Satanists are erecting a holiday display in Michigan. Atheists are plopping down piles of spaghetti and assembling poles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans in the Florida State Capitol Building. Non-theists have planted goddess Trees of Knowledge — replete with humanist books and pagan sentiments — in Philadelphia and Las Vegas.
As Chris Farley’s character in Tommy Boy famously asked, “Richard, what’s happening?”
Indeed, 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, decorating a Christmas tree, building a Festivus pole, and fighting one another for public space to display our holiday, or un-holiday, symbols.
Katie Aston, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths University in London researching atheist aesthetics and material cultures, suggests that 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, a snake wrapped around the Satanic cross, the Festivus pole — inspired by the popular show Seinfeld — and a number of other well-known non-theist symbols.
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 perhaps 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. The Festivus pole sits aside an elaborate nativity posted by the Florida Prayer Network. The snake-enwrapped Satanic cross shares public space with a menorah.
These non-religious symbols use Judeo-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 non-theists convert otherwise religious icons into secular symbols? For many reasons including impact, identity construction, ritual symbology, & societal symbolism and power.
“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, agnostic, or Satanist — especially in contradistinction to Judeo-Christian identities who have long held sway over America’s public religious symbology. Defiant and often juxtaposed to classic religious symbols these symbols not only challenge religious institution and identities, but begin to build their own.
“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 non-theists are, in lieu of only what they are not.
Anthropologist Victor Turner proposed that symbols are the basic molecules from which the meanings of religious rituals are constructed. Just look to the use of the light/darkness dichotomy in the Secular Solstice observances. Likewise, Clifford Geertz infamously defined religion as "a system of symbols" used by mortals to define, and refine, the universe and ameliorate chaos. Mary Douglas posited that symbols help reinforce, or deconstruct opposing, social structures in order to inform people of their place in the world. Similarly, Aston said, “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.”
And, because societies are often pluralistic, when there are multiple religions, or even non-religions, in a region, symbols are employed to rally people to a religion’s cause or mark a clear distinction between two groups in an effort to establish one worldview’s dominance over the other.
As Tasha Brandstatter of Demand Media wrote, “The Virgin of Guadalupe is a classic example of the former case. Originally a Catholic religious symbol, she allegedly appeared to an Aztec man in 1521 dressed in indigenous clothing. Since then, she has served to unite the people of Mexico in both a secular and religious sense. An example of the latter case is the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, where a veritable war of symbols between Islam, Christianity and paganism has played out ever since its construction in the 6th century.”
Thus, whether it’s the American Atheist’s atom, Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” imagery, a Festivus pole, H.P. Lovecraft's dreaded elder deity Cthulhu gracing holiday cards, a Teller endorsed goddess Tree of Knowledge, or an angel falling into hellfire, these are all examples of “positive” non-religious icons that clarify the universe, eliminate philosophical tensions, deconstruct existing social structures, build new ones, and attempt to reclaim public space for a new non-religious populace trying to assert its dominance over pre-existing “systems of symbols” — religions such as Judaism or Christianity.
Looking to the future, we should not expect that this war of the worldviews, this battle over billboards, this conflict over “Christmas time” (or is it Yuletide, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice?) will abate. Indeed, it will intensify. Christians will continue to fight back and contest the co-option of public space and popular culture (see Kirk Cameron's new film "Saving Christmas"). Why? Because, as we’ve seen, symbols are vitally important and can help one religion, or non-religion, hold sway over culture and even the entire cosmos.
Indeed, the battle cry, “Festivus for the rest of us!” is not just a bit of ironic holiday humor or a contestation over the separation of church-and-state — it’s a reworking of the universe, a re-founding of public and private identity, and a resurrection of a robust non-religious reality in the U.S.
So, er, Happy Holidays…