I Get Email Too: On religious symbols, double meanings, and passing

In my FtBCon talk Mission Creep, I briefly touched on the episode in my life when I wore a plain silver crucifix hoping to “pass” as Christian in my predominantly French Catholic town:

Chi Rho, the "Monogram of Christ", one of the earliest symbols of Christianity

Chi Rho, the “Monogram of Christ”, one of the earliest symbols of Christianity

I felt isolated. I felt like I had to “pass” as Christian. I put on airs of being a Christian, wearing a plain silver crucifix, hoping that was enough to camouflage what was going on in my head. I justified wearing it, mentally, because I really liked the Castlevania game series — a game that used what scattered religious iconography it could slip past the censors at Nintendo of America. The cross was used as a smart bomb that killed all the enemies on screen; and there was a throwing weapon that was originally a cross-shaped boomerang but whose graphics had been altered to avoid the overt parallel. I was amused that I was wearing an icon that to me represented a video game I liked, but to everyone else a symbol of their devout faith.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one. This part of the talk, among a few others, resonated with one of the viewers and they wrote to me to express appreciation that their own life’s trajectory to and through deconversion worked much the same way. They mentioned that their wearing of the cross took on other stealth meanings as well, which I pressed them on. They agreed to my publishing their story here, in hopes of sparking a conversation.

I stopped believing that God was unambiguously good a long time before I stopped believing in the existence of God.

Basically, I read the story of Abraham and Isaac in my Illustrated Story Bible and the idea that what God wants = what I should do was immediately and unambiguously undone by the news that God had asked a guy to stab his son and set the son on fire for him. That was when I was about six years old.

I grew up basically accepting that I was going to go to hell for disobeying God, because I had heard that God tests everyone at some point in their lives, and knew from the Illustrated Story Bible that God sometimes chose to test people by asking them to kill other people. I also knew that I definitely wasn’t going to stab any family members and set them on fire, no matter who asked me or what the consequences would be. This didn’t actually stress me out too much, for various reasons. It was just a looming fact in my life, that I thought I had to plan for — I couldn’t count on heaven; I just had to get done whatever I had to get done on earth. But the obvious non-benevolence of God stuck with me and it kept clashing with what I was being taught.

Around the fifth or sixth grade, I heard of Gnosticism and the Gnostic Demiurge. I didn’t learn very much about it and what I learned was probably inaccurate — I think it was a paragraph in some Religious Ed document. It was not supposed to be the thing we believed. But it was enormously exciting and comforting to me to learn that someone else in history had suggested that the God of the Bible might not be omni-benevolent or omnipotent at all, that he might actually just be sort of wounded-animal-angry and sentimental, like King Lear. It made so much more sense that way! I decided Jesus was his honest human son, who tried to call Yahweh on his bullshit and got crucified for his troubles, just like Cordelia! Sort of.

Anyway, for a while I adopted this partial mythology and mentally translated all the religious stuff around me into it (while not bothering to tell anyone). I felt like I could be down with Jesus, whom everyone liked better anyway, without having to mess with his icky, howling, murder-demanding dad. So I wore the cross and felt ok about it.

Later, I saw Spartacus, and the cross took on an extra layer of “woo, slave rebellion solidarity.” It blew my mind a little to learn that the Roman Empire had crucified 6000 people after the Third Servile War, because priests had always emphasized to us the unique horribleness of Jesus’ suffering while sort of glossing over the fact that a whole bunch of other people also got crucified (even though it was right there in the source text!). By then, I was drifting away from the pseudo-Gnosticism, which I thought was a better story than the Original Sin thing but which I didn’t exactly believe-believe, but I wore a cross for a while longer in honor of Spartacus and the crew. Then I stopped wearing crosses altogether, but that’s another story.

This is a more theological story than mine, where the author’s deconversion happened far more incrementally than my own. The commonality between our stories, though, is that the symbols mean what we want them to mean.

It got me to thinking. It’s fascinating how the symbol of a Roman torture device, used on thousands of people, became to Christians the symbol of their probably-nonexistent messiah. It’s also fascinating how that’s probably not the earliest symbol of Christianity — isn’t that more likely the Chi Ro, pictured above? Or the omnipresent Jesus Fish, built from a pun on “ichthys”?

These symbols mean what we want them to mean. And the symbols’ meanings are passed through culture, memetically. It may be gauche or senseless or insensitive to wear a swastika when all of our culture has associated it with the horrors of the Holocaust — but if you were in Nazi Germany, you’d be a lot safer with a swastika on than without, whether you agreed with the Nazi philosophies or not. I can’t help but feel the same way — the cross represents so much abrogation of personhood and self-direction, and it at times felt horrible that I was using it as a shield, but most of the time, I could quell those feelings by thinking of the other meanings it had, including the protection from harassment it conferred. I was subverting their symbol so I would have less fear of being persecuted for being different from them.

This culture is still predominantly Christian. When Christians claim persecution, with their supermajorities, and with all the real disadvantages that atheists have, I can’t help but scoff. The fact that I felt it necessary to pass as one of you lest I get harangued by believers is proof enough to me that being in the majority confers certain privileges, privileges that the dominant group is almost invariably loathe to give up. It surely does feel like persecution when you go from the only game in town, to one of many.

So, what symbols do you have in your lives that mean things other than the expected?


