God bless you, Rest in Peace – on secular versus religious language

Andre P. BrinkWhen South African author Andre P. Brink died on February 6, I was one of the many who extended my condolences to his family and friends. I didn’t use the phrase “rest in peace” or its acronym “RIP”, because after death, there’s no agent capable of “resting”. That’s what death means, for those of us who subscribe to a naturalist ontology.

But that’s not all that “RIP” means – it’s a shorthand for extending commiserations, for demonstrating shared membership of a community of caring, and for marking the passing of someone who was considered valuable to that community.

To use – or exploit – the grief or sadness at the death of such a person to score political points for atheism is crude, unnecessary, and unfeeling.

Yet that’s exactly what I saw on some South African atheist online communities, and this is again an elegant example of why atheists need to be more concerned about their own PR, in that if you’re trying to argue – as we do – that gods aren’t necessary for being good people, it helps to behave like good people in the absence of gods.

The objections from atheists were the usual – focusing only on the fact that there’s no soul or spirit, they claimed that the words were meaningless, or even worse, that they demean the living by assuming that there’s more to life than just the here and now.

As I said above, there is more to the here and now, but in the limited sense of there being a social context in which words function, and what you signal when you reject that.

There is a time, and a value, to trying to get people to strip their language and their mental furniture of various metaphysical concepts. But that time – at least if you care about getting your point across, rather than scoring points – is when the matter can be considered in the abstract, rather than coming across as an insult to people who are grieving.

“Bless you” is a similar example, but different in a crucial way, in that you can easily poke fun at people who say “bless you” without poking at their open sores. The examples are different in degree, if not in kind.

“Merry Christmas” is another, and similar to “bless you” – it’s laughably precious to object to this in anything but the mildest of terms, and especially ridiculous to object so strongly that you get yourself thrown off a plane, as an American (presumably) atheist recently did.

Despite their religious origins, the point is that these phrases are now largely secular in usage. We know that they operate as shorthand for recognising a common humanity, and for reinforcing social bonds. No offence is intended by them, and our reactions need to be proportionate to the triviality of the “crime” committed.

Yes, I’d prefer for us to use alternatives. But for any alternatives to gain traction takes time. And motivating for them, and gaining consensus for their usage, won’t be easy if you approach that task by being an ass.

But for those of you who want to be offended, and treat any word or phrase with a religious origin as an insult, here’s your challenge: stop saying “goodbye” to people.

“Goodbye” is, after all, is a contraction of “God be with you”, and is thus surely pretty damn offensive.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.