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Sue Parry

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Tue, Feb 24, 2015 - 08:31 AM

Why do humanists/atheists still spell god with a capital G?

A question from one humanist to others: I notice, on this discussion and others, that many humanists/atheists still spell god with a capital G. I've stopped doing that, both to underscore the fact that people have come up with many different gods, and because that capital G seems to say (emotionally, not logically) that there's somebody out there in whom I do not believe. What do others think about this?



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Sue Parry

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Print Thu, Feb 26, 2015 - 12:09 PM
When I posted this question, I had no idea of the amount of discussion it would generate - not just the published comments, but the 50+ private comments I also got. I thought I'd summarize the trends, for those who are interested. (Those who said this was a dumb question can stop reading at this point.)

Those who capitalize do it because: 1) it shows respect and empathy for the beliefs of others; 2) it's good grammar - 'God' is a proper noun because it is the name of the Christian god, and proper nouns should be capitalized, including names of imaginary and fictional characters; or 3) autocorrect.

Those who don't capitalize often didn't give a reason. Some mentioned capitalizing when they specifically mean the Christian god, and using lower case when they mean any old god.

Why I'm interested in this question: I want how I speak and write to reflect my own thoughts, not those of others. I do attend to grammar, but I put saying what I mean ahead of grammatical correctness (so, as a feminist, I use 'they' in the singular), though I'd like to do both, and I'm interested in how others navigate these issues. For now, out with "I don't believe in God," and in with "I don't believe in any god." Thanks to all for taking time to respond to my question.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 12:24 AM
The way I see it, writing God is the same as writing Bruce, Amy, etc. It's a proper noun (unless you're referring to "gods" in general, I suppose), therefore it should be capitalized. This doesn't mean that I believe that God is real, any more than I believe that Tom Sawyer or any other fictional character is real. :)


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 12:18 PM
There are over 3700 super natural beings and when I refer to "the gods" with a small "g" I am not picking anyone of them out it particular. None is any more important than another.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 02:55 PM
I try to avoid using "God" as a name or proper noun because capitalized or not, it implies that the Judeo-Christian version is somehow more valid than the others. If "God" was just a given name like "Zeus" or "Chtulhu", it would be different, but the word "god" has been commandeered into a proper noun / title which makes me uncomfortable. I agree with many who answered before me that it makes more sense to refer to "the gods" or "a god" or even better, a "diety" or "dieties". It takes the idolization out of it for me.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 01:07 AM
I agree with Lauren. I am a grammar geek, so I capitalize names properly. I do sometimes rewrite the sentence to avoid using a proper noun. For instance, in Bo's first example sentence, probably wouldn't use "the gods" because the listener would be able to argue that they aren't talking about multiple gods. But I would likely use "a god" in that sentence. When used as a name (without an article or some other determiner before it), the lack of capitalization really annoys me. Grammar rules exist so that people can communicate clearly. We capitalize Mom when we talk to our moms in the same way that we capitalize God when we talk about the Christian or Jewish god. If I called you sue instead of Sue, my sentence would immediately lack clarity.

I rarely capitalize he, him, or his. I don't do this to prove a point. I do it because it is a pronoun, not a proper noun. Many Christians capitalize pronouns because they believe it shows reverence. But a quick internet search on the etymology shows that most modern bible translations do not capitalize pronouns, and churches that care to comment on writing style recognize that it is not proper English and is unnecessary. One could also note that the original text was not in English and did not have any rules of capitalization. [The reason I say I rarely do is that I participate on a forum, answering questions about grammar. One user writes a Christian blog. In answering her questions about grammar and writing, I have noted to her that capitalizing the pronouns can be considered a style choice. She continues to do it, so I don't argue the point.]


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Print Thu, Feb 26, 2015 - 03:50 AM
Whilst Christians and others use 'god' as if it was a name, note that most of the Christian strands have names for different incarnations (father, son, ghost): Jesus, Jehovah, Jahweh, Elohim (I am sure there are more). Wikipedia lists 99 names of this particular god used in Islam. And how do you spell father/Father and son/Son? Are those proper nouns as well? What about holy ghost? Is that his name? As in "Have you seen Holy Ghost this morning?" or "My name is Ghost, Holy Ghost." (shaken, not stirred)


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Bo Bennett, PhD
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Print Tue, Feb 24, 2015 - 11:36 AM
That is a really good question! I, too, feel that writing "God" gives validity to the Christian concept of "one true God." In fact, I usually write "the gods" as a way to recognize the many other beliefs outside out culture. However, referring to "God" can be a more precise form of communication when discussing the attributes of the Christian "God". In addition, it can be less offensive when communicating with a Christian. Here are some examples of how I might use these:

Why do you think the gods would care what football team wins?


