One more symbol for atheism

A while ago I got an idea for an atheistic symbol. In this text I’ll talk a little bit about why such a symbol might or might not be needed. I’ll also analyse some suggestions I’ve bumped into online, and outline why I think mine is…better.

Do we need a symbol?

Often when atheists proselytize, one particular question comes up: do we have our own symbol? Well, we don’t, really. There’s a reason for that, too—since atheists do not usually have a religion, there is no real reason to carry around religious symbols. Before we adopt a symbol, we should actually think long and hard whether we really want one, because having it suggests that atheism is a movement on par with actual religions. Since it isn’t—atheism is the lack of theistic belief—we might not want to confuse people by creating positive content for it. This is a grave consideration, since the difference between religion and atheism is fundamental, and having positive content may actually work against our cause, e.g. in debate.

On the other hand, there are some occasions where a symbol of our own might prove handy. Images do have their promotional value, and sometimes there is a need for concise, symbolical representation of religious orientation, just as there is for one’s mother tongue and nationality. Some people also like to proclaim their beliefs in public by wearing symbols as jewellery or on their clothes.

My own take on this is that atheists should adopt a common symbol, but only use it for negative purposes. Such a symbol should only be used to counter religious emblems and proclamations. It shouldn’t become the central defining characteristic of an atheist’s image, since that would give the wrong impression about atheism in general—atheism isn’t a movement.

What are the kinds of things atheists might want to signal, then? Some obvious ones would probably include lack of belief, a rational worldview, scepticism, erudition and independence. Some others include a refined sense of aesthetics and semiotics, and a pragmatic, level‐headed approach to one’s surroundings. Some connotations to avoid are arrogance, dogmatism, naïvete, hostility and meaninglessness.

As a practical matter, symbols should be easy to write by hand, preferably available in computer typefaces, both connected and sufficiently fat so that they can easily be cast into metal jewellery, simple enough so that they do not confuse the eye and distinctive so that the message doesn’t get lost. Furthermore, the symbol should be in the public domain so that it can be widely adopted without cumbersome licensing procedures or fear of legal reprisal. The symbol should look good in monochrome so that it can be easily stamped, printed and tattooed.

Symbols often encountered by atheists

The first idea for a symbol would be one of the existing ones associated with a secular worldview. Typically these symbols come from extant organisations, groups or movements. We might consider coopting one of them and turning it into a universal symbol for atheism.

[American Atheists symbol for atheism] Probably the most well‐known example is the American Atheists’ logo, without the enclosed A. In my opinion this symbol fails rather badly. It does signal progress and a scientific mindset, but it is rather concrete and cluttered. In its childish adherence to the icons of the modern and the industrial, it lacks the elegance and sophistication to become a universal symbol for nonbelievers. It also manages to completely sidestep the dynamic world we live in—atoms haven’t been a symbol of the ultimate in progress or emancipation for a long time, now. Worst of all, American Atheists holds a trademark on the symbol.

[Humanistic symbol for atheism] How about the Humanists’ try, then? Well, it does signify a people‐centered worldview, and is rather cheerful at that. It’s clearly better than the AA one, and a lot more stylish. It has the graphical allure that ought to go with an enduring symbol.

However, all people think about people. This isn’t the sole dominion of humanists, so the symbol doesn’t really connect to a lack of religious belief or a secular worldview. Using a humanified H to refer to atheism in general would be a bit misleading as well, since humanism is a complete philosophy which excludes certain atheistic religions. Furthermore, the logo does have its graphical shortcomings—it’s thin, invisible, unnoticeable, impossible to write by hand and quite difficult to make into jewellery. And of course the American Humanist Association holds rights to it.

[Darwin fish symbol for atheism] The Darwin fish is one of the best known emblems worn by atheists, and derives its meaning from the creationism–evolution debate which mostly rages between atheists and fundamentalist Christians. It is yet another symbol which might serve as a general purpose atheist brand.

This is not a bad idea as such, but the symbol is a bit obscure. Pretty much the only way it looks like a real symbol is when we remove the Darwin text (as I’ve done), but then the symbol is quite difficult to decipher and doesn’t really catch your eye. Besides, the symbol does refer to the creationism–evolution debate, which is largely separate from the theist–atheist one—contrary to what a US atheist might think, the vast majority of Christians worldwide do acknowledge evolution. The symbol really attaches to a separate division in ideology.

