Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Thank God

Frivolity of Language
Most of what people say these days is due to tradition and/or habit. Our little small-talk banter and useless fragments of words and sounds are a remnant of the messy way in which language evolves. But what I want to focus on today is the tradition and habits of our language (probably in any language, not just the one you're reading this in).

I was recently told that because I use the phrase "oh my God", I'm not an atheist. After picking myself up off the floor from laughing hysterically (I'd heard of people who use this kind of "logic" but I'd never encountered it personally), I showed the person that my simple use of a colloquial phrase isn't any addition of me believing in anything I said in that phrase. I can say "Santa is coming to town" without believing in a physical, actual, real-life Santa Claus.

Our culture is permeated with slang and colloquialism, just as any other culture is. People say things like, "that's cool" in reference to something other than temperature. We say "oh God" when we fuck. Some people even say "thank God" just out of habit alone -- I sometimes still do it. I'm not actually thanking any "god". It's just words.

But how did this tradition come to be? Why do we have the slang phrases and colloquialisms with respect to God (or god -- lowercase or upper-, it doesn't matter)? I'm no linguist nor do I claim to know the origin of language or religion, but let me paint a picture of how religious iconography could be tied to our early language.

Thank The Great One
An early Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthal -- let's call him Adam, sits patently while his mate picks fresh berries, some 50,000 to 200,000 years ago. Adam's has evolved over millennia to equip him with the ability to be cooperative and social. Adam has a deep appreciation for what his wife is doing; perhaps he consciously realizes it, perhaps not.

This feeling of appreciation has its roots stretching back through his ancestors. The gratitude is feels reinforces his bond with his mate -- we'll call her Steve (har har) -- whether he understands it or not. But perhaps Adam is also grateful for the berries being there, maybe a little more plentiful this harvest. Who is Adam to thank? He doesn't understand how the berries grow, or the mechanisms behind why. Yet he is thankful...he feels that same feeling of gratitude -- the same kind of appreciation as for Steve.

The thing you have to realize is that our internal feelings don't have to rely on the existence of an external object of those feelings. We can feel happy without needing an outside entity to tie it to. We can feel elation, fear, and splendor to the universe without the universe needing to be conscious or have the faculties to reciprocate. But we've bred those feelings through dealing with other people and entities. When we suddenly feel those same emotions being triggered from something that's not a person, we get weird. Some want to "thank God" for the sunlight or the sudden divergence of a deadly storm (overlooking the fact that God killed 38 other people, but you were saved). Some want to "thank God" for things because all throughout our history, we've thrown the ball of thanks to an entity with open hands, if my analogy isn't stretched so thin it's transparent.

But there's no God to thank even though you may feel the need to thank it. It's just fluff inherent in our language, culture, and habit. Thank God there's no God to thank, so I'll just thank you for reading; you've earned it.


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