Thursday, March 5, 2009

God in the News

The title of this post is "God in the News", but as soon as I started writing it, I realized that it has nothing to do with god or the news, but has everything to do with language. I'm going to keep that title though, to remind everyone of my poor judgment (as though that were necessary).

One of the top story headlines on the BBC homepage this morning read, in order, "'Miraculous' survival in Turkey".

There are a lot of atheists that cry foul pretty quickly here. Myself, speaking as an atheist, I take issue when the word "miracle" is thrown about, even in situations such as these, where the mention of god never occurs. I find it intellectually dishonest to claim that things like these are miracles, but if the man had died, it's hardly ever claimed that god extended his divine finger to kill this man.

As a linguist, I understand that the word "miracle" contains a connotation that's inimitable. The phrase "really lucky" simply does not compare. You are really lucky if you see a $50 on the ground. You are certainly far beyond "really lucky" if you get hit by truck propelled by a train and live to eat cake a few days later. Miracle it is not, but "really lucky" only partially covers it.

Part of the reason religion permeates our lives is because it permeates language. There are better ways to write the headline "'Miraculous' Survival". It's true. "Man Gets Hit by Truck. Eats Cake." is a good one I just came up with on the spot. But the original headline creates an atmosphere that "Man Truck Boom" can't compete with. The present language we have can't excite adequately, and the religious language we have can't inform properly.

To get a better idea of what I'm talking about, the headline directly below -- literally, right underneath it -- that one reads: "Bionic Eye Gives Blind Man Sight." That's right. A blind man can see because of technology.

Which is the real miracle here? If something happens because of luck, we attribute that to the divine. If something happens due to ingenuity and intelligence, we attribute that to humankind. I know whose side I want to be on.
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