Many atheists, including myself, try to avoid the kind of god-talk that some people equate with belief in a deity. Although it’s reflexive in our society to say “God bless you” when someone sneezes, “Gesundheit” (“good health”) would be a more appropriate atheist response. Getting a wallet back from the lost and found with nothing missing could appropriately elicit the exclamation “Thank goodness!” because atheists know that goodness exists. In these examples, we can see how to avoid invoking or praising a deity when we utilize a cliché.
Some nontheists have employed the concept of “God” as a metaphor that is often incorrectly equated with god belief. Perhaps the most famous person to do this was Albert Einstein, whose epithet “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” was his expression of contempt for the notion that the universe is governed by probability, an idea fundamental to quantum theory. (The indisputable success of quantum theory shows that “God” really does play dice with the universe.) The same kind of problem later arose for literalists when the atheist Stephen Hawking said that if we were to discover a “theory of everything” (reconciling general relativity with quantum theory), we would know the “mind of God.”
More recently, when the atheist physicist Peter Higgs proposed the existence of the particle now called the “Higgs boson,” the media mislabeled it the “God Particle.” Amusingly, many scientists had been calling it the “Goddamn particle” because of its elusive nature. Confirmation of its existence has added a bit more evidence to our understanding of how our universe could have come into existence without the need for a creator.
Theists and atheists alike have been known to use god-talk in response to a foolish or painful incident—for example, hitting one’s thumb with a hammer, then exclaiming “God dammit!” or “Jesus Christ!” In these instances, it is the religious person, not the atheist, who might worry about the “sin” of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Orthodox Jews go even further in the “not in vain” vein by taking care to write G-d instead of God.
(It seems to me that believers in an all-powerful and all-good God who controls the universe should be theologically consistent and credit God for bad as well as good outcomes—even though it would be odd to hear a religious person who has broken a leg loudly exclaim “Thank God!” or “Praise Jesus!”)
We have many euphemisms for the names of deities and biblical words. “Holy cow” replaces “holy Christ”—although I don’t know how that expression plays in India, where cows are considered sacred. And “holy shit” is a phrase that expresses anger or amazement and has nothing to do with divine defecation. But be careful if you’re an unrepentant sinner: Gosh might darn you to heck.
The problem of sensitivity to religion-related words doesn’t just concern references to deities. I was once invited to appear on a television show to comment on a bill that would authorize the placement of a Ten Commandments plaque on the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol building. When I arrived at the station, the producer told me that my T-shirt was unfit for a family news program and made me cover it with a jacket—all so that viewers would be protected from my shirt’s benign message: “Smile, there is no hell.” How ironic: a family news show was censoring hell, a word of primary biblical significance to most fundamentalist Christians.
In closing, I’ll share an admittedly immodest personal goal. I’d like to have my name become a curse word—just like the names of so many deities. People would go around saying “Herb dammit!” And imagine my pleasure when people would shout “Jesus H. Christ!” while I assume that the middle initial stands for “Herb.”
I know. That was a Herb-awful joke.