"Thank goodness"

A couple of years ago, Daniel Dennett had emergency heart surgery. People asked him how this close call with death had affected his non-religious outlook. His response was an excellent consciousness-raiser. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

Saying “Thank God!” as an expression of genuine relief is not always backed by an actual religious sentiment, any more than a reflexive “bless you” after someone sneezes is an attempt to prevent demons from entering through your open mouth. So many people may be thinking, “So what? Does it really matter which word I use?”

But Dennett’s reflections made me think. What we say – even if we only mean it in the most formulaic, casual sense – can convey ideas that we do not intend. And it can fail to point our gratitude in the right direction.

In the weeks after I read Dennett’s article, I made a conscious effort to use “thank goodness”, an expression which reflects my actual beliefs better. It wasn’t long before it became completely natural to use that rather than the less appropriate “thank God”. It’s still a little less natural than the other version, but I kind of like that. It means that, every time I say “thank goodness”, I am made every-so-slightly conscious of what term I’m using, and why.

What do you think? Do you try, like me, to keep your speech representative of your beliefs? Are you a non-theist but happy to use phrases like “thank God” and “bless you”, since they’ve basically been leached of their original meanings anyway?

Or, if you are a believer in a god, what do you think of this whole matter?

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5 Responses to “"Thank goodness"”

  1. Clare Says:

    If we were speaking German then we would say ‘Health!’ (Gesundheit!) instead of bless you. It just sounds awkward in English though. We could decide to mentally interpret it as ‘I hope you are blessed with good health’ and somehow decide that this blessing wasn’t related to any kind of belief system. I’m not sure if this works though.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Actually, I do use Gesundheit. It’s what my dad uses (don’t know why – we don’t have any German connections), and when I began to become conscious of this issue, it wasn’t difficult for me to switch from the culturally default “bless you”.How do you normally react to another’s sneeze, Clare?

  3. Tor Hershman Says:

    This is most true.Expressions, such as ‘Thank Zeus’, are conditioned responses the same as Pavlov’s dog’s salivation.Yes, when an Atheist uses such an expression it has to do with salivation, not salvation. Just last week I had a finger, brick, old skool – solidly built wooden door intersection which caused moi to utter, “God dammit!!!”BTW: When I had my quintuple bypass I said, as I was being taken from IC to the OR, Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Many folk were bewildered, and some vastly angered, by this ole Atheist’s total lack of fear (The doctors put my chances at less than 50/50) @ facing death. Stay on groovin’ safari,Tor

  4. Tor Hershman Says:

    Ahhhhh yes, ‘Gesundheit’ if I’m out in public and ‘Snot’s Landing’ if with the near and dear.

  5. Timothy Mills Says:

    How about this person using “bless you” as a shibboleth to ferret out heathens!Found via Friendly Atheist, where there are some priceless comments.

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