How could Jesus also be God?

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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 10:32 AM
I capitalize or not depending on context. When using it as a proper noun (say, the name of the specific Abrahamic god named God) I capitalize it because that is proper grammar. However if using it as just a simple, plain noun, then I don't. You can see examples of each use in the parentheses. I just use the standards I was taught at school.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 10:51 AM
God is a proper noun and a title grammatically speaking. For example "are you trying to play God" or "I have become God." As distinct from "you are like a god to me." in that case god is a common noun as noted by the use of the indefinite article 'a'.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 11:04 AM
Excellent question. I've wondered that myself at times. I suspect it's habit from the old days or an attempt to be polite. But to me, talking about God implies there is a "God" which is probably not the intent. I always talk about "a god" or "any god" unless I'm talking about someone else's idea of a God. I strongly encourage others to do that too.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 11:13 AM
Personally I do not spell it with a capital letter, but I do understand why many do, since it acts as a proper noun in the context of referring to the Judeo-Christian god.

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Rod Moulds

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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 11:17 AM
One old convention that can be largely disposed of is to capitalize pronouns referring to god or Jesus. This is found in older texts fairly often, including poetry and hymnody, but is really not necessary.

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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 11:35 AM
It's true that God is a proper name, like Zeus, when referring to the god of Abrahamic monotheism. For example, the Islamic variant is spelled Allah. But when it is presented without proper context it creates unwarranted assumptions. I always ask the person using it to specify which god of thousands they mean. For the generic case I use gods.

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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 11:38 AM
I don't....


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 12:38 PM
The Christians generally call their god by the name of God, and while he is still nothing more than a god, as a nominal distinction it becomes proper.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 12:54 PM
We capitalize the g in God for the same reason we capitalize the D in Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Even with fiction, one uses upper case letters for the first letter of a name.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 01:09 PM
Often I do not. For example, speaking to an American Christian, to remind him/her of the religious privilege afforded to them, I might refer to "your god". However, people rarely have their mind expanded by discussions beginning with "You're wrong." Empathizing with their position, I may well refer to "God."


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 01:25 PM
Generally I do not capitalize the "g" when referring to any god, including the christian god. Having been indoctrinated into a christian beliefs as a child, I have since come to the realization the christian god is no more real than Zeus. Grammatically, I may be incorrect, but not capitolizing gives me an easy, non-confrontational way to include the much celebrated christian god of today, in the large group of other gods in which humans no longer believe.
Many of the lessons I learned in my family's liberal christian church were of value to me; mainly "Do unto others, as they would do unto you", but my parents could have just as easily reminded me of this age-old pre-christian rule, and allowed me to sleep in or play with friends on Sundays.
Despite learning some good lessons in church, and none of the bigoted BS coming out of right-wing religion these days, I resent being told as a child that god was real. I believe being told god was real as a child, caused me to believe in magical, mystical answers to many of life's questions, which are far better answered with research or rational thought.
Using a lowercase "g" for the christian god allows me another opportunity to express my disbelief and dissatisfaction with teaching unproven garbage to children as "gospel".


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 01:33 PM
For me it is a matter of the person I'm dealing with. If I don't want to spend a bunch of time explaining the reason to a christian It gets a capital.

Whenever I'm dealing with people who know something about humanism, I don't bother.

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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 02:06 PM
I think when the discussion is about the Judeo/Christian deity it is appropriate and culturally accepted to capitalize so that it is understood that the reference is to that god. I don't think a humanist is validating God by capitalizing it.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 02:43 PM
There's no rule in grammar that says that using proper nouns is limited to real persons only. I also capitalize Zeus and Athena. And other deities in which people believed or believe like the Great Spirit. Or the Valkyrie. And mythical characters in Shakespeare, like Puck, and other fictional characters like the Prophets on ST-DS9. If I'm writing about the deity (mythical as I believe it is) that the monotheists usually name God, then I see no reason not to capitalize it. I do not, however, capitalize Him or Her in talking of their deity. I don't capitalize gods in the generic sense of deities. If I refer to goddesses or a goddess, it's a generic sense; if I refer to Goddess it's to a specific concept some hold as an actual person. And don't a lot of us also capitalize Universe at times?

Not capitalizing a proper noun just to show disrespect for the person's belief in what's named -- real or fictional -- seems, well, rude.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 03:43 PM
I spell "Santa" with a capital S as well. Names, even fictionalized character's names, are capitalized. It's called correct English.

