The Origin of our Title

This is typical:

Somebody: "What's your podcast/blog called?"

Me: "It's called 'Thank God I'm Atheist."

Somebody: [Blank pause]

Me: [Expectant facial expression]

Somebody: [Quizzical look, followed by wash of understanding] "Oh…. That's cute."

Having a silly joke in your title can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it hopefully conveys a sense of lightheartedness and play. It says that we've got a sense of humor about the subject. On the other hand, not everybody gets humor, so it spurs comments like "but if you're atheist, then you don't believe in God, so…" (a comment we've heard/ seen more than once). This forces us to either A) say something banal like "Yep, that's the joke…" or B) say something sarcastic like "You know, I've never thought of it that way!" Neither option is particularly pleasant, as both are just means of staving off the impulse to despair for humanity.

For the most part, people seem to like the joke, which makes it slightly more difficult every time I have to admit that I didn't make it up. As much as I would love to get credit for it, this gag goes back a bit. A long bit, as it turns out.

This post was spurred on by a couple of people who have approached me to ask who first said it (or to give me a lecture entitled "Did you know that the first person to say that was…"). Well, that got me to thinking. Who did actually say it first? I had long attributed it to Bertrand Russell, but that turns out to be me just making shit up. So here's what seems to actually have gone down:

The earliest version of this pithy statement that I could find came from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a German scientist who lived in the late 1700s (1700s? I know, right?!). He said:

"Und Ich dank es dem lieben Gott tausendmal, dass er mich zum Atheisten hat verden lassen."

I think we can all agree that this is a remarkable and touching statement.  Unfortunately, it's in German, so we may never know what it means. Just kidding! Roughly translated, it means "And I thank God a thousand times that he made me an Atheist." A little wordy, perhaps, but good nonetheless.

[Update: I have revised my translation here, because, as commenter Katja and my own mother have pointed out to me, the phrase "dem lieben Gott" does not translate, as I had originally thought, to "the god of love". No, despite the fact that "dem" means "the", "lieben" means "love", and "Gott" means "god", this is a colloquialism that just means "god" or "the kind god" or "the God who, in His wisdom, created the confusing German language". Ich hoffe ihr könnt mir verzeihen für diesen schrecklichen Fehler.]

The next specific instance I could find of the phrase (or a variant thereof) was from George Bernard Shaw. His version was:

"I'm an atheist, and I thank God for it!"

Nice and pithy. Sure to ruffle a few feathers over at the London School of Economics. Did you guys know that G.B.S. co-founded the London School of Economics? 'Cause I sure as hell didn't. Wikipedia? More like WTFpedia!

The most famous use of TGIA (until I took it over and pwned it like a boss, obviously), was from a dude named Luis Buñuel. He was a Spanish-born filmmaker who made most of his films in Mexico, but just for kicks, he said this quote in French:

"Je suis toujours athée, gràce á Dieu."

Roughly (because that's the only way I can translate), this means "I am still an atheist, thank God". Buñuel eventually got sick of being asked about this, however, and later in his life backed off of it, going so far as to call the aphorism "accidental." So maybe he just stumbled into it. Who knows?

Anyway- the long and the short of it here, is that no, I did not invent the phrase "Thank God I'm Atheist". I just perfected it. And bought the domain name. Which means it's mine. ALL MINE! YOU CAN'T HAVE IT!

Take THAT, Buñuel!

7 thoughts on “The Origin of our Title

  1. When the only prayer I could say was, “please God, forgive me for not believing in you”, I decided I must be an Atheist.

    I just love you two guys!

    Susan

  2. Hey guys, Did you know that here in Germany it is very common to be an atheist? And a smartass too! Combining both I have to tell you that -dem lieben Gott- does not mean the god of love but the kind god. Anyway: I like your podcast! Thank you!

  3. Wonderful news!

    By now you two already know the great news, I’m sure.

    I woke up today and looked outside. There wasn’t a soul on the street. No cars, no joggers, no nothing.

    It’s the rapture! The time has finally come! We finally have the earth to ourselves. Hooray!

    Mike

  4. Sorry guys.

    I had faulty information. It seems it was just Labor Day. Apparently it’s just a holiday. The Christians are still around. Damn!

    Well, maybe next time.

    Take care.

    Mike

  5. The best version of Bunuel’s use of the phrase was in his autobiography. Towards the end of the book, he states that he alone among all his surrealist friends (from the 30s) had not changed. The translation of what he wrote (in French) was, “I alone have not changed. I remain Catholic and Atheist…thank God”

    Good podcast!

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