Scarlet Letters

The “Scarlet Letter” is an old pointy hat. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his magnum opus in 1850 and not too much later, in 2007, the Richard Dawkins Foundation came around with the idea that Atheists shall “out”  themselves, too, with a scarlet A on their chest like the unfortunate characters of Hawthorne’s novel.


“Good evening, […] I thought it time we had a little talk. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…”
— V in “V for Vendetta”

For those who bunked the English lessons, or who didn’t enjoy English literature education in some foreign country, I found this video illustrating the plot. It is quite worth your time.

A for Atheism

If you skipped the video and you want to watch it later, skip this paragraph too, as it contains a spoiler. You have been warned. It is quite ironical that the character who “outs” himself with the Scarlet Letter – of all people – turns out to be the Puritan pastor of the village, who dies shortly afterwards.


“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Isaiah 1:18

The meaning of the scarlet letter A was never revealed on the 180 pages of the novel. Speculations assumed it stood for “Adulterer” which is fairly obvious given the story and biblical themes, or perhaps “America” which seems to be derived from a deeper interpretation of the novel’s themes.

Prof. Richard Dawkins was less ambiguous: he wanted it to mean “Atheist”. In some sense that would even fit as an interpretation of the novel. But the main character Hester was a child of her times, and couldn’t wear the label with pride as the gays did with theirs. Though “owning” a label attached by others and changing its meaning is already hinted at.

The idea to make the godless “nones” more visible was important. Clearly, the label “Atheist” won out against Secularist, Humanist, Agnosticist or Free-Thinker (they all have different connotations, for sure).

“Nones” might help millions, “nones” might donate to charity, “nones” help the poor and heal the sick but as long as there is no label on it, the idea of being “godless” cannot take credit. In a perfect world it wouldn’t have to. But in the War of Ideas it means other worldviews, namely, the religious ones, increase their share more easily. Making numbers visible creates influence in democratic societies – an insight that drove RDFRS ipsos mori survey (use the search engine of your choice to find many articles explaining its findings).

In that sense, the “outing” is not the same as going onto a stage as in Hawthorne’s novel. It is showing the presence of Atheists as a group, and that they are at least perfectly normal people. The argument goes when you know someone of a group personally, prejudice toward that group wanes (which is in the word prejudice, pre-judge anyway).

And it shows to politicians that a group exist as voters and, encourages them to take non-religious positions into account, too. Finally, Atheists in some areas of the USA feel less alone knowing there are others “out” there. RDFRS’ Dr. Elizabeth Cornwell explains her “outing” ideas and inspiration in some more detail in the following video (skip to 1:30 where she begins talking).

A for Adultery

The Puritans, however, found it important to announce character flaws to the public, by putting the offender onto a stage. It is not about a group image, but about identities. This is quite another way of “outing”: it was a form of punishment, to warn the community from such individuals and perhaps to force the offender to change their ways and earn back their place in society. With only moderate success as the novel suggests.

The community probably felt validated in their views, and could feel morally superior. The act of shaming was used as a warning to everyone else to stick to the rules, and perhaps there was an element of catharsis, too. The audience could use the reminder to “reset” their own shame and the unfortunate soul on the stage became some sort of scapegoat. A little bit like “whew, they didn’t get me! Now I’m more careful”.

Everyone probably has plenty of things they don’t want to have announced to everyone else. There is not even an argument about it in our modern times. It is the default. Thus the act of being pushed into a stage preprared by someone else, forced to play to their script must be seen as abusive and unethical (contrary to what Stephanie Zvan of the Commentariat claims). The international laws, at least, are unambiguous enough, and make the often vitriolic denial of common sense from the usual quarters who are known to smear, shun and shame a very long shot, indeed.

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, […] correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.”
International Defamation Law

puritanThe main element of shunning an shaming, next to punishment, is probably making an example. It becomes a form of intimidation as our name and reputation might be one of the most precious things (on the internet for example), we don’t want to risk. Perhaps it is the closest to “soul” as we can get. The reputation is like the personality in all its dimensions reduced and measured out, like an essence in its own way. On the internet, where our bodies do not matter directly, the name and reputation are of most importance. The realness of a “real” name is unimportant as any name used with consistency requires (emotional) investment and time. If it gets destroyed, all the effort gets lost as well. If it gets merged with some other identity, everything, good and bad picked up over time gets transferred as well. Joanne K. Rowling could write as Robert Galbraith, but when it came out, it all merged without distinction with her other name. Probably the Wikipedia pages merged, too, if they existed (she was outed fairly early).


