How to sneeze like an atheist and speak like a Humanist
Please note: this blog post discusses language that some readers may find offensive.
Language is littered with religious baggage. If you’re religious or a believer, language bends to your will, your life-view and your chosen moral code.
For many non-believers, the term ‘humanist’ best reflects their beliefs and, significantly, their value system. Traditionally, those radical or brave enough to declare their atheism were derided as heathens, infidels or Godless. In recent times, insults levelled at those who think differently have softened and even taken on a humorous tone. To self-define as a ‘Heathen’ is to celebrate in behaviour conservatively and superciliously frowned upon as sinful. It’s a self-deprecating way of shunning restrictive and Puritanical constraints.
Humanists are the group most likely to want to communicate with some consideration for their non-religious status. Humanists are atheists or agnostics who lead ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and our common humanity.
I spoke to Richy Thompson, Director of Public Affairs and Policy at the British Humanist Association to discover how to speak like a Humanist. He offered some solutions to the linguistic dilemmas presented by a vernacular steeped in religion.
Some are hugely significant – a ‘God parent’ is responsible for bringing up a child within a religion. Some humanists couldn’t, in good faith, accept the label with integrity. Similarly, a ‘christening’ feels very wrong when you want your child to choose their own way, not be guided down a specific religious path. Others are fun to play with – how do atheists sneeze?
What do you call yourself if you want to be a Godparent without the God?
Guideparents, mentors or even the fabulous portmanteau ‘sparent’ – there are some practical and playful linguistic alternatives.
Thompson said: “There’s some disagreement about this amongst humanists. Some do simply use the term ‘godparent‘ because it’s entered the popular lexicon as simply designating the role played by adults who are to have a close relationship in the upbringing of their friends’ children. And [to them], it doesn’t hold any religious significance. But that can of course also confer a religious dimension to the role itself, so others avoid it and use various other terms like ‘Guideparent’, ‘mentor’, even ‘sparent’. In French it’s easier as they have secular words for this role!”
How do you have a ‘christening’ without Christ?
Welcomings, baby naming ceremonies or humanist naming ceremonies – here are your secular choices:
Thompson said: “This one’s easy! They’re called humanist naming ceremonies. Stephen Fry recently narrated an animation about them for us. Some humanists also call these ‘welcomings’ and, if it is a ceremony for an adoption that language is even more appropriate.”
Do humanists reclaim ‘marriage’ without religious baggage? Or would they prefer civil partnerships because the lexicon is more enshrined in equality than tradition?
Matrimony is easy without religiosity.
Thompson said: “The words ‘marriage‘, ‘matrimony‘, and ‘wedding‘ don’t have a religious origin! (And over 70% of marriages in the UK today – and for some time – have been civil). People who choose humanist wedding ceremonies most often choose to call them just that – a wedding. Some people choose to call them partnership ceremonies, but this is a minority.”
When exclaiming, ‘For God’s sake’ – would a humanist take care to replace God with Pete or fuck?
It’s blaspheming so this one feels particularly ‘heathen’ and out of bounds for the orthodox. But would Humanists prefer to omit God from their vocabulary altogether?
Thompson said: “No I think they would generally happily say ‘For God’s sake’, which is after all a blasphemy – or like most people they might sometimes happen to say something ruder!”
How about ‘bless you’ when somebody sneezes? Worth avoiding so as not to sound like a hypocrite?
We borrow German for the best secular alternative:
Thompson said: “Gesundheit, which is the equivalent phrase in German but has no religious connotations, just meaning ‘good health’. I used to have regular meetings with someone from the Church of England who insisted on saying ‘bless you’ every single time I sneezed. I can have overactive hayfever so once I sneezed seven times or so on the trot – and he insisted on saying ‘bless you’ seven times to match!”
Are there any other language issues which humanists navigate in interesting or creative ways?
Thompson said: “Without being more rude in general, I guess we might have less hang-ups about swearing than some religious people. There can be some debate amongst humanists about the value of trying to use the word ‘spiritual‘ in a way that means, simply put, awe and wonder at the nature around us. This is how it’s generally understood in educational contexts, for example – versus, on the other hand, writing it off as something too many people can only understand as a religious term.”
So now you can say Gesundheit to your sparent at a welcoming – and your semantics will be fully secular.