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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 04:26 PM
Some do it because it's customary, like saying 'god bless you' when someone sneezes. Others probably do it because it's a proper name. If you don't precede it with a definite or indefinite article (a god, the god, some gods) then you are using the proper name. I would never capitalize pronouns referring to God because those are never proper names.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 04:42 PM
We use correct grammar and spelling as a way of saying that, while we do not share someone's faith, we recognize and respect their right to live that faith. To do otherwise would be a gratuitous insult, behavior best left to zealots who place excitability above civility.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 04:42 PM
The theist version of God (big G) vs the deist version of god. The theist believes that God hears and answers prayers and participates in determining the outcome of sporting events. The deist on the other hand believes that once god (small g) did whatever, that he/she has been a non participant in human affairs.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 04:45 PM
Also, don't overlook the autocorrect factor. Sometimes I intentionally use upper case G, but mostly I use the lower case just to show a lack of respect to a bad idea.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 06:17 PM
I guess I've been still capitalizing the g because I think of it as the name of a fictional character. I may have to rethink it.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 09:25 PM
I spell it with a lower case "g", because most often when I'm talking about "god" I don't just mean any particular one, but the idea of it. When I do talk about, say, the Christian god, I don't think of it as an actual person, just a particular religious idea.


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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 11:31 PM
I don't in most cases. For me, god is only capitalized if it starts a sentence or refers to a specific theological construct, or if I am quoting someone who did capitalize it. For instance: "Christians claim Jesus is god's son". Contrast that with "Arius was excommunicated for maintaining that 'God the Son' is subordinate to, and not co-eternal with, 'God the Father'".

However, many atheists and humanists do capitalize the word god. Most do so for the same reason they capitalize "Tom Sawyer". Whether the character is fictional or not, the name is capitalized.

Some would argue that god should not be capitalized because it is not a name, but a job title. These people insist that "Yaweh" is the name, "god" is the job title. However, when we write about a specific president, we capitalize that job title as well, although we don't capitalize it when referring to the office itself. For example, "I support President Obama" as opposed to "I supported Obama when he was running for president". The same goes for the title of caesar - on its own, it is not capitalized, but when it refers to a specific emperor, it is - "The first emperor of Rome was Julius Caesar", vs. "There had never been a caesar prior to Julius".

However, there have been other presidents, and will be others in the future. Same goes for caesars. However, from a modern Judeo-Christian perspective (ignoring the seldom-acknowledged fact that the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is clear in saying that there are other gods), no one but Yaweh has ever held, or will ever hold, the title of god. For these people then, god is Yaweh and Yaweh is god. So it has always been, so it shall always be. Thus, for them, god and Yaweh are effectively synonymous. And in any case, many Christians certainly do consider their deity's name to be "God", even if they acknowledge that he has other names (YHWH, Yaweh, Jehovah, El, Elohim, I Am, etc). For instance, if an American whose religious affiliation is not immediately apparent says "I have been blessed by god", they almost certainly don't mean Ganesha, Zeus, Thor, Ba'al, Molok, Horus, etc - they probably mean the Christian god. Clearly, then, they see "God" as a title uniquely and solely applicable to their god, and non-transferable to any other potential candidates. Thus, since the title has always applied to their god, and always will, the title is effectively a name as well

So most atheists and humanists who capitalize the word god do so because when it is capitalized, it is understood to refer to the Christian god, and in this context, it is functionally the name of that god. In this sense, it simply saves them the trouble of having to write "the Judeo-Christian god". It is commonly considered a name, or at least treated as a name in practice, and since you capitalize names - even the names of fictional characters - they believe it makes sense to capitalize this "name".

And of course, in the Western world, most people who are now atheists/humanists were once, at least nominally, Christians, there is undoubtedly an issue of "force of habit" at work here. If you were taught to capitalize it when you were little, and it is generally capitalized when you see it in print, you'll probably keep capitalizing it yourself.


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Print Thu, Feb 26, 2015 - 12:53 AM
In my case, it's solely because of the autocorrect feature on my iPad. I do all my writing on an iPad, and K usually value this feature, but in this case it drives me nuts.


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Print Thu, Feb 26, 2015 - 01:06 AM
I sometimes capitalize "God" and sometimes don't, depending on the audience. When communicating with a general audience I tend to refer to a being by the name of "God." When talking with other humanists, I tend to say "a god" or "gods" without assuming to refer to any particular one. If I'm referring to the god of Abraham and write it in lowercase, every reference to this god also becomes an assertion about the plurality of gods or non-existence of gods, and that might distract people from what I'm trying to communicate. Also, there are some abstract notions of the overarching workings of the universe that people like to refer to as "God," and in these cases the capital 'G' seems necessary to distinguish the abstract notion being discussed from generic, conventional notions of god.


