Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Tattooed Ode to Reason

I love tattoos. I plan to be covered head to toe at some point in the future, though I'm in no particular hurry to get there. Over the past few weeks, I've become aware of an increasing number of atheist-themed tattoos out there. A quick google search for "atheist tattoo" reveals most of them as rather unimaginative: Various versions of the letter "A" prevail, some more clever ones include pictures of the flying spaghetti monster or the invisible pink unicorn. In between there is the occasional tattoo depicting the desecration of various religious symbols - rather tasteless if you ask me. Also I find it kinda weird to go through such lengths to ostentatiously demonstrate the non-identification with a single particular idea. If I were to get a tattoo about each and every topic I strongly disagree with, I'd run out of skin by the end of the week.
Personally, I derive far greater enjoyment of more positive tattoo motives: All those nerdy scientists, for example, who choose to express their love for their respective fields by displays on their skin.

Of the ideologically motivated tattoos, one in particular caught my attention:
The CEO of the British Humanist Association got a tattoo of the Happy Human - the internationally recognized symbol for Humanism - tattooed on her upper arm as part of a fundraising effort. They aimed for 20.000 pounds, any sum beyond that goal would increase the size of the tattoo she got.
I like that a lot better than depictions of a broken cross in a garbage bin. I also like it better than the rather boring "Scarlet A"-logo. What I did not like about the story was the realization that, had I read that story when it was still news, I could have copied the fundraising-idea when I got my own Happy Human tattoo in June 2009:
I love the Happy Human logo. Happiness and People are all what Humanism is about, and the symbol captures that nicely while being a simple, adaptable, and beautiful form.

The other tattoo I'd like to show you is both a little more complex and a lot larger; The motive is an 18th century etching done by a spanish artist called Goya. It goes by the lovely title 'The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters'. Here it is, in all its considerable beauty:

The Original 'Sleep of Reason'The Tattooed Version
Above all, I chose this because I simply admire the picture. It's a masterpiece. I don't care much for what else I've seen of Goya's works, but this one has always resonated with me. The combination of the lyrical title with the rather dark motive I have always found fascinating, in particular the little details like how the cross-eyed staring of the ghostly animals conveys an atmosphere of insanity that is outright scary.

Another reason, of course, is the message. As I have written before, the simple absence of religion is not sufficient to really improve anything. "Good" requires more than just the absence of "bad". Goya nailed it (see what I did there?) when he wrote that the sleep of reason is what produces monsters. There are thousands of people out there who believe in god and live perfectly benign lives, not obstructing stem cell research, not shooting abortion doctors, nor trying to corrupt the science curriculum by demanding that biblical creation be taught in our kids' schools. Religion is merely a multiplying factor, not the danger itself. What we need is not so much less religion - it is more reason.


  1. I don't like tatoos. Basically I can't imagine wanting the same picture on my wall for the rest of my life, much less a pic on my whatever...

    1. I get that reaction a lot, and I never understood it at all. Right now your skin is all white, why aren't you afraid you'll grow tired of that?

      I know I'll change. Or at least I very much hope I'll do. But no matter how much I change, thanks to these two I'll never ever forget just how idealistic (and perhaps naive?) I was when I was young. I'll never forget what I believe in right now.

      Imagine more politicians had such powerful reminders of their youth's idealism. I'm pretty sure world politics would be less of a sad spectacle.

    2. haha I can see that tattoo idea in a utopia movie.

      projecting the problems of today onto the future:

      they'd then begin to add to and change their tats.

      or no one would hold them accountable to their tats

      or the public would be completely oblivious to those with logical tats- and would rally around those with the pretty and emotional ones