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Should “God” be capitalized? What about “atheist”?

March 30, 2009

A post from the Friendly Atheist made me think about a completely different thing.

Personally, I agree with commenters such as mikespeir on the issue:

I realize “god” is a description, but long ago “God” came to be used effectively as an name for the Judeo-Christian god. (That probably had its genesis in the Jewish aversion to actually uttering or writing YHWH and then the rather arrogant assertion that, “Our god is the real God,” but still….) Consequently, I’ll continue to capitalize it along with Zeus, Odin, and Nergal.

In particular, this one seems like a lame issue to jump on.

Lauren’s grammar consciousness also makes me smile a bit:

I capitalize it when it’s used in place of a name, the same way I would refer to my maternal parental figure. “I saw God walking down the street” or “I saw Mom walking down the street” vs. “I saw your god walking down the street” or “I saw your mom walking down the street.”
It’s not out of respect for religion, just our of respect for grammar.

Now, some think that capitalizing God affords him respect he does not deserve. Yet, I feel I already am being edgy and disrespectful just from capitalizing God.

Why, Andrew S, how can you feel edgy and disrespectful from capitalizing God?

Well, I don’t know if it’s a rule, but in keeping with the commandment of not taking the Lord’s name in vain or whatever, it seems like Mormons are almost afraid to mention God. If you pay attention to prayers, it’s generally to “our Father in Heaven,” or “Heavenly Father.” Now, there is a glaring exception, “O God, the Eternal Father…” but still, that’s probably because it’s a special ceremony.

So, it seems so edgy for me to just say God. Isn’t that strange? Like it seems edgy of me to say Satan or the Devil — since some Mormons I know have this kind of Voldemort he-who-must-not-be-named complex toward him. My father advised me from a young age that I should say, “The Adversary” instead of Satan, or else I’d be inadvertently bring more attention onto myself. Isn’t that crazy?

Also, lots of Christians like to capitalize pronouns when used to refer to God or Jesus or whoever…but I don’t do that. So, I guess that’s my token piece of heresy.

AAAAAANYWAY, what I wanted to talk about was: instead of wondering if God should be capitalized…maybe atheists should worry about whether atheism should be capitalized.

I think it shouldn’t (although I guess I’m not totally consistent on my capitalization even), and while I hope I’m not totally annoying about it, sometimes when I feel people get the wrong idea about atheism, I correct them that it’s a small a.

Why? Because atheism is mere. (bah, I capitalized in the title, but not so much in the actual article). While C. S. Lewis had a fondness for mere Christianity, it still had a lot more “proper” beliefs than atheism ever could have. Atheist (capitalized for grammar, not for effect) and agnostic, in my mind, are descriptors of very basic, generic terms…whereas Mormon or Christian or whatevere else are more specific, proper descriptions.

Atheism is not a religion, no matter how hard some people try to make it and no matter how hard other people try to interpret it as such.

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15 Comments
  1. Shamelessly Atheist permalink

    I don’t capitalize the word ‘god’, either. If James is a baker, does one capitalize the word in a sentence? The word ‘god’ is not a proper noun, so the commenter that thought they were doing it out of respect for grammar is out to lunch instead.

  2. ha! so many good points here.
    I’ve reached a point where I can type “god” or “God” (whatever) but still cannot bring myself to verbalize it.

    Much like how I may curse up a storm online if I’m in such a mood but really watch myself in person. Not a terrible thing at all, but curious nevertheless.

    Loved the Voldemort reference. Isn’t that the truth – and I love the inference that Satan/the devil’s attention wouldn’t be grabbed by the term “the adversary.”

    “Wha–? Huh? Oh. Not talking about me.”

    All that said, my father’s church (Assembly of God) talks about Satan waaaaaay too much. They will even speak to him in prayer, even. It used to freak me out. Now I just laugh 🙂

  3. to Shamelessly Atheist,

    I think God is the proper noun for the English term for the Christian god. God is a god, in the same way that Zeus is a god (or do you say zeus?) Regardless of other names of the Judeo-Christian god (Jehovah, YHWH, etc.,) I think God is another such proper name.

