Friday, August 01, 2008

The absurdity of G-d

This is just a quick something-to-think-about that began as a bit of a pet peeve.

If you've been interacting with religious folk on the interwebs, you've probably run across comments from Jews that include "G-d" in place of "God". A bit of investigating will reveal that this is a way of showing respect and avoiding the 'sin' of erasing or defacing the name of God.

When I first heard of this, I largely disregarded it as one of the various pretentious activities of the religious. Eventually, I gave it a bit more thought and the absurdity really started to sink in. Consider the following...

The Jewish deity has a name and it's a sin to erase or deface this name. There are a number of names for this god (YHVH, El Shaddai, Elohim), some of which are supposedly unutterable, others are reportedly unknown (what happens if you accidentally deface one of the unknown names?) - but all are sacred.

So, observant Jews avoid typing or writing "God", for fear that it 'might count' as a name of their god. The generic "god" is a word in the English language, made up of characters that evolved from other languages. The symbols that make up this word (remember, it's the written name, not the spoken name - that one must be cautious about), are unlikely to be the correct symbols for any of the names of their god, as these characters didn't exist at the time.

If modern English characters could be constructed to actually be the written name of a god, it seems that those characters might just as likely be "banana", "porn" or "ghoti" - yet observant Jews don't worry about morphing these words to avoid incidental defacement of the name of their god.

But, if we assume, for a moment, that "God" is a valid written representation of the name of the Jewish god, isn't "G-d" a defacement of that name? Granted, we're in the realm of word-magic, so it doesn't have to make sense, but it certainly seems ironic to me.

Further, we're really just talking about characters here that are used as labels for a concept. The label "god" is a non-specific reference to a type of being, "God" tends to refer to a specific being.

The value of a label is in its ability to communicate information.

By modifying the "God" label to "G-d", the Jews have added information. The "God" label could apply to a variety of specific deities qualifying for proper-noun-status. The "G-d" label, because of Jewish usage, now has the added information that renders it a label that specifically applies to the Jewish god.

It has, by their alteration, become a more specific label that is far more likely to qualify as the "name" of their god than the less specific versions that started this mess.

Ironic, huh?


  1. Great post! I have also wondered why people omitted the middle letter in god at times. I should have guessed it was something silly like this.

    For a while, I thought they just didn't like vowels in god's name. :P

  2. I get the idea that irony is wasted on some of the more fundametal religious folks, but you do have to laugh whne they set up these "special rules" only to get all tangled up in them, like the "do unto others . . . " crowd who wouldn't bat an eyelid at sending death threats.


  3. Lots of mythologies and fairy tales involve the idea that knowing someone/something's name gives the knower power over the thing named. Rumpelstiltskin is a nonreligious example of this. In many old fairy tales and mythologies, clever characters will lie about their names or titles when asked to provide them.

    This is very pronounced in the story of Jacob wrestling with god. In the story, Jacob wins the bout despite having his hip dislocated. He demands the vanquished "man" bless him before he will let him go. The "man" aks Jacobs name--in order to bestow the blessing (the name gives him the power to bestow the blessing). He blesses Jacob and grants him a new name. In doing so, he basically let's slip that he is god. When Jacob asks god his name, god sidesteps the issue, and merely responds by asking Jacob why he wants to know.

    So, Jacob is left, knowing it was god, but without any admission of His name. God is too clever to fall for that (but apparently not too powerful to get out of Jacob's half nelson!)

  4. I've actually seen Christians do the "G-d" thing took me a moment to figure out they weren't trying to say (in a bowdlerized way) "God damn."

  5. This reminds me of some languages where the exact choice of word encodes information about the sex or (left/right) handedness of the speaker. In this case, it's encoding the fact that the speaker is placing himself in deference to that god.

    You're right: it is rather silly. Everyone knows the real god is Odin.

  6. Oh. I just remembered. There was a very interesting old story about Jesus where he was supposedly fighting with Judas because Jesus knew the name of God and Judas was trying to stop him from using this advanced information. From what I remember, they got in some sort of Matrix-like fight in the air and Judas had to defile Jesus to bring him down to earth. (I remember that he had to be pissed upon.) Later, Judas had to crucify Jesus on a broccoli plant (as I recall) because the trees were magical.

    Needless to say, this story didn't make the Biblical canon. (It's far more interesting than those stories, wouldn't you agree?) I heard about it from Frank Zindler (of American Atheists) who wrote about it in his book, "The Jesus the Jews Never Knew". I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list...

  7. "Look, all I said was, this roast beef is good enough for Jehovah!"

  8. Tracie said: Lots of mythologies and fairy tales involve the idea that knowing someone/something's name gives the knower power over the thing named.

    Interesting that you bring this up - the brit milah ceremony is not only a ritual circumcision, but is also the Jewish naming ceremony. Giving a child another name is based on this idea that knowing someone's "real" name would allow you to curse them, you know, for real. Presumably, a child's Jewish name would be known only to family members and rabbi, and they wouldn't invoke supernatural forces to kill you.

    Fascinating how many little bits of sympathetic magic you run across in the Bible.

  9. I don't worry about what God would think, even if he did exist. Fuck him. Cth-lhu, on the other hand... *shudder*

  10. I have a cousin that became an ortodox jew, and she would start her e-mails with some praise to G-d also.

    I knew the reason but always thought that was stupid. After all, if you start calling something by another name all the time, that name becomes a synonym for the original name. So if you can't write the original name, now you can't write the new name either, because it means the same thing.

  11. I recall reading somewhere that the word 'God', is nothing more than a title, or job description.

  12. Ack. I can't even read "g-d" without my eyes rolling so far that I'm staring at my brain.

    Know what else sucks? When you write about God in the Quran, and Christians and Jews ask that you please stop saying "God" and start saying "Allah." And they don't believe you when you tell them Allah translated literally to The God. Wait, I mean The G-d.

