05 March 2008

'Bless You'

I have decided to try my best to ignore the American politics for the moment - as hard as it is and share with you my take on another issue: Superstition.

When I sneeze and some one says 'Bless you' what am I supposed to say? I am an atheist, I don't believe in god or gods, I don't touch wood, I don't believe in universal consciousness or that we are here for a purpose but...is it impolite not to say 'thank you' to a 'bless you' comment?

It got me thinking also about superstitions and where they originated and so I decided to dig around for some ideas regarding the origins of saying 'bless you' to sneezes.
It would appear that throughout many cultures of the world making some kind of comment after someone has sneezed is viewed as good manners. Usually, '(God) bless you' or 'Live long' etc.
From primitive times sneezing was viewed as either the spirit or soul leaving the body and was a sign from the gods foretelling good or bad fortune - words are said to counter or enhance this.

Wikipedia has a quick summary of sneezing and has a link to an excerpt from an interesting book The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs.

So what do I say as an atheist? I don't say anything. I cannot see the point. On occasions when I have not said anything I watch as the person waits for me to say 'bless you' and after a big pause a few people have said for and to themselves, 'Bless me' - very funny.
What do you say when someone sneezes?


ana said...

Gesundheit! (good health)

A polite sentiment, no deities invoked, and everyone's happy. Yes, I'm well aware of the superstition behind the 'Bless you' response, but there's no reason for most politesse except to ensure the smooth flow of conversation and other forms of social energy.

Zee Harrison said...

I agree. To elaborate further, I don't really think it is a big deal, more trying to understand why and how these forms of social etiquette have wormed their way into being the norm. More of interest value than truly serious.

I suppose I'm really trying to highlight how old habits still play a part in our lives today and as an atheist it is more of interest to me than someone who is a hardcore theist where their response to a sneeze is likely to be automated. I have a good friend who is an atheist and he always says 'bless you' - regardless!
Different strokes and I agree that it does ensure the smooth flow of conversation, except that I don't say it!!!

Anonymous said...

I used to battle with this. My conclusion...

"God Bless You" is different from "Bless You". The latter can be a "blessing" from any belief.

"Bless You" is an ideal Unitarian Universalist / Secular Humanist / Atheist response .

"Gesundheit" seems like somebody trying a bit too hard to avoid the religious stigma. It is more likely to alienate.

An Atheist should want to prove they are more (or just as)loving than (as) anyone to compensate for ignorant stigma and to attract more people to be enlightened. As you know, many Atheists are Theist converts - as our species evolves from the old culture. Many Theists are apprehensive about even considering Atheism because they do not see enough love and commonality with people that would reveal themselves as Atheist.

I am an Atheist that will attend some of the most bigoted churches as a lack of option when attending traditional holiday services with relatives. Last time, I made sure to be most polite - said bless you more than anyone I saw - and instead of tithing to a church looking to get new TV screens I gave a 20 to a homeless person outside that all the "christians" passed while stepping out of thei porsches and benzes. I whispered to some of these people that I am Atheist so they could see that the most compassionate and friendly person they likely met that day was what many good intentioned people wrongly associate with evil.

Random note of semi-relevant comedy... my word verification to post this comment is "sinnerd". Interesting. Guilty as charged? ;-)