Atheists Who Take Things Too Seriously: I Wasn’t Making It Up

Awhile back I gave a talk in a few places called Don’t Be A Dick, in which I gave advice to atheists on picking their battles and not getting bent out of shape over everything that reminds them of religion when it comes to personal interactions with friends and family. A few people accused me of creating strawmen, which I always felt odd since I specifically showed actual, real-life examples for everything I mentioned. Maybe I just didn’t show enough? Eh, here ya go:

The following information was submitted via Contact Form:
Reason: Feedback/Suggestions
First Name: REDACTED
Location: REDACTED, Hawaii
Subject: a challenge
Message: Here’s my challenge: stop praying to Christian gods on the air. You often use phrases such as “Oh, my God”, “Christ”, or others that are direct or indirect entreaties to a god. While you may see it as careless use of accepted everyday language, I see it as sloppy non-skeptic behavior that reinforces our religious state.

If you do, indeed, believe in Christian gods, I ask you then to consider that you are taking your Lord’s name in vain when you do the same and refrain for the opposite reasons.

Careful research on my part shows that even such grandmotherly phrases as “For crying in a bucket”, “Oh, Boy” and “Oh, Man” are not safe, but you can certainly use “Fuck”, “Shit”, and “Boy Howdy” for safe starters.



Stop making direct entreaties to Thor. Every time you use the word “Thursday” it honors the ancient, well-debunked concept of a man who lives in the sky and throws lightning bolts. Try using “fourth day of the week” instead, or perhaps “fifth day of the week” depending upon when you consider the week starts.

For that matter, stop honoring Tyr, Odin, Frigg, Saturn, the Sun, and the Moon.

Also, please stop using the word “Hawaii.” It comes most likely from the name of a mythical explorer named Hawai’iloa, whose existence is only validated by flawed oral tradition. Alternatively, it is named after Hawaiki, a Polynesian realm of the gods, which is equally unskeptical.



Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Someone else who doesn’t understand what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain. It doesn’t mean “don’t say ‘Oh my God’,” it means “don’t push your own agenda and say God’s on your side.”

  2. Hmmm, wait, this could work:

    Monday = Oneday (rhymes!)
    Tuesday = Twosday (almost a homophone!)
    Wednesday = Threesday
    Thursday = Foursday (very close!)
    Friday = Fiveday (likewise)
    Saturday = Sixday
    Sunday = Sevenday

    I like it!

  3. Rebecca, the writer also forgot to mention that you will need to change your name, as Rebecca is a biblical name of someone who probably didn’t exist either. Do you have any ideas of what you’d like to change your to?

  4. @Brian G: Aw, man. Does that mean I have to stop using my first name? ‘Cause I rather like Michael, and kind of because is means “Who is like God?”

    I mean, what other name is both a name and a rhetorical question? I’m totally bi-winning.

  5. I think the people who accused you of the
    “straw man fallacy” don’t understand what it means. A straw man is when you make up or misrepresent an argument that does not really exists–in other words, you obscure your opponent’s argument in order to make your own look good. Often this involves making your opponent seem like an extremists of some sort, and because of that people tend to confuse straw man with extreme examples–but extremism and straw man are two different things. You can have a straw man fallacy, and misrepresent someone’s view as being overly moderate.

    Your examples do not qualify as a straw man for two reason: one, you are not making anything up. Your are providing real life examples. And two, you are not addressing an argument. You are not talking about the substance of the atheist position–only the manner in which they are expressing it.

    Personally, all this talk about days of the week seems silly when more serious issues like protecting the right to an abortion, ensuring that kids get good science classes, and ending religious (and non-religious) discrimination are so alive and active. The real irony for me is that the fact that people accused you of a straw man fallacy just goes to prove your point even further. Some people in the atheist/skeptic community are just too defensive and self-righteous–and because of this they have skewed priorities. Sometimes we have a hard time looking at their own faults and the faults of their own movement. I’m not a fan of religion but the motto: “Do not judge others, unless ye be judged” is something I can get behind. The straw man accusation not only doesn’t make any sense, but it shifts the discussion away from how to make a better movement to looking at the problems with those who are criticizing the movement. And in the long run that is not good for anyone.

