Atheist Idolatry September 12, 2008

Atheist Idolatry

Richard Wade here, back to stir up more trouble.

Hemant’s recent post about his Christian friend who said he’d rather die than defile his Bible suggested for me that the larger issue there is about idolatry, and how even atheists can slip into it.

People create objects to symbolize concepts. Over time they can become emotionally attached to the object itself as well as the concept it symbolizes. In extreme cases the object takes on magical qualities in their minds, and their infatuation with its imagined power can begin to crowd out the concept and the principles that go with it. Thus a particular painted wood statue of Mary ends up being worshipped for some miraculous thing it’s supposed to do and the concept of the mother of God becomes secondary and diminished in importance. People who are willing to die or kill to protect the Bible or the Koran are raising that physical object above the value of human life, toward a god-like status. Even though both scriptures admonish the faithful to never worship anything other than God, those people are in a sense worshipping those stacks of paper instead of the God whom the pages describe.

I think most human beings including atheists are prone to at least a little of this attachment to their special objects. Another recent post is about a Catholic website that has used our beloved atheist red “A” to start the word Apologia, which links to anti-atheist literature. When you see that, do you feel just a little territorial? Is that our “A” and you want to take it back from them? Do you have just a teeny weeny primal urge to fight to somehow take back that symbol? Do you have one of the t-shirts with the defiant “A”? Or the coffee mug, or a button? Eventually someone will be selling a handsome red enamel “A” pendant you can hang around your neck. Caaaarefullll. you may be forming an attachment to your little fetish object. Remember this post about the goofy superstitious paraphernalia that Obama carries around in his pockets?

I think we should avoid symbols and special objects that evoke our affection as much as we possibly can. Although we may like to think that we’re above all that, we can end up magicalizing them and forming irrational attachments to them.

Do not cling to junk!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I did not feel like I wanted to fight for that symbol.

    I felt that they were idiots for not realizing what it implied.

  • I’m with Brandanazz. When Hemant pointed that out, I actually laughed out loud.

  • I think it’s really difficult to rid yourself of emotional attachment to symbols. However, there is a far cry from feeling trespassed by a group usurping a letter to dying over spittle on a page. We are used to brand awareness, and symbols are more powerful then language at conveying ideas and attachment. Just walk through a parking lot without seeing an apple sticker, a logo from a band, or a political sticker. Is it harmful to have an attachment, or a sense of identity over a symbol? It may be irrational, but I still buy Trix because they “are for kids.”

  • Daniel

    Please, there is a massive difference between being willing to die for a symbol and being pissed off when somebody abuses a symbol. If the bible dude from the other story had said he’d punch somebody out before letting them tear a page out of the bible then we’d all say we understood his attachment to his symbol. But he said he’d die, and that’s taking things way too seriously. Similarly, ain’t nothin wrong with getting slightly angry when the catholics misappropriate this particular atheist symbol.

  • Eric

    This is why I’m not a fan of the scarlet a. It’s not a bad idea, but symbols can quickly become stronger than the thing they symbolize.

  • I thought it was in poor taste, only because it could create brand confusion. They should have their own distinctive “A” for the starting letter, and a smaller version of the “Scarlet A” for the closing. I assume, anyway, they’re appropriating it sarcastically (or purposefully trying to confuse the usage of the symbol).

    At any rate, the “Scarlet A” is awful. It’s a cheesy font, a horrible shade of red, and generally one of the tackiest logos ever.

  • mike

    “When you see that, do you feel just a little territorial? Is that our “A” and you want to take it back from them?”

  • Gunnar Øyro

    I think this is WAY ovet target. The post you are referring to was just trying to be funny. Leave it!
    As to becoming attatched to pendants or other objects (“fetishes”)I can’t see the problem? I have a double-axe pendant, and I love it!
    And as to religious people worshipping things instead of a god (raising the object “toward a god-like status.”) What do you mean by that? Do you mean that gods in fact DO have a higher status than a book or a painting?
    And lastly: (And this is important) Please stop “We-ing”. Don’t go telling other atheists what to do, or not. It is not like atheists form a society per se. They DO occasionally form societies and groups, but then they call it by name (such as the Brights) And in that case you may argue over what this group should, or should not do as a whole. But even then one must be careful. (So we should not say “we should” :))

  • I don’t idolize symbols, I idolize the ideas they represent. Someone could take my A of my website, but it wouldn’t destroy the idea of coming out as an atheist.

