Sunday, November 12, 2006

God and the Masculine Pronoun

Some of my favorite people in the world resolutely speak about God in non-gendered terms; others use "She", "Her" and so forth for God, as a counter-linguistic move to try to undermine the traditional (masculine) notions of God. I understand what they are doing and why, and once upon a time I used to (inconsistently) follow their example. But recently I am finding that I don't anymore; I am calling God He.

Now I should say that in general I am a big supporter of gender-neutral language. I wasn't always, but I have come around. Of the two counter-arguments that once seemed persuasive to me, I think that the "it's just grammar" argument is both clearly fallacious -- both studies and individual reflection show that people simply don't equally think of men and women if "he" is used (purportedly) for both -- and also begs the question, since grammar changes and the question is what language ought to be rather than what it has been (which, in any event, itself supports such things as the singular they). The other argument is the aesthetic one -- that locutions such as "he and she" are simply clumsy -- and I still think that that's a valid point, but the claims of both accuracy and justice simply override it -- or, rather, compel us to do aesthetic work to find better-sounding formulations for what accuracy and justice demand. So yes, in general, I am definitely on board with not using "he" when we mean "he or she" or "one" or "they" or whatever.

But with God I am still using He. Why?

I think it's because I am an atheist.

If I were a theist, I would probably try hard to use gender-neutral language about God.* Certainly the theology that I (albeit as an atheist) find most interesting and compelling include the notion that God is neither female or male. There is good biblical justification for it too in various places (although of course there is biblical justification to the contrary also) -- the very text of Genesis 1:27 -- "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He Him; male and female created He them." -- can be read as saying that what it means, or at least a part of what it means, to create man in God's image precisely is to make man both male and female. (Although even here the language, at least in translation, is sending decidedly mixed signals, with its "man", "His" and "He Him"; and even if one notes that the Hebrew word for "man" is "Adam" which has the meaning of "human" not "man" (which is "ish"), the same can't be said for the pronouns, which are male -- as are, for that matter, the verbs.) In any event, I won't go into further details of theologies and interpretations which I don't, in fact, believe; but I do have more respect for (or at any rate interest in) theologies which describe a gender-neutral God than I do with theologies that hold -- at least implicitly -- God to be male. And certainly I agree with the politics of those that describe God in gender-neutral terms -- their ends, insofar as they are political (in the sense of cultural politics) are ones with which I agree.

But here's the thing: I'm not a theist. I'm an atheist. And as an atheist, the only God I believe in is the fictional character believed in by actual believers. When I talk about God, I am no longer talking about a being which I believe exists; I am speaking only about a hypothetical object. Sometimes I talk about God as an abstract concept which, I happen to think, corresponds to no reality -- as I might speak of vampires or unicorns or the analytic philosophers' beloved current Kings of France, say. At other times I talk about God specifically referring to the entity believed in by others but which I happen to think they are mistaken about -- as I might speak of astrology or the valid justifications for the war in Iraq. But either way it is no longer a case of my language asserting what I believe: I am talking about others' beliefs -- they, and not I, get to define the concept under discussion.**

And most people talk about God as male.

I admit that this isn't a clear-cut case. The God of the theologians -- the abstract-concept use I referred to above, God as defined as the Unmoved Mover, or as an omnipotent omnibenevolent being, and so forth -- is pretty clearly not gendered. But the God of popular belief and language is -- in the vast majority of cases -- male. (And here I think that one has to include in "cases" the history of the concept, i.e. historical uses not just current ones. If the current conception were divorced from the historical ones, this might not be true; but since the current conception is specifically, overtly and deliberately grounded in the historical one -- even by those who deny some aspects of the historical one, such as its gendered character -- I think that the historical voices should count equally (not more, but not less) than the present-day ones.) That I may sympathize (for political and intellectual reasons) with my friends who use non-gendered neutral language for God doesn't change the fact that they are, clearly in the minority. They are endeavoring to change the culture -- a culture with millennia of inertia on the other side, but which (at the same time) they are not willing to simply discard (which would make the inertia irrelevant) -- but they haven't yet changed the culture, not by a long shot.

Why shouldn't I then help them in their quest to change the culture? Again: because I am an atheist, not a theist: it's not my place. As a comparison, I sympathize with those Catholics who wish their church to be more inclusive of gays and lesbians -- mostly for political reasons, although I might be able to come up with some theological ones as well (talking about the portrayal of Jesus in the bible being strongly focused on inclusion, for example). But the point is, I'm not Catholic; I'm not even a Christian (I'm not even a cultural Christian the way I am a cultural Jew); it's not my fight; and clearly, as it is constituted now, the Catholic church is not accepting of gays and lesbians. And if it is to be made so, I can't be part of that: again, it's not my fight.

And I think that the same holds true for the gender of God.

I think that non-gendered notions of God bear something like the same relationship to the mainstream of religious tradition that Kirk-Spock pornography does to the rest of Star Trek. By this I mean both that it is arguably implied in the more mainstream canonical literature; that it is an interesting and subversive reading that makes the resulting fiction even richer and more interesting; and that the proportion of Star Trek fans who think about Kirk and Spock getting it on is roughly the same as the proportion of the theists who think of God in gender-neutral rather than masculine terms. There is, to be sure, a difference insofar as the Star Trek universe is owned (by Paramount) and its owner resolutely denies the validity of the K/S tradition, whereas religious traditions are endlessly multiple and some of them actively promote the reality of gender-neutral language for God. Nevertheless, I think the points are more similar than different: in both cases the minority view is compelling but overwhelming denied, or even more ignored, by the majority of those involved with the fictions in question. And it would be bizarre to launch into a serious discussion of Star Trek -- not as a cultural phenomenon, and not focusing on K/S fiction, but speaking about the fiction as a whole -- with the presumption that Kirk and Spock were lovers.