    You can be right, but that does not necessarily mean that you will go about being right in the right way. Something I think that is worth remembering.

  6. Brilliant retort!

    I have to say, this is why I am safe from such criticism as my name comes from no mythical source. And every day I thank the Shinto deity Amaterasu for that.


  7. Oh, sssnap!

    I’ve been conflicted over using the phrase “jesus f-ing christ” and other variants. They just seem to fit sometimes. After reading this, I realize it’s perfectly fine. The etymology is not so important as the sentiment.

  8. Ack, I was editing my comment and it went ahead and posted D:

    I have to say, this is also an obvious move on the e-mailer’s part to take a pseudo-hipster, holier-than-thou (pun intended) stance to feel like they are better than people who say “jeezy creezy” now and then.

    “Oh her? She’s a bad atheist. She invokes the lord’s blessing when you sneeze. I’m way too cool for that.”

    That said, while it’s great that they’re trying to shake loose from the hold religion has on culture and language. They’re never going to be 100% successful, and they should just relax a little. Shhh… relax.

    P.s. George Hrab has an awesome list of atheist-friendly exclamations. The episode number escapes me though.

  9. @Rebecca Watson:

    Sorry, that name’s out, too.

    As we know, Secula comes from the mythical Count Secula, who was reputed to break into people’s bedchambers and bite their necks, draining them of their religious beliefs. This was meant to delegitimize faithlessness in Olde Europe.

    Do you REALLY want to be named after such a hurtful legend?

  10. @shanek: You are exactly right. Even when I was a active Christian, that argument used to piss me off. It also drove me when they’d lecture over the evils of swearing (cursing) because “Jesus said not to swear,” forgetting that he was talking about making flippant oaths. Besides, Jesus swore all the goddamn time!

  11. Woah, I totally tweeted Shanek’s new day naming system before actually seeing it. This is Psi right? Informed future stuff?

    I think that means there is consensus and we should implement the new days starting on Oneday.

  12. Don’t forget the months named for Janus, Mars, Maia, & Juno. Those tricky Romans will get you every time.

  13. @Zyphane: Yes, you must change you name. I propose Zorgonia as it is a 30 Rock reference. And we shall all, one day, worship 30 Rock.

  14. Totally unacceptable Rebecca.. From now on you’re only allowed to use skeptically terms like:
    “Oh my god! = “”Oh my Heisenberg!”,
    “Christ” = “Krauss”,
    “Holy Moses” = “Owly Antibiosis”,

  15. I don’t say, “bless you,” when people sneeze, I haven’t for years. This came about when I was talking about the phrase with a friend of mine, who is very religious, and we both agreed that it was a silly superstitious thing to say.

    It seems like all you’re doing is bringing attention to fact that the person sneezed, and really if you are going to do that you might as well say something better than “bless you!”

    We decided that whenever someone sneezes it’s best to just compliment them with a “Good Sneeze!”

  16. @shanek:
    Have you heard of the Doomsday rule for doing calendar calculations?

    “This algorithm involves treating days of the week like numbers mod 7, so John Conway suggests thinking of the days of the week as Noneday, Oneday, Twosday, Treblesday, Foursday, Fiveday, and Six-a-day.”


  17. But one and two and three … are Arabic numerals. And day is etymologically related to deity.

    I submit that all women are goddesses. I infer nothing supernatural and offer no defense because it is as intuitively obvious as Guinness is good for you. That they become more goddess the more Guinness we consume is a better subject for defending I.D. than anything that comes to mind. But I digress.

    goddess |?gädis| noun
    • a woman who is adored, esp. for her beauty

    Having grown up in the rural south as a boy named Jan, I quit caring what meaning anyone wanted to attribute to anyone else’s name by the time I was nine or ten.