Quite some human endeavours are about beating death by becoming immortal through achievements, good and bad so that the name enters history. The age of the internet changes the dynamic once more, as it provides for the first time a way where “ordinary individuals” may write about their times, their lives, their daily activities and intimate thoughts. It is, in some sense, a democratisation of history.

When future generations will look into their (family’s) history, it might be your name that comes up to give a direct report of how it was while you lived. Not the historians of the conquerors in early history, not some folklorists in the 18th century, but you, personally tells them. And why should your opponents write your story? Though, arguably you want to become truly immortalized, you got to aim higher than documenting your dish.

A for America

Making a name or building up reputation is intertwined with ideas that rule the world. On a large scale people die for ideas, and sometimes their names become ideas. Martin Luther, John Calvin or Karl Marx appear in a ghost form as Lutheranism, Calvinism or Marxism that shape(d) history, with their personality and reputation right on top. If their idea makes it, their name makes it. It is not entirely clear who is in control. Do we control ideas, or are we possessed by these cultural forces. None of the men mentioned above had their insights out of nowhere, they became agents of some other ideas and developments, refined them and advanced them under a different label, which then in turn possesed individuals across history to advance it further, sometimes changing the label once more (say to Puritanism, or Leninism).

“On large scales, societies build symbols: laws, religious meaning systems, cultures, and belief systems to explain the significance of life, define what makes certain characteristics, skills, and talents extraordinary, reward others whom they find exemplify certain attributes, and punish or kill others who do not adhere to their cultural worldview.” — Terror Management Theory

Terrorism in a dreadful way combines many of the themes discussed so far. Terrorists might consider their work as heroic from their perspective. Unlike a spree killer, they submit themselves to an idea – say a religious worldview – and hope to become immortal in history for having advanced that idea, which they apparently take pride in. And the reactions again take symbolic forms.

“When a follower’s mortality is made prominent they will tend to show a strong preference for iconic leaders. An example of this occurred when George W. Bush’s approval rating jumped almost 50 percent following the September 11 attacks in the United States.” — Terror Management Theory

Acts of terror themselves have a large symbolical component. The terrorist and the media outlets form an uncanny alliance. Some ideas are designed in such a way that they are being shared. What is LolCats to social media is terrorism to traditional news, perfectly adapted to their medial niche. Terrorism without media would not work.

“Remember, Remember, the Eleventh of September”

Contrast 9/11 with 11/5, of the year 1605 of puritanical times. Another big war of ideas was about to tear Europe apart between the Reformation that was flaring up everywhere, and the established Catholicism.


Blood Red Letters

The Idea of the West, attacked by the Idea of Islam goes back to another major religious schism called the Great Schism or East–West Schism. Most of Europe, especially the western part became Catholic.  South-East Europe and Russian Asia became the domain of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose history is intertwined with the fate of Russia. East and West became two systems that once stood against each other in the Cold War, another war of ideas, and are still at odds with each other.

The West began to take shape with Catholocisim, but it was profoundly changed over hundreds of years. The last pagans were Christianized by the end of the Viking Age in the 11thcentury, but many of their customs became part of Christian culture, such as lighting fires in autumn.  The Reconquista expelled Islam from south-west Europe in the 15th century, but left art, medicine and knowledge that was lost in the Christian sphere. But the rule of Catholicism didn’t last for long.

Gutenberg’s printing press introduced mass communication (in the 1440s) and was a truly disruptive technology.  Sir Francis Bacon wrote the invention “changed the whole face and state of the world” and took the Catholic authorities by surprise. The catholic phobocracy and the Reformation are left for another time (on Halloween for some reason), but to offer a sketchy timeline. The Reformation was kicked off in 1517 by Martin Luther. John Calvin, a French humanist lawyer – as he was called then – broke away from Catholicism in 1530.

Those two men provided the main branches of the Reformation known as Calvinism and Lutheranism, and they are the precursors of american Evangelicalism. The Puritans of England (who would later appear in the colonies and in Hawthorne’s novel), together with Calvinists of the Netherlands (and today’s Belgium), the Presbyterians of Scotland and the Huguenots of France were in the tradition of John Calvin. This article in the New York Times explores some more how Americans are Still Puritan, after all these years.

Illustration by John McCoy

Illustration by John McCoy (found here)

At the time, in the early 17th century, the Puritans tried to influence the English crown for their brand of calvinist-reformist ideas. Contrary to popular opinion they weren’t that bad, even advanced some very important views hold dearly today, such as education for everyone. Their views seem almost nice in contrast with utmost evil and very authoritarian Catholicism of the time.

