Is It Normal for God to Pop Up in Atheists’ Thoughts? July 5, 2009

Is It Normal for God to Pop Up in Atheists’ Thoughts?

Reader Bob has noticed himself doing something I figure many atheists do:

When I think about family and friends, I will often think to myself, “God bless ’em” when I am worried about them. This is not said out loud; it is just a personal thought toward the person I am thinking of, a long ingrained habit.

As an atheist I certainly don’t think it actually does anything. But am I planning on stopping? No. Old thought patterns are hard to change. I have just been laughing lately when I catch myself doing this.

Do other atheists do the same thing? How do they deal with it? What are suggestions on other ways to phrase these thoughts?

Seems like I need to train myself to think “Be safe, I care about you” instead…

I don’t see any problem with thinking the way Bob does, since it’s more out of habit than belief. I’m hard-pressed to think of examples of God coming into my thoughts, even though I say “religious” phrases out loud all the time (“Dear Lord,” “Bless you” (after someone sneezes), and “Oh God” come to mind).

Does anyone else think religious thoughts as an atheist?

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  • Anticontrame

    Hmm… I think/say/shout “Goddamn it!” all the time, and I’m fine with it. If I believed in God and his ability to damn things of my choosing it’d be another story.

  • Tom

    The one I commonly use is “oh god”, which I’m trying to train myself into replacing with “oh dog”, since I do in fact believe in dogs, and I even know they love me.

    To a lesser extent I use “god damn it”, which I’m trying to replace with simply “damn it”, on the basis that I can damn things much better than god can, since I actually at least exist. However, this is going to be slow going, since when I say that I am generally not in any mood to be thinking about my word choices.

  • schism

    I agree with Anticontrame. It’s like when you call someone a “son of a bitch.” Chances are, you don’t have anything against the person’s mother despite the epithet, taken literally, only directly insulting her. The intent is more important than the words themselves, I think.

  • Aj

    It’s not religious thoughts if you’re just thinking in your internal monologue the phrases “God bless him”, “Goddamnit”, “Oh my God” if they’re devoid of belief in a deity, just phrases that express certain emotions unconnected to gods. It’s inevitable that certain parts of English are related to the Christian’s God. Yet English also contains language and phrases from ancient languages, so you could be using language that refers to Greek gods, Roman gods, Norse gods, and Celtic gods.

    If you’re thinking that God should bless someone. Then that would be strange for an atheist. Still possible, as it’s possible for you to think Gandalf should smite someone with his shining white rod of justice. We can, and often do, fantasize, our brains are pretty awesome at it. If you’re actually thinking “the real entity God should bless this person, and if he does then he will be blessed”, then arguably at best you’re conflicted, worst you’re not an atheist.

  • Chris

    I use the term “God” in my everyday speech: Thank God, God bless you, God help me. I do not see a problem in it because I know I do not think a God is going to help me.

    I have even found myself saying “Please God” when I meant “I know I can find the strength to do this”…for me, it demonstrated the hegemony of God language in our culture.

  • eddie

    I use to use these phrases all the time. Dawkins gave a suggestion to help with this. He said to use the word gods or buddah. It helps and eventually I stopped using the phrase all together.

    The hardest one for me was the god bless you. If you think for a moment where this came from, the idea that something was stealing your soul away, you realize how silly having a connotation to make that not happen is as equally inane.

    I actually got into trouble for not saying it. I had to come out as an Atheist on that day because of a simple human reaction.

  • Sven

    Basically the same as the other commenters. “God forbid”, “Oh for God’s sake”, and so forth. They’re just sayings to me.

  • I agree – they are nothing more than figures of speech to me. “God bless you” when someone sneezes, “god damn it” when you drop yet another plate on the floor – these have become meaningless.

    I don’t waste energy worrying about them. 🙂

  • Revyloution

    I grew up secular, so I have very little deity based invective. I do like to use science fiction based words. No surprise there, we didn’t go to church, but we did worship Star Trek at its appropriate hour on the TV.

    Frell, Frack, Lords of Cobol, By Krom, Cuthulu knows, etc. Normal parts of speech for me. It sure starts a few interesting conversations with strangers.