    I think Rebecca has a nice sound to it. The most beautiful thing about women is their mind. My wife is the most beautiful woman in the multiverse. I call her SWMBO. Anyone who disagrees will have to answer to Joe Pesci.

    Oh, and REDACTED, “Boy Howdy”? You got beat up a lot when you were a kid, didn’t you?

    PS: Nuke an unborn baby gay whale for Jesus

  18. In Portuguese we actually use a system sort of like what shanek proposes. Sadly Saturday and Sunday remained the latin-based sabado and domingo, but the weekdays are numbered and don’t even have day in them!

    They are basically second-market through sixth-market. (Segunda-feira, terça-feira etc.) I’m not familiar with the etymology but it’s pretty unique for a language in this branch of the Indo-European family.

    The whole “oh my god” = religion somehow creeping in argument is a hilariously sad blend of insecurity and ignorance of language.

  19. Oh for Allah’s sake.

    I’m about as antsy about religion as most people are ever going to get. But even I think Redacted is off his rocker here.

    Bloody hell.

  20. I don’t know if I’m right but I’ve always thought that the most likely explanation for the name Hawaii, was a corruption of the name of the largest Samoan island and (ignoring New Zealand) the second largest Polynesian island (after Hawaii) Savai’i.

    Something akin to Grimm’s law has been observed amongst Polynesian languages. So, an ‘s’ in Samoan can be changed to an ‘h’ in Hawaiian. A ‘v’ in Samoan can be converted to a ‘w’ in Hawaiian.

    The English spelling of Hawai’i does not reflect the presence of the glottlestop and so its presence in both Savai’i and Hawai’i can easily be over looked.

  21. @rlquinn1980: Right, Jesus was a fisherman. Ever hear one of them swear? (And lie, too!) Worse than sailors, because they don’t just have to contend with the weather at sea, but also with sharks and other fish that want to eat you. And zombie octopuses. OMFFSM!

  22. Secula’s right. Fucking around with old religious hocus-pocus jargon when I’m frustrated makes me feel good so I’m sticking with it. Religion has taken pleasure out of too many peoples lives to worry about nonsense like this.

  23. People like Redacted are annoying, and present all atheists and skeptics as equally so. Therefore it is good when someone points out that they need to (wait for it) take a chill pill.

    But I think there’s some conflation going on here, where what some people mean by “don’t be a dick” is “don’t be openly critical, let’s build bridges, ally with the liberally religious;” and in many of those cases, straw men (of the fake-extremist variety) are used all the time. The four horsemen, PZ Myers, and others get blithely accused of “histrionics’ “being strident” “rabid” and “militant”, really just because they refuse to be vague.

    That’s not what’s goin on here; Redacted was being a pedantic tool, and Secula’s (that monkier might stick) retort made me lol my pants.

    But there is a specific sort of movement associated with the “don’t be a dick” phrase (a la Phil Plait’s speech) that does in fact consist of using straw men to argue atheists should be more meek. Some of the …pro-being-a-dick? … criticism might be coming from valid criticism of that.

  24. I once met the (in)famous Madelyn Murray-O’Hair, leader of American Atheists. At one point, she used the phrase “God only knows” – which did cause me surprise, even possibly mild shock – but after a pause (for effect, I expect) she continued “and we’re not on speaking terms.”

  25. @scrapps: I use the old german salutaion “Gesundheit”. It just means ‘good health’, so there’s no religious conotation.

    Is it poosible that Redacted is a christian who thinks he’s being funny?

  26. @scrapps: I prefer to use “Sancho” for the sneeze. More whimsical.

    I also prefer “sweet juicy Jesus on a stick” as an interjection.

  27. Finding someone on the internet who disagrees with you and is also an idiot does not mean you’re right.

    And that guy was not being a dick to Christians, so he’s not even a great example for you to flout, Tom Johnson Rebecca.