On the plus column the Fish is apparently in the public domain, but it is still relatively difficult to write by hand—the symbol only looks right when printed in precise proportions, so as to make the feet look slightly funny. Personally I’d relegate it to the position of a novelty item, not an all‐encompassing symbol of our lack‐of‐belief.

[Bad Religion symbol for atheism] Then there’s Bad Religion, the band, with their explicitly anti‐religion logo and quite a pinch of attitude.

In this case the symbol wouldn’t be too bad as such—it is sturdy, informative, connected and relatively simple. However, it is also explicitly anti‐Christian, so it doesn’t cover other religions. It is protected and actually looks downright sleazy in monochrome. I think it is not what we want in the end.

[Inverse pentagram symbol for atheism] Finally, perhaps the worst suggestion I’ve ever seen for an atheistic symbol is the inverted pentagram.

Surprisingly, the reasoning behind it is kind of sound: the pentagram symbolises supernatural lifeforce and is religious in nature, so an inverted pentagram is a clear rejection of such concepts. Even the connection to geniune Satanism wouldn’t be too bad if people just understood what Satanism in the LaVey vein is all about.

The trouble is, people neither care about the fine points nor understand.

The last thing atheists want is to enforce the popular misconception that we’re Satan worshipers or into any kind of magic or witchcraft, so pentagrams would only be good for their shock value. The symbol is clearly out, just as the swastika—another symbol with benign etymology but hideous modern semiotics—would be.

[Atheists Online symbol for atheism] A while back Aaron from Atheists Online prompted me to add yet another existing symbol to the list. In his words, it’s a merger of UK/European Circle and American Atheists’ Atom, with electrons symbolizing the six major classes of unbeliever: Atheist, Agnostic, Humanist, Freethinker, Heathen and Infidel.

I think the evaluation is largely the same as with the underlying symbols. I also find the design a wee bit cluttered and unobvious.

Should we make our own?

Based on the above, I think us atheists will have to look into novel, abstract designs rather than the pre‐existing, complicated ones. As Randy Cassingham argues, symbols do not just carry meaning, but are given it.

[Road/triangle symbol for atheism] The first novel design I was able to find is due to Dave Feroe, who is rumoured to be pretty much the designated graphic artist for the American freethought community. It’s a bold, simple, split pyramidal design, with just a hint of a perspective, fade‐to‐horizon road sort of thing to it.

Here the concept is already much better, and more lasting. The symbol wouldn’t easily be worn down by time, the graphical outlook is strong and it will definitely leave an impression. Still, you can’t make jewellery out of that, and the symbol fills its bounding box so efficiently that it seems essentially black in writing. That makes it a wee bit apocalyptic, which is a bad thing. Not to mention the nasty connotations to the Egyptian pyramids and a number of cults using triangular shapes. We don’t want to have anything to do with the vile religisiosity which fuels those things…

[Positive Atheism symbol for atheism] Then there’s the Positive Atheism one. This one would make a fine pendant, and it does signify an inquisitive, assertive mind, which is every atheist’s foremost tool. It has a human form in it for secular humanism, and a certain logographic quality which makes it a symbol proper.

But do we really want an empty head—or even a skull—to talk for us? Do we want to mix ourselves so clearly with humanism, or the semiotically tapped‐out human form? Do we want a symbol it takes a graphic artist and a soft, dedicated pencil to draw? I don’t think so. This symbol is also so easily reduced to a simpler form by the eye that the prime content—the assertive explamation mark for scepticism and intelligence—often gets lost.

[Bolt of reason symbol for atheism] The North Texas Church of Freethough’s Bolt of Reason already fares somewhat better. It is simple, easily recognized and idiomatic. We might just be able to make it into a commonly recognized symbol, and it has all the proper typographic attributes. And it’s in the public domain as it should be.

Still, wouldn’t you expect to find at least one bolt on every motorist, extreme sports fan and teenage rebel? I mean, atheists certainly weren’t the first ones to come up with this particular graphic shape. Once again, the message doesn’t really get through, and no questions are raised. In the rare situations where we actually need a symbol, this particular one doesn’t really carry the weight.

[IPU symbol for atheism] Pretty much the most ambitious pre‐existing original design for an atheistic symbol is due to the good folks over at alt.atheism. They instigated the IPU phenomenon, quite unparalleled in ontological zeal. The symbol they eventually came up with is extremely distinctive and appealing, at least to me. It has just the right combination of symmetry and roughness to both evoke counterpoint, and to be imprinted on people’s minds.

