Atheist Aesthetics

A blog post from Ken Chitwood, featuring my friend Katie from the NSRN. I would add my own comments but I don’t have time right now… a couple of academics and I were talking in the pub yesterday about how atheism is largely responsible for the apparent resurgence of religion these days, and how humanism is basically religion devoid of the belief but attempting to maintain the ritual. I am sure I could construct that into a response… but I’ll leave that to you.

Enjoy. You can read the original post here.

Atheists Trade in Traditional Christian Symbols, Create Meaningful Icons of their Own

It’s that time of year again. The Holiday season is upon us, and with it comes classic Yuletide traditions such as eggnog, carols, the lighting of menorahs and decorating a Christmas tree. Ah yes, the Christmas tree, bedecked in lights, garnished with care and topped with…a flying spaghetti monster?

Instead of a star or an angel on top of ye ole Christmas tree this year, many atheists might surprise their family and friends with a proudly placed personified representation of a mound of spaghetti and meatballs atop their tree.

Why you might ask?

Katie Aston, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths University in London researching atheist aesthetics and material cultures, suggests that such non-religious symbols, taken at face value as a joke, may serve similar purposes to explicitly religious images.

“The visual in a non-religious worldview, is of great importance,” Aston said, “it forms a vehicle for a number of ideas which either express or support the practice of a non-religious life and on occasion outwardly reject the religious images offered.”

The latter might very well be the case with the Flying Spaghetti Monster tree decoration or a number of other well-known atheist symbols and visual aids.

Take for example the “Darwin Fish.” Often found on the back of cars in mock comparison to the ICTHYS fish found on the bumpers of Christians, the Darwinian alternative is intended to promote evolution and to show unequivocally that the owner of the vehicle is not Christian, not a creationist and most definitely does not believe in a deity.

It might be said that the symbol’s strength is found in its resemblance to a common Christian sign.

Similarly, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parodic deity meant to challenge Christian beliefs in God, is placed on top of the tree instead of an angel or a “Bethlehem star” pointing to Jesus’ nativity.

These atheist symbols use Christian images or icons and replace them with their own to establish a contra-identity. At times this re-branding, as it were, can prove provocative.

The annual American Atheist “Christ-myth” billboard campaign plays on commonly known Christian symbols and challenges their veracity. Furthermore, the billboard campaign itself is overtly evangelistic and along with its British counterpart, the atheist bus ad campaign, are taken straight from the page of proselytizing believers.

So why do atheists convert otherwise religious icons into secular symbols? Often times for impact.

“The use of a simple symbol in a film, a book or an advertisement says far more than any wordy explanation ever could” wrote Adele Nozedar in The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols, “Signs and symbols, our invention of them and understanding of them, transcend the barriers of written language and are the very heart of our existence as human beings.”

And so, these secular symbols and icons of the non-religious communicate what it means to be an atheist or agnostic. They are defiant and often juxtaposed to classic religious symbols. But this only tells half the story, it only establishes what atheists and agnostics do not believe or who they are not.

“While atheism is the absence of religion, it is not only a negative category” said Aston, “the atheist identity culture generates images which reference both the negative worldview and the positive/existent worldview of rationalism, scientific empiricism and humanism.”

These positive symbols, rather than drawing on established religious images, are creative instead of ironic, meaningful on their own instead of mocking. They tell us what atheists are, in lieu of only what they are not.

Some of these symbols include the American Atheist’s atom, symbolizing the idea that science is the source of true knowledge and human advancement. Nazadar suggests the open ended loop at the bottom “represents the idea that there are questions yet to be asked and yet to be answered.”

Aston proposed that Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” image and accompanying text might be another example of a “positive” atheist icon.

Whether the symbols tell us what atheists think or what they don’t believe, whether they be “negative” or “positive,” they provide a window into a non-religious identity culture that is continuously emerging in modern Western society.

On the back of vehicles, tee shirts, billboards or even atop Christmas trees these images are intimations of what it means to be atheist in a world full of religious signs and symbols. They provide identity, meaning and comfort to the world’s non-religious.

As Aston concluded, “images used in ‘non-religious’ realms, can produce a similar sense of awe, a sense of the enormity of which we cannot know and a material, shared reference point for members of a community with similar world views.”

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Managing Editor at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

4 responses to “Atheist Aesthetics”

  1. Stuart says :

    Very ineteresting thanks. I shall ponder on this.

  2. Stuart says :

    At some stage I’m going to blog this Chris. how do I refer to you, I mean, do you self-identify as atheist or other, or is it more complex than that? I like to let readers know….

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