In the beginning was the word

Ads for Mind Over Manners are starting to pop up in the Globe and the New York Times, and occasionally people besides my in-laws do notice them. (Though only the senior Improbables regularly cut them out for me.) One of the questions that the ad mentions is “Is it acceptable to say ‘Bless you’ to a sneezing atheist”? Which led to this letter:

I felt like your prompt was meant just for me! What DO you say to a sneezing atheist?! My partner is a firm non believer and every time he sneezes my reflexes kick in and I end up getting an eye roll from him when I utter the ridiculous “God Bless You” that I’ve been raised to say. Now, I’m not so worried about hurting his feelings (he knows it’s a reflex more than anything else) but I do wonder about the random people I “bless” on the train. Is there something else I can say to strangers who may or may not believe in a god? And please, something a little less corny than gesundheit!

That’s not the only letter I’ve gotten on that question–there is something about it, somehow, that tickles people in some deep way, like a feather up high in your nose. (I could do this extended and very gross metaphor about how we should keep inhaling that feather-question deeper and deeper into our mind-nose, until we sneeze out all our clogged-up thoughts about it, and then we should look in the Kleenex to see what’s been inside us all this time. But that would be disgusting, and so I won’t, although I do think it would be a great Tracy Jordan rant on “30 Rock.”)

As I said way back when I answered the original question, “Bless you” is actually fairly neutral, as it doesn’t indicate by whom one is being blessed. I don’t really like “God bless you,” personally, whether I look at it from a secular angle or a religious one. Atheists are one of those minority groups that very rarely get a break in our religion-saturated culture, so I’m in favor of allowing them freedom from religion whenever there’s an opportunity. “God bless you” has always seemed like a bit of theological overkill, anyway. Let’s bring God into the equation when I have a mammogram that’s difficult to read, not because I sneezed. Especially during ragweed season. Besides, isn’t there something about the automatic nature of saying “God bless you” that puts it awfully close to taking the Lord’s name in vain?

And yet, we need religious or supernatural language. Even atheists, when announcing good news, will say, “Knock on wood!” or will offer “Good luck!” to a friend about to go off to an important job interview. In the face of potentially changing circumstances, we almost always revert to some kind of magical language to acknowledge that our own fortune may change or to indicate our hopes for others. A few months ago, I had some potential good news coming down the pike, and I requested good thoughts from friends in a status update on Facebook. People responded with everything from fully sincere promises of prayer to simple “Fingers crossed!” to joking pledges to sacrifice a goat on my behalf–but the one thing that no one, Christian or Jew or pagan or atheist, did, was simply to say, “That’s great, I hope you get it.” Such a response would have seemed almost insultingly non-committal. Whatever people’s beliefs, they felt compelled to drag a little magic into their words in order to wish you well.

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