  28. The biggest argument I ever had with a member of my family came when they offered to pray for my granddad. It was about 18 months ago, my granddad was in hospital with stage 3 heart failure, 88 years old and about to undergo surgery to get in a pace maker. She (my aunt from the other side of the family) mentioned that they were organising the catholic priest to say some special prayers for my granddad, he’s always been involved in the church and she asked if I wanted to be involved. I told her I wasn’t religious and she said “Don’t worry, I’ll pray for him”. I asked her what exactly she meant by that and she told me “well, someone should be praying for him”.

    Now, I had been the one driving my grandmother to and from the hospital (I had a pretty flexible uni timetable). I saw him every day and I wasn’t going to let someone who had not visited him at all talk down to me like I was harming my grandad just because I refused to take part in their stupid religious garbage.

    Still it’s nice to know that I was just being a dick. Like my Aunt said, if I really cared for my grandad I would be in the church praying and begging forgiveness for my blasphemy.

  29. The beef I have with the “don’t be a dick” arguments (and yours is not nearly as bad as Phil Plait’s – at least you *provided* examples) is not that such things may never, ever happen, but rather the hidden implication that such incidents are prevalent enough to warrant being specifically addressed.

    It’s like giving a talk entitled “stop beating your spouse”. I am almost willing to guarantee there are cases of this in the skeptical community, and we should take action when it is observed, but the idea that the community at large needs to be warned not to do it is just downright condescending and insulting.

    As for the person in your story: successful troll is successful.

  30. According to my Dad, God’s Only Living Undead Zombie Son’s full name is Jesus Fucking Christ On A Bicycle.

    I assume it’s his Indian name.

    For sneezes, I say “Zegundheit.” Sounds meaningful, yet meaningless.

  31. “Secula.” Hmmmm….Secula…………..
    Does that make her a “secsy” lady?

  32. @Reveren Kel: Funny, I thought his middle initial was “H,” as in “Jesus H Christ!”
    I also remember Bob Heinlein using “Jesus Christ and his twelve tapdancing apostles!”

  33. I am on the board of a Danish atheist forum. When I had my son we decided to name him Nathan, and I proudly announced on the forum that I had a newborn son, name Nathan meaning “The gift from God”, and noone believed I had really had a son, they thought I was joking!

  34. I had the same discussion a few weeks ago in a german Forum, my argument was that it’s simply part of our normal everyday-life way to talk. No one really expects any gods etc. to actually do something because of it and at least most people I know don’t see anything religious about it, so I don’t see a problem with it.

  35. I frequently say “Oy vey,” though I am not, and never have been, Jewish. I often say “for goodness’ snake” – it started out as something I’d say when I saw a snake on TV or a toy snake, but it stuck. I once explained the usage by saying “I’m an athiest, and I like to say ‘snake.'”

    I do say “God bless you” when some sneezes. Some language is simply, that, language.

  36. Boy Howdy … um, neat suggestion, but no thank you. ‘How to Be a Good Atheist’ by ‘Retracted’. Rule One: Change all your common expressions. :)

  37. @darrenc: They are prevalent enough. I get these emails all the time, and in addition to that, atheists have often told me after the talk that they saw themselves in the examples and it gave them something to think about.

    It’s so annoying that people insist on comparing me to Phil’s talk simply because he titled it the same, when they have nothing to do with one another. I suggest you go over to his site if you want to complain about that.

  38. I am giving up broccoli and brussel sprouts since I found out that they are cruciferous vegetables.(I am crossing them off my menu so to speak.)

  39. The way I see this it’s not that the everyday instances of God and religious speak aren’t important; I would love for “In God We Trust” to be removed from the currency, for “so help me God” to not be automatically added to any oath, and for “under God” to be removed from the pledge but I see it as a matter of importance.

    I see the fight to keep the ten commandments out of public schools, teaching evolution in the science classrooms, and erasing the stigma that goes along with refusing to follow acient myth to be more important. I realize that both can happen at the same time, and I would love to see it, so if you wish to cross God off paper money, skip under God when reciting the pledge, or make a point to use a non-God oath at your next jury duty good on you, but don’t think that those who refuse to go that far to make a small point are somehow “bad atheists”, they may very well be contributing in much bigger ways elsewhere.

