Why do we need a secular America?

The Atheist Alliance convention is coming up this weekend in Washington DC, and one of the things that they’re planning to discuss is a generic atheist symbol. Among others, they want to consider the Affinity symbol that was proposed in this thread, oh so long ago (by the way: Godfrey Temple, email me so I can put you in touch with someone). Here’s an unfortunate twist, though:

Ironic note on the poster of Atheist Symbols for the Atheist Alliance International convention: I went to have it made today, at a local shop which specializes in posters, worked happily with the designer — and then several hours later got a call to come back and pick my stuff up, no poster. They are Christians and cannot do it. Went to another place, same thing. It was simply a poster with symbols to vote on — but it was for atheists. And they are Christians. One person helpfully explained that they turned down the KKK too. So sorry. But they’re Christians.

Well, I’m an atheist, and I’ve done work for churches. I can understand not making a donation. But throwing someone out of the print shop? Comparing them with the Ku Klux Klan? Oh. Wait. They’re Christians.

Let’s hear it for Office Max. They were the only ones who would print it. And deal with an atheist.

If Sastra would like to name the businesses and their addresses, I’ll happily add them here and urge everyone to boycott the bigoted pissants.


  1. #1 Sastra
    September 24, 2007

    Ah, thanks, PZ. Since the businesses were small and locally owned, giving their names would do no good.

    The owners at the first print shop were slightly acquainted with me, I’d done business with them before, saw them around town, etc, so this genuinely surprised me (though it probably shouldn’t have.) I didn’t know anyone at the second place, but it still seemed odd, and they were so polite. Of course.

    I live in a small city in Wisconsin, and though it’s religious it’s usually polite, and therefore usually rather private on people’s religion. The few Christians who have personally spoken to me of my being an atheist (I am “out”) were quick to reassure me that that’s fine, because tolerance, diversity, acceptance, equality and freedom of religion are all concepts which fall directly out of the teachings of Jesus. Though I recognize that as b.s., it’s still a positive approach. It’s nice.

    Sheboygan county, everyone’s nice. They smile and apologize even when they throw you out.

    I suspect I have gotten too used to debate forums, where even those who disagree with you are eventually forced to respect the fact that you see rational merit in your beliefs, true or false, and there’s a lot of overlap between your positions. And vice versa, when I disagree with Christians or other theists. I’ve grown to respect even some of the poor arguments, which are often quite complex underneath, or which might at least “have the heart in the right place.”

    When you attempt to persuade someone to a different viewpoint, you’re forced to assume a common ground of equality, rationality, of good will, of basic similarity. “Here’s why you should want to change your mind.” You can’t just shrug and dismiss the other side with “well, I’m an atheist. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Please.”

    I think that’s one of the reasons it is so important for positive arguments for atheism to be made to the general public. If we’re wrong, we’re wrong for the right reasons. We’re not The Other, to be lumped in with bigots and criminals and the Ku Klux Klan. We’re not nutcases on the fringe, denying the obvious out of perversity. We’re you’re neighbors, and we’ve usually thought about religion and morality quite a lot.

    In fact, we often take religion more seriously than some of you do. We care about whether it’s true more than whether it’s useful. And that’s giving real respect to it.

  2. #2 Sastra
    September 24, 2007

    I suspect that the problem wasn’t dealing with an atheist per se. As efp said, they made a point that they did not want to print anything which advocated, recognized, or promoted atheism, in any way. It made them “uncomfortable” because they’re Christian. My guess is that if I were to go in tomorrow with fliers for Meals on Wheels or something they’d make a big show of being happy to print that for me.

    IANAL, and have no plans to sue. I think it may be a gray area at best, and I’m not litigious. Plus I live in a small town. But I find that issue interesting. The “secularizing” which America could use is for more people to see the issue objectively and reasonably categorize “atheism” with things like “Buddhism” or “Platonism” or other religions and philosophies, instead of classifying it with hate groups or anti-American subversives. I doubt very much that a poster for a synagogue explaining the meaning of Passover would have been refused — even though these people were Christian.

  3. #3 DuWayne
    September 25, 2007

    Sastra -

    Do you live in municipal Sheboygan? Personally, I absolutely love the irony of Sheboygan. Every other corner, either a church or a bar. Really friendly town though. Any town as friendly as that, to dirty, stinky hitch-hikers, can say something. Although, Texas was pretty friendly to me when I was hitching through (from the Texas renn festival, got to hitch through the smallest town in America, pop. 13). Please don’t ask how I ended up in Sheboygan while hitching, these things just happen.