    ....hi, brain!

  13. I think Mauro has really hit on the base of the stupid. Whenever we use one word to stand for a concept, it's just a label equal to any other also used for that concept. For instance, Good Christians™ will often say, "fudge" for "fuck" or "dog gone" for "God damn", at least here in Texas. What they don't seem to understand, or haven't lately read, is that their sky daddy's #1 son said that a sin in the heart is the same as a sin acted upon. In other words, as long as they know what they mean, it's still cussing just as bady as if they use the 'real' words. "G-d" is the same way. If they believe in a JHVH who hates it when someone says, "Jehovah" or "God", he's not going to be fooled by misplaced hyphenation.

  14. DingoDave:

    I can't tell if you're serious or not, but there is an apologetic very much like what you expressed, and here's how it works:

    In the Old Testament there are two main names for god, Yahweh and El. Many Xians claim "Yahweh" is a name, like John is a name; wheresas "El" means "god." So, Yahweh is El, just as John is a man.

    The problem is that this isn't right. "El," it turns out, IS a name, like "John is a name." It is the name of the Canaanite god who shares quite a lot with El in the Old Testament. Interestingly, the OT talks about the Hebrews spending a lot of time in Canaan. And weirdly the Canaanite god El predates the Hebrew god El by a good margin. Hmmm.

    The reason Xians try to downplay "El" as a name (and to be fair, "el" is sometimes just a word that means "god" like the word "man" could be used to describe John) is that El and Yahweh are not the same god outside of Hebrew literature. In other words, if you research these two names, you find they're related in Canaanite literature, but they're not the same god.

    In order to avoid the reality that the Old Testament is a hodge podge of writings where some authors dealt with one god, Yahweh, and some with another god, El, and eventually they just became the same dang god, Xians say that "Yahweh" is a name and "El" is a title.

    It's just a half truth--as "el" is a "job description"--but that doesn't mean it's not used as a proper name sometimes--which it is. In fact, El is the head of the "elohim"--literally, "the gods." In the earlier Canaanite literature "elohim" is plural. In the Old Testament, it is confusingly sometimes plural and sometimes singular (based on conjugation). This is likely a product of backtracking and trying to impose monotheism on earlier polytheistic writings. Christians try to use this confusion to claim elohim is only singular. However, that is simply untrue.

  15. Sorry Tracieh, perhaps I shouldn't have capitalised the word 'god' in my last post.

    What I meant was that when Christians, or Muslims for example, use the word 'god', they are generally referring to specific 'gods' such as the god Yahweh, or the god Allah. As you mentioned, using the generic term 'god' in this manner simply clouds the issue. What they should say is "the god Yahweh", or "the god El", or "the god Ahura Mazda" etc. That is what I was trying to convey in my last post.

    I find it frustrating when Christian apologists attempt to deny any connection between the god of the Bible, and the Canaanite high god El, because if they would take a moment to think about it, the name El is contained in the word Israel. And what does the word Israel mean? In translation it means something like 'El rules', or 'El is king'. I think we atheists fall into a trap when we allow theists to get away with referring to their various gods by using the generic term 'God'. In my opinion, I think we need to press them on this issue every time that they do this.

    Because of the dishonest way in which the Bible has been translated, most Christians aren't even aware that their god has a proper name. If they were forced to refer to their god by his proper name 'Yahweh', or 'El', they might get some sense of just how foreign and primitive their superstitions really are.
    What do you think?

  16. >Sorry Tracieh, perhaps I shouldn't have capitalised the word 'god'...

    No problem! It led to an interesting discussion, so it's a good thing.

    As far as what it would do if they had to use proper names, I'm not sure. They have an uncanny ability to "Westernize" just about anything they stumble across in that book (and other foreign books outside their own Bible, for that matter). I mean, they're very into their Bibles, but how many of them think it's important enough to learn Greek and Aramaic so they can read the best manuscripts in the original dialects? Nah--the English translation is good enough, right?

    I just posted on another forum that in cases of forgeries, such as John 7:53-8:11, the better translations now include a margin note to alert readers this is added/forged material.

    Can you imagine opening up a modern-day science textbook and reading a few paragraphs that you don't think are right--then at the end, you find a footnote. You turn to the notes page and read that these two paragraphs are known to be erroneous. How absurd would that be? WHO would go to the trouble to add a note to the text to let you know it's an error--but NOT take out the erroneous material upon reprint? Why not correct the book rather than alert readers it's in error?

    In Christianity, the error stays in the book with a note to readers alerting them it's an error. It's orthodox, so it "can't be" removed.

    That's nuts. If a person can swallow THAT, and still say, "This hear's the word of almighty god..." I can't really guess that anything like making them use the proper name/s of god would snap them out of their dream state...?

  17. BTW, I love your dingo picture.

  18. TracieH:
    Lots of mythologies and fairy tales involve the idea that knowing someone/something's name gives the knower power over the thing named.

    In that case, presumably Gdashd is smart enough to change his name every 90 days, and to ensure that the new name has upper- and lower-case letters, numerals, punctuation, and at least one unpronounceable eldritch glyph.

  19. tracieh wrote:
    "In Christianity, the error stays in the book with a note to readers alerting them it's an error. It's orthodox, so it "can't be" removed."

    They have done the same with 1 John 5:7-8, which is the only place in the Bible that explicitly states the doctrine of the trinity. It is a mediaeval forgery, yet they still include that in most translations. (with a discreet footnote of course)

    -"BTW, I love your dingo picture."

    Yeah, he's a good one isn't he? He's a fraser Island dingo. They are one of the most purebred populations left in the country.


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