The Religious Words That Slip Out of Our Subconscious

18:32Ciaran McCormick

Like most atheists, I have a moderate and tolerant view of other religions. I do not look to condemn their beliefs or struggle to convert them to my way of thinking about the world. However, I am convinced that my background has programmed some religious language into me. Every now and then I hear myself or others saying words or phrases with overtly religious significance. This concerns me because I try to think in a clear and open way without these cultural influences.

Flickr: samantha celera

There are a lot of examples that I have thought about and other people have added a few more of their own. For example, when someone sneezes, it is common for others to say something in response. This seems to be a common phenomenon that transcends national and linguistic boundaries. In English, we say 'Bless you', in Spanish it is 'Jesús', in Urdu it is 'Alhamdulillah', which translates as 'All praise is for Allah'. The list is lengthy, though many cultures prefer to wish the sufferer better health rather than praising a deity.


This may seem trivial, but I believe that religious phrases that come out of the mouths of non-believers exposes the religious influence in their subconscious. It is backed up by society as well, where these phrases become norms and even automatic clichés and few people question the significance of the tradition. I can point to a variety of other examples. The act of Christian prayer with two palms clasped together and outstretched  towards the heavens is a gesture I adopt when particularly exasperated or desperate. When I am shocked, I too say 'Oh My God!' 'Oh My Lord' 'God Save Me' or some variant. It is ironic really because it is blasphemous according to one of the Ten Commandments: 'Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.' In the Hellenistic period, simply mentioning the Lord was grounds for blasphemy. However, such utterances in modern society are symptomatic of continuing religiosity rather than blasphemy.

I cannot speak for anyone but myself when I try and understand why I irrationally use the language of a doctrine I firmly do not believe in. When I was a young child I was saturated with Christian imagery. I was forced to sing hymns and recite prayers that praised God and I acted in the school nativity play. As I got older in secondary school, prayer and hymns was twice a week where I only managed to resist the overwhelming sense of peer pressure until I was older. Religious Education did expose me to other religions but there was an insidious tone that they were less important than Christianity. My friends in a Catholic faith school were subjected to even less subtle religious indoctrination.

I believe that this has created a deep religious impulse within myself that I have been trying to uproot for many years. For a long time, I felt guilt around my more devoted friends that I did not share their beliefs. This background manifests itself in the religious words that slip out of my subconscious. Secondly, Britain has not fully embraced its diverse, multicultural identity yet, and remains a country with Judeo-Christian values and institutions at heart. This produces a pattern of cultural norms from the very top with the Queen mentioning God, or the man on the street blessing me when I sneeze. I do not mean to suggest that we should stop people talking about religion. Nonetheless, I do not mean these common phrases to come out of my mouth but they inevitably do without conscious resistance and reflection.

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