  1. badgersdaughter says

    Oh, wow. I’m an atheist who belongs to a thriving Tarot meetup group. Yes, I got into Tarot years ago when I was religious, then gave it up as being “sinful”, then got into it again when I convinced myself that it didn’t really have anything to do with demons and stuff, then when I became an atheist it wasn’t a priority to throw out my several-dozen-deck art collection worth thousands of dollars. Then I went to therapy, ran into Jung, and I started studying archetypes and pictorial therapy. I postulated that the symbols in the deck are carefully evolved to work synergistically with our mental and cultural cognition (if that makes sense).

    I am actually an excellent Tarot reader, easily as good or better than as the professional “psychics” in the group I go to (which makes them a bit angry, lol). No, I do not always “cold read”! I think any success in a reading can be explained in terms of the shared way people think and the subtle cues we involuntarily receive from people we are paying close attention to. Half the work is done by the querent themselves, as the reader guides them to verbalize how a symbol or picture generates thoughts and feelings in them about their own situation. The rest is done by the thoughtful and knowledgeable intelligence of the reader, and the atmosphere of relaxed openness and acceptance that I think characterizes all good therapy sessions.

    I don’t want you to think that I ascribe “power” to the deck, the symbols, or any outside force. I carefully emphasize to the querent and any onlookers that I am not psychic and the cards are just particularly rich in evocative symbolism. When challenged, I have been known to tear cards in half calmly one after another in front of the challenger (one reason I usually read in public with a cheap, easily replaced deck!). I’ve done readings with photographs from a randomly opened waiting room magazine before.

    The key really lies in the way the mind accepts and processes certain sorts of iconic visual stimuli (symbols, but not only symbols) and relates it to previous experiences and future expectations.

  2. Erk12 says

    No, I do not always “cold read”! I think any success in a reading can be explained in terms of the shared way people think and the subtle cues we involuntarily receive from people we are paying close attention to. Half the work is done by the querent themselves, as the reader guides them to verbalize how a symbol or picture generates thoughts and feelings in them about their own situation. The rest is done by the thoughtful and knowledgeable intelligence of the reader, and the atmosphere of relaxed openness and acceptance that I think characterizes all good therapy sessions.

    Ummm… what you just described is cold reading.

  3. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    I find all jewelry to be an annoyance to me, but when I did attempt to wear any, it frequently featured a crucifix. It’s a symbol divorced of any significant meaning for me, but I had (or perhaps still have) a bit of a cricifixation.

  4. Apparently Not Erin says

    I’ve got a Celtic cross that I used to wear simply because it’s beautiful. Unfortunately (as a waste of money), I turned out to be allergic to whatever metal was in the chain and I ended up not wearing it often after the first couple months and at all after a year.

    As for the Jesus fish, if I recall what I was taught as a child, it was used as a test to identify other Christians without saying anything during the period of Roman persecution. One person would draw half of the fish in the sand and the other would complete the fish. Though that’s just what they were telling people 20 years ago. I’ve also heard that the symbol was originally used to represent a fertility goddess, in which case it’s far older than the cross.

  5. badgersdaughter says

    Ummm… what you just described is cold reading.

    Most people use the phrase to mean a systematic elicitation of planned responses using manipulative verbal, physical, and visual tactics. That’s not what I do at all.

  6. CaitieCat says

    Funny, for me a cross is just as alien a symbol as the Zoso thingy that Muslims identify by, or a six-pointed star, or whatever else. In fact, the show that I truly adore, Fullmetal Alchemist, the main characters (and their teacher) use a symbol that looks like a snake climbing up and draped over a cross, with a winged crown above it, all in silhouette.

    I adore the symbol, adore the show, but won’t be wearing anything with it on, so as to avoid the possibility that someone might mistake me for a Christian. Similarly, though I love Celtic knotwork, I avoid the jewelry one can buy that has the Celtic cross on it, for the same reason.

    I can totally get how one would adopt it as protective camouflage, though, and if I were in a place where that were important, I’d probably change my mind about the Elrics’ symbol. Thanks for writing about this, it’s always interesting to hear about how other atheists have negotiated the religion that had been in their lives, or which perfused their childhood milieu.

  7. cuervodecuero says

    I think sometimes the tougher part is finding something that doesn’t give off a Christian vibe. Christianity, over the centuries, has done everything possible to corner the market,(Cat on Red Dwarf, this is mine…this is mine…) primarily on ‘cross’ shapes. Heraldic emblazoning is rife with variations on positions, arms, enhancements, appropriated and invented.

    Annoying when looking into the graphic symbology of many cultures, you find ‘crosses’ as important design elements metaphorically representing power. So, even when you might be attempting to use something unChristian, it comes off these days in the ‘western’ culture as Christian.

    I mean, they’ve even got the letter T when they’ve claimed the Tao cross, as well as an ankh variant for the Coptics. The triquetra’s been taken for the trinity, etc etc. They’ve even got the upside down cross (when they’re not shrieking Saaaaataaaaan about it) for Saint Peter.

    Not that it matters much in many communities because you could be wearing a perfectly good Christian symbol and if it doesn’t match up graphically or even in style and material of manufacture to be the shibboleth in whatever sect-controlled region/community/parish/hall where you presently find yourself, you’re hooped anyway.

    It’s the sort of tribal symbolism that makes one want to wear a pentagram…o wait, they claim that too, up and down, until they don’t. And the religious wonder why the irreligious always end up talking about religion. Mostly because centuries of stripping symbology of every metaphor everywhere in everything except what it means to the ruling religion, has robbed us of religion-free iconography.

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