  4. Lisa, I remember the time when my typing was a great deal unrestrained from my speaking. I *also* still don’t curse verbally; isn’t that funny?

    Wow at the Assembly of God speaking to Satan in prayer…is it like to vocally rebuke him or something?

  5. Shamelessly Atheist permalink

    “I think God is the proper noun for the English term for the Christian god. God is a god, in the same way that Zeus is a god (or do you say zeus?) Regardless of other names of the Judeo-Christian god (Jehovah, YHWH, etc.,) I think God is another such proper name.” No, I say Zeus. Zeus is a god, not a God. So, no, the Christian god has a proper name already, either Jehovah or YHWH. But god is a position, not a name, regardless that it implies that there is only one god (which is a modern concept – 2500 years ago YHWH would have been considered first amongst gods). So I definitely do not agree that this is a proper noun.

  6. Right, Zeus is a god. God is a god (while Christians may believe he is the only god, as per your comment on monotheism — note, even in that case, I do not capitalize.)

    Why can’t the Christian god have multiple proper nouns to describe it? (That seems to be the real issue of disagreement.) And why can’t God be a name and not just a position? Who are the experts on this?

  7. You mean, is “God” a job description? Excellent question. I think when combined with an area of expertise, like “Kitchen God”, that would be proper. I personally don’t think god is a name, but then it does sortof work like one in Christian circles. God is considered a character in the Bible, and as such should be capitalized, since his actual name (Hashem, Yahweh, etc) is almost-always edited out in anything that’s not Jewish.

    I also like saying “God” as in “God damn it” because I never let myself say such things as a Christian. So now I say it as a sort of sign that I’m willing to blaspheme (victimless crime, right?), and also because I’m not afraid God will actually curse anyone just because I asked him to. Which is pretty silly if you think about it. On the other hand, to say “God damn you!” is pretty mean. I still wouldn’t say that. “You can go strait to Hell!” is pretty funny, though.

  8. although it would be pretty interesting if heavenly powers could be invoked so freely.

    that’d be the kind of god I could get behind.

  9. Grey d'Miyu permalink

    I think capitalizing atheist would really depend on the context. Isn’t that true of all grammar? I mean there is a difference between libertarian (political philosophy or one who subscribes to the same) and Libertarian (the political party formed around the philosophy or member of said party). Same can go for atheist vs. Atheist.

  10. my question would be…what political party does atheism have (or something equivalent)?

  11. Grey d'Miyu permalink

    http://www.atheists.org/ would be but one example. Well, to be fair, the only example off the top of my head. Ok, some of the member organizations of the Secular Coalition for America would be another. Not trying to be Ameri-centric, just going with what I know. 😉

  12. so then, that would suggest that we should only use Atheist when talking about a member of the American Atheists (or any other group that has a specific name like that…keeping in the sense of not being America-centric.)

    Because I know that I am secular and atheist, but I am not a member of any group, so I’m not Secular or Atheist.

  13. Todd permalink

    Before college, I didn’t really write about God, and thus hadn’t thought much about capitalization. During my freshman year at BYU, I tried capitalizing a divine pronoun (“we must keep His commandments” or something like that), and my English professor marked it incorrect.

    Ever since then, pronoun capitalization like that has bothered me. Capitalizing a word that isn’t normally capitalized is a way of giving it more emphasis. If we wouldn’t give those pronouns extra verbal emphasis when speaking, we shouldn’t do so when writing, either.

  14. I find myself intrigued by the BYU professor who marked down the capitalized His. I nod in support (but then again, I’m biased)

  15. Todd permalink

    That was Dr. Art Bassett, who taught institute at the U. of Utah for 10 years or so before getting his PhD in American Humanities (focusing on Mormon arts and letters) at Syracuse, and joining the humanities department at BYU. He was one of my favorite professors, and I ended up taking four semesters of courses from him.

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