Blowing It How Do You Respond to an Atheist’s Sneeze?

Christian HagenAtch-ooo!!!

I tend to sneeze like a grenade went off inside my face; it’s sudden, it’s noisy, and it’s extremely alarming.  (And don’t even get me started on what shrapnel is in this analogy.)

So, of course, when I sneezed on a quiet Sunday drive to the mall with my wife recently, it made her jump halfway out of her seat.

“Jesus,” she chuckled, and returned to her monk-like meditative passenger-side silence.

I waited. And waited. She remained silent. Finally, my propriety kicked in.


“Well what?” she asked.

“Aren’t you going to say ‘bless you?’”

“Why would I?” she asked.

I could scarcely believe my ears. Had I married such an impolite reprobate knowingly, or had her selfishness crept into our once-lovely marriage by degrees? I heard a childhood scolding come out of my mouth like a speaker playing back a recording from twenty years ago.

“You’re supposed to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. It’s rude not to!” I said, probably with a “harrumph” for emphasis.

“What do you care?” she shot back. “You don’t even believe in God.”

That shut me right up.

How had this thought never occurred to me before? Of course someone who doesn’t believe in God’s blessings would have no use for a blessing they receive for something as normal and human as a sneeze. And, come to think of it, what did people think was going to happen if they didn’t say “bless you” when someone else sneezed? How did this ridiculous superstition get started?

Blowing It by Christian HagenI’d learned to say “bless you” from a very early age. In fact, I was so concerned as a child about what might befall me if my snotty expulsions weren’t properly blessed, that for years (for actual human years of my life) I believed I had to say “bless me” after my own sneezes—within three seconds or it wouldn’t count.

I should point out that this was during the same portion of my childhood when I thought pointing my middle finger at the ground meant I was flipping off the devil. Clearly I never fully grasped how religion is supposed to work.

But now, in the face of my wife’s cold, pure logic, my whole system of polite rituals was being called into question. And I had to ask: what does a humanist do when someone sneezes?

First, there’s the question of whether a humanist needs to say anything at all. Responding to the body’s natural defense to expel unwanted particles in the nasal cavity (which is what we’re talking about here, keep in mind) is a surprisingly ubiquitous practice around the world. At some point as humans evolved, migrated, formed communities, grew civilizations, developed new languages, excelled at invention, and invented the Taco Bell Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco, we all either collectively or unconsciously agreed that when another person sneezed, we had to respond with some bark of well-meaning reassurance.

Its origin is actually attributed to Pope Gregory the Great during the age of the bubonic plague. Or, you know, six or seven centuries ago, when all the normal habits we follow today were first developed.

Even weirder is that, eventually, it was not only common to respond to people’s sneezes, it was considered rude not to. So society has, at least partially, been built on the notion that ignoring another person’s bodily functions is tantamount to an insult. And, as I don’t want to be “that guy who doesn’t say anything when other people sneeze” (that guy is a jerk), I have determined that not saying anything simply isn’t an option.

So what to say? “God bless you” is a hollow phrase as it is, but from an avowed atheist and humanist, it’s pretty egregious.

Actually, English-speaking countries are among the only ones that seem to focus on religious superstitions in their sneezesponses (sneeze responses—you’re welcome, Oxford English Dictionary). In other cultures, the focus is typically where it logically should be: on the person’s health. The German gesundheit, meaning “health,” is the most familiar example to English speakers. But the idea exists in Greek (steen eyia sue), Hungarian (egészségedre), Italian (salute), Latvian (uz veselību), Spanish (salud), and many other languages. Why we English speakers are still saddled with such a skyward-glancing, awkward sneezesponse is anyone’s guess.

My personal favorite is the common practice in Scandinavian countries (though this could be the Norwegian in me talking), which is to say prosit, meaning “to your benefit.” It’s an old-timey toast they’d use when drinking, which over time evolved into a back-slapping celebration of boisterous sneeziness.

In reality, China has probably the best custom, which is that the sneezer is the one to excuse themselves. This makes a lot more sense; we excuse ourselves when burping, farting, coughing, and hiccupping even though, as anyone who’s guzzled their root beer too quickly will tell you, a hiccup fit is more uncontrollable and much funnier than any sneeze could ever be. Sneezes are a sign of something sick and dirty, an explosion of germs that you burst onto other