Margaret Downey Can Go to Hell

Margaret Downey Can Go to Hell

About a year ago, a group of us was* at happy hour downtown. There was a Secular Coalition for America meeting nearby, so I got to meet a few famous atheists (or at least famous in certain atheist circles), including Dan Barker and Brother Richard.

The bit that sticks in my mind, though, is when Margaret Downey told some of us that as atheists, we should purge our speech of religious expressions.

“Oh, lord”, I thought. I made a herculean effort to remain jovial, but the reaction she got was close to pandemonium.

Even setting aside the fact that policing the language for morally inappropriate words and phrases strikes me as being too close to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for comfort, there’s also the fact that human language is a product of its culture.

Whether we like it or not, religion and other mythological ideas have left their mark on the language. They’re common tropes that we can all refer to in speech. In December, I might joke that such-and-such annoying customer will be getting coal in his stocking. And after Christmas I sometimes ask my friends whether Santa was good to them. Not because any of us believe in Santa Claus, but just as a roundabout way of asking whether they got everything they wanted. If we remove religious references from speech, shouldn’t we do the same with Santa Claus?

What about Internet trolls? Or gremlins in malfunctioning machinery? Should we stop referring to Wall Street prognosticators as oracles who read tea leaves? And where would games and online fora be without avatars?

For that matter, should we stop using atlases, named after the titan holding up the world, depicted on the frontispiece of early books of maps? While we’re at it, we’d have to rename most of the planets, moons, constellations, and the continent of Europe. We’d also have to eliminate Thursday and Friday.

It’s not just ancient myths, either: discussions about the limits of knowledge invariable eventually include the phrase “living in the Matrix“. And a delusional kook who refuses to see reason can be described as having taken the blue pill. Heck, even Non Sequitur recently referenced the Kobayashi Maru.

The Bible gives us a plethora of myths and expressions to draw upon: David and Goliath, the good Samaritan, the kiss of death, 30 pieces of silver, “am I my brother’s keeper?”, the word “antediluvian”, and much more. The Greeks gave us Achilles heels, Procrustean beds, Pandora’s box, odysseys, and mentoring.

Obviously, the difference between Christian myths and ancient Greek ones is that the Christian ones are still widely believed. Ideally, we should be moving to where we can put the Bible next to the Kalevala and the Iliad on our bookshelves, something that influenced society in the past, but that no one takes seriously anymore.

But there’s a difference between post-theism and anti-theism. If you stay away from a thing, you’re being influenced, perhaps controlled by that thing. I used to avoid Top 40 music until I realized that I was cutting myself off from some music that was quite good despite being popular. I don’t want to be controlled by religion, and so I plan to continue using whatever terms come naturally, whether they’re religious or not. When I have to catch a dawn flight, I’ll complain about having to get up at an ungodly hour. I’ll complain about the unholy mess of cables in the machine room. I won’t stop using expressions like “Christ on a cracker” and “Jesus titty-fucking Christ”. Hell, no.

I’m sure Ms. Downey’s heart is in the right place, and hope she doesn’t feel crucified or martyred if she runs across this rant. I just don’t want to be limited by someone else’s superstition.


Update, 22:21: Alert reader Fez took issue with the phrase “a group of us was”, saying it should be “a group of us were”. As of this writing, we’ve failed to reach consensus on which one it should be. They both sound right to me. My go-to reference in matters grammatical, Grammar Girl (or, in this case, her guest writer), says that there aren’t any hard and fast rules, but that “was” is more common American usage. Feel free to discuss in the comments.

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