“How can you use the phrase ‘R.I.P.’? They’re not resting — they’re dead and gone! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!”
“That word ‘transcendent’ is nonsensical! There’s no supernatural world to transcend to! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!”
“Don’t say ‘Bless you’ when somebody sneezes! That’s religious terminology! You’re catering to religion when you use that language!”
I see these mini-debates about language a fair amount in the atheosphere. Sometimes not so mini. They cropped up a bunch when Christopher Hitchens died and some atheists wrote tributes using the phrase “R.I.P.” (which is why I’m thinking about them now). And I’m of two minds about them. So this is going to be one of my “thinking out loud” pieces, where I don’t have a conclusion yet, and hope to come to a clearer one in the discussion thread.
On the one hand: As a rule, I much prefer to focus energy on content rather than form. If I’m going to spend time arguing with people, I’d rather spend it arguing about the content of what we think, rather than the words we choose to say it. Tone-trolling is among the least interesting forms of discourse, and I generally avoid it unless I think it’s necessary.
On the other hand: I think language is important. Like, duh. I’m a writer. To give what I hope is an obvious example: I think it makes a difference to say “police officer” and “firefighter” and “mail carrier” instead of “policeman” and “fireman” and “mailman.” And it bugs the crap out of me when people say “That’s so gay” as a putdown, or use words like “pussy” or “nancy” or “girly-man” as insults. I think hearing sexist or homophobic or other exclusionary language shapes the way women/ LGBT people/ other marginalized people think of ourselves/ themselves… and I think that making the effort to make our language inclusive helps us be more conscious about other forms of inclusion.
And I am, in fact, trying to purge religious language from my vocabulary, unless I’m specifically talking about religion. I try to remember to say “Gesundheit” when people sneeze instead of “Bless you.” (It’s German for “Health.”) I try to say “For goodness’ sake” instead of “For God’s sake.” I loathe the way that religion saturates the culture, to the point where it’s just assumed that everyone is religious and people are shocked and even offended to discover that it isn’t true. And I think using religious language to express secular ideas is one of the ways this saturation happens. (I entirely reject, for instance, the notion that the phrase “In God we trust” has no religious meaning, and that putting it on the money isn’t a slap in the face to atheists.) So I am trying to purge religious language from my vocabulary, unless it’s actually relevant — and I don’t mind when people point out examples of it in my own language.
But on the first hand again: Sometimes there just isn’t a good, purely secular substitute for a word or phrase. Alternatives often don’t convey the intended meaning as precisely, or they’re more obscure and not as widely known, or they also have religious implications as well as secular ones. What’s more, we don’t always agree about whether a given a word or phrase is secular or religious. When I use the word “transcendent,” for instance, I don’t mean “transcending the natural world and entering a supernatural realm.” I mean, “transcending ordinary day-to-day experience, and entering a state of hyper-awareness and a sense of intense connection with the rest of the universe.”
And when you start getting into the whole “The original meaning of this word is religious” argument, then the whole thing starts to get silly. I mean, the word “goodbye” originally meant “God bless you.” The word “Thursday” originally meant “Thor’s day.” Are you going to purge these words from your vocabulary, and scold other atheists for using them? Sure, it’s worth discussing whether a particular word or phrase has been entirely secularized or still retains a religious meaning. But it’s silly to argue that, because a word or phrase originally had its roots in a religious concept hundreds of years ago, the “real” meaning of the word is still religious, and we ought not to use it. Language changes. The “real” meaning of a word is whatever it’s understood to mean by the people using it.
So here’s my provisional, “thinking out loud” conclusion:
I don’t object to raising the issue of secularizing our language. I think these conversations are worth having.
But I’d like to see them be conversations, and not arguments.
I’d like to see the conversations about this topic be a little less hostile and defensive, and a little more relaxed. I’d like to see them acknowledge that there problems of secularizing language often don’t have good solutions. I’d like to see them acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree over whether a particular word or phrase has already been secularized. I’d like to see them be more empathetic, more “Yeah, this is tricky, we all have problems with this,” and less condescending and preachy. (See? Perfect example. What’s a good secular equivalent for “preachy”?) If we don’t want someone smacking us down as sniveling accomodationists every time we say “Goodbye, I’ll see you on Thursday,” then maybe we ought not to be smacking other people down when they say “R.I.P.” or “Bless you.” And I’d like to see these conversations acknowledge that this is only one issue for atheists among many, and that while it’s worth paying some attention to, we have more interesting and important issues on our plate.
And yes, I realize I’m tone-trolling here. These things happen.