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Print Thu, Feb 26, 2015 - 03:00 AM
I generally only do it to protect the delicate sensibilities (or my presumption of them) of people I'd rather not offend. For some, the smallest slight against Jehovah or whoever can be an instant conversation stopper.

I capitalized for a long time as a proper noun like I've read in multiple other answers. I quit thinking of the generic term god as a proper noun when I noticed that, even among a single congregation, there are wild variations on what god is. I'm not judging this at all. For me, this caused me to dissociate the name from a concrete figure. Proper nouns come with iconography and form.

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Print Thu, Feb 26, 2015 - 04:35 PM
Sometimes it's a matter of autocorrect, I type the lower g but it gets corrected, sometimes it's a matter of for the same reason I capitalize my name or Harry Potter's name. It's a proper name, so why not?


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Print Sat, Feb 28, 2015 - 05:18 PM
I don't generally capitalize the word god. First, it seems so generic and really sad that the best name they could have come up with was just a vanilla/middle of the road name. I don't do it to upset people. It's just a word. When I refer to gods by specific names like Thor and Zeus and some of the lesser known gods of Aztec or Mayan myths I capitalize. Those are actual names. I think it this includes the pronoun for father and son and holy spirit. Such generic terms. I dunno. Not my thing.

It's like our moon. We are stuck with calling it our moon. Moon. Nothing cool sounding like Europa or Titan. Nah, we just get moon. That's the handle we gave it. Sad. Same for Earth. Can't we come up with a cool sounding planet name for this blue marble (Blue Marble)? I think we can. Let's rename...

(Sorry I went off topic)


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Charles Martin

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Print Sat, Mar 21, 2015 - 12:25 AM
I do not. Gods such as Zeus or Odin, get capitalized, so does Yahweh, but god is god.


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Cindy Eby

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Print Thu, Apr 16, 2015 - 01:35 PM
Normally, I follow the rules of grammar, which are as follows: "a god, this god, your god" do not need capitization, but when you substitute the word for a name, "Oh, God, why have you forsaken me?" then you capitalize it as you would any proper noun.
However, it is my small perhaps unnoticed protest against the dominant religion that I do not capitalize the word in any usage.


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Marlene Epley

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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 10:19 AM
It is capitalized because it is a proper name - like Dick, Jane, Spot.


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Stephen P Milburn

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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 12:01 PM
Because 'blasphemy' would not be as effective without a capital 'G'...My God,God Almighty,Ye Gods....ask a stupid Goddam question!


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Kurt Thompson

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Print Wed, Feb 25, 2015 - 11:02 AM
What a mundane, completely useless question. Why do I say, 'bless you' when someone sneezes? Because people universally understand what I meant. Does anyone really think I was blessing them? These kinds of questions should just be ignored. Aren't there bigger fish to fry?
FYI: Apple developers must be also be non-believers, because god isn't automatically capitalized on my iPhone, but Atheist is.


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Registered User Comments

Bill Haines
Friday, July 10, 2015 - 12:35:41 PM
@Sue Parry: Late to the party, but thought you might find this useful -- I usually use 'deity' anywhere I can and '"God"' in double quotes to emphasize the vagueness of the term.

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Mark Brewster
Sunday, April 05, 2015 - 07:14:51 PM
@Marlene Epley: - Sorry, Marlene, but even in religious teaching, "God" is a TITLE, not a name. On the christian side of the field, you can choose from Jehovah, Elohim, Adonai, YHWH, Yahweh, Yahuah, all of which are considered NAMES for the deity in question. But the euphemism "God" is used as a SUBSTITUTE by those who tend to follow the Jewish tradition of holding the "Sacred Name" as too holy to speak aloud.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Sunday, April 05, 2015 - 07:50:28 PM
I don't even think those in the Jewish faith understand this... at least not the ones who write "G-d." Or perhaps they are so afraid of offending they fear to write the substitution of the name!

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Jeff Smith
Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 12:22:12 PM
@Kurt Thompson: Oh, this may actually warrant a new topic altogether but I just tried on my Droid Moto X phone through Verizon and the autocorrects for capitalization is as follows, as I type them. Start god Allah Christianity Islam christian Muslim.
Anyone else default differently?

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Sue Parry
Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 08:37:38 AM
@Patty T.: Thanks for mentioning the He/he issue. I agree, that's just a convention and can be dispensed with. 'A god' seems to be the best choice in many cases. Just saying 'God' immediately centers what you're saying on the Christian god, which is often not what I intend.

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