Ramifications of a Sneeze: Secularizing the “Bless You”

Sometime after dinner last week, I sneezed. As you may have expected, this resulted in my boyfriend automatically telling me, “Bless you.” This lead to a somewhat heavy discussion about Christianity’s monopoly on responses to sneezing — since when did “Bless you” become the English speaker’s default? By the end of the discussion, we had decided that something had to be done: we would refuse to further the ubiquity of “[God] bless you”s and instead find a new way to deal with sneezes.

We looked online to find responses to sneezing in other languages. While many countries opt for a sensible “To your health,” our favorite translations were “Cheers” from Bulgaria and “Million dollars” from Georgia. Thus, whenever either of us sneezes, the other person alternates between the two most non sequitur — and thus entertaining — responses.

The very next day, I couldn’t help but dwell on what we were doing. Why were we so painstakingly trying to avoid an overused, but well-meaning, expression?

As someone who was raised in an atheist household, I grew up believing that religion is oppressive, and anyone who still believes in a higher power must either be uneducated or has probably undergone some form of life-altering trauma. It was no surprise that I chose to attend a college whose unofficial motto is “Communism, Atheism, and Free Love,” where my mindset was only embraced. Atheism is hip, and, like the pompous pharmacist Homais in Madame Bovary, who touted himself as a Man of Science, it’s easy to feel superior and disrespect those who have not yet been “enlightened.”

I am not writing to expound a critique on religion and its followers. On the contrary. I am just as repulsed by those who blindly follow science, who forget to question the profit-driven institutions that feed us so-called truth, and who undermine the very foundation of scientific inquiry.

We owe a lot to religion. Some of the most beautiful buildings around the world are cathedrals and mosques, while some of the most captivating songs revolve entirely around faith in a higher power. Plus, it would be impossible to ignore religion’s role in the creation of academic institutions; who do you think founded the first schools in our country?

This brings me to the question: When, exactly, is religion a bad thing?

As with everything else, a religion becomes dangerous when it has become the mainstream — when it becomes too easy for its followers to disregard other people’s customs and beliefs due to institutionalization. When one religion permeates a supposedly neutral territory, such as a public school, we should be concerned.

Since August, I have been working at a predominantly Jewish company. Most of the men wear yarmulkas, half the office is gone by 4 pm each Friday, and one microwave in our kitchen is dedicated to kosher food. The company observes only Jewish holidays, which means only practicing Jews are allowed those days off, while the rest of us must work. I have no problem with this situation — it is a private company, after all, and I’ve enjoyed learning about such traditions. However, one of my [non-Jewish] coworkers quit last week when his request for a day off had been denied due to scheduling demands inflicted upon by the upcoming Passover holiday. His growing frustrations with the undeniable Jewish hegemony at our workplace were manifested in his sudden — and somewhat dramatic — decision to quit.

But, I digress. In the end, perhaps our desire to learn new ways of saying “Bless you” stems from a simple interest in other cultures. I have always had a passion for learning languages. Throughout high school and college, I studied Russian, Spanish, and Chinese, and on my own, I’ve tried — emphasis on the word tried — to teach myself Italian and German. Someday, I hope to learn Vietnamese.

This past month, after being bombarded by headlines about the new pope, I’ve had the sudden urge to learn Latin. Not to become fluent (besides, what’s the point of becoming fluent in Latin?), but just to become familiar with some common phrases. Then I had this idea that my boyfriend and I should learn a language each week. We’d start with seven basic phrases: “hello” and “goodbye,” naturally; “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” to be polite; and “yes” and “no” because we have opinions. Eventually, “sorry” and “I love you” were also added to the list, because they’re what make relationships work. At the last minute, as if life had actual foreshadowing, we remembered another key phrase to add to the list: bless you.

Or, as the new pope would say, “Saluta!”

What would Hollywood rom-coms do without Saint Patrick's Cathedral?
Where would Hollywood rom-coms be without Saint Patrick’s Cathedral?

7 thoughts on “Ramifications of a Sneeze: Secularizing the “Bless You”

  1. Religion is a bad thing when:
    – it spills into the public sphere
    – it affects legislation to trample other’s rights
    – it demands respect that it obviously does not deserve
    – it complains of being offended by people and customs which are not its own
    – it gives approval of or to people who break the law or spread hate and bigotry
    – it claims the high road but never travels there
    – it disrespects the traditions and cultures of other people
    – it demands that it be taught to all children in public schools
    – it demands a revered place in public institutions
    – it demands to be excused from the law with regard to its workers
    – it … you should be getting the picture by now

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