Shakespeare’s (1564—1616) england was already officially Reformist. The Church of England (Anglican Church) was separated from Rome for quite a while and ever since tried to keep catholic influences limited. The Catholics were a suppressed group, called “Recusants”. They refused to attend Anglican services, and their absence was fined. It was tolerated insofar as it brought quite some amount into the king’s treasury.

But when James I acceded to the throne in 1603, who was afraid of Witchcraft and who had written a book on demonology before – which gave Shakespeare some inspiration for MacBeth – a group of Catholics got quite nervous that the situation might get worse for them.

They devised a plan to blow up the British Parliament when king and royal family were present, to replace them with a more pro-catholic monarchy. The event entered history as the Gunpowder plot, which I will revise in due time. A long story short: authorities thwarted the plot before one of the conspirators could ignite the gunpowder barrels. Guy Fawkes was caught first, and the others only shortly thereafter.

Where the Americans mourn for the victims of 9/11, the British people  used to celebrate the averted terror attack from 11/5 in the Bonfire night, based on pagan customs. Guy Fawkes became a spectre of British history. Where American kids disguise themselves as witches and ghosts in the dark autumn days, Britain’s children used to wear paper masks with Guy Fawkes visage, which were then consigned to the flames around the same time. Symbology everywhere!

guy-fawkesThere will be a part II, where all ideas congregate. Please leave your opinion, rants, critique, thoughts, in the comment section below, and share, tweet to people who might find it interesting, or like, sub, or follow  if was something for you. Too much dates? Or do you like hunting down links? Thanks, you are awesome.

8 thoughts on “Scarlet Letters

  1. I just visited Plimoth Plantation last week, coincidentally. Hawthorne’s embroidered letter was mild compared to the punishments found in the court records: branding an “A” upon the cheek; severe public flogging; an execution or two. One husband was placed in the pillory while his wife was flogged, as his abandonment of her was deemed to have driven her into sin. Masks & disguises were banned in Plymouth, as this was a common way of effecting liaisons.

    Adultery, sodomy, pre-marital sex appear to have been quite common in the Plymouth & Mass. Bay colonies, despite the harsh penalties. Only 1/3 of the original Pilgrims were Separatists (as their calvinist sect was known), leading to friction from the start. There was also an early surplus of men, plus many independent-minded adventurers.


    Given that the puritans were outnumbered from the get-go, and by 1700 had virtually disappeared from the overwhelmingly Anglican population, I am highly skeptical of the common assumption that modern American mores derives its puritanical streak from the Pilgrims et al. Especially as by the time of the Revolution, American society fully embraced the sex-positive milieu of Cleland and Fielding (though Boston was ever a notorious book-banning municipality.) Thus, we find no one batting an eye when Dr. Prescott, who was spending the night in Lexington with his mistress, hops out of bed to join Paul Revere on his “Midnight Ride.”

    pace the NYT, more plausible is that America’s modern puritanism originates in the revivalism that swept the nation in the 1820’s & 30’s, following by the Victorian Era, & bolstered by the conservative Catholicism of Irish immigrants following the Great Famine. And the so-called “protestant work ethic” is practically indistinguishable from that frontier/homesteading work ethic which permeated our continual expansion westward.

    Someone of a more literary bent than I might muse on whether Hawthorne, writing in 1850, was rejecting 17th-century puritan mores, or resuscitating them.

  2. Thanks for this comment, very interesting facts I didn’t know about. I read that the Puritans were fairly numerous in the early colonies, enough to “set the tone”, but it diminished over time, so that historians use the term Puritan only for a fairly narrow period. Reformation ideas were certainly influental, even if, as you write, through alternative routes. England’s Anglican church was already reformist and even if not totally Calvinist, as it seems, influenced by it. The Victorian Era could be seen as in that general tradition.

    Matt Cavanaugh: Someone of a more literary bent than I might muse on whether Hawthorne, writing in 1850, was rejecting 17th-century puritan mores, or resuscitating them.

    I would say that Hawthorne walks a fine line that does neither outright. All interpretations I found were fairly complex and couldn’t even agree on what the A meant exactly.

  3. Aye, thanks! I’m still on it, but had too many distractions at the beginning and got a bit out of the loop. Thanks for the encouragement, it might give me the boost to get it done within the next few days. I practically learn Paretos Principle in writing right now, getting 80% done in 20% of the time and needing 80% of the time for the final 20%. 🙂

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