  • I grew up in a religious home, so I still have some religious-centred thoughts from time to time. A few times I’ve caught myself about to say, “I’ll be praying for you.” It’s very frustrating.

    I do love a good “goddammit” though. That word was strictly off-limits in my community and it still offends them today.

  • mkb

    “God forbid” and “From your lips to god’s ears”. “Hopefully not” works well for the first one and “I wish” for the second, but those aren’t the phrases that seem to pop into my brain.

  • Josh Pawlikowski

    For me, it’s all just part of the language. If you look at the word “disaster”, it literally means “bad star”. I use the word quite frequently, but I don’t believe that the stars are affecting my life. I view using the word “god” in much the same way.

    (On a side note, glad to know I’m not the only one who says frak from time to time.)

  • Somero

    Surprisingly the christian/Jewish/Muslim god does not show up in my speech with the exception of the rare “oh my god”.

    Although various other gods due enter my thoughts frequently.
    Stuff along the lines of “What would Thor do?”

  • jenjen1352

    Good Heavens yes! Loads of blasphemous oaths. Hot favourites are Hell’s Bloody Bells and Damn, Blast and Buggeration.

    On the other hand, I always say Bless You after sneezes…

  • Nick O.

    “For the love of God”, “God dammit”, “Jesus!”, etc. I use them all and never give them any thought. There is no need to modify perfectly useful language.

    Where “Bless you” after a sneeze is concerned, I actually find myself naturally saying “Gesundheit!” That’s a fun word.

  • Cafeeine

    Pretty much the same with me. I use god-filled phraseology, although mostly when I speak in Greek, and more often in situation I don’t encounter often, like speaking for the recently dead (“may god forgive him” is a very common phrase in Greek for this, although I never think of a god nor do I consider the person in need of forgiveness.) In English I often substitute swears and blasphemies from pop and cultural influences, like ‘smeghead’ or ‘frak’ or “a pox on both your houses”.

    As I said recently to a Christian who brought it up to me “I am no more invoking God to damn you when I say ‘God damn it’ than you are worshipping the Sun god every Sunday morning when you go to church.

  • Nicole C.

    I don’t have religous thoughts, and in figures of speech I almost always replace “God” with “goddesses,” meaning the goddesses of Hyrule from the Zelda series. They’re just as real as all the other deities in the world, but a lot nicer than most of them.

  • Becky

    I still do have religious thoughts… sort of. I grew up in a religious environment, so I still have hope thoughts in my head, if things are going wrong. Hopeful thoughts, which is what i considered praying back in the day. These thoughts however, are never directed to a particular deity.. just wishing all will go well.

  • Sam Mac

    Goodbye – god be with ye
    (Hard not to use that one)

  • Kennan

    I find myself saying “god” and “jesus” all the time and I have no problem with it. Growing up you don’t learn the meanings behind phrases like “bless you.” Its just the polite thing to say when someone sneezes. You can try and train yourself to quit saying these phrases but I find it is pointless. If you are anxious to take the words out of your vocabulary you should go ahead and say “gosh” and “jeez,” but like I said, people don’t think of the meanings behind “oh my god” after it is said. They instantly jump to the idea that something shocked you, and for that I really have no need to train myself to quit.

  • ZombieGirl

    Still being a teenager, of course “oh my god” is still heard from me frequently. >.>
    But living in a very liberal area, most strangers ignore me when I spout, “Thank the Lord Almighty Zombie Jesus” in public.

    Any religious words in my vocabulary, I have accustomed myself to turning them into silly religious phrases which only exist for my amusement.

    Hail Satan.

  • Indigo

    Off-topic: why is it less offensive to tell someone to go to hell than to tell them to fuck off? For that matter, why is hell a lesser swearword than fuck?

  • Emily

    totally normal, it’s very much a habit. I personally have said ‘gods’ in place of ‘god’ since I was about thirteen (dear gods, being the most common phrase that’s used in) and omm or ‘oh my messiah’ is an entertainingly popular phrase on my ultimate frisbee team at school. I did have to explain to someone that gesundheit does not mean ‘god bless you’ in german when they mentioned surprise that I say anything at all after someone sneezes. I haven’t said ‘[god] bless you’ after someone sneezed in years though I’m admittedly (ashamedly?) a big fan of the phrase ‘god speed’.

