Figures of speech

atheist-sexI have an online friend named HRG who often talks about God even though he’s an atheist. But he’s quick to use “standard atheist disclaimer applies” in such discussions, by which he means he’s talking about “God” as a concept, in the same way one can talk about Darth Vader or Harry Potter or some other fictional character.

That’s one way of talking about religious concepts, and I myself have been known (quite recently) to talk about what Jesus said (although I did specify that I was operating under the presumption that the Bible’s description was accurate — a highly suspect proposition, but a useful presumption when discussing Christian concepts).

But there are other ways that people in general introduce theistic concepts into areas of discussion that are about as far removed from religion as you can get.

People say “God bless you” when you sneeze, for example. People invoke God or Jesus in other ways when they hit their thumb with a hammer, or when they’re having a really good time in bed (or a really bad time in traffic).

People express bewilderment or ignorance (I don’t mean that in a bad way) by saying “God knows” or “God only knows” (the latter is the title of a song by Brian Wilson that his Beach Boy brother Dennis said was the most beautiful song he’d ever heard, and I’m not sure I disagree).

Evan Thomas of Newsweek recently became a target of right-wing bloggers for comparing President Obama’s above-the-fray position as being “sort of God.” What about us atheists? Is it OK for us to use such figures of speech? Or are we great big hypocrites if we don’t come up with some non-theistic alternative, or just forgo the concept altogether?

I don’t think so. People who say “bless you” when you sneeze aren’t actually invoking divine intervention, they’re just making the societally prescribed response to an unfortunate bodily function – -the same way people say “excuse me” when they burp, even if they aren’t actually petitioning the people around them for some sort of pardon.

Likewise, when people curse, it’s generally a semi-involuntary response, not an attempt at rational discussion. And we all know pretty much the same bad words, and use them pretty much the same way. Using the G-word or the J-word in a stream of profanity isn’t any more literal than using the S-word or the F-word.

And “God” is a useful concept for actual discussions with actual content. God (the character in the fictional story, that is), knows everything, and he’s above the fray, with an objective(ish) view of the entire world. Evan Thomas used the concept in a valid way when describing Obama’s position (even though of course you could dispute the accuracy of his claim), and using the phrase “a God’s-eye view” is a convenient shorthand for describing an imaginary all-seeing perspective.

Not that we always have to be serious. I’ve been known to look skyward and say “Thank you Jesus!” when I get a particularly good bit of news, or “Why me, Lord?” when I get some bad news. Just as theists sometimes jokingly say “There is no God” in response to something bad happening.

You could argue, of course, that every time anyone uses “God” in a figure of speech, they’re helping to perpetuate the hegemony of religious people, organizations and ideas in public (or even private) life. And yeah, that’s a point. But if someone really wants to make an issue out of that, I would refer them to my Rule #5: Everybody Lighten the (Bleep) Up.

(cartoon via Friendly Atheist)

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