    As atheists we are under constant attack by the religious right in this country and we need to focus our efforts on not sliding further down this slippry slope before we claw our way back to the top.

  40. @scrapps: In a similar vein to your “Good Sneeze!” I tend to say “Congratulations!” I read somewhere (and haven’t bothered to validate) that the Romans said something along those lines when people sneezed. Allegedly it was to praise the success of expelling the demon that caused the sneeze or something. I’ve never bothered to check if that’s true, because I’m so amused by the notion that I say it just for fun, true or not.

    As for Redacted, all I can do is thank the all powerful Atheismo that I’m not like that.

    I just say “gods damn it” and the like when frustrated, but that’s only because I’m a nerd and liked BSG.

  41. I find that such problems can be avoided by communicating exclusively in semaphore. Damn. . . I mean one flag held up, the other to the right and slightly downward etc, etc.

  42. @Rebecca Watson: DBAD is a strawman.

    I was implying that you were pulling a Tom Johnson with this REDACTED fellow, as well. Pretty convenient that he’s not here to defend himself. Is he real? And if he is, how does this anecdote prove your case? He’s not being rude to Christians in what he said there, so how does this example even apply? I fail to see why you connected this feedback with DBAD, a point on which I obviously disagree with you on.

    Clear enough? I’m asking honestly, don’t jump down my throat. ;)

  43. @nichole: For starters, who the eff is Tom Johnson?

    Second, am I supposed to expose this guy’s name and email? It’s much kinder to edit out that information.

    Third, you’re accusing me of making this up? How incredibly insulting.

    Fourth, how does this prove my case? Um, it doesn’t have to prove anything. It’s just another example of exactly what I discussed in my talk, which is an atheist who takes himself so seriously that he says shit that makes him sound like an asshole. As I say in my talk, I’ve done the same thing myself.

    You still haven’t explained what I’ve said that you disagree with.

  44. @nichole: Never mind, Googled, remembered that Tom Johnson was that stupid shit that Chris Mooney fell for. And who liked insulting Skepchick.

    I don’t even know how to respond to an accusation that I’m Tom Johnson, except to suggest that you take an extra 5 minutes to learn what that to-do was about and then to learn what I think about the Don’t be a Dick bullshit.

  45. @jthewonderllama: You want some sort of prize for noticing obscure Monty Python references?!? On a skeptical board?!? We’d all be bankrupt

  46. @Rebecca Watson: Thanks for not jumping down my throat!

    Am I to understand that you and Phil Plait had different DBAD talks? Because I only saw Phil’s; his was based on a strawman argument and no amount of anecdotes will convince me otherwise. I mean, grab the fainting couch, you found an asshole on the internet of all places? Oh, but he’s not really on the internet, he’s just some guy who sent you an email. Couldn’t find someone being an asshole in a public forum, even?

    Well, I guess I’ll just take your word for it. Since otherwise you’ll yell at me. Man, atheists are all dickheads. Your insults totes convinced me! kthxbai

  47. Marc Maron, an agnostic comedian who I like and the guy behind the WTF podcast, once said on one of his shows that he would rather talk to an evangelizing Christian than be in a conversation with an atheist.

    Granted he’s no skeptic, but in his remarks he pointed out what I think is possibly a pretty common view: Evangelizing atheists can be just as tiresome and annoying as evangelizing Christians (or evangelizing Apple fans, or evangelizing Android fans for that matter). While it’s easy to dismiss the Christian when s/he tells you that you’re going to hell, it can be a bit more personal when an atheist tells you you’re a fool for believing in god.

    Hence the DBAD message is a good one. I’ve been that evangelizing atheist (and Apple guy too) and you know what? It’s really easy to slip into being a dick when passion is part of the equation.

  48. @nichole: You just admitted you didn’t see my talk and you’re just assuming that it must be the same as Phil Plait’s. Do you see where you might have got mixed up? And do you see how you’re having difficulty naming what I’ve said that you disagree with? Because I haven’t said anything you disagree with maybe?