    Goddamnit is just too good to give up. It rolls off the tongue so well….

  • Justin jm

    I’ve found myself changing around what I say when I cuss (usually in my mind) instead of saying goddamnit or something. . I will say something like “gobdammit” or “hey-soos kreis” (kreis being the German word for circle).

    Frell, Frack, Lords of Cobol, By Krom, Cuthulu knows, etc. Normal parts of speech for me. It sure starts a few interesting conversations with strangers.

    I don’t watch Battlestar Galactica, but I once blurted out “Frak!” after losing a video game with friends, which got me a strange look or two.

  • schism

    (On a side note, glad to know I’m not the only one who says frak from time to time.)

    Ditto. I’ve also been known to toss out a goram here and there, though a depressingly small number of people recognize that (offline, anyway).

  • I’m prone to “Goddammit” though I’ve really toned it down in recent years and say it rarely. I’m working on replacing it with “Hot Dammit”. I have successfully broken myself of saying “Oh my god” and replaced it with “Oh my gosh” (or online, OMGosh.) or “Oh my word”.

    The one I am hung on and can not let go of, however, is “Bless your heart” or “Bless their little hearts”,etc. It’s my inner southerner taking over and I often say it before I’ve realized it.

  • ethanol

    Does Jesus Christ count as a religious exclamation if you add a middle name? What if that middle name is tittyf**king?

  • HP

    I think that for atheists to come up with cutesy alternatives to swear words and meaningless filler phrases is actually counterproductive. It reinforces theists in their belief that these words have power, and it smacks of residual magical thinking.

    Thinking (or saying) “Oh, Lord” or “God bless ’em” isn’t religious, but thinking that those words possess some kind of imprecatory power is.

    Remember, every time you invoke the Abrahamic deity without really meaning, you’re violating the second commandment. Keep up the good work.

  • Gibbette

    I actually sometimes still find myself “praying” for things — just simple things like to get through a green light. But it quickly passes and is directed at nobody in particular. I also find myself thankful for these things when they do happen, but again the thoughts are not directed at god anymore; they are just there.

    I think it is the need we all have -to a greater or lesser extent- to feel in control of our surroundings, which is part of the reason for the belief in a god, particularly in a personal god that answers prayers.

  • I try to be creative. When someone sneezes, I say, “Stop it” or “Good one.” Actually, it does seem interrupt sneezing spells (because of the unexpectedness, I think). I use the exasperated phrase “Jesus Christ” and riff on it like a jazz musician. For instance, my favorite invention was “Jesus Herbert Walker Christ,” but “Jesus Brand Buttered Biscuits” or “Christ on Crackers” would do just fine.

  • “Remember, every time you invoke the Abrahamic deity without really meaning, you’re violating the second commandment. Keep up the good work.”

    Remember that every time you invoke the Abrahamic deity, you are doing it in vain. 🙂


  • Abbie

    I was never religious, so the phrase “God bless x” never runs through my mind. Both terms- “God” and “bless” are completely meaningless to me, and there is no possible situation that would call for their use. (Except a meta-discussion like this one.)

    I use “God” and “Jesus” sort of as interjections, usually at the front of sentences: “God… that sucks.” But it’s always an interjection or explicative; meaningless sounds to fill space.

    I don’t know if there is any religious terminology I *ever* use in context. But a lot of religious words (“sin”, “sacred”, “zen”, “kosher”) have established secular meanings, and obviously I don’t avoid them.

  • Abbie

    I honestly don’t understand the desire to rid “God” and “Jesus” from your stock of explicatives. I can see only benefit from limiting their use to meaningless interjections. And it’s not like they’re ever taken as espousals of belief.

    That said, I only say “Gesundheit” when people sneeze, and hearing “(God) bless you” *always* annoys me.

    I’ve been trying to revive the Vermonter expression “Jeezum Crow”, but it’s hard to change speech patterns by fiat. Why bother?

  • I use a lot of these words Jesus Christ, Goddamit, Oh My God etc. And I really wanted to stop, but then (as someone else has mentioned) I realised that by wanting to stop I was giving the words power. So now I use them freely as interjections and expressions. I have a bit of a potty mouth, it’s just part of who I am, and these “swear words” fit right in.

