In many parts of the United States, you may see an ichthus, or Jesus fish, in the Yellow Pages listings or other advertisements for some small businesses -- plumbers, corner stores, and the like. Usually, it will be the plain fish-outline, without any writing in the middle. This logo is a sign that the owners of the advertised business are Christian.

Why would a small business owner choose to advertise his or her religion -- especially when that religion is by far the majority religion in the nation? To be Christian is not unusual in the U.S.; rather, it is common, usual, expected. It is non-Christians -- be they Muslim, Pagan, or atheist -- who usually stand out. Non-Christianity is a mark throughout most of America, just as non-whiteness and non-heterosexuality are. So why is it Christian business-owners who mark their businesses as such?

Most of the time, when businesses proclaim demographic facts about their owners, it is because these owners belong to a minority group, and wish to attract the custom of fellow members of that group. (Take the black-owned clothing maker FUBU, for instance. Another example would be the neighborhood store that advertises itself as locally-owned, in contrast to the chains which channel capital away from the local economy.)

What does this say for the ichthus? I suspect that it says that while Christians are a majority in the U.S., many Christians perceive themselves as a minority. The reasons for this are historical and memetic. In the early years of the Christian church, Christians were indeed a minority, and a persecuted one at that. Moreover, Christianity stems from Judaism, which has an even longer history as an embattled minority, beset on all sides by enemies and prejudice. Several "persecuted minority" memes from those periods have persisted through history -- even after Christianity became the majority (and, from time to time, the persecutor majority) in Rome, Europe, and later America.

And so, in today's America, members of actual religious or irreligious minorities find ourselves faced with the ichthus. It is easy to misinterpret it when members of a powerful majority show off their status. Some of my fellow atheists consider the ichthus to be the equivalent of "White Power" -- a sign of an intolerant and persecuting majority. I disagree. It is not a symbol of prejudice and persecution, and those who use it do not mean it as such. It is, rather, a sign of just how long an identity group can remember persecutions long past.

Yes, the above is U.S.-centric. So is my knowledge of small businesses' use of the ichthus in advertisements.