Committing a Capital Crime in Debate

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?

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  • Nicola

    "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."The Doctor would like to have a word…

  • Iota

    why would you deliberately throw another stumbling block in your interlocutor's way?This is actually a question about the aims of a speaker or author. Your assume a discussion between two sides that respect each other and attempt to arrive at truth or at least mutual understanding. But that's not the only reason people may talk to each other, as reading any book on rhetoric will tell you. 🙂 A few other options:1) Debate intended for the audience: two sides are adversaries, competing for the recognition of an audience. Whoever sounds more convincing, "wins". Being aggressive may be a strategy to weaken your opponent's position, intimidate him and make him otherwise "unappealing" to the audience (making long polite arguments is generally more difficult and less immediately impressive). This may have noting to do with whether an argument is true.May be especially favoured when you assume the audience will actually like an aggressive style.2) Preaching to the choir – communicating with an audience in which every reader is assumed to share your views. In that case the use of otherwise abrasive language may not be even seen as wrong, since you assume no one will actually be offended.3) "Calling a spade a spade" – sometimes one side of the argument basically assumes that being polite or following the distinctions made by the other is pointless. This may be especially true if one side of the debate views the other as stupider, dishonest or believes that the distinctions are nonsensical or empty words. The technique may be legitimate (I seriously recommend George Orwell's essays on language) but usually results in antagonizing the other side, so you'd better known what you're doing and be sure you really think it's necessary.Does it put you off the commenter/article?Not really.Are there other ways atheists speak/act in discussions that you find similarly scornful? Well, there are things that I find hard to stomach. Using various "nicknames" for God, substituting pejorative words for neutral terms or the technical terms of a given religion (e.g. "consecrated wafer" instead of "Host", "Eucharist"). It's not so much the language as the intent – I tend to not like people intentionally making a debate aggressive, especially when I have reasons to assume it's a planned rhetorical technique. Bonus negative points if I believe the speaker is trying to "challenge my perspective" without knowing me (Hey, you seriously think I don't know what a Host is made of?).Simplistic argument and comparisons are next on my list but they are more excusable since, in order to know I consider a certain argument simplistic, you generally have to know me at least a bit. And the criterion does not apply in an open discussion (e.g. on a forum, blog) where an argument I find simplistic may be considered legitimate by someone else.Do you make any allowances or changes in your speaking/writing style to avoid offending an atheist in a discussion about religion?Atheists in general, no (since I have no idea what words would they be offended by…). If I know or learn that someone is offended by something I may reasonably change, I'll do it.(Input on what atheists find irritating will be seriously appreciated, by the way)

  • Patrick

    I capitalize when I'm using "God" as a proper noun. The monotheistic religious traditions tend to do that, so when I'm referring to their stuff, I capitalize.But often I'm not referring to a proper noun god. If I'm just referring to the general idea, then its not going to be capitalized because its not supposed to be capitalized. So for example, if discussing a first cause argument, then its god. If discussing an argument about the resurrection, its God.And I'm liable to interpret any attempt at getting me to capitalize it in all cases as a sort of… as a sort of effort towards showing me who's boss. Like when social groups get symbolic legislation passed that doesn't actually do anything- the real action is in forcing congresspeople to jump when they say jump.I'm not going to apologize for using grammar appropriately. And if Christians are likely to assume that my use of proper grammar is actually an attempt at being disrespectful, well, we can have a fun conversation about privilege and about what it means when someone feels offended they haven't received a special concession.

  • B. R. Lind

    I would also like to ask: How do Christians feel about the use of BCE and CE?Regarding god/God, it seems to me that if you're not going to capitalize the g, you need to write an article before it. You wouldn't say "I go to doctor"; you'd say "I go to a doctor" or "I go to the doctor." Similarly, it makes sense to say "I don't believe in any god" rather than "I don't believe in god."Here, we're usually writing about the Christian god. As far as I know, "God" is the only way Christians refer to all tree aspects of the Trinity (please correct me if I'm wrong!), so it could be confusing to use Jesus's name instead. You could write "the Christian god" every time, but that would get clunky. Even Orwell said to break any rule rather than write something barbarous (or something like that).Re: "their deity figures do have names, and maybe they should try using them instead of trying to force their religion upon the English language." I realize the poster was referring to Christians, but just so people know: in Judaism it is forbidden to pronounce YHWH (what you guys are calling "Yahweh"… also, I think the true pronunciation is supposedly lost to time?). We use the Hebrew word for "my Lord" during prayer and Hashem ("the Name") at all other times. Since many non-Jews don't know what Hashem means, it's often practical just to say "God."

  • It's like people who write Xians specifically to annoy Christians. It's a jab that does not even make sense (since the traditional X is an abbreviation of the Greek letter for Christ). Correct me if I'm wrong, but as I understand it the use of "God" referring to a specific god makes it a proper noun. Even if I pray to Zeus, when I say "God" it is proper like when I address my mother as "Mom" or say to my brother "Mom said that…" However, I believe that Christians err when they write "My God" instead of "my god" because then it is not being used as a proper noun and is used as a job description. The upper case G is not, as I see it, a sign of respect so much as proper grammar.I DO understand atheist objections to capitalizing divine pronouns. Because it is some sort of linguistic devotion it would make sense for atheists to refuse to do it. I don't do it either because I fail to see how it is a significant form of worship and, as in the case of atheists refusing to write out Christ on principle, makes Christians seem unnecessarily belligerent when insisting upon it.B.R. LindI understand BCE and CE (and would probably use them if I were writing an academic paper) because if you do not believe Jesus is Lord or God it makes little sense to say "the year of God." The change is purely cosmetic, however, because the calendar itself is still set up around the traditional year of Christ's birth.