    Neither would I die for a symbol. I doubt I would die for an idea either (depending on the circumstances). I certainly wouldn’t die for atheism, seeing as the one thing it has taught me is that life is the only thing I have.

  • Kevin

    we can end up magicalizing them and forming irrational attachments to them

    How many atheists would want to punch someone burning a flag? Should we avoid attachment to those symbols too? I certainly do. Are rationalists less nationalistic?

  • mike

    At any rate, the “Scarlet A” is awful. It’s a cheesy font, a horrible shade of red, and generally one of the tackiest logos ever.

    Amen to that!

  • Desert Son

    Mike wrote:

    “When you see that, do you feel just a little territorial? Is that our “A” and you want to take it back from them?”


    No kings,


  • Kyle

    Richard Wade here.

    I stopped reading after that. Rarely does a good piece follow. This is no different.

    Sad, but true.

  • Richard Wade


    I stopped reading after that. Rarely does a good piece follow. This is no different. Sad, but true.

    Of course the third sentence belies the first, since you would need to have read it in order to say that it is no different, but I guess you just wanted to say it that way for effect. And it was effective. Ouch. But don’t be sad, Kyle, it’s okay. You can go on “not reading” what I write and then you can comment on what you didn’t read. Others here do read what I write and comment on what they did read. Some agree, some disagree, some like, some dislike and some don’t get it. None of that matters to me. I take a chance at expressing an idea, and if it helps some kind of positive understanding, great. If I get thoughtless snark, well I’ll just have to keep trying.

  • Craig Sunderland

    Alternately, a nice letter could be sent to the relevant catholic group thanking them for supporting our cause by displaying the atheist symbol on their website.

  • Christophe Thill

    I’m sorry but the analogy is bad. This is not about idolatry of a symbol. This is about a symbol that means something and has been stolen… well, the word may be a bit strong… appropriated, let’s say, by someone who goves it a new meaning exactly opposite to its original meaning. Why? Because the “scarlet A” is not widely known, so not everybody will see it and think “hey, this is not right”.

    In my opinion, it’s akin to John Lennon’s words in Imagine being used in a certain propaganda movie, illustrated by images of military violence.

    I don’t know about others, but I wouldn’t mind seeing people spitting on the A, ripping it apart, burning it or whatever. It would simply be a show of hate, nothing exceptional.

    But (even if I’m not gonna make a huge fuss over it) you don’t have a moral right to take someone else’s symbol and give it the meaning you want, except as a criticism. That would be the case if the A was used as the first letter of “Arrogant”, for instance. I wouldn’t like it, but at least it would be honest and clear.

  • NO
    a symbol is a symbol and will remain such.
    If you steal my A t-shirt I will be sad and would like my property back but I don’t think I would ever physically hurt someone over property, even if you steal my car or other valuable property I probably would not physically hurt you, I don’t think I can, it is just not the way I am. I would like the police to restrain you and punish you for your act and have you recompense me for lost or damaged property.
    If you would treaten me or my family or someone close to me I could become physical or would resort to armed response, I draw that line very clear and very solid but I still do like symbols AS symbols nothing more!

  • Aaron

    While symbols like this often come to be revered and idolized, I’m not certain that the red ‘A’ necessarily fits that category. I think it serves more a purpose of self identification with a group, which humans naturally try to do. Perhaps this isn’t entirely independent of the idoloatry issue, but I would guess it could happen without viewing the symbol as sacred. If any Atheists felt violated by the use of the A on the apologia site, it may have had more to do with their symbol for group identification being co-opted by someone who overtly opposes their views.

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