Posted by: Paul Chiariello | August 1, 2011

“God Bless You”: A Brief Story about Sneezing, Humanism and a Religiously Inspired Culture

A short time ago one of my close relatives came for a visit with me and some of the rest of my family.  A woman I looked up to my whole life but unfortunately did not see too often.  And though I was somewhat sick, we still talked as we usually did about religion, life, meaning and all those fun things.

As I mentioned I was unfortunately sick for the few days she was there.  Throughout the time she smiled and said her ‘God-Bless-You’s’ – an unnoticeable habit that I regularly do myself.  So when she asked, “What do Humanists say when you sneeze?”  I took it as an interesting question for possibly an equally interesting conversation.

“Well there are a couple answers to that,” I said.

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What Should Humanists Say Instead?

First, I explained that it actually doesn’t matter that much to me.  I say ‘God-Bless-You’, or the short and more frequently derived ‘Bless-You’.  It is a habit that has come to mean something different than the original explicit, denotative meaning of the sentence.  I believe, as most Christians similarly do to some degree, that it is a religiously inspired cultural relic that expresses ones personal concern and wishes for that person’s health.

Humanists and atheists can say it with no worries of contradicting their own worldviews because they mean what they are actually saying – a polite and culturally appropriate, even expected, phrase.  Humanists, like 90% of the remaining people that utter the phrase, are expressing acknowledgement and concern that is embedded in our shared cultural consciousness.

Second, I wanted to carry it further and get at what she really may have been asking.  To be honest, though true, the above is a little bit of a cop-out.

So what if you are among individuals that do take it literally?  Or what if you would just personally like to be more consistent?  Well again there are several possibilities I think are really interesting.

Most obviously, you can simply use “Bless You”.

“Humanism is about Humans”, I told her, “It means more coming from you than an entity we both are perfectly aware I believe is fictitious.  I’d rather have your blessing and personal hopes and wishes.”

What a humanist cares about are human relations and the meaning humans give to things.  It’s all well and good if you believe God exists and you’re doing something nice by invoking his blessing.  I appreciate it.  Some might not, but I do.

However, what I really care more about is the ‘YOU caring’ part of that.

Third, you can simply substitute GBY for another possible phrase.  There are already different alternatives practiced by many around the world.  The most obvious and easiest substitute, in my eyes, is simply wishing someone good health.   Most people sneeze when they are sick or have some kind of allergies that are bothering them.

Gesundheit!   Salud! 

Word already in our vocabulary.  What can be more appropriate whether you believe in a God or not?  In fact where these kinds of phrases are practiced (including the US) they are used by the religious and non-religious alike.

A brief survey of responses to sneezing actually makes me think references to health instead of God’s protection are much more common.

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What Do You Mean by ‘God Bless You”?

If only the story stopped there.  My sneezing continued as my cold failed to subside.  What also not only failed to subside but instead increased was the redundant echoing God-Bless-You’s.  Though we discussed the ideas I mentioned above a little bit, I eventually learned that the goal of bringing up the conversation in the first place wasn’t to learn what I believed and why.

I did not notice the increase myself, actually.  My girlfriend, instead, noted the increase in number and volume of her GBY’s.  The childishness seeped in though, and as the sole black sheep living with a family of devout theists I have learned to shy away from such discussions.  A lesson I’m only very slowly learning, though.   And yes, I do usually take the bait still and often do a little instigating myself.   However, for this particular discussion I simply let my mind wander on with the topic by itself.  Save it for, say, a WordPress post.

So off on my own i began asking myself, “So what do you even mean by the phrase?”

The reasonableness of my  response (my whole approach to life?) was in question.  One classic tactic is to show the alternative makes less sense and consistency.  That their views are at least no better.  So I started thinking about what GBY could mean.

I could go on and expand the above, but this is already getting to be a long post.

First, where did the phrase come from?  Well no one really knows, but it is really, really old.

Like most phrases we continue to say by reflex, however, it usually comes from a more consciously chosen practice.  People actually mean what they say before it becomes an unconscious matter of habit.  Some theories (citations in the link) include the Pope in AD 590 using actual blessings to ward off the bubonic plague which some thought was spread by sneezing or that life leaves the body during a sneeze and God’s blessing ensured it returned or that sneezing opened a window for evil spirits to enter but God’s blessing could shield you.  It is possible all of these are right.

