Sunday, September 12, 2010

Richard Dawkins’ Scarlet Letter

This morning I briefly met a man wearing a black t-shirt with a bright red letter “A” on the chest and “Stand OUT Campaign” on a shirt sleeve. I didn’t give the shirt much though until I was told that the “A” stands for “atheist”, and the shirt was purchased from Richard Dawkins’ website. Then I became very confused.

What exactly is the goal of this shirt? I assumed from the “stand out” bit that the goal is to call attention to this man’s atheism and attach a (hopefully friendly) human face to the a-word. As an atheist, I certainly support the intention, but if the goal is to communicate with others, this shirt is a failure.

First, as a method of announcing one’s atheism, the label is far too subtle. If someone is struck by it enough to wonder about it at all (which I was not), they might just suppose, for instance, that the person’s name begins with the letter A.

Then there’s The Scarlet Letter reference. What exactly does atheism have to do with Hawthorne’s novel? The protagonist, Hester Prynne, gets knocked up when her husband is out of town and is forced to wear a giant red letter “A” for “adultery” on her chest. Is the goal to associate atheists with adultery? I certainly hope not. We’ve got bad enough image problems as it is.

I assume that a typical (high school or college-educated American) person is at least passingly familiar with Hawthorne’s novel but not at all with atheists’ use of the red letter A. What might such a person make of this shirt? Surely it will be taken as a reference to the book. But for what purpose? Irony of some sort? Perhaps a new movie version is coming out soon.

Baffled, I concluded that the designers were unfamiliar with the book. Maybe The Scarlet Letter isn’t as important a work of literature as I had been led to believe in high school, and non-Americans could be forgiven for failing to make an immediate connection.

But no. The A-shirt designers are not ignorant. Dawkins markets the shirts (and earrings and necklaces) under the name “Scarlet Letter”. The association between atheism and Hawthorne’s novel is intentional. The merchandise section provides no obvious explanation or link to an explanation.

(For added confusion, he also offers a bright red shirt with a white “A+”, which happily eliminates the scarlet letter issue but still doesn’t convey any information about being an atheist. Blood type and/or desire to brag about grade point averages, yes. Lack of religious beliefs, not so much.)

What exactly is the A design trying to suggest? That atheists, like adulterers, are typically good people who are often unjustly persecuted and/or ostracized? That seems like the best explanation so far, although I still hadn’t gotten over the atheism=adultery idea. To me, adultery is often, if maybe not always, morally problematic. Atheism is not. To associate an ethically questionable action with atheism strikes me as wrong and perhaps even offensive.

One of the A buttons has a website written on it directing me to the OUT Campaign. Their main page features a 39 second YouTube video titled “Richard Dawkins explains his ‘Scarlet A’ lapel pin”. Below is a transcript of this explanation:

Woman: What does the A mean on the lapel?
Dawkins: Atheist
Woman: Atheist, like the religion or the lack of religion?
Dawkins: Lack of religion, yes.
Woman: Wow. That’s cool. I’ve never seen that before.
Dawkins: Well, I’ve only just invented it.
Woman: (laughs) Well, is it catching on?
Dawkins: I hope so. Look on my website –
Woman: You’re going to be on the show with it, so people will inquire.
Dawkins: It’s fairly discrete. I mean, it’s not spelling it out.

If there was an explanation for the connection between The Scarlet Letter and atheism in that, I missed it. (And since when is Dawkins interested in being discrete about his atheism?) Perhaps Dawkins elaborates in his introduction to The OUT Campaign?

Sadly, no. All I found was this: “Wear Josh's red A if you like it as much as I do, otherwise design your own or find one on a website such as; or wear no shirt at all, but please don't carp at the very idea of standing up to be counted with other atheists.”

No carping here (although I do hate comma splices). Yay atheism. But who is Josh, and what exactly is appealing about wearing the scarlet letter? Mysteries.

I support the OUT campaign, but for now I’m sticking with the feminism rip-off: This is what an atheist look like.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. You would think someone so bound up in rationality would make a greater effort to explain his actions to those who are not among his insiders. I had the same reaction. You are very articulate. Thanks. I would like to see a more effective coming out strategy to participate in. Also would like something that centers on non-belief in a supreme overlord rather than aethiesm as the latter is often associated with a lack of awe and wonder.