    However, I never say bless you when someone sneezes (it’s unnecessary, why do you have to say anything when someone sneezes?) and I never say that I’ll pray for someone, I say I’ll be thinking of them.

  • Ryan

    I use phrases with god in them all the time! I think my personal fav is goddamnit. I don’t think it matters one way or another.

    I still say bless you when someone sneezes. My fav alternative to that is ‘good health to you’. Can’t take credit for that one as it comes from one of the best teachers I have ever had.

  • Skepticat

    Religious speech, not so much, but religious music? Aargh! Sometimes old Baptist hymns pop up in my head and put themselves on repeat. It was especially bad this past week after my grandfather’s funeral.

    I didn’t like the music too well when I was a Christian. I really hate it playing in my brain now that I’m an atheist.

    I don’t dare mention it to anyone or they are sure to say that it is God trying to get my attention.

  • ChesterBogus

    I grew up with a German-American mother, so gesundheit was just one of the few tidbits of culture that came down to me (along with saurkraut – oh joy).

    To me, it’s more of a ethnic/cultural thing to say gesundheit, but nowadays, I find the phrase “God bless you” abhorrent. It wasn’t until I lived on a devoutly Catholic island that I became consciously using gesundheit instead of God bless you, but there wasn’t any need to change my habits since I already said it.

    Of course, the time I spent on a tropical island also heightened my awareness of my own personal ethnicity and cultural background, so gesundheit has kind of become a kind of powerful self-identifying word in my vocabulary.

  • The only time god pops into my mind/mouth is generally cursing. I do sometimes have the reflex to say “bless you” when someone sneezes but that’s about it. It’s ingrained in our culture and it’s a bit irritating but I let it go.

  • Marilin

    When people point out to me that I’ve said something like “Lord knows” or “Goddamnit” [usually as an attempt to prove I’m not truly an atheist] I point out to them that thanking God, or using a religious phrase, is almost unavoidable because EVERYONE USES THEM. They’ve lost all meaning, like swear words, they’re empty phrases or words. I grew up religious, going to bible study, so of course I’m going to still have phrases in my personal lexicon that have stayed with me. Look at your grandparents, I’m sure they still use words and phrases from their childhood that are no longer popular.

  • I think purging the word “god” from one’s own language is more effort than it’s worth. There aren’t any real benefits to it, only benefits of the symbolic sort.

    I found out yesterday that I will still use “under god” in the pledge, automatically. The rhythm of the pledge gets all messed up if you don’t say it when everyone else does!

  • I’ve made a real effort to remove those kind of phrases from my language, justifying it as, I wouldn’t say “For the love of The Tooth Fairy!” It’s just silly. I tend to say “For Goodness sake.” Which, I mean more sincerely – For the sake of being good – (“…stop annoying your sister” is the common ending). I’d rather teach my kids that being good is above all the best way to be, not for one’s love of a god. I also encourage the kids (aged 10 and 5) to not say “Oh My god!” all the time, which they do because all the characters on their favorite shows say it all the time. I blame Friends for making the term so fashionable. Ever count the OMGs on an episode of friends? you’ll start to worry you’re being programmed.

    I also say “For the love of Pete!” when I’m exasperated, but that’s because I was raised watching The Little Rascals. Otherwise, I have no idea who Pete is and why we should love him, but I always imagine the cute wee dog in Our Gang.

  • Stephen P

    When people point out to me that I’ve said something like “Lord knows” or “Goddamnit” [usually as an attempt to prove I’m not truly an atheist] …

    … point out to them they worship pagan gods and so can not be truly Christians – every time they mention a day of the week.

  • I use phrases containing religious sentiment fairly often (and mostly don’t care that it happens), but I don’t think religious thoughts at all.

  • Religious phrases are part of our cultural history, like Shakespeare phrases, lines of Milton poetry, Ben Johnson quotes and a whole host (there’s one) of other things. The bible is a rich source of shared understanding and it would be wrong to abandon the phrases simply because we’ve abandoned the belief behind them.

    That said “Bless you” is a product of superstition rather than literature and enriching culture. Personally I don’t use g0d, Jesus, or Lord in every day speech but I have been known to utter the phrase “bless your cotton socks” from time to time and I replace a typical “God!” with “good grief”. Apparently I’m the only one on the planet to do so which I can’t believe.