Unfortunately the practical considerations never entered anybody’s mind. Once again the symbol is difficult to draw without ruining the essential content, because the outlook relies heavily on variable width strokes, and it doesn’t really make sense unless it’s…you know…pink. It isn’t connected either, so it can’t be cast into metal jewellery without a supporting plaque.

It’s a shame to dismiss something as nice as this, but I see no real alternative.

[Atheist Planet symbol for atheism] Another symbol found on the IPU site is the Atheist Planet one. It is another one based on the capital A letter‐shape, and it builds on space age symbols much like the American Atheists logo does.

The concept is nice and idiomatic, but it’s too wide and once again not connected. Associating the letter A with atheism is also sort of spurious, considering that atheism isn’t always written in Latin letters and can also be referred to by such words as nonbelief. Otherwise there is no easily recognizable message behind the symbol—it is far too easy to confuse for something a scifi fan would wear. We can just forget about using the symbol in handwritten text as well, since the message is in the geometry, not just the topology.

[Ring symbol for atheism] So how about what we’d really, really like? There is one symbol we would be granted in the ideal world. Purely on graphical and etymological merit, the best pre‐existing design I’ve seen thus far comes from Adrian Barnett, of Wasteland fame. He suggests a plain ring, with its obvious connotations to nothing, symmetry, peace and harmony. I’ll have to agree that a ring would probably be the most aesthetic symbol imaginable. It’s suggestive, easy to draw and whathaveyou.

Unfortunately we haven’t been granted this particular symbol—it is already used in various religious contexts, and it’s far too easy to mistake a ring for a worldview neutral geometry. Furthermore, because of the generic nature of the symbol it’s easily mistaken for 0 or O in plaintext. It is far less than noticeable when worn, and it fails to signal anything original.

A perfect circle is elegant and aesthetic like none other, and it conveys the message, so it’d obviously be the symbol for atheism. Unfortunately we don’t always get what we want…

[Two ellipses symbol for atheism] After seeing this page, Ankit Patel emailed me about a symbol he has been working on. I call it the two ellipses symbol for atheism, and actually rather like it. It’s certainly connected, very elegant, I don’t remember seeing anybody wear anything like it before, and if we exert our intellectual muscle a bit, we might see it connecting with both eternity and nil.

Just about the only downsides I can find with this one are that it’s a bit fragile (though my rendition is a tad slimmer than the original), the semiotics aren’t obvious and it’s also somewhat difficult to write—for one reason or another, slanted ellipses don’t come easily to people. The variable width stroke might also prove something of a nasty.

But still, this is serious work. Very nice indeed.

One Finnish atheist’s proposal

My own suggestion can be viewed as a development of Adrian’s. There are plenty of symbols with the right connotations, but the most powerful and elegant of them are clearly the symmetrical ones with some semiotic baggage and a history behind them. The null ring is the most profound of them, and most of the nice ones are probably derived from it. With this in mind, I’d look for simple modifications to the Arabic symbol for nought.

[Null set symbol for atheism] The neatest one I know comes from math. It’s a circle with slash overlay, and it denotes the empty set. In modern mathematics it is the quintessential special case and has strong etymological ties to zero. It’s omnipresent, and you don’t argue with it, because empty sets provide you with no counter‐examples. They’re what is left behind when you impregnate your theories with wild, mutually exclusive assumptions, and find out nothing survives them.

I haven’t come across any religions which use this symbol, and even math geeks would in my experience typically go with Greek letters like Δ, Π, or Σ. People who aren’t acquainted with the symbol would likely have some trouble understanding why anybody would ban a circle, and the ones who do would probably wonder why anybody would run around with on empty sign on their necks. I think that is the perfect setting for some real‐life atheistic evangelism. Especially since the symbol is so pretty and inoffensive.

The downside is that the symbol isn’t even nearly symmetrical. If you wear it as a necklace, the slash will appear a backslash fifty percent of the time. Similarly, the symbol has the same overall geometry as certain traffic signs, which makes it somewhat more trivial and injunctive than we might actually want it to be. The slash also adds to the overall graphic weight of the symbol, and might make it slightly heavy.

One solution to the problems would be to make either the whole symbol or just the blackslash considerably thinner than they are now. That certainly works, since math fonts do it that way, and it easily breaks the connection with traffic signs. It’s just that some of the elegance goes down the drain as well.

Still I think the empty sign could make for a good symbol, after some real life experimentation and adjustment. It is what I suggest atheists should use in the rare circumstances where an atheist does need a symbol.