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Atheists Who Invoke God by Name, and Other Linguistic Ironies

When an atheist reaches climax, chances are he cries out the same two-syllable exclamation theists do: �Oh, God!� There�s something about the intensity of that moment that reduces our linguistic skills to the most elemental, whether it makes sense or not. Likewise, many atheists cry out �Oh, my God!� when surprised or frightened. �Oh, my gosh!� just doesn�t cut it, and �Oh, my self-generating universe!� is too wordy.

Theists like to point out the irony of this tendency, and they have a point. It seems a little inconsistent to call out the name of a god one doesn�t believe in. However, going so far as to conclude that atheists who haphazardly invoke god�s name are repressing some innate belief in a supreme deity requires quite a leap of reason�or of faith, as the case may be.

Due to its concision, �Oh, God!� is simply easier to recall than �Oh, undefined, unplanned origin of the universe!� Crying out the word �god� in moments of linguistic breakdown is due to force of habit rather than to some higher power. Besides, theists and atheists alike are guilty of using words that conflict with our beliefs, and we all know how tough such habits can be to break. Even when the expected consequence of cursing is a dirty look or a lecture, it�s hard to mind one�s language after stubbing a toe or smashing a thumb.

In any case, we�re not the only ones who unthinkingly invoke the name of some god we don�t believe in. The English language is strewn with words whose origins recall ancient deities, and many of these words are difficult to avoid. Several of our months take their names from pagan gods such as Janus (�January�), Mars (�March�), and Juno (�June�). The days of the week were named after pagan gods, as well, including Odin (�Wednesday�), Thor (�Thursday�), Frigg (�Friday�), and Saturn (�Saturday�). Yet no one accuses monotheists of secretly being polytheists when they make plans for the weekend.

And let�s not forget the Christian �Easter,� named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, whose festival was held in early April. In spite of the parallels between the pagan and Christian holidays, Christians wouldn't admit to worshipping pagan gods based on this bit of pagan etymology any more than New Yorkers would admit to being disciples of the Duke of York. Likewise, people born in the state of Louisiana do not acknowledge Louis XIV as their sovereign ruler, and it�s doubtful that many people born in the month of July swear allegiance to Julius Caesar.

No Catholic truly believes that he was born of the Pope�s loins, even though the word �pope� ultimately derives from the Old English word �pāpa,� meaning �father.� And the argument that the religious meaning of Christmas is being watered down by the secular greeting �Happy Holidays� seems a tad ironic given that �holidays� means �holy days,� but that fact is not the least bit comforting to Christians who feel that their monopoly on the holiday season is being threatened. Even when the ancient origins of words are clear, the modern meaning may be up for debate.

So although atheists generally prefer secular alternatives to religious expressions, sometimes these alternatives are unwieldy, pretentious-sounding, or non-existent. It�s easy enough to say �Gesundheit� rather than �God bless you,� but �Farewell� just isn�t as user-friendly as �Goodbye� (a contraction of �God be with you�).

And since in language, as in life, atheists almost always default to practical matters rather than adhering to abstract principles, we hope (but don�t pray) that you won�t be surprised when we wish you �goodbye.� If, however, you insist on seeing a supernatural connection when none is there, then it won�t be the first time we disagree.

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