I (that troublemaker Jeff Swenson) was finally able to catch up with busy man cartoonist Bill Mutranowski who is the creator behind Atheist Cartoons at AtheistCartoons.com. Bill generously let Freethunk rotate a best-of selection of his cartoons back in February on our homepage and has a huge archive of opinionated toons full of irony–including some animated cartoons–on his site. I don’t care what you believe, you should read them just to get a different take on a multitude of subjects (not just atheism). As always, I’m fascinated by the mind of other cartoonists and especially those who don’t mind calling themselves atheists so Bill was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
FREETHUNK: It appears on the site that Atheist Cartoons goes all the way back to January 2009. We’re you putting these opinions into cartoons prior to that and how did you decide to actually start “Atheist Cartoons”?
BILL: I guess in terms of the Internet, January of 2009 qualifies as way back when. I’d done a little editorial cartooning, but outlets for that were becoming increasingly scarce. So I blogged a little, but soon latched onto the idea of atheist cartoons. It seemed like something no one was doing (present company excluded). By the way, the cartoons are mainly about the religious notions that other people have. I play on the attendant contradictions, irony, hypocrisy and silliness.
FREETHUNK: What is your background with atheism? Everyone seems to have a story to tell or was it pretty straightforward with no dramatic ditching of religious faith?
BILL: I was raised Catholic. (When I was 6 or 7 and being groomed to receive my first communion, the nun who was my teacher wanted to instill in us a proper reverence for the holy wafer, in particular that we should never ever touch it. So she told us about this nasty little boy who, one Sunday after receiving the body of Christ, secretly spit it into a handkerchief and rushed home. He went into the kitchen and placed the host on a cutting board, took out a sharp knife and stabbed it. Blood gushed out. That was the end of the lesson. It was very effective. Fortunately, most of the nuns who taught me later didn’t weave such macabre tales.) In my mid 20s (I’m 53 now) religious dogma began to ring hollow. After that it just became less and less relevant. For a long time I thought of myself as “spiritual,” but the more I read and the more experiences I had, particularly with non-Christians and people who were born and raised outside the United States, the more nebulous that notion became. Now I’m a skeptic.
FREETHUNK: I’ve noticed you pull no punches with your cartoons. I’ve often done the same with my own cartoon work, but I think to your credit you’ve been clearer in pointing out hypocrisy not just amongst religionists but also unbelievers. I’m thinking as an example of the cartoon showing the person trying to dive into two pools and remain an agnostic. Are you looking to upset everyone with the goal of what? Getting everyone to debate what they believe?
BILL: I prefer “no sacred cows.” You can be an atheist and narrow-minded. If you value skepticism the first thing that should go under the microscope is yourself. Also, I notice that when a lot of people argue–whether it’s about atheism or something else–it seems very personal to them. But who you turn out to be is a cosmic roll of the dice. No one chooses the culture into which they’re born or how they’ll be educated, what their personality or brain chemistry will be, who their parents are or the sort of formative experiences they’ll have. Is there really any thought that arises outside the realm of causality? Choices–about religion and belief, for example–are based on one’s ability to choose. And that ability is determined by, among other things, every experience that did–or didn’t–come before. Anyway, to me it’s not personal, since the idea of free will is itself an iffy proposition, which is why I try to stay focused on ideas rather than individuals.
FREETHUNK: I’ve seen many of your cartoons make reference to the Phelps Clan or “God Hates Fags.” You seem to give them the high ground, if you will, on Biblical Literalism in comparison to their fellow brethren who are also literalists, but criticize Phelps for saying “God Hates.” Do you think Westboro Baptist Church is truer to the Bible than other literalists?
BILL: I always think twice before referencing the “God Hates Fags” crowd because it’s cliche and I want to avoid the cheap joke. I also try not to be gratuitous. But as you suggest, it’s useful to juxtapose them with, say, moderates, who spin the Bible for their own purposes. Does god hate the sinner or the sin? It’s like asking whether Santa Claus wears boxers or briefs.
FREETHUNK: Some of the cartoons deal with cultural relativity—my morals and standards are better than yours. Is this a fair assumption, whether it is an ancient tribal religion, Islam or even Christian versus Christian? All morals and values are not equal? It still seems to be a shocking concept in America where we’re always trying to be “fair” to everyone.
BILL: I think it would be great if people, A: stopped pretending to rely on ancient myths as the source of their morality, B: recognized that qualities like empathy have evolved as part of the evolutionary process and are not exclusive to humans, and C: actively did more of what we’ve probably already been doing for ages, i.e., cultivating values based on our experiences as social beings who need to get along with one another.
FREETHUNK: On that same note, I noticed one cartoon about Sam Harris. Any opinions on Harris’ idea of using the scientific method for the sake of examining morality?
BILL: More power to him. I haven’t read his book on the subject or all of the counter arguments, but my impression is that he’s saying science can inform ethics and morality by giving us empirical insight into what well-being means for most people most of the time. That’s different from saying that science can or should dictate what is moral behavior for all people all of the time. Maybe you can’t get “ought” from “is,” but I’m guessing science is at least partly responsible for the fact that there are no hospitals for rocks, insects or oysters.
FREETHUNK: As you point out numerous times, Christians adopt modern sensibilities but only to a certain point. What do you think the future holds as this trend progresses? Aren’t they all bound to become deists as they run out of traditions usurped by science or updated moral values?
BILL: Who knows? But if you want to do something to diminish religious superstition and promote critical thinking, I think it’s useful to take a long-term view and not be wedded to results. It’s about changing the climate. Jokes and cartoons about faith, religion and god can help break down taboos that encourage ignorance. Hopefully, faith-based thinking will become less and less a part of public discourse, especially in the United States. I suppose the other part of the equation is supplanting some of the more touchy-feely aspects of religion. I’ve discovered that not only can you be good without god, but you can also be awe-inspired. I don’t know if it’s possible to persuade other people of that. I just do my bit and hope for the best.
FREETHUNK: Some artist geek talk—do you create your cartoons digitally or hand draw? Or a mixture of both? Cartoonists like myself are always interested in what methods other cartoonist use.
BILL: I do a draft on paper with a soft pencil, then scan that and trace over it in Illustrator with a Wacom pen and tablet, often rearranging and resizing elements. I transfer that to Photoshop for coloring and lettering. Unfortunately, I work slowly. I think I read somewhere that editorial cartoonists typically spend 90 percent of their time coming up with an idea and 10 percent of their time rendering it. I don’t know if that’s true, but for me it’s the opposite. Drawing is hard.
FREETHUNK: Is Atheist Cartoons going to continue in the same direction of posting regularly or do you have any other projects you plan to work on for the future?
BILL: I’d like to keep posting. I might experiment with a different style so that I can post cartoons more quickly. Of course, I’d welcome an offer from a book publisher, or an offer to illustrate someone else’s project and get payed. It would be nice if the cartoons could somehow reach an audience that included theists. I’ve done some animation, but putting out something that is well done and remotely original is a huge job, especially when you’re working alone. Plus there’s so much competition for attention now. Anyway, I’m doing the cartoons for whatever educational value they might have.
FREETHUNK: Thanks for answering all our questions here. Any other comments?
BILL: My site’s name is atheistcartoons.com. I don’t much care for labels, but when you’re pitching something it helps to name it, especially when you’re in opposition to something as entrenched and powerful as religious lunacy. But the cartoons are not always about atheism, per se. They’re cartoons by an atheist.
And with that said, Bill is looking for interested publishers to work with in creating cartoon collections. If you are a creative publisher or work with a media company and have some ideas, drop him an email. His contact page is one click away…