  4. #4 Sastra
    September 25, 2007

    Baldur wrote:

    My point however is that I think a symbol for atheists is very wrong, why would a non-believer want to group himself in a collective complete with a symbol.

    There was discussion along this line at the AAI, of course, and the general consensus was that we already are a loosely-knit, diverse group set apart by a particular philosophical approach and conclusion. Words are symbols, too — “non-believer,” atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, metaphysical naturalist, etc. If there’s a word for it, then a symbol simply stands for the word: it doesn’t indicate a special society or club.

    Our poster states “To aid in our recognition, identification, and positive image, many of us feel there should be a clear, universal character which represents ‘a lack of belief in God.’ This public symbol would represent atheism in general, and not be limited to any particular science theory, philosophy, or organization.”

    As atheists become more outspoken and eventually accepted into the culture, I think the need for a symbol is going to increase. Not just for tombstones and jewelery, but quick backdrops at media events or on diversity panels, when other symbols indicating views on religion are set in a row and there’s a blank spot above the atheist’s head, so that nobody’s sure what that guy on the end is.

    Bottom line, something is eventually going to emerge from grass roots, because symbols are just too handy and practical in many situations. Right now the symbols which really seem to be starting to make their way out to the general public are 1.) the Darwin fish and 2.) The logo for the American Atheist organization.

    The first one equates evolution with atheism, and implies worship of Darwin. Problems there are obvious, I think, no matter how you feel about the dreaded f-word. Like me, you may agree that — if the existence of God is treated as a science hypothesis and one follows evolution (or chemistry or physics) down all the way — the theory of evolution indicates a natural universe without a Guiding Disembodied Intelligence to start things off and poke around — but atheism and the theory of evolution are still not equivalent.

    The other symbol, the atomic A, is exclusive to one particular organization (a logo, more than a symbol), and is probably copywrited. I find it a bit surprising that the military uses it on the headstones of atheists, members or not. Dawkins’ Atheist “A” is appealing, and has momentum, but again, it’s associated with a particular group, doesn’t seem to be in the public domain, and I think it’s a bit too simple to be recognizable, especially in black and white.

    So if some sort of symbol is eventually going to win the battle for public recognition, it would be nice if it doesn’t have any major drawbacks. Uncomplicated, easy to remember, unique, positive — like the Affinity. I know there are atheists who hate the very idea of a symbol — but think about it. All things being equal, if there IS a symbol, better that it not annoy you for good reasons beyond its very existence.

  5. #5 MAJeff
    September 25, 2007

    That coming up with a symbol is the easier part of changing the status quo.
    The reality also is that all three of the medalists on that Olympic podium in 1968 paid a price for their protest afterwards.

    Changing things is far from easy. I guess we should give up.

    Welcome to being part of a social movement and/or standing up for something. I’ve received death threats for my gay activism. Hell, I’ve been harrassed on the street and at my workplace because I was openly gay. I was isolated by other queers in a small town because the didn’t want to maybe be pegged by association. Was it hard? Hell yes! Was it worth it? You’d better fucking believe it.

    I’m not an activist atheist, but I’m a very open one. In Boston it’s not that hard. Who knows where I’ll end up teaching next, but I’m not going back in either closet.

  6. #6 speedwell
    September 25, 2007

    Oh, they didn’t refuse to print your order because you are an atheist, Sastra… they refused because they are forced by their interpretation of their religion to refuse to be involved in promoting atheism. That’s what they meant by saying “we’re Christians.”

    I did once work in a print shop where I agreed to print all sorts of ridiculous nonsense. When the local KKK came in with an order for flyers, I drew my boss aside and said that although the decision to print the order was his, I could not in good conscience be involved with it. He was not especially pleased, and he did accept the order, but he did not require me to participate. Actually he gave me the day off without pay on the day the job was printed, which was fine with me.

  7. #7 Sastra
    September 25, 2007

    When the business owner explained (over the phone) that she would not do business with atheists, she told me that she had also refused to print things for the Ku Klux Klan and the Socialists.

    The KKK reference threw me most, of course. I can understand speedwell (#80) refusing to participate in printing for them. It’s a notorious hate group, uncontroversally so. Socialists just seemed odd — would she have refused to print something for Social Democrats, or just for Socialists? I didn’t ask, and don’t think ‘politics’ is a protected class anyway, like religion or creed.

    Incidentally, I’m pretty suspicious of that claim about the KKK. I live in a small Wisconsin town of about 7,000 people, which is about 99% white. I’m not saying there aren’t racists, of course, but in the whole county I’ve never heard any rumors about actual KKK activity. They drove up from Milwaukee or Chicago to get something printed here? Uh huh. That’s likely.