  • "Does it put you off the commenter/article?"It does, a little. I once read a blog where someone wrote "god, and I mean it with a lower case g" as if I would say, "Ah! He's attacked me with grammar! He wins the argument!""Would you ask someone about their capitalization choice?"Not really since it is often a sign of some deeper value or their worldview it is probably more worthwhile to discuss those things than how they express it with grammar."Are there other ways atheists speak/act in discussions that you find similarly scornful?"I mentioned using the X instead of Christ. I understand it is an abbreviation and I do it a lot when I'm writing by hand but it seems like on the internet it's often meant as a slight."Do you make any allowances or changes in your speaking/writing style to avoid offending an atheist in a discussion about religion?"I can't think of anything other than trying not to adopt styles that are intentionally offensive to them. I guess for one thing I try not to use too many negative terms that could come off as derogatory like non-believer (I don't know why, but for some reason that feels derogatory to me, maybe because of that bizarre unicorn cartoon). I also don't use "non-Christian" because coming from someone inside the faith it comes off as saying "you are OTHER" to them. I will say "those who aren't Christians" if I need to address it though. Maybe I'm just neurotic.

  • I don't know why I stopped capitalizing… for me, I think it's just that it seemed like I should be consistent with my current stance. I doubt the existence of [a/any] "proper-noun" god(s) and so it just seemed logical to stop capitalizing. I would agree with the "named" thing, though. I would still capitalize "Allah" because it's a name and don't really feel compelled to write "allah."I guess I don't really know. Sometimes I do capitalize, and I think it's for the reasons you mentioned — not needlessly burning someone before the discussion even starts. I suppose I usually do this during one-on-one email dialog, not in somewhat broad-ranged comments/posts.Sidenote: I would loooove to know how dating a Catholic while being bisexual works (as in his stance on that, not how it "works" in a physical context). Don't know if you'd care to comment further on that — completely forget it if that's sketchy ground… since you mentioned it, I figured it wouldn't be off bounds to acknowledge.

  • Hendy: "Allah" is just Arabic for "God." In any instance in which you would use "god" in English (for instance, "Vulcan was an early Roman god of fire."), you would use "allah" in Arabic.And I'd hesitate before suggesting that the different monotheistic religions worship different gods so much as have different conceptions of the same one. I mean this both in terms of historical development and in terms of how these religions tend to understand divinity. (And, to note, I say this as a Christian.) To what degree you can extend this to polytheistic religions, or religions whose conception of the Divine is less like a god and more like a force or something else, I cannot say.On the BCE and CE thing, I'd have to say that I prefer it, though I'll note that suggesting there is "common era" is itself problematic.

  • Oh, and do I make allowances for when I'm talking to an atheist interlocutor? I try not to use terminology that would be offensive even if I'm talking to non-atheists exclusively. Scornful/derogatory language shapes thinking patterns, so I try (and usually fail) to only use language makes a positive or neutral impact on my thought processes and the thought processes of those listening to me speak. I wouldn't use the words "unbeliever" or "infidel" or "heathen," for instance. I also try to avoid rendering religious positions as nouns (Jew, Muslim, atheist, Hindu) and instead use them as adjectives (is Jewish or a Muslim person), but I forget all the time. I also try to eliminate Christianese from my speech, though I don't use it all that often anyway.

  • Generally when arguing I try not to fall back to using arguments that are not against the substance, and I would try not to antagonize my counterpart or provide him an excuse to do the same. I do not always succeed in this.On the argument that not capitalizing because of all the numbers of gods, seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand what a Christian means by God.However I can say that my record of capitalization is almost entirely a record of my typing laziness or poor grammatical skill, and never a decision that is intentionally made one way or the other, even when I was a particularly antagonistic atheist. Of course this is most likely due to the fact that only a die-hard Christian would notice and I don't generally spend a lot of time with those.

  • I prefer to avoid capital-G “God” because it blurs distinctions between the characters of Jehovah, Yahweh, and Allah. When responding to monotheists, I often say “your god”.Sometimes I will write “the Hebrew Bible” (as Bible scholars do) where a Christian would write “the Old Testament”.In describing my own position, I never say “I don't believe in God”, but rather, “I don't believe in any gods.”

  • God vs god – depends on my argument and expected audience. When having a discussion about certain aspects of Christianity it is stupid to derail a sensible discussion by not conforming to your opponents expectation of respect, e.g. when discussing transubstantiation or the theory of hell. In some circumstances it is entirely appropriate.However, the one I will not back down on is calling God It. I even capitalise it to keep the appearance of 'respect' but if God did exist It would most certainly not have a gender and the patriarchal system that has kept women down for millennia must fall in step with science and realise that gender only exists in sexual reproduction and a timeless monotheistic God being would not have need of a gender.