religious symbols. Most reject this, as do I, because it makes a statement about what we are not, rather than what we are.

Others favour the null set symbol "{}", but to me, that seems in need of too much explanation.

Still, mindful of the "put up or shut up" philosophy of life, I decided to see about designing an atheist symbol that addresses these issues.

I decided to work to the following requirements:

1) It must represent what atheism is, not what it is not.

2) It must either be understandable in any language, or translatable into any language without spoiling the integrity of the symbol.

3) It must be reasonably easy to understand with, if necessary, only the minimum amount of explanation.

Here's what I came up with:

One of the things I remember from school biology class is that there's this cool machine that makes squigly patterns when you connect it to peoples' heads.

Don't mind me, I'm just playing dumb.

It's called an EEG, and there is a visible difference between the pattern generated by a sleeping subject and that generated by an awake subject.

There is also a marked difference between a person who is relaxed, and a person who is thinking cognitively (which means thinking about stuff as opposed to thinking about an object they can see).

The latter are called Gamma waves and, thanks to the nice people at the Wikimedia commons, here is an example:

So, this is what it looks like when you think about stuff. What more perfect symbol could there be? This, in fact, is your brain on atheism. It's a little big, though. So I snipped an interesting looking bit out of the middle and, just because my blog has a black background, made it yellow-on-black:

Nice. It's like.. thought.. pictured..


Anyway, it's a little obscure, but no more so than a Crucifix or a Star of David would be if you didn't already know what they were.

Okay, if you want, I'll add the word "Atheist" underneath:

Or, in French:






You get the point. It's nice on its own, or you can put atheist in any language on there. You could put "freethinker" or "bright", if you favour those terms. You can put "my mind, my choice" if you're feeling subtly humourous, or "don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church" if you're feeling a little more in-your-face.

So, I extend the challenge:

Put up or shut up.

If you're an atheist and you don't like the symbols being used, come up with one of your own. See if you can convince anyone to use it.


Blake Stacey said...

I threw together a symbol which included the "scarlet A" combined with a pensée, the old symbol of Freethought. It seemed like the best way to say, visually, "I like the OUT Campaign, but we shouldn't forget that atheism is only one consequence of skeptical thought!"

I like the EEG idea, although (at least on my screen) there are some blue-on-black speckles which look like image-compression artifacts.

Everybody's a critic! ;-)

korman said...

It's a groovy symbol. But don't "brights" have enough of a PR problem already? The rest of us do quite a bit of abstract thinking too, y'know.

Daniel said...

Your Swedish is a bit off. While "gudsförnekare" does mean something like "god denier", the correct word is "ateist". "Gudsförnekare" has a bit of an accusatory tone.

Nice symbol btw... one more for the sidebars... I guess some peoples' are getting crowded by now.

gregra&gar said...

Excellent symbol, perfect message. I agree about atheism being only a facet of honest curiosity, aroused when belief shows its divisive face. The symbol stands for all the things possible without belief's requisites.

I would like to use it, slightly modified, on my side bar, linked to this post.

Doombreed said...

@Blake Stacy:

Yeah, the image may need a touch of refining before it's ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world-at-large.

Check out what gregra&gar did with it on his blog. It looks amazing.


Thanks. I just pulled up a list of translations and picked the coolest looking variations. I didn't realise the negative connotations in the word I picked, so I apologise for any offence I may have caused any visitors.


KimBooSan said...

I take up the challenge:
Symbol of Godlessness

PS I like the universality of the symbol you created (you and I agree 100% about the Scarlet A) but I think its scientific meaning is too ambiguous.


Eric D said...

I like the idea a lot. So much, that I got it tattooed on my back. I combined it with a music note on each end (since music is a big part of my life and who I am as well). For me it's more about thinking than about atheism, but as the former led to the latter in my case, it does represent atheism indirectly.

I had been wanting a tattoo for a year or so, but hadn't come up with a good way to combine the things that are important to me - but this was perfect. It also opens up conversation opportunities - people are always asking what it is or what it means.

So - in summary, thanks for the idea!

Anonymous said...

Just a small comment about the arabic word you used. "Kafer كافر" is the demeaning word religious zaealots use to describe us. It should be "Molhed ملحد" literally meaning atheist or more precisely nihilist.
Thanks for the blog, found it researching for atheist symbology. LOL about hearding cats.
Your Lebanese atheist friend.

Paul Orton said...

I came across this site whilst looking for ideas for a symbol for atheism/ freethinking. The best one I have seen so far is that of the British Humanist Association (http://www.humanism.org.uk). It seems to be totally positive- a celebration of human life no less. Although I wear a red A on my jacket I don't think it is the answer- it provokes strong negative reactions from religionists and doesn't allow for those looking for alternative terms, such Barack's favourite 'nontheist' (which I like as it says exactly the same thing as atheist, but somehow is less aggressive). The Humanist character is not perfect, but has potential, and is my favourite so far.
Paul, Harlow, England.

J.S. Klarr said...

I'd like to think that a "Darwin Monkey", with and old-man grin and squinted eyes would make a good symbol atheism, with one or both of the eyes appearing to be facing the viewer.

This would be recognizable from all the textbooks that have the iconic image inside of them, but this time Darwin would be giving us a knowing smile and showing us his security with his ideas.

Edward Webber said...

I'm for taking ownership of the @ symbol to represent atheism. The lowercase 'a' is appropriate, as it is not an established sect, the circle encompassing it represents it being all-encompassing, as opposed to focused, and it exists on every keyboard, making it easy as a signature.

This would be akin to the gay movement taking over the rainbow. Anyone using a rainbow has a tough time not thinking "gay rights movement" whenever using it, even in non gay-related contexts.

As a special bonus, religious people would constantly be reminded of atheism every time they enter their email address in a form. Atheism would become synonymous with communication.

The @ symbol is poignant regarding atheism on many different levels.