The Humanist Dilemma: To Curse or Not to Curse

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Humanist Dilemma at (subject line: Humanist Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Is Cursing OK? I know that cursing is forbidden in some religions, especially where there’s a commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain. But if you don’t have any lord, is it still wrong to curse?

I’m particularly noticing that my teenage daughter and her friends—all very lovely young people who get excellent grades and do loads of community service—use the F-word as often as they exhale, and they listen to music that seems to use these verbal bombs as a form of percussion. Perhaps as a result—or just because the kids are no longer children—I myself have started cursing more, and I must admit I find it rather liberating.

I’m wondering about the humanist position on such language. I’d actually feel hypocritical if I admonished my daughter and her friends not to curse, although I have warned them to watch out for who’s around when they do.

–Is It Fine or Should We Be Fined?


Dear Fine,

Journalist Faith Salie did a thought-provoking piece on CBS Sunday Morning about the benefits of cursing, citing studies that correlate intelligence and swearing—that is, smarter people seem to swear more (counter-intuitive,huh?).   I’ve always thought it amusing that parents will blast their children for using “bad words” and then do so themselves when they don’t remember the little ones are within earshot, or because they hit their thumb with a hammer, or because they chipped their nail polish. As a kid, I was a huge prude about swearing until I went to a Seven Sisters college and came home for Thanksgiving “swearing like a stevedore,” as my shocked and disappointed father put it. (“All that tuition, and this is what she’s learning!”) I’m sure a psychologist could elaborate on why it’s such a thrill for kids entering adulthood to do things that shock their elders. And cursing is so convenient and largely free of terrible consequences.

I also don’t buy into the idea that there are words that can’t be said or written, whether it’s G-d or the F-word or whatever (and the irony is that I’m knuckling under right now due to social conditioning and fear of being quoted out of context).  By using and overusing charged words, we drain them of shock value. The vast majority of the time we use the F-word, we use it as an intensifier—kind of like “very,” only more so, when “very, very” just doesn’t express how f***ing complicated something is or how f***ing great another thing is. Humans are highly adaptable. Although we are conditioned to react distastefully to forbidden things, as we hear or see them regularly, they lose their capacity to get a rise.

Cole Porter noted a similar trend way back in 1934 with his song, Anything Goes:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

Although there’s no official humanist position on this topic, I agree that people should be considerate of the sensitivities of their listeners, whether they are small children, older parents, religious people who take the commandment seriously, or even business associates who might think ill of you for not having a more refined vocabulary.

But I’m also of the opinion that all words are created to be written and spoken, and that by banning or punishing their use (as folks attempt with those accursed “swear jars”) or attacking those who deploy these terms, we augment their negative power. Conversely, as it becomes more commonplace to use curse words casually—without meaning any harm towards others—they become just words, at our disposal for self-expression.