  • I have done a pretty good job eradicating god references from everyday speech (though, like others here, I enjoy a good “god damn it” from time to time).

    One persistent habit was saying, “god bless you” after someone sneezed. It seems polite, but I hate the inconsistency of it. Even a simple “bless you” without reference to a deity was problematic, since the practice stems from the false idea that a sneeze is one’s soul trying to escape the body.

    My solution is to say “gesundheit.” It just means “[may you be] healthy.” Since I am Jewish, I often give it a Yiddish spin and say, “gezint!” There’s a long atheistic tradition in Yiddish, and it sounds so ethnic.

  • I try to not do it, but it does come out. Especially when I am cursing, I seem to prefer religious curses. But I do say, “Oh, god” when something happens and I am exasperated, etc. I had wondered if I was doing something “wrong”, but you know, it is just nice to see people have similar experiences.

    Thanks for another great posting, Hemant.

  • jemand

    as a Christian, I was taught most of those phrases were blasphemy, so I never got used to using them… I don’t “think” god based language, but I’ve started using expressions like “what the hell?” Something I never would have allowed myself to do as a fundamentalist.

  • Having lived several years as a Fundamentalist Christian “god thoughts” do pop into my head from time to time, especially during times of stress in which I’m essentially helpless. I simply view those thoughts as leftovers from an abandoned coping mechanism – thoughts of “please protect them” from an ex-believer being no different than thoughts of “I need a drink” from an ex-alcoholic.

    As for religious speech, I mostly see it as nothing more than part of my cultural vernacular. The only time it bothers me is when it pops out of my mouth during a conversation with a believer who knows I’m an Atheist – I know that religious phrases used by professed Atheists add fuel to the “deep down they believe, but they choose to reject god” fire.

    As an aside – a few years back my Mother told me I “should just replace the word ‘god’ with ‘fuck’, I know you believe in that.” Clearly I didn’t get my faith from her. *grins*

  • I think the word “god” is just fine, in my conversations. I just make sure to use it as I believe in a god or gods, which is to say I believe in the null set of all gods, so “god” is just fine. It’s a pointer to the null set.

  • CatBallou

    I hadn’t given this much thought before. I have no problem with all the expletives that involve God and Jesus—I’m certainly not going to give them up—but I do reflexively say “Thank God” when a crisis turns out OK, as in:
    “Your brother was in a bad accident but he’s going to be fine.”
    “Oh, thank God!”
    I don’t actually mean that literally at all. I’ll have to think about a substitute. “Thank goodness” makes me feel 12 years old. One of the perks of adulthood is being able to use all the words!

  • I’ll quite often use the word God in many ways – e.g. ‘God knows’ ‘Thank God’, or Heaven – ‘Heaven help us’, or Jesus – ‘Jesus Christ!!!’. They’re just figures of speach to me, they aren’t appeals to higher powers, or some such incantation. They’re patterns of word usage that are prevalent in any society where Christianity is in the majority. It’s no different to the many idioms that I use as an Englishman that are purely because of where I’m from.

  • MeagD

    Unfortunately, I also use religious diction on a regular basis – However, I recently met a man who uses “God Bless You” or “God Bless Them” in an endearing way (not after one sneezes) all the time, and after a while it became an issue. I actually found it very creepy (to be honest – we are no longer seeing each other).
    I am not sure why this is, since I regularly say things like “oh god!”, “my god!”, and “god bless you” (after sneezing). Funny thing is – he wasn’t religious at all. But he ended up sounding like someone’s religious grandfather and it was unbearably creepy.

  • SpencerS

    I often catch myself saying things like that but it doesn’t really bother me. It is just a useful way to express myself, there are a lot of things that Christian’s do that are based off pagan ideas/beliefs but that they don’t realize or care about so why shouldn’t I use God in a set phrase.

  • LOL, I was just thinking about this topic this morning when I thought “Jesus Christ!” at a car in traffic. These terms are non-religious to me and just common expressions that I have kept filed away. Kind of like how I’m not urban or hip, and yet I say things like “word.” and “mos def.” (in my head!)

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