  8. #8 Siamang
    September 25, 2007
  9. #9 Brownian
    September 25, 2007

    In any case, PZ really should appropriate the octothorpe as his own atheist symbol, for obvious reasons.

  10. #10 Brownian
    September 25, 2007

    I’m sorry, but is ‘saved’ trying to imply with his/her nom d’écran that s/he knows that s/he is going to heaven?

    You need to learn a little humility, you hubristic egotist. If you know your bible (and dollars to doughnuts you don’t), you’ve got forty years in the desert ahead of you.

  11. #11 Sastra
    September 25, 2007

    Fatboy #90:

    The Freethought Pansy was one of the symbols we considered. However, the “pansy” as symbol has a feminine connotation to most people in the US. The women were more eager to wear it than the guys. Likely it would be misinterpreted by the general public as being related to Gay Rights. Personally, I think anything that has to be constantly explained and defended lest it give the wrong impression to the casual observer (like the term “Brights) is probably a poor idea.

    And there’s nothing much wrong with the term “freethinker” — most of us use it from time to time. Strictly speaking, it has historically been used to embrace New Agers and other spiritual renegades as well as nontheists, though. It still carries some of that along today.

    There is no term or symbol which is going to be just right. I aim for the option which “sucks the least.”

  12. #12 Brownian
    September 25, 2007

    I’d wear such a pin, dogmeatib.

  13. #13 Sastra
    September 25, 2007

    I wear a humanist symbol on a necklace, every day.

    I think most atheists fall under the category of secular or scientific humanist (certainly most atheists here), but what with one thing and another the word ‘humanist’ has picked up some negative connotations among some atheists. Just as there are humanists who don’t like the word “atheist,” there are atheists who return the favor.

    I think it was Herb Silverman who said something like “Christians agree on the terms but passionately disagree on their beliefs: atheists agree on the belief, but disagree vehemently on the terms.”

  14. #14 sailor
    September 25, 2007

    At this point it sounds to me like the job was refused because of the nature of the job not the person delivering it. I suspect that if Sastra went back and asked them to do another job like a wedding invitation they would do it. I think they were quite within their rights. I mean if you were a print business would you want to print and anti-psychiatry nut-job poster featuring one of those jerk-off celebrities in the scientology business? I am an atheist and I am on their side on this one.

  15. #15 HPLC_Sean
    September 25, 2007

    Having a universal symbol for atheists (rationalists, naturalists, whatever) is a really, really bad idea. As a matter of fact, it is a stupendously bad idea. What will it accomplish? Fuck it. Trust me. Your atheism must come from convictions based on ideas and evidence that you synthesize within; not from an embroidered herald that you march behind. I could just see future atheist symposia with massive silk banners of “the symbol” hanging behind the podium that will host the contemporaries of Dawkins, Harris, Dennet and Hitchens. It kind of invokes the images of huge swastika banners at Nazi rallies.
    This moronic idea of a “symbol” also plays right into the hands of the religious. Can’t you just see them saying: “Oh. They have a symbol. Now it’s a religion?” It’s a tangible step back in the direction of idolatry. It’s vestigial nostalgia for the days when atheists prayed to the cross. It’s irrational. The only way to rationalize it is to call it a marketing or branding tool; a tool to convert the faithful. Quit branding atheism!

  16. #16 D.S. Ellis
    September 26, 2007

    While I don’t agree with the beliefs held by the poster printers/designers I do respect their right to refuse service to anyone. I was recently asked to design a logo for a group of ‘paranormal investigators’ in Missouri. After checking out their website, I realized that I could debunk every ‘phenomenon’ listed on their website. Ethically, I felt I couldn’t lend my talents to promote something that a) I don’t believe in and b) I feel is not in the best interest of human development. No matter what they were offering to pay me.

    And I told them so. I was respectful but explained my position and offered to provide documentation to back my stance and invited them to consider the evidence I wanted to give them. They politely refused but thanked me for my honesty. Apparently, they’ve been running into this ‘problem’ (their word, not mine) for quite some time and have been unable to gain any backing or support for their endeavors, even in rural Missouri.

    The fact that ‘Sastra’ is doing work for churces while stating a belief in atheism makes me wonder if Sastra isn’t more in the wrong than the printers who were exercising their Constitutional freedoms, despite their backwards beliefs.

  17. #17 Peter Barber
    September 26, 2007

    Firstly, if this is how one does it, I’ll nominate Sastra’s comment #11 for a Molly. It may not say anything ground-breaking, but I am sure any religious believer who feels threatened by atheism would develop more respect for our viewpoint after reading such a calm, thoughtful and clear response to the rather silly behaviour of some individual Christians.

