Atheist Holiday Display: “A” Does Not Stand for “Art”

News last week that holiday decorations in Chicago’s Daley Plaza will be joined this year by a light-up “A” for atheism served as a reminder that though the anti-religion camp may claim victory over believers on many fronts, iconography is not one of them.

Sponsored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and borrowed from the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s Out Campaign, the Daley Plaza “A” is the latest aesthetically challenged branding effort by organized unbelief.  This past summer, when American Atheists erected a marker of its own to counter a Ten Commandments display outside a Florida courthouse, it was a monument far from monumental, an uncomfortable-looking bench whose single-seat design made one wonder if it’s true that atheists have fewer friends. At the time of the bench’s unveiling, RD’s Gordon Haber called it an “eyesore,” while anti-atheist wits suggested it looked like a toilet. Even the Friendly Atheist blogger for Patheos, Hemant Mehta, asked if it mattered that the monument was “kinda ugly”. No, he said; in this case, the message matters more than the medium.

I’m not so sure. Public atheists may or may not have an image problem, but they certainly have an aesthetics problem, and considering why this is so might shed some light on the bias a majority of Americans continue to hold against them. As NPR noted last year, a recent poll of American adults “found that only 45 percent would vote for a ‘generally well-qualified’ presidential candidate nominated by their party who happened to be an atheist.” Gallup’s numbers “were considerably more favorable for hypothetical candidates who happened to be black (94 percent), Jewish (92 percent), women (88 percent), Hispanic (87 percent), Mormon (72 percent) or homosexual (55 percent).”

What’s going on here? It may be that among the groups included in the poll, only atheists consistently define themselves through negation. This may be unavoidable: after all, that all-important “a” beginning both “atheist” and “agnostic” is simply the Greek prefix meaning “not” or “without.” Yet to present atheism merely as a big “no” sends a signal of opposition rather than the inclusion the Out Campaign claims to seek, creating the perception that those who loudly self-identify as non-believers do so mainly to tell others what to believe. Employing symbols that make them seem just as smug and self-satisfied as the public religious displays they abhor, atheists too often come off as startlingly incurious and un-self-aware for supposedly enlightened souls.  

The Dawkins Foundation’s “A” is a case in point. The Out Campaign grandly calls it the “Scarlet Letter” to suggest that atheists are like Hester Prynne, wronged by the hypocrisy of an overwhelmingly religious society. The letter itself bears a stronger resemblance to a more recent cultural touchstone, however. Surely there are a few among Dawkins’s acolytes who are sufficiently comic book literate that they recognized their “A” looks torn directly from the pages of Action Comics?

For the uninitiated, Action Comics was the pulp series that introduced the world to Superman—the perfect avatar, perhaps, for the “we’ve-come-to-save-you-from-ignorance” vibe emitted by atheists who make a big deal about not believing in God.

While the case has been made that Superman is either a Christ figure or the anti-Christ, he also served a fully secular function. As the son of an advanced civilization, he was perhaps first of all a symbol of the mid-century hope that science would bring true salvation.

A closer look at the Florida courthouse bench suggests that the American Atheists, too, owe something to comic book aesthetics. As Gordon Haber noticed last July, the “A” symbol used in that case, depicted as the nucleus of an atom, “calls to mind not atheism but the scientism of mid-century America, the era of Reddy Killowatt and ‘better living through chemistry.’” It was also the symbol of The Atom, a forgotten superhero who could shrink to the size of a molecule or expand to that of a planet. His alter ego was a physicist: a representative of all that humanity could know about the universe and its godless laws.    

If this fixation on the typography and symbolism of fifty-year-old comic books smacks of arrested development, well, it is tempting to say, “if the Scarlet Letter fits…” But, of course, that’s painting with too broad a brush. It’s worth noting that many of those who don’t believe in God make peace with the fact that most people do. The adolescent discovery that not much of what you were told in Sunday school was true is certainly a formative moment for many, but that triumph of teenage understanding need not ossify into an adult lack of curiosity about why people believe what they do.

If they are interested not merely in being right, but in actually communicating ideas to people with whom they disagree, those who hope to promote unbelief in the public square ought to find symbols and stories that express something other than all that is implied by the giant “A” of negation; they should say something more compelling than “it’s not true!”

Like what? This holiday season, public atheists might do well to listen to a little Christmas music. Specifically, this instant classic by the singer-songwriter Tim Minchin, “White Wine in the Sun”:

Far better known in the UK and his native Australia, Minchin is among the world’s most evangelical unbelievers, yet unlike most of his co-non-religionists, he leavens his harangues with humor. His atheist Yuletide hymn succeeds because it’s not only about rejection. It is, to be sure, as thorough and witty a take down of religion as any infidel could hope for — “I don’t go for ancient wisdom,” he sings, “I don’t believe just ’cause ideas are tenacious, it means that they’re worthy” — but he doesn’t stop at “no.” Instead, as if confessing to a crime, he admits that he actually likes Christmas. “It’s sentimental, I know,” he shrugs, “but I just really like it.”

And yes I have all of the usual objections
To the miseducation of children who, in tax-exempt institutions,
Are taught to externalize blame
And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong
But I quite like the songs…

From there, Minchin entwines traditions he rejects with traditions he embraces, weaving a story about families and the small rituals that bind them together. As the song reaches its crescendo, he hits a note with which atheists and believers alike might identify, as he tells his infant daughter that the people gathered around her, “drinking white wine in the sun,” are the “people who make you feel safe in this world.” The song ends with a promise that come what may, when that baby girl grows up and starts a life of her own, her family will still be waiting for her.

Darling, when Christmas comes
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Waiting for you in the sun
Waiting for you…
Waiting…

Atheists can’t properly be said to pray, but if they did, it might sound like this; the language is damn near liturgical. His repeated “waiting” in those closing lines kills me with its longing and hope, its sense of a future wrapped up in the unimaginable inevitability of a child grown, gone, and yet perhaps sometimes returning. If Minchin knows he’s playing with Advent themes here, he doesn’t show his hand, but then he doesn’t need to—good symbols don’t need much explanation.     

In this, might “White Wine in the Sun” provide a model for successful atheist art and symbol-making generally? Minchin shows that there are ways to acknowledge and engage with the religious inheritance we have all been given even while refusing to accept it on its own terms. Rather than respond to the ubiquity and excess of Christmas with a light-up “no,” he offers a musical “yes, but…”

Two million-plus YouTube views suggest that this approach may be far more effective than confrontation.

So, too, the song serves as a reminder that, like it or not, we live in a world that has been shaped by the strange story being told in churches this month. Without some better stories of their own, the sponsors of Daley Plaza’s atheist “A” will need a miracle if they want their message to be heard.   

##

This essay was made possible through a program of the Social Science Research Council with support of the John Templeton Foundation. Visit Reverberations for more information.

Like this story? Your tax-deductible $5 or $10 will help us pay writers, coders, interns, and editors. And will earn you our endless gratitude.

Peter Manseau [@petermanseau] is the author of five books including the novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, and the forthcoming Twenty Gods or None: The Making of a Nation from the Margins of Faith.