Over at Friendly Atheist, one reader had a question for Richard the advice columnist:
I have a quick and simple question for you. Since you do not believe in god, why do you capitalize “God” in your texts? I share many of the same beliefs/ideals as you, therefore not seeing a reason to capitalize the word “god”.
Richard replied that he used the upper case G for clarity and to avoid putting people off needlessly, and I was in total agreement. I was pretty surprised to see the high proportion of commenters who felt that Richards was off-base.
The responses in the small g camp covered a range of opinions, but here’s a sampling:
“I don’t capitalize doctor since there are plenty of types of doctors unless I’m specifying an actual doctor’s name. Same goes for god, there are thousands of them, so I don’t treat it as a proper name or noun.
So I only capitalize it when it’s used along with their actual name, like Elohim, Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, Krishna and the many countless others.”
“I capitalize Buddha, Zeus, Anu, etc- but I generally can’t bring myself to capitalize “god”. The capitalized version irks me. I don’t mind capitalizing Jesus or Jahweh (or Yahweh) etc- but I’m just not cool with Christians cornering the market on the word “god”. If one of my Christian friends gets angsty with me about it, I simply explain that their deity figures do have names, and maybe they should try using them instead of trying to force their religion upon the English language.”
“GOD is not a name – it is a job description.
So I write it as g0d, using the zero to indicate it total intellectual content.”
“The use of “God” as a name skews the debate. It’s a loaded word, no matter what our intent in using it. When Xians hear “God” or even “god” in a sentence, their conception of God is reinforced; it resonates with their “inside” perspective, instead of challenging that perspective. I tend to say something like “your deity” or “the deity you worship” since that sets the context right.”
Of course, I have total sympathy for the argument that language shapes and is shaped by culture (you needn’t look farther than the relative proportions of gendered insults to be convinced of that). I just don’t think this is a fight remotely worth having.
Making a show of not capitalizing God puts the conversation on a more adversarial tone right from the beginning. Unless you make an effort to politely explain why you don’t capitalize, most Christians will assume you are doing it to be disrespectful. (And, unless your explanation is polished, they may assume that anyway). With so many ways to go wrong and derail the conversation accidentally, why would you deliberately throw another stumbling block in your interlocutor’s way?
I’d be curious to know whether some of the atheist readers of the site agree with Richard and me or whether you think the stakes of this dispute are higher than I’ve given them credit for? Are there other things you do in a religious dispute that you know are off-putting but that you consider necessary? (For me, disclosing my bisexuality sometimes falls into this category).
I’d also like to ask the Christians how much this jab bothers them. Does it put you off the commenter/article? Would you ask someone about their capitalization choice? Are there other ways atheists speak/act in discussions that you find similarly scornful? Do you make any allowances or changes in your speaking/writing style to avoid offending an atheist in a discussion about religion?