Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Reading about an appeal turned down by the US Supreme Court, I see that the majority opinion on phrases such as “in God we trust” and “one nation under God” is that they are not affirmations of faith, but “a historic, nonreligious recognition of the faith of the nation's founders in a higher power as the source of all rights”.

As a European, I have a hard time understanding this particular view, though that's very off-topic here. More on topic, this reading fueled my curiosity about the existence of other such expressions in English, be them either about God directly or religions in general. My question is: are there other typical sentences or mottos which, while having a religious meaning if read literally, but are commonly understood as nonreligious? Maybe among States’ mottos, or those of army units’. I can't see where to start looking.

One thing, though: I'm pretty much aware of the large number of phrases, idioms, or sayings which feature the word God and can be used almost without risk in daily language, such as “for God's sake”, “God bless”, “God forbid”, “God help”, “God willing”, etc. I'm not looking for any such idiom.

share|improve this question
12  
Insurance companies will often not cover "acts of God". –  Peter Olson Mar 12 '11 at 23:20
1  
@Peter Of The Corn: Why didn't you just give that as an answer? –  Kosmonaut Mar 13 '11 at 14:41
1  
"...having a religious meaning if read literally, but are commonly understood as nonreligious": I disagree, in the sense that in the utterances of states mottos and such, the usage is always -literal-; in the motto or saying, the word 'God' always refers literally to the Christian 'God'. The impact of that is watered down for people by judicial opinions. –  Mitch Mar 20 '11 at 15:03
1  
'God damn it' or 'Goddammit' are very non-religious. If meant (or taken) literally they would be blasphemous. –  Mitch Mar 20 '11 at 15:07
3  
In my opinion, the Supreme Court's claim is very suspect. But I think the question is valid and interesting, regardless. –  jbelacqua Mar 20 '11 at 23:11
show 5 more comments

7 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted
+50

Insurance companies will often not cover "acts of God"

share|improve this answer
add comment

Some possibilities:

  • We must protect the God-given rights of the individual.
  • She passed last year, God rest her soul.
  • He acted as if he was God's gift to women.
  • I drank too much last night and spent the morning praying to the porcelain god.
share|improve this answer
    
+1 for making me laugh. Haha. Porcelain god! That must be the toilet! Bending over due to a hang-over certainly looks like praying. –  Anonymous Jan 29 at 3:13
add comment

Einstein famously remarked, "God doesn't play dice." Stephen Hawking recently said, "God may play dice after all." Einstein was not religious. He once claimed that he believed in Spinoza's God"; though, later in his life he was more candid about his Atheism. These uses of God are often called poetic, but also lead to misunderstandings. An American newspaper once claimed that Einstein was a believer in God. He wrote back with a scathing letter.

I guess many sentences in the Old and New Testaments could be taken as religious if read literally.

F'x, don't you find it odd, or off-putting, that countries like Germany are led by parties with Christian (CDU) in their names? As an American, I always wince when I see Christian Democratic Union next to Angela Merkel's name. Of course, you might say that the Republican Party is certainly more Christian than the CDU or other such parties. I might agree.

But I digress. It is important to remember that "in God we trust" became the US motto only after the "Star Spangled Banner" became the National Anthem--it was taken from the last stanza. It had been "E Pluribus Unum." "God bless America" concludes the State of the Union Address.

I'll try to answer your question with a question. Can you think of any saying, phrase, whatever that, while having a religious meaning if read literally, is not understood as nonreligious? This is the question. Who's understanding what? I'd assume that most mentions of God are to be understood religiously, if the speaker is religious, and poetically, if the speaker is not religious. Many people find the swear "Jesus Christ" offensive--I don't think Atheists do.

It is also interesting to notice how people read 16th, 17th, 18th century authors and statesmen. It is odd that atheists usually read atheism into Hobbes and Hume and Christians think the atheists are reading too much into the texts.

I guess it depends on what you mean by "commonly."

share|improve this answer
    
This answer is a bit rambly, but I feel it is appropriate for the question as posed. (Which is to say, I find the original question rambly, flawed, and confused.) –  John Y Mar 20 '11 at 4:39
    
@John Y. Yeah it is--I tried to cover all the bases. –  Jon Mar 21 '11 at 1:55
add comment

The phrase "so help me God" is included within the oath of office in several countries.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I think you might have been misled by what the U.S. Supreme Court writes in its legal opinions (and is paid lip service generally around government circles). The Court has to uphold the constitution, which has language prohibiting governmental involvement with religion. The Court has mostly prevented any governmental reference to religion, but has ruled that certain cases such as you mention do not contravene the constitution because they are "nonreligious". It is not unreasonable to think that the Court come up with such rhetoric in order to do what they wanted: not prohibit use of things like “in God we trust” on money (which would raise quite a public outcry), yet still appear to be strongly upholding the constitution. My estimate is that most Americans really think of such usages as nondenominational rather than nonreligious.

share|improve this answer
    
+1 for explaining why the literal meaning of pronouncements isn't always why things really happen. –  Mitch Mar 21 '11 at 16:07
add comment

Nearly all idioms that include religious references are meant to be understood non-religiously. This extends beyond linguistic references and includes visual depictions of someone mumbling a prayer with hands folded as a sign of utter desperation. The caricature is now simply a sign of someone giving up all hope and resigning themselves to an inescapable fate.

Even religious practices and rites are performed under non-religious pretenses out of respect for the believers. If I am a guest in a religious ceremony I will follow all instructions given to me out of politeness, not religious adherence. No one there who knows me would mistake my crossing myself or removing my shoes as a sign of faith.

When you ask for an example of a phrase that would be religious when understood literally but non-religious pragmatically, I answer, "All of them." Even the Holy Bible contains passages that refer to itself in a non-religious manner. Most of the book is a recording of stories and histories.

A statement's religiousness can either be seen as a statement of faith on part of the speaker or as any other item of language: Something to convey meaning. If the question were reworded to ask, "Is this statement attempting to convey an inherently religious meaning?" it becomes slightly more interesting. I expect that this can only be answered with knowledge about the one speaking. In the case of the United States of America, none of the potentially religious statements are officially religious in this sense -- they are not attempting to invoke an inherently religious meaning. If they ever did, it is no longer the case.

But phrasing the question this way leaves my answer intact: Any religious phrase or behavior can be said or performed without religious meaning. I suspect that nearly all such seemingly religious actions are nothing more than people and institutions attempting to appeal to a specific group of people who are known to grow agitated at the slightest sign of irreligious behavior. I do not take a car commercial's proclamation of "God bless America!" as a sign that the company believes in the Christian God any more than an atheist politely bowing a head in a funeral service implies respect for God.

In other words, the speaker determines whether a statement contains religious meaning. The words themselves contain no such thing and any religious statement can be said in a non-religious manner.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I'm coming up with five states that mention "God".

Arizona: Ditat Deus, or God Enriches.

Florida: In God We Trust (same as the national motto).

Kentucky: Deo Gratium Habeamus, or Let us be grateful to God.

Ohio: With God, all things are possible.

South Dakota: Under God the people rule.

Then there is American Samoa, a U.S. territory, whose motto is Samoa, Muamua Le Atua, or Samoa, let God be first.

share|improve this answer
7  
It seems like all of those are meant to be understood religiously. –  Peter Olson Mar 14 '11 at 14:48
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.