An Atheist’s Primer on Grammar and Style

dictionaryMany people find atheism to be freeing. It frees the mind of the shackles of indoctrinated scripture. Avoiding such false beliefs opens up a whole universe to explore — granted. I want to speak, though, of a different kind of freedom.

One of the hidden freeing aspects of atheism is being able to cut down the number of words used when talking about God. Theists, especially those who use the name “God” as their god, have to navigate a politically correct minefield. Avoiding sexism these days requires one to use convoluted phrasing such as, “God has a reason why he or she capriciously wipes out entire populations with tsunamis and volcanoes, but he or she chooses not to let us in on it. Who can know his or her mind?”

You may have noticed, incidentally, that I am avoiding capitalizing the pronouns. I could capitalize He or She, as the devout do, but frankly, that’s a little silly — not to mention that it drives my grammar checker crazy.

Of course, Jesus was just a guy, a historical figure, so it is fine to say (for instance), “Jesus liked to wear sandals to show off his hairy feet.” But let’s get back to God. I mean that in the context of this piece. I am not asking you to return to a religious existence — just to be clear.

God was invented by a bunch of men in the days before feminism. While the faithful might argue that those early authors used pronouns appropriate for their language and time, and that modern interpretation of the true nature of God requires more nuance, to atheists this is a much simpler situation. God is fictional, and like all fictional characters, the authors have the right to ascribe whatever gender they choose. It would be like saying “Beowulf, slayed he or she the dragon.” That is awkward, to say the least. Of course, Beowulf was written in Old English, so instead of “he or she” it would have been “hé oþþe héo.” But I digress.

The authors of the Bible and other fictional works based on the character God, chose to make him male. So be it. But there is another reason to avoid “he or she.” Using one pronoun, rather than two, when speaking about God to those who believe in him, gives you a stronger voice. Consider the statement, “He is a figment of your imagination that has been indoctrinated into your deepest thought patterns.” Think of how much weaker — and distracting to the message — it would be to say, “He or she is a figment of your imagination that has been indoctrinated into your deepest thought patterns.” It gives the listener the opportunity to assume that you are unsure. I’m guessing that is not true.

Incidentally, you should always capitalize God. This is different from the “He” versus “he” pronoun issue I spoke of previously. In this case, God does exist (don’t be shocked, atheists). Yes, God exists. He is an individual. He exists as a fictional character in books. That guy’s name is God. You should capitalize his name, just as you would capitalize Gulliver or James Bond or Waldo. He (or she) is just as real.

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