I’ve never worried too much about what I capitalize and what I don’t. I know that in English it’s about “proper nouns” as opposed to “common nouns,” and for a lot of people there’s this sense of respect that comes from giving something a capital letter. But I’ve never divided “proper” and “common” into “respected” and “disrespected,” just into the grammatical sense of “specific” and “categorical.”
For example: My cat (common noun, a category referring to animals that purr and hack up hairballs = lowercase “c”) Morgan (proper noun, referring specifically to my cat (who is finally eating her raw food YAY!) = uppercase “M”) is sitting on my lap while I write.
My lackadaisical attitude was never a huge deal… until I started a blog about religion. And then what I did or didn’t capitalize suddenly became not just a big deal, but a political statement. And so even though I’ve never been a stickler, I suddenly find myself in a position where it matters to other people, and so it’s something I need to think about more seriously.
I really noticed it a couple weeks ago when writing something about the “Christian God” and the “pagan gods” and I realized some people might take it the wrong way that I capitalized the religion and the word “God” for somebody else’s faith and not my own. And, more important to my English major brain, it struck me how grammatically inconsistent I was being – and stickler or no for whether or not my own faith is capitalized, I do care about consistency. But p/Pagans across the board aren’t consistent about capitalization. Some p/Pagans capitalize the name of our faith and some don’t. Some capitalize “gods” but most don’t. We don’t have a Pagan-Chicago Manual of Style to go by.
As far as “g/Gods” goes, I blame the Abrahamic faiths for muddying the water here. (*stern finger shake along with a wink for my Christian friends*) Technically “god” is a common noun, therefore it should be lowercase (“the Christian god” or “the Norse pantheon of gods”)… but Abrahamic faiths only believe in one god: Jehovah. According to them, “God” is specific. In the Christian church, you can say, “Dear God, I need some help.” Whereas if polytheists said that, it would be too vague — who exactly are they asking for help? Vishnu? Quetzalcaotl? Hecate? Any of those can be referred to as “g/God.”
Up until this point in the blog (and in life in general), I’ve been capitalizing God whenever I used it in reference to Christianity out of respect for their tradition (it’s certainly not my intent to give offense). However, when I analyzed the rule, I realized it isn’t grammatically correct for me to do so. To me, when I say the word “god” I never mean a specific entity; “god” is not interchangeable with a specific proper name. I have always and will always capitalize Jehovah because that is a proper name. But “god” is not.
So now I have a choice. Looking at it from a grammar perspective, it isn’t merely a token of respect to say “God” when discussing Christian beliefs. By capitalizing “god” I am agreeing the word is specific to Jehovah; I am grammatically stating that Jehovah is The God, something I do not believe. And yet it makes me nervous to make it lower case. Part of that maybe be my upbringing, but the majority of it is that I do not want to offend my Christian friends. This begs the question, must I subtly state an agreement with somebody else’s belief system or risk being called disrespectful?
Frankly, I think better of my Christian friends. I don’t think they expect me to behave as if they are right and I am aberrant. I certainly don’t expect them to behave that way to me. The fact that I practice a minority faith may make my beliefs less common, but it doesn’t make them less right. From here on out, I believe it would make the most sense to use “god” all the time.
The other capitalization that trips me up is p/Pagan. Technically, the names of religions are supposed to be capitalized, and when it comes to specific branches of p/Paganism, we’re all pretty consistent about that: Wicca, Ásatrú, Druidry, etc. But p/Pagan? Not so much. I think this comes from a combination of having a borrowed word for our faith* and to the lukewarm feeling many pagans have about being called “pagan,” preferring their specific branch of choice over the more generic term. (For The Princesses’ feelings on that, check out our earlier post: Pagan, Heathen, Druid: What’s in a Name?)
However, we Pagan Princesses have specifically chosen the label “p/Pagan” as a unifying term, the most commonly used label to describe who we are and what we do. And so we are using it as a title for our faith, a name which refers to a specific type of religion. So to be grammatically correct, when referring to new religious movements that find inspiration in pre-Christian faiths, I should use a “P” instead of a “p.”**
So there I have it, “the Christian god” and “the Pagan gods.” It is not meant to give offense, but to be grammatically consistent. What do you think? Will this work? Will I offend people? How do you use capital letters when dealing with religious matters?
* Pagan (Latin paganus) originally meant “country dweller” and was the word the early Christian church gave to people who wouldn’t convert because rural Rome held on to the old ways longer than urban Rome.
** Referring to native faiths that never were converted, such as native African p/Paganism is a different question that I’m not going over in this essay. For now I’m only tackling the Neopagan definition of “p/Pagan.”
+ Featured image by kvanhorn