Okay, perhaps I exaggerate a bit. But the point stands.

If in talking about an abstract conception we're talking about a reality, or what I believe to be a reality, then I can argue for my view of it. But if in talking about God we're talking about a fiction -- and I believe that we are -- then the fiction is what its authors -- believers en masse -- make it. And, mostly, they talk about God as male. The God I disbelieve in -- the God that I am saying they are wrong about -- is the one they are asserting; and for the most part, that God is referred to as He. So I will continue to say, of God, that I disbelieve in Him; since it is (mostly) He, and not She or It or other language that is offered, to which I am asserting my skepticism.

A parallel might be made for other minority traditions about God. I disbelieve in the God who is morally imperfect just as much as I disbelieve in the traditional omnibenevolent God; but since the latter is more usually what is talked about, the latter is what I will be more usually denying if the subject arises. Mutatis mutandis, I disbelieve in Odin just as much as I disbelieve in YHVH; but the latter is what believers today mostly assert. And I disbelieve in the genderless, or feminine, God just as much as I disbelieve in the masculine one. But when theists discuss God, they usually mean the latter; so I must do likewise.

I suppose the one exception that might be taken to this is that, by my own admission, the most interesting theists assert a gender-neutral God, so that while (in sheer numbers) theists are biased towards God-as-He just as they are towards God-as-omnibenevolent, in terms of the people one might actually be most interested in engaging with they are far more likely to assert God-as-genderless. This is a fair point, and in some specific cases -- were I to discuss some particular theologian, say -- I would probably try to follow their example. But the point is that when theists talk about God, they are generally talking about a shared concept, albeit one that they have a particular take on. So mostly I need to talk to the shared concept to.

So when I speak of God, I shall continue to say that I don't believe in Him.

* I think; as I say above, the theologies that I currently, as an atheist, find most compelling are those that view God in gender-neutral terms. But, of course, I don't find those theologies compelling enough to believe them. It's hard to say whether a hypothetical theist me should be imagined as believing the theology that seems (to my actual atheist self) most compelling, or if instead the very act of my conversion would lead me to some strange other place -- an orthodox Roman Catholic, or something -- which is as likely to have a gendered as a non-gendered view of God. My inclination is to say that personality, culture and viewpoint tend to remain consistent even through religious conversions, and so that the former is more likely... but that answer is basically begging the question, since it assumes a natural rather than a supernatural conversion. If God were to truly speak to me, and convert me, who knows what form that conversion would take? -- But, of course, I consider this impossible. -- And since I could keep going around this bend endlessly, I'll stop here.

** This is not to say that anything goes; "that's not what 'God' means" is still a perfectly fair reply, and one I might make to (to take a random example) Mordecai Kaplan. But I would justify it not by claims about God (since I don't think that that word corresponds to anything real) but to other people's beliefs about God. It would be not like saying "whales aren't fish" (which one would back up by giving facts about the world) but would be like saying "unicorns don't have two horns" -- one would back that up by pointing to other imaginary depictions of unicorns in fiction, art, myth, etc. That's not to say that someone couldn't write a perfectly good book about a two-horned unicorn. But it would be deliberately altering the concept -- fair in fiction, unfair in philosophical debate (at least without admitting it explicitly).

Tangentially related announcement:The 53rd Carnival of the Godless has now been posted, including both my post Fruitful Inconsistencies (which I personally wouldn't have categorized as "debunking theism" -- it's about the role of inconsistencies in both religion and literature -- but whatever), and the post of Sean Carroll's that inspired mine, The God Conundrum, and lots more besides. Take a look.


beepbeepitsme said...

My guess is that the god of the jews, christians and muslims, is often referred to as a "he" because the god belief evolved out of a patriarchal cultural system.

Rasselas said...

Or, from an abashed yet I guess theist perspective, we call God "Father" because the Big J does so in the Gospels in the NT. If some of the other (apocryphal, Gnostic, etc., etc.) Gospels had been included, we might have some other vocatives.

Daniel said...

I included the post in the debunking theism category because it examines the general inconsistencies in religion and not just in Xianity.

Noumena said...

(Wandered over from Hugo's)

Very interesting. I'm an atheist myself, but I'm a grad student in philosophy at a very Catholic university, so discussing God is inevitable, and I don't want to preface all those discussions with a spiel about my personal religious beliefs. (Which discussion could potentially cause them to dismiss what I have to say entirely, making it especially delicate.)

So, my general policy is to avoid using pronouns to refer to God at all: no He, no him, no She, no it or It or Them or they or any of that. This is kosher (pun intended) according to various theologians and my liberal Catholic friends, and the students mostly don't even notice.

King Aardvark said...

Dude, you're a nerd re: K/S stuff.

But you're right. I tend to use "he" because that's the way most Christians frame it. And theologians tend to use the ambiguous gender-neutral unspecific God when talking to atheists while talking to Christians using the masculine biblical God. Though you could argue a lot about what God is supposed to be gender-wise.

Anyway, to come up with a gender-neutral replacement for "he", just look at "she" "he" and "it" and come up with an amalgam: "shit".