    If you want respect, I’m happy to give it when it’s earned.

  49. @nichole: And btw, people like you are the reason I stopped giving that talk shortly after Phil gave his talk with the same title. Too many ignorant atheists jumping up to insult me for a position I don’t even hold. Sad and disappointing.

  50. So if atheists need to avoid religious references in casual exclamations, then feminists need to avoid using the slang term “sucks” as in “Your internet argument really sucks.”

    Sucks comes from “sucks dick” (and other variations) and promotes the idea that people who suck dick i. e. women and homosexual men, are somehow less than. They have so little value that any comparison to them is an insult. While you may see it as careless use of accepted everyday language, it could be seen as sloppy non-skeptic behavior that reinforces marginalization.

    Careful research on my part shows that even such grandmotherly phrases as “Fuck,” (to establish dominance with the penis) “Shit” (to shit on, more dominance and stereotyping of strength as power) and “boy howdy” (male-centric) can undermine all that feminism is working to achieve.

    Of course, if we make these words the focus of a feminist campaign, we’ll probably be called “hysterical.” Amiright?

  51. I remember a long conversation about relgion with an in-law that had gone on too long with no headway.
    I change tactics to ask if this person believed in the Rapture. After a moment of hesitation, and further prodding from me, he admited that he did indeed believe in the Rapture to which I countered, “then bring it on, ’cause we could use fewer religious assholes like you around here.”

    I wish I hadn’t said, but it felt soooo good.

    Hi, my name is Frank, and I’m a dick.

  52. Gee, I always thought it was “sucks ass”. Fortunately, I learn something new every day.

    I do not know about hysterical, but it does sound a little strident.

  53. @Rebecca Watson:
    Watched your speech, had only seen the individual videos before. I think I agree with you. I still think if you want to have any kind of long term relationship with someone it has to go both ways. It can’t just be the atheist putting up with everything. I don’t think your suggestions work in that situation.

  54. @Rebecca

    You’ve been on the ‘net long enough to know people can behave radically different online than they would in real life. Just because you receive asshole emails, doesn’t mean this is representative of how skeptics conduct themselves in general.

    But, really. If you think the skeptical community has an IRL problem with people berating children at their birthday parties for making a birthday wish, you are either seriously deluded or looking for something to grandstand about.

    Also, just one final observation. There is nothing in the email you received to indicate the sender is an atheist or a skeptic. It could very well have been a Jesus-troll.

  55. I have listened to Phil Plait’s speech “Don’t Be a Dick” at TAM 8, and–to be perfectly blunt–I think it is a great speech; I would even go so far as to say as it is one of the best talks I have heard on activism in the skeptic/free thought community. I’m not sure why anyone would object to what he says, but that is just me. Perhaps I have had different experiences than others–but I took a lot of things he said to heart, and feel some gratitude that someone was saying them.

  56. @rosaire: I was there, too. Walked away from that speech in a happy little cloud of gratitude and inspiration, really looking forward to discussing it with friends, maybe finding new ways to approach skepticism as activism.

    Sadly, the feeling didn’t survive past lunch with a few folks from the “I’ll damn well be a dick sometimes” crowd.

  57. I didn’t like Phil’s speech. I did like Rebecca’s. Right there, that should tell you that they’re very different.

    The problem is that Phil’s speech made broad accusations without any facts or specifics to back them up — it was a feel-good speech for the rhetorically timid. Rebecca’s was clear and specific and gave examples of behavior that trivializes skepticism, just like this post does. It was useful. Phil’s wasn’t.

  58. Quakers called the days of the week First Day, Second Day, and so on for centuries in order to avoid referencing Pagan gods.

  59. If you really wanted to bug him, you could recommend he use the traditional Quaker method of naming dates – each day is numbered by when it occurs in the relevant month. Today would be the eleventh day of Eighth Month, etc.

    Not only would it provide him with a secular way to record dates and days (if he didn’t need to know the day of the week), it would also put it in such a way that he’d have to associate it with a religious society.

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