Whatever the origin of this phrase’s use in response to sneezing, it is very likely a literal response and very likely one ignorant of what sneezing actually is.  If there is no bubonic plague, windows for demonic possessions or momentary deaths then why do you use the phrase?

Obviously to both of us it is a common practice you just don’t think about.  And when you do, you are wishing the omnipotence you believe actually exists to bless me by keeping me in health.

So far I don’t think this is very controversial

Second, taking this latter understanding of it, it still doesn’t make too much sense, assuming God is out there.

Why would he change his course of action based on your usually unconscious culturally determined wishes?  If He was planning either to or not to bless me, does your timely invocation really have sway over His plans and actions?  or is He sitting ready to cure me or not conditional on you?  simply waiting on your cue?

It seems you either believe that god has a plan which you can influence to some degree or He has no plan and His actions are contingent on your earthly rituals.

There are a host of problems if you choose either path.  But whether God will change his plan or is waiting on your actions, His blessings are outside of his direct control.  If He maintains His control over who He blesses and doesn’t, your wishes that He bless me won’t sway His mind.

Some amalgam of the options like “God chooses to bless those that get a certain number or quality prayers” simply falls into both of the problems above.

This seems all the more strange if you believe God will work his magic (I’m sorry… I meant miracles) on someone who believes He cannot, namely because of His lack of existing.  I could understand the “Faith has made you well” theme Jesus so often repeats.  But that your cookie cutter incantation can affect the health of others or influence/change/direct who God blesses baffles me.

If you’re utterance in any way has an effect on God’s blessing and my health then my health is in part contingent on the amount of friends and family that petition the correct God.  This seems immoral.  Please leave some explanation in the comments below if you have an answer, but I cannot understand how God blessing an individual or not can be in part influenced by a third party’s reaction to an uncontrollable event (my sneezing).

———-

If you believe, however, that the phrase isn’t involved in God actually blessing someone or not or of the subsequent improvement or deterioration of the sickness causing their sneezing, then we are both exactly on the same page.

By saying GBY, you are just showing me you personally care.  It really has nothing to do with God, His blessings and your invocation of them.  We therefore agree His role is placed back in the cultural past.  A relic of ignorant beliefs about what sneezing really is.

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Responses

  1. This is just an additional thought. In Islam, when we sneeze we say Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God) ourselves. It’s for several reasons including the satisfaction the body derives from the process of sneezing (sneezing is often considered a sign of the human body reacting to an attack by a foreign element e.g. dust or virus so it is supposed to be a good thing) and also a way of expressing gratitude for the body’s return to its normal state (sneezing can be quite a complex and taxing process).

    It’s important, however, that this all be done by the person sneezing so if he/she does believe in God, it makes sense, really. Nobody says anything to the person who sneezes unless he/she says Alahmdulillah. In that case, the other person says Yarhamak Allah, which basically implies: Mercy of God be on you. It’s a way of acknowledging that the first person believes in God and is expressing gratitude in return for which the other hopes mercy will continue to be granted to the one sneezing.

    Hope that helps explain my position :)

    • thank you much, lady :)

      i like the ‘praise be to God’ better than the ‘God bless you.’ gets into much less theological messiness.

      I also think the list I have linked above has some ‘health’ themed responses to others for a few Muslim countries.

  2. Also, we say Alhamdulillah for a lot of things. We even say it when somebody passes away, the principle being that we got to know that person for a little time and that was better than not ever having known them. However, there are those who yell and scream and lose their minds when they lose the someone. Those people are just nuts anyway. It makes no sense to behave in such fashion; we never really own anyone in the world. Why should we feel cheated that they’ve left us?

  3. Yeah, I suppose there would be a mixture of cultural and spiritual references in Muslim countries. That is often the case with practices in the Muslim world.

    • the muslim world is a big place indeed. kind of like the first point in the second section, different cultures have their understandings of what the world is actually like or focus on certain aspects of it and mix it with religion (which is a subset of beliefs about what the world is like).

      i do have to say i really like the perspective of thanking God, or expressing happiness/relief in general, at the sensation of sneezing.


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