Guest Post: Steve Provost asks Whose god is it anyway?

Need more proof that the traditional media’s claims of “objectivity” are bogus? You need look no further than a single three-letter word: god.


Current style in journalism goes something like this:

Capitalize God or words that mean God in reference to the divine being of all monotheistic religions. Lowercase god, goddess and their plural forms when referring to the deities of polytheistic religions and cultural mythologies; but capitalize their proper names.

See any bias there?

I sure do. For some reason, under these guidelines, polytheistic deities get the short end of the stick. That hardly seems objective to me. Some may contend that using the term “god” by itself in referring to a deity from a given pantheon might cause confusion. There’s no way of knowing which one, they might argue. I’ll return to that a little later, but it’s really beside the point. The problem with using a big “G” in reference to any god is that it’s incredibly presumptuous. And it’s also flat wrong, because the word simply is not a proper name. Using it as such implies that the monotheists are right: There’s only one god.

But which one?

Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that monotheism is the way to go, it doesn’t come close to resolving the issue. There’s more than one monotheistic faith out there, and many of them have radically different ideas about who this one-and-only god is. The AP Style Guide recently promoted the god of Islam to the status of God with a capital “G” in the following updated entry: “Allah: The Arabic name for God. The word God should be used, unless the Arabic name is used in a quote written or spoken in English.”

Mosque in Kiarong, Brunei

It might make Muslims happy to know that their version of god is finally being awarded status equal to that of the Christian god in this so-called “bible of journalism.” But hold on a minute. It turns out that the term Allah didn’t originate with Muslims at all. In fact, it was already in use on the Arabian Peninsula long before Muhammad came along. And it wasn’t a name at all, but a title – an abbreviated version of the term “al-ilah,” meaning simply “the deity.” Now here’s the kicker: It was applied to the highest-ranking god in a polytheistic system. Evidently, the idea of using a generic term equivalent to “God” in a such a setting wasn’t that confusing to the pre-Islamic Arabs and their Palestinian neighbors. So there’s no reason it should be confusing to us.

That pretty much debunks the idea of treating the gods of polytheism any differently.

Elijah kicks some ass

But wait. The story doesn’t end there. Obviously, the pre-Islamic Arabs and Palestinians weren’t referring to the god of Islam (since Muhammad hadn’t yet founded the Muslim faith). And it so happens they weren’t referring to the Judeo-Christian god, either. Not hardly. Rather, al-ilah was simply another title for the nemesis of the Judeo-Christian god. Baal. You might remember him as the Canaanite deity who got beaten down by the Jewish god YHWH in a lightning-throwing, caged death match refereed by none other than the prophet Elijah.

Things get even more complicated from here. It turns out that Baal wasn’t actually a proper name, either. It was a Ugaritic word meaning “lord” and often was used in conjunction with a suffix that further identified the deity in question. Baal-zebul was used to mean “lord of the high place” (presumably a shrine/temple erected on a mountain). This god’s enemies apparently mocked him by changing the title slightly to read baal-zebub, meaning “lord of the flies,” then further denigrated him by falsely equating him with Satan. But he had other titles, as well:

  • Baal-shamem, meaning “lord of the heavens.”
  • Baal-zaphon, or “lord of the north.”
  • Baal-haddad, meaning “the mighty lord” or “the lord of thunder.”

Baal

I sense a theme here. It seems that the ancients were pretty keen on using divine titles in place of proper names. But why?

The likely answer lies in the ancient belief that someone who knew a deity’s true name could invoke it to harness the power of that deity. This is why the true name of the Jewish god was never written out. It was only abbreviated in as YHWH. (This abbreviation is known as the tetragrammaton, which literally means “four-letter [word].”) Even today, Pagans and Christians aren’t that different. Pagans may invoke the names of Artemis or Thor in their rituals, while Christians seek to perform healings “in Jesus’ name.” From where I sit, it’s hard to see much of a distinction.

Another title often used as a name is “christ.” It’s pretty widely known that this wasn’t Jesus’ “last name.” It was, in fact, the Greek translation of a Hebrew word, messiah (or mashiah), which simply means “anointed one.” Not savior of the world, or incarnate god or anything so grandiose. In the ancient world, it most commonly referred to a king or a high priest, though it could also be used more generically to describe anyone anointed with olive oil to perform a specific task. When people refer to Jesus Christ, it’s actually inaccurate. What they should be saying is Jesus, the christ.

If all these terms are just titles, there’s no reason to capitalize them. AP itself is quite clear in stating that the first letter of a title should be lowercase when it (the title) stands alone. Hence, it’s “the pope” or “the president.” Formal titles, on the other hand, are capitalized before a name, as in President Obama and Pope Benedict. So a case might be made for capitalizing Christ Jesus, although one could also argue that the title “christ” was bestowed upon this particular person by his followers and was never formally recognized by any state in the ancient world. He was, after all, never crowned king.

