Sunday, March 18, 2012

Our Modern Day Scarlet Letters: Religion, Atheism, and Pride

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" is a classic story often referenced and rarely read about a woman, Hester Prynne, who has a child out of wedlock and is forced to wear a scarlet letter "A" around her chest. This story set in the late 19th century dates itself with Hester's sin being adultery and having sex before marriage. Even though this story is over 150 years old, the its themes of isolation, societal discipline, and labeling remain today.

Michel Foucault theorized about the institutional and discursive power of assigning meaning and labels to objects, behaviors, and bodies. Foucault's main interests were the study of the human body as it is disciplined by medicine, the legal system, and the constraints of sexuality. Those who are labeled "mentally ill" by discursive definitions are given treatment, isolated from others, and lose some rights as patients under care instead of as capable individuals. Take, for example, that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defined homosexuality as a mental illness up until the 1970s, labeling homosexuals as unstable mentally, of non-normative functioning, and in need of treatment. How society creates discourses has important implications for individuals and how they behave.

Although this post could take many directions from using the BMI scale to label people "morbidly" obese, to  how the abortion argument has been framed in terms of "killing babies" instead of "aborting fetuses". But, this post will focus on what I consider my scarlet letter and what Richard Dawkins has rightly created the same connection: atheism. In a world where nearly 90% of the world's population considers themselves religious and there are more people willing to identify as "non-religious" (9.42%) instead of "atheists" (2.04%), coming out as an atheist, one who will admit a belief that there is no God, is a mark of suspicion and shame. Even in a country where the founding fathers warned against the dangers of religion, an admission of any faith, or lack thereof, besides mainstream Christianity is political suicide (see my previous post for a discussion of Romney's Mormonism). Politicians like Santorum gain ground espousing conservative Christian ideals even though they negate many constitutional rights and court rulings. An emphasis on religious ideals can undermine human rights when they are imposed as the standards for all Americans.

Believing such ideas and being willing to express them openly and publicly is rare, so I feel that atheism could be considered the adultery of the modern era. The parallel of the "A"s is not lost on me, and there is the opportunity for the celebration of such a parallel instead of running from it. Dawkins, by selling pro-atheism jewelry on his website, appropriates the classic scarlet letter symbol and transforms it from a mark of shame to pride. Religious discourse may label atheists as sinners, or misguided and lost followers, reinforcing that these beliefs should be hidden and produce shame in the believer. Atheists, however, can transform this discourse, not by rejecting it and forming a new term, but by adjusting the definition of atheism from negative to positive, a badge, a letter, of a unique brand of faith.