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Thank Goodness or Thank God?

by Dear Jon
November 13, 2001

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95th Sort_Dear Jon-Thank Goodness or Thank God? ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,

Is it more correct to say "Thank goodness," or "Thank God?" Does it depend on whether or not you believe in God, or whether the people you are addressing believe in God or not, or on the situation? For example: "Thank goodness I removed the tin foil before putting my food into the microwave," as opposed to "Thank God I live in a country where people aren't persecuted for their religious beliefs!"

Thankful Person

Dear Ful,

As I was browsing the PO the other day, I noticed how little action is taking place on the "Religion/Philosophy" forum. Not even the September 11 disaster has provoked discussion there, although it has been batted around in the features and in the news and politics forums.

Be that as it may, as your question regards etiquette, it fits well under the purview of "advice column." As you know by reading the previous 90-odd sorts, I am a paragon of etiquette. My chief concern is to answer all questions as sensitively as I know how, with scrupulous attention to the wide spectrum of beliefs represented in the PO readership. I just happen to bring a different perspective to the subject of etiquette than do either Miss Manners or Martha Stewart, although I am proud to shop at K-Mart (r-t-m).

Sadly, in this country people are persecuted for their religious beliefs. To listen to David Koresh supporters, here was your typical angry white male with your typical messianic complex, who was besieged by the ATF simply because he was exercising the God-given right to stockpile weapons for his self-directed Armageddon cult. That he was having sex with underage girls was part of his exercise of his religious freedom, since he believed he was God so he believed he could do anything he wanted. So he was being persecuted for three tenets of his religious faith. And then his "martyrdom" made him Tim McVeigh's hero.

Be that as it may, the question as to whether to Thank God or Thank Goodness depends on whether, by giving thanks, you intend to glorify a person and point others to the same source of beneficence, or, you intend simply to call attention to the built-in beneficence of nature.

Your examples point something out: We are prone to thank God or goodness when we are relieved about something. This expression of relief is really a personal judgment that things have turned out according to our standards of approval, to our expectations, or to our convenience. We are relieved because we are convinced that our standards should be the ones that govern the whole universe, but we acknowledge that we do not control all things and that very often things happen that spoil our expectations. By thanking God or goodness, we really do not intend to honor God's beneficence or the configured order of nature. What we really mean is, "If I were God it would happen this way all the time."

At least that is what I have always meant by it.

Probably the most appropriate expression at times of relief is to say, "What a relief!" As in, "Here in the United States, we're not persecuted for our religious beliefs. What a relief!" Or, "All those Jihad fundamentalists who flocked to Osama bin Laden in September to fight the Americans, are being carpet-bombed where they lurk in their trenches. What a relief!" This way you are not saying, "Thank God," as in, "If I were God I would have fried them to ashes with lightning-bolts by now." Instead you are saying, "Several thousand potential terrorists are now scattered across Afghanistan's mountains in several million pieces. What a relief!"

If you really mean to call attention to a higher order outside yourself, such as when a hurricane turns away from a populated coastlines, say "Thank God." Anyone who does not believe in God would, out of consistency, admit that it makes no sense to "thank" goodness, because "goodness" must be impersonal. Furthermore, goodness is a function of motive in social convention, and therefore exerts no force upon the hurricane; rather, goodness is the judgment rendered by people on the hurricane's direction away from people.

On the other hand, anyone who believes in God is likely to admit both God can move a hurricane one direction or another, and that goodness is not impersonal at all but has its source in God. These are also people who, on reflection, see that carpet-bombing Taliban trenches probably is not God's first preference for dealing with the problem of international terrorism.

On reflection, they probably do not derive any satisfaction when they see the clouds of smoke billowing skyward as the debris field spreads out from ground zero. On reflection they certainly would not assign numbers to justice, which is why, I am sure, no one really talks about the numbers of Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists that we have killed so far. On reflection, if the numbers turn out to be, oh, at least 5000 jihad extremists or so, we would think it absurd to see that as retribution for the attack on our east coast. If it turned out to be much fewer, then on reflection our initial disappointment would subside. After all, we are not seeking retribution. We are seeking justice.

But there are those delicious moments before reflection happens, when we see the smoke billowing up from a Taliban trenchworks; those moments before reflection are delicious whether we believe in God and goodness or not.

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