Why do atheists co-opt and adapt traditional Christian symbols for their own ends?

This post comes off the back of Chris’ blog post – Religion and More – entitled: Atheist Aesthetics.

By way of introduction, Chris is one of those thoroughly interesting chaps with a brain the size of a small planet and is a little difficult to pin labels on. I asked him how he’d self-identify and he replied on Twitter:

If you take atheist to mean ‘without god’ then sure, but I hate the term and it actually seems to mean a lot more than that. If it means anti-religious, Darwinian, scientistic… Not me. Agnostic fits better, but not in the sense that I ‘don’t know’ or am ‘seeking’, I more ‘just don’t care much about my own personal beliefs’ and prefer to spend my time studying others’, so I think best just say ‘nonreligious’… But if you have to use terms then atheistic-agnostic?

See what I mean? I get the distinct impression that Chris hates labels as much as I do; for the simple reason that we no longer know what these labels actually mean to other folks. The label ‘Evangelical’ is a prime example from the Christian world. This term now seems to come complete with anti-science and political connotations.

It’s worth noting that Chris is a scholar in Religious Studies and a fine one at that.


Chris begins his blog post with a notable observation:

…..a couple of academics and I were talking in the pub yesterday about how atheism is largely responsible for the apparent resurgence of religion these days, and how humanism is basically religion devoid of the belief but attempting to maintain the ritual.

This alone is worth a blog post, but it’s the phenomenon of atheists hijacking Christian symbolism for their own ends, which is of import to this blog post.

Here is a classic and well known example:

The parody of the Ichthys symbol.

Did you know that some atheists go as far as to plop a representation of the Flying Spaghetti Monster atop their Christimas Tree? Neither did I. The question is why and that is what Chris’ blog post explores.

It could of course all just be a joke, but there may be more too it. I’m sure Chris won’t mind if I reproduce some most of his intriguing blog post here:

Katie Aston, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths University in London researching atheist aesthetics and material cultures, suggests that such 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.”


It might be said that the symbol’s strength is found in its resemblance to a common Christian sign.


So why do atheists convert otherwise religious icons into secular symbols? Often times for impact.

“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 or agnostic. They are defiant and often juxtaposed to classic religious symbols. But this only tells half the story, it only establishes what atheists and agnostics do not believe or who they are not.


Whether the symbols tell us what atheists think or what they don’t believe, whether they be “negative” or “positive,” they provide a window into a non-religious identity culture that is continuously emerging in modern Western society.

On the back of vehicles, tee shirts, billboards or even atop Christmas trees these images are intimations of what it means to be atheist in a world full of religious signs and symbols. They provide identity, meaning and comfort to the world’s non-religious.

As Aston concluded, “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.”


I’ve left out some of the blog post which looked at ‘positive symbols’ atheists use and so I’d encourage you to read the whole blog post for yourself for the sake of balance.

I’ve often wondered at the atheist motivation to co-opt religious symbols.

Why do you think they employ such tactics?

UPDATE: The original source for ‘Atheist Aesthetics’ was a blog post written by Ken Chitwood and can be found here.

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10 Responses to “Why do atheists co-opt and adapt traditional Christian symbols for their own ends?”

  1. Chris Says:

    Thanks for this Stuart… I should point out, however, that I was also re-posting from another blog. I hope I made that clear enough in my post… best to give credit where credit is due :)

  2. webmaster Says:

    Thanks Chris, have given a little update at the bottom of the post to clarify this.

    It’s entirely my fault, you made this abundantly clear; it’s me running around in a slightly manic fashion ;-)

  3. Chris Says:

    Thanks for bigging me up so much though, it is a nice ego boost on a Saturday morning!

  4. Scout Says:

    I would say that if you are an agnostic or an atheist living in the UK, then even though you personally reject Christianity you are still to some extent the cultural and intellectual heir of Britain’s Christian history and heritage. That is not to say that there is necessarily anything dishonest or conflicted about atheism or agnosticism…just a recognition that everybody is shaped by cultural/historical forces.

  5. Simon Says:

    I think it’s a “ha ha, only serious” thing, isn’t it? Co-opt a symbol from the opposite side of an argument and make a joke out of it (this one is impressive parody, in the technical sense at the least). The aim isn’t purely to poke fun, but partly to make a point (or at least, what the author believes is a point).

    I always thought the Darwin fish was overdone – an ichthus with legs is double-take-oh-I-get-it funny. Adding “DARWIN” inside it is like explaining the joke…

  6. webmaster Says:

    This is going to sound absurd, but someone pointed out on Twitter that the parody of the Ichthys fish is not in fact a simple reference to Christianity, but a specific reference to ‘creationism’. I know this sounds silly but I hadn’t clocked that part.

  7. Simian Says:

    Using this kind of symbol can be an act of revolt against the status quo. Tne specific illustration is, as you say, usually an attack against creationism, but it is also used by the less aware as a general attack on Christian belief.
    Until recently it always felt to me that I was taking a significant risk in openly declaring myself to be an Atheist, and there was also something slightly thrilling about adapting a symbol originally used as a secret sign among Christians. Looking back I am slightly embarrassed by the stage I went through when this seemed a good idea, but at the time it was a graphic and proud confirmation of my revolt.

  8. webmaster Says:

    @Simian, you’re not the only one that’s slightly embarrassed when you look back. I was a fully paid up YEC for goodness sake.

    And that’s just the half of it….

  9. Sue Says:

    I’ve always seen the “Darwin Fish” as a criticism of creationists – not Christianity per se. I love it, think it is clever and witty (not that I’ve got it on the back of my car!)

  10. Goy Says:

    “Darwin Fish” walking on water!

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