    Secondly, @ TK (#9) with regard to symbols:

    I am an atheist, a Green Party member, against Trident, for decriminalisation of psychotropic drug use. I assume you don’t object to me telling you that, even if you don’t share my views. Note that I’m not telling you that you must also renounce all gods, join the Green Party, campaign for nuclear disarmament or inhale.

    Yet it seems you would object to me showing you a picture of red letter A, a sunflower, a circle containing a vertical diameter with a downward-pointing radial either side, or a cannabis leaf.


  18. #18 Brownian
    September 26, 2007

    Fernando, is that an image of the Inanimate Carbon Rod?

    I am not worthy!

  19. #19 Sastra
    September 26, 2007

    DS Ellis wrote:

    The fact that ‘Sastra’ is doing work for churces while stating a belief in atheism makes me wonder if Sastra isn’t more in the wrong than the printers who were exercising their Constitutional freedoms, despite their backwards beliefs.

    I am not against the right for businesses to refuse to do work which strongly conflicts with their ethics. My objection to being refused service at the print shop was that even Christians should not classify atheism as morally similar to the Ku Klux Klan. Our differences are not so extreme that we should be seen as outside of the normal courtesies of the marketplace. It’s similar to how I view the issue with the Boy Scouts: as a private organization they have the legal right to exclude whomever they want, for what ever reason they want, and I support that right. And yet excluding atheists because they can’t be “good citizens” is wrong. I do not support that exclusion, and consider it bigotry. (Their public/private organization muddle is a different issue)

    I don’t regularly work for churches, by the way. I’m a watercolor artist and was commissioned by the local Catholic church to do a painting of their old church, from a turn-of-last century photograph. And yes, I would have been more hesitant to do a series of Sunday school paintings of Jesus, but think I would have taken the work and approached it as an artist. I realize there are nuances and fine lines on both sides of my complaint.

  20. #20 bullfighter
    September 26, 2007

    I think Sastra’s comments in this thread are very good and could serve as an example of how to approach issues like this.

    There is a big difference between refusing service because of who the customer is and because of the nature of the project. It is not quite clear to me what happened in Sastra’s case, but I somehow tentatively concluded that the first print shop objected only to the project, while the second might have objected to doing business with an atheist. Regardless of the facts of this case, it should be clear that anti-discrimination laws apply only to the exclusion of persons, not projects.

    I also agree that, while the shop has the right to refuse any job, the excuses they offered were lame at best, and bigoted at worst. Although one shouldn’t infer too much from the parallel with KKK, it certainly comes across as offensive. But I would say that the grouping of KKK, socialists, and atheists primarily reveals the shop owner’s profound ignorance (which really shouldn’t be surprising).

    The only way to reduce the prevalence of this kind of problems is to try to get the atheist voice heard as much as possible and to insist on fair treatment of atheism in the media. That means, among other things, that religious statements in the public forum should always be open to criticism.

  21. #21 Fernando Magyar
    September 26, 2007

    #147 Brownian, I mean really, the carbon rod would be black before being burned don’t ya think. Actually you do have a point and my stake doesn’t…

  22. #22 David Marjanovi?
    September 26, 2007

    From what I read, Bruno was anything but an atheist.

    AFAIK he was burned for asking whether Jesus had also died for the people that live on other stars, and apparently he meant that seriously. He’s perhaps a martyr for science, but not one for atheism.

  23. #23 David Marjanovi?
    September 26, 2007

    From what I read, Bruno was anything but an atheist.

    AFAIK he was burned for asking whether Jesus had also died for the people that live on other stars, and apparently he meant that seriously. He’s perhaps a martyr for science, but not one for atheism.

  24. #24 Fernando Magyar
    September 26, 2007

    David Marjanovi?, you are right Bruno was a heretical theologian and a freethinker and not really an atheist in the sense that we use the word today. However it might be fair to say that he was an atheist in the sense that it was used in the 16th century.
    “The term atheisme (sic.) itself was coined in France in the 16th century, and was initially used as an accusation against critics of religion, scientists, materialistic philosophers, deists, and others who seemed to represent a threat to established beliefs.”

  25. #25 Sastra
    September 26, 2007

    Considered carefully, but dismissed as implying nihilism. That hispanamerican symbol is really cool, though.

    The AAI isn’t taking any more suggestions at this time, because it never ends. Never. The committee can’t even stop it, and it’s at the printer (“Office Max: We Do Atheists”).

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