But let’s get back to the term “god.” If it stands by itself, it’s obviously a title – a shortened form of “the god” – not a name. Using it as a name is, well, just plain silly. Imagine if we started calling the Christian god, “the dude in the sky” or “the guy with the long white beard who nukes people if they don’t follow his commandments.” Would we capitalize those references, too?

The easiest way around this whole issue is to refer to gods by their proper names whenever possible. We’re not superstitious enough to believe that using a divine name will cause all hell to break loose. This is the 21st century, after all. And we use names such as Zeus and Poseidon and Isis in the course of conversation without batting an eye. Call the Judeo-Christian god YHWH (it’s the closest thing we have to his name). Call Jesus … well … Jesus, not “christ.” Call all the gods from polytheistic traditions by their names, too. It’s only fair to them and, more importantly, to their followers. If we don’t know a god’s actual name, identify him with his followers – the god of the Muslims, the god of Israel or the Norse fertility goddess.

That’s the policy here at The Provocation, where we serve our news blunt and candid, and in no way aspire to objectivity. Still, if we happen to adopt a policy that puts us a little closer to that phantom condition than the people who have made it their stock in trade, we won’t complain. It’s just another feather in our cap.

May the gods bless you. All of them.

Reprinted with permission from The Provocation. Check out Steve’s other great posts!

  • lynn

    Great post. And yep, that’s definitely biased, capitalizing the mono gods but not the poly ones. I know that the trend in modern paganism is to capitalize things, for respect and consistency, but on my own blog I’m actually learning towards not capitalizing ANYTHING except the word “I” and the beginnings of sentences. I don’t have names for my gods, so it makes no difference to me. I must be getting cranky in my old age, but all this insisting on capitalization seems sometimes a little pompous to me! Peace.

    http://www.blackpagan.com

  • lynn

    Great post. And yep, that’s definitely biased, capitalizing the mono gods but not the poly ones. I know that the trend in modern paganism is to capitalize things, for respect and consistency, but on my own blog I’m actually learning towards not capitalizing ANYTHING except the word “I” and the beginnings of sentences. I don’t have names for my gods, so it makes no difference to me. I must be getting cranky in my old age, but all this insisting on capitalization seems sometimes a little pompous to me! Peace.

    http://www.blackpagan.com

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    While I agree with a great deal of what has been written here, and in fact wrote something similar myself on my own blog yesterday, I have two small quibbles in this otherwise excellent piece. 

    1)  YHWH is not “an abbreviation”; Hebrew has no vowels, so that actually is the name of that particular god.

    2)There is no “Judeo-Christian god.”  Thinking there is lends credence to Christian theology, which says that their god (who is incarnate in Jesus) is the same as the Jewish god, which no Jew has ever accepted as true.  Speaking in those terms is actually exactly what Muslims do when they speak of Allah being the one-and-only god, who was recognized by the Jews and the Christians but understood and worshipped incorrectly by them.  So, there is a Jewish god; there’s a Christian god (who is different because that god has Jesus in it!); and then there’s the Islamic god, Allah.  And if one is a polytheist, that’s perfectly fine–whether they exist or not is another matter altogether, but at least recognizing that there is a difference between them, at very least historically, does not suggest that their theologies are “correct.”
     
    If we are to give no credence to these monotheistic conceptions of divine beings–which I think is entirely appropriate to our position as polytheists–then we should not give any credence to any part of those theologies, no matter how seemingly insignificant or semantic they might be.  And this piece generally is excellent about pointing out how often we might end up doing that inadvertently.

    • Illiezeulette

      I agree strongly with this. I was also going to point out that YHVH is not an abbreviation. And I also agree that this was an excellent piece overall. (:

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    While I agree with a great deal of what has been written here, and in fact wrote something similar myself on my own blog yesterday, I have two small quibbles in this otherwise excellent piece. 

    1)  YHWH is not “an abbreviation”; Hebrew has no vowels, so that actually is the name of that particular god.

    2)There is no “Judeo-Christian god.”  Thinking there is lends credence to Christian theology, which says that their god (who is incarnate in Jesus) is the same as the Jewish god, which no Jew has ever accepted as true.  Speaking in those terms is actually exactly what Muslims do when they speak of Allah being the one-and-only god, who was recognized by the Jews and the Christians but understood and worshipped incorrectly by them.  So, there is a Jewish god; there’s a Christian god (who is different because that god has Jesus in it!); and then there’s the Islamic god, Allah.  And if one is a polytheist, that’s perfectly fine–whether they exist or not is another matter altogether, but at least recognizing that there is a difference between them, at very least historically, does not suggest that their theologies are “correct.”
     
    If we are to give no credence to these monotheistic conceptions of divine beings–which I think is entirely appropriate to our position as polytheists–then we should not give any credence to any part of those theologies, no matter how seemingly insignificant or semantic they might be.  And this piece generally is excellent about pointing out how often we might end up doing that inadvertently.

    • Illiezeulette

      I agree strongly with this. I was also going to point out that YHVH is not an abbreviation. And I also agree that this was an excellent piece overall. (:

  • http://twitter.com/HeathenStudent Lynn

    You wrote a really great blog post here! I want to comment on so many things. But the one thing that sticks out in my mind for some reason is this:

    “The AP Style Guide recently promoted the god of Islam to the status of God with a capital “G” in the following updated entry: ‘Allah: The Arabic name for God. The word God should be used, unless the Arabic name is used in a quote written or spoken in English.’”

    I find it so interesting they went out of their was to make this distinction. 

  • http://twitter.com/HeathenStudent Lynn

    You wrote a really great blog post here! I want to comment on so many things. But the one thing that sticks out in my mind for some reason is this:

    “The AP Style Guide recently promoted the god of Islam to the status of God with a capital “G” in the following updated entry: ‘Allah: The Arabic name for God. The word God should be used, unless the Arabic name is used in a quote written or spoken in English.’”

    I find it so interesting they went out of their was to make this distinction. 

  • http://isiopolis.wordpress.com/ Isidora Forrest

    I had to absolutely, positively insist—repeatedly—that my publisher not use lowercase goddess when referring to the Goddess Who is the subject of my book, Isis. And then I had to do it all over again for the second book.

  • http://isiopolis.wordpress.com/ Isidora Forrest

    I had to absolutely, positively insist—repeatedly—that my publisher not use lowercase goddess when referring to the Goddess Who is the subject of my book, Isis. And then I had to do it all over again for the second book.

  • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

    I strongly disagree with this.  When one is using “God” or “the Goddess” or “the God” or “Liberty” as a proper noun–that is, as the identifier for a specific being–it should be capitalized.  When one is using these to indicate an instance of a category, such as “the goddess Isis” or “the demigod Jesus”, it should not be capitalized. 

    And “El,” “Theos,” and “Allah,” being generic words used to indicate a being, should all be translated into English as “God.”  Equally, “Adonai” and “Kyrios,” when used to indicate a being, should be translated as “Lord.”  As for Jesus Christ, it is an consequence of England being in the Latinate Western Europe that the article is missing.  The most accurate translation of the Greek would be “the Anointed Jesus.”  And in a nominal phrase, all the significant words are capitalized, such as “Dean Kaufman,” or even, “Dean of the University Library at the University of Illinois.”  (The latter doesn’t even contain a personal name element, but it is correctly capitalized because “the University Library at the University of Illinois” is a proper noun.)  So if one chooses to refer to Isis as “the Lady of the Throne,” it should be capitalized because it is being used as a proper noun.

    The relevant distinction is not monotheistic deity vs. polytheistic deity, but proper noun vs. common noun.

  • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

    I strongly disagree with this.  When one is using “God” or “the Goddess” or “the God” or “Liberty” as a proper noun–that is, as the identifier for a specific being–it should be capitalized.  When one is using these to indicate an instance of a category, such as “the goddess Isis” or “the demigod Jesus”, it should not be capitalized. 

    And “El,” “Theos,” and “Allah,” being generic words used to indicate a being, should all be translated into English as “God.”  Equally, “Adonai” and “Kyrios,” when used to indicate a being, should be translated as “Lord.”  As for Jesus Christ, it is an consequence of England being in the Latinate Western Europe that the article is missing.  The most accurate translation of the Greek would be “the Anointed Jesus.”  And in a nominal phrase, all the significant words are capitalized, such as “Dean Kaufman,” or even, “Dean of the University Library at the University of Illinois.”  (The latter doesn’t even contain a personal name element, but it is correctly capitalized because “the University Library at the University of Illinois” is a proper noun.)  So if one chooses to refer to Isis as “the Lady of the Throne,” it should be capitalized because it is being used as a proper noun.

    The relevant distinction is not monotheistic deity vs. polytheistic deity, but proper noun vs. common noun.

  • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

    We’re not superstitious enough to believe that using a divine name will
    cause all hell to break loose. This is the 21st century, after all.

    I find this claim offensive.  I doubt very much that the author realizes that this statement dismisses all recons and any other pagans who take historically attested praxis seriously as “superstitious”.  Those of us who are strong polytheists really do discuss whether or not it is appropriate to use a god’s name casually.  We’ve been discussing this for years, and have nothing resembling a consensus.

    I disagree with your preferred capitalization, but that is merely a difference of opinion.  I am, however, offended by this particular part of your argument.  I would suggest revising it before you present it again.

  • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

    We’re not superstitious enough to believe that using a divine name will
    cause all hell to break loose. This is the 21st century, after all.

    I find this claim offensive.  I doubt very much that the author realizes that this statement dismisses all recons and any other pagans who take historically attested praxis seriously as “superstitious”.  Those of us who are strong polytheists really do discuss whether or not it is appropriate to use a god’s name casually.  We’ve been discussing this for years, and have nothing resembling a consensus.

    I disagree with your preferred capitalization, but that is merely a difference of opinion.  I am, however, offended by this particular part of your argument.  I would suggest revising it before you present it again.


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