The AP's Style Guide for Religion, Metaphysics, and God's Existence

How do you spell that? G-o-d! Or sometimes: g-o-d. 
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AP/The Atlantic

When The Atlantic was revising its style guide for the web a few months ago, my cubicle unexpectedly turned into a metaphysical brawling zone. Our house policy is to capitalize "God" when it refers to the entity worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (Other times, it's not capitalized—for example, when writing about how I'm the "god of the office candy jar.") In my opinion, this suggests a belief on the part of the writer: Capitalizing "God" means he or she believes in the formal existence of a thing called god, so that name is capitalized like any other name. My boss disagrees. Neither, he says, does capitalizing the protagonist's name from The Big Lebowski entail belief in the existence of the Dude. So we capitalize God.

This one argument inspired a good 20 minutes of surreal grammatical debate, so just imagine how weird things got at the Associated Press when the organization decided to add 200 new religion terms to its 2014 style guide. Unfortunately for me, they've come down on my boss's side on the subject of "God" capitalization. They also note that it's proper to use lowercase "in references to false gods: He made money his god."

The Associated Press has declared that there are false gods. I can't wait to see what happens when they have to cover a story about a strangely gold-tinted calf who shows up in the desert in Egypt.

Other notables: "hell" is not capitalized, but "Hades" is—presumably, the reason being that the latter is a place, but the former is not.

"Holy Spirit" and "Holy Ghost" are both capitalized, but the former is the preferred usage, spirits being the more acceptable metaphysical entity. "Satan" is capitalized, but not "the devil." Also noteworthy: "Voodoo," the religion, is capitalized, but "voodoo," roughly meaning "shenanigans," is not, "especially when ascribing magical solutions to problems, as in voodoo economics."

A lot of the entries were genuinely helpful: In more than two decades of Jewish education, I have never mastered the spelling of the word Chanukah Hannukka Hanukah "Hanukkah." Jews (and Wikipedia, and the ultra-Orthodox sect Chabad) should also note that the AP drops that pesky "h" on the end of "Rosh Hashana."

I'm particularly grateful for the guidelines on nuns, which will come in handy: The AP suggests using a sister's last name throughout an article if she uses it. For example, they write, use "Walsh" to refer to "Sister Mary Ann Walsh," after spelling out her full name and title on the first use. ("Sister Mary Ann Walsh" is a real human who manages press relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I'll bet she's tickled to be in their formal style guide.)

But there is some dangerous territory, too. The entry on Zionism is conspicuously short: The term is defined primarily as "the effort of Jews to regain and retain their biblical homeland." The word "Israel" is used later in the entry, referring to the "land of Israel" that's mentioned in the Bible, but still: tricky. "Fundamentalist" is described as a pejorative term; the style guide advises against its use unless people specifically use it to describe themselves.

Perhaps the trickiest of all is the entry for Jesus, who is described as "the central figure of Christianity." The philosophical twist is in the pronouns; unlike prayerbooks or the Bible, which refer to him as Him, the AP instructs newspapers that "personal pronouns referring to him are lowercase, as is savior." If Jesus is in the news, he can be the "Son of God" or the "Redeemer" (both capitalized). But when it comes to pronouns, the AP says, he's a "he," just like any mortal man.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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