Atheists and God-talk: Towards God-Free Language

Elsewhere in A/N, there’s a portal devoted to freeing your speech of God-references.  This is a worthwhile endeavor.  Our speech must reflect who we are.  But our language (and probably every language) is littered with references to gods.  What should we do? 

As a linguist (PhD, U. of Chicago), I’ve pondered this question for years: certainly any self-aware unbeliever is aware of the extent to which God-talk pervades even the atheist’s speech, not to mention that of the CNN anchors who murmur that they’re going to pray for the victims of whatever disaster they just reported.  And said unbeliever may feel a little uncomfortable, if not a bit hypocritical, for talking about God the way believers and agnostics do.

The alternate-language portal is a great start, but it’s too limited, includes a lot of things I don’t say (everybody has his/her own patterns of God-talk), and doesn’t give the user an option to add examples.

The following is intended as a complement and, hopefully, a trigger to further discussion. 

Types of God-talk

First of all, there is a primary distinction among three kinds of God-talk. 

One is performative, assuming the intervention of God in human events: “God willing” and “thank God” are the two worst offenders, which every humanist must avoid.  It was my mother’s repeated use of these two locutions that inevitably prompted Dad (the first skeptic I ever met) to cut her off with “What’s God got to do with it?”

Atheists must invent alternatives.  When Mom says “Thank God for Gary” (her gofer and handyman) – and inevitably adds “I know you don’t believe in that,” I come back with “How about we thank Gary?  Or Gary’s parents for having him?”

This is one viable strategy for atheists who want to avoid referring to divine will or intervention.  Or if there’s no direct agent, express gratitude that the chips fell where they did: “What a great piece of luck.” Or “I’m SO glad things turned out the way they did.”  Or something like that.  Credit an individual or good fortune, but not God. 

“God bless you” can be replaced wholesale, wishing the person (or congratulating him/her on) strength, courage, luck, or whatever’s needed.  (And when someone sneezes, I say “Gesundheit.”)  “God damn” followed by personal pronouns or someone’s name are also performatives, although simple “Goddamn” or “Goddamn it” and the widespread use of “goddamn(ed)” as an adjective are more like interjections (see below).

Neutral God-talk

Second, we have neutral god-words that have made their way into the lexicon -- perhaps a dozen such items (“godspeed,” “godlike,” “godfather,” “godsend,” “godforsaken,” “godawful”), according to Random House/Webster’s Unabridged, 2nd edition

Here it’s up to you.  I always replace “godsend” with a synonym.  “Godforsaken” has high emotional content, so I can get away with it in the right contexts, when nobody’s paying any attention to language (see below).  Same for “god-like” or “godspeed,” though I would usually find a synonym.  


The third type of God-talk is interjective.  It expresses a burst of negative emotion – “Goddamn (it),” “for God’s sake,” and others.  Should we be inventing God-free alternatives? 

Not necessarily.

Remember that in a believer’s view, every use of God by an atheist can be considered to be “taking his name in vain.”  I have actually never understood exactly what is prohibited.  Does “in vain” refer to every mention of God outside a house of worship (and therefore it’s in vain because he doesn’t listen, and you have no hope of calling upon his power)? 

And why “take”?  Shouldn’t it be "mention" or "use"?  I have no idea what it means to take a name.

What does it really mean?

The Jewish Publication Society’s authoritative version of the Torah acknowledges this translation in a footnote but prefers “swear falsely by” in the main text  (Exodus 20:7).  I’m still in the dark.  Is this when you swear to do something and ask God to witness it, then go back on your word?  

Don’t know…just guessing.  I’m sure there are a hundred interpretations by clerics, but that’s their spin.  The fact is that this commandment is more than a little obscure.

Broad application

But what I do not have to guess at is that a great many people have decided that this commandment applies to all God-talk AND foul language.  So every time I use “God” in an interjection, I’m violating one of their precious commandments.  Sometimes I even point it out: “And when an atheist swears to God, you know he means it.”  Let them chew on that one.  

Some believers, notably Jews, get all primitive and mystical about God’s name.  They can’t utter it so they move up one level meta-wise and say ha-shem (‘the name’). 

I recall a documentary about the exclusions and ostracism of Orthodox Jewish gays in Brooklyn, and one of them addresses the deity, who BTW has called him an abomination and condemned him to death, and STILL uses the honorific replacement form: “I would say to ha-shem…”

Atheists saying “God” 

Also – very important --  the God-interjections are uttered in a state of high emotional arousal, in which you are not likely to be called on your language.  I know of only one exception – my wife’s grandmother insisted that my atheist wife really did believe in God, only because she’d say “Oh my God.”

So yes, I can be heard to utter an occasional “Goddamn (it)!” and use “goddamn(ed)” as an adjective, though I’ve reduced the amount of God-talk by delegating more curse-work to his son. 

I say “Jesus!” a lot (e.g., for agreement, while a person is relating bad news), as well as “Jesus Christ!” (e.g., when the cat has knocked over my whole shelf of hundred-year-old grammar books), and even “Jesus H. Christ!” (reserved for exclamations of stunned astonishment and occasionally replaced by “OMG!”).  No “Christ on a crutch” or other exotic variants.  I also get a lot of mileage out of “holy (fucking) shit.”

Out of the bedroom

There is one more interjectional context from which God must be purged: sexual pleasure and climax.  There are many things that can be said during sex that don’t involve God.  Train yourself, at the moment of orgasm, to shout not “God!” – but the name of your lover.  That’s who’s really giving you the Big O, right?



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Comment by James Yount on June 17, 2012 at 10:27pm

Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ!

Comment by Edward Teach on June 17, 2012 at 8:13pm

Excellent post! Some times replacement phrases don't roll off the tongue in the same way as "God Dammit!"



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