August 16, 2007

Atheist Symbols: The Message Matters More

Many symbols have been proposed to represent atheism and all have generated controversy within the secular community. The most recent example is the scarlet A championed by Richard Dawkins and adopted by many prominent atheist bloggers. It is natural to want such a symbol, but I'm not sure it is worth the attention many of us have been devoting to it. Instead, we must remember that the message matters far more than the symbol.

When I was in graduate school, students rotated through a placement at the university's counseling center. Our work with students was supervised by counseling center staff. One of the staff members was openly gay, and I remember that he had a rainbow sign on his office door that said something like "GLBT friendly zone." Even if I've remembered some of the words incorrectly, this was definitely the message.

Not only was this staff counselor gay, but working with GLBT students was his specialty. He carried a large load of such students, ran a number of relevant support groups, and consulted with other staff and trainees around GLBT issues. As this was in a moderately conservative community, the support he provided was important. I heard from many students, both at the center and in large undergraduate classes I would later teach, that his availability was appreciated.

Symbols matter, but clear messages are even more useful. The sign on this guy's door would have been just as valuable without the rainbow. It was the message that had the impact. As we squabble over various symbols which have been proposed to represent atheism, all of which are flawed in my opinion, we risk losing the forest for the trees. Symbol or no symbol, I want to be part of creating an atheist friendly zone.

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