Oct 23, 2010

What should I say when an atheist sneezes?

The world of social dynamics is a very convoluted and complex phenomenon.  Sometimes, a very mundane everyday occurrence can have seemingly odd consequences, especially when dealing with people of differing cultures or beliefs.

It may seem strange to some, but many moderate Christians often have a moment of confusion or even mild panic from something that most of us would consider very arbitrary... when an atheist friend or collegue unexpectedly sneezes.

"Should I say "god bless you"? Should I say something else?  What should I say?",  or sometimes, "Why are they offended if I say 'god bless you'?  After all, it is a positive sentiment.  I'm only trying to be nice!"
Medieval depiction of disease 
(e.g. demonic posession)

The custom of saying "god bless you" after someone sneezes comes from the medieval belief that during a sneeze, your soul is momentarily thrown from your body, leaving you susceptible to demons entering you and causing problems like sickness or the plague.  This was Christianity's answer to why it is that the onset of disease often follows a period of frequent sneezing.

Demonic possession was christianity's explanation for disease of both body and mind.  For instance, Christians thought that an epileptic seizure was the result of demons entering, or seizing, your body, hence the root word "seize". 

Saying "god bless you" was supposed to be preventative of sickness by essentially putting a magical spell of god's power on you that seals out demons until your soul has time to return.  (Christians may find the use of the word "spell" offensive when used to explain a fascet of their religion, but in form and function, that is exactly what it is.)

Of course this is ridiculous. Demons don't cause disease as the bible explicitly suggests. Microscopic organisms cause disease, as is described in the Germ Theory of Disease (yes, it's only a theory). Saying "god bless you" is a vestigial remnant of dark age superstition that stems from the mythology of a bronze-age nomadic tribe of middle eastern goat herders.

That's why we don't like it. Not because we "hate god" or because we are evil and don't want god's grace to somehow damage us (as has been suggested to me), or that atheists are inherently negative people.  No, it is because we don't want to have a hand in propagating antiquated superstitious beliefs or practices.  It is for the same reason that we don't want our fortune told, or our tarot cards read, or for fraudulent "psychics" like John Edwards to be televised, or for astrological predictions to be printed in the newspaper.

Why don't people say "god bless you" when you yawn, or cough, or hiccup? I'll tell you why. Because demons aren't trying to possess you when you do those things.  And neither are they when you sneeze.

So why say anything at all?


  1. I say 'Gezhundeit' which means 'good health' in German

  2. It's silly, but it's a sign of good manners. The fact is that it's just an expression of goodwill nowadays. Most languages' responses to sneezing are more along the lines of "To your health", so maybe we can change the English-speaking tradition as well?

  3. I just say "I love a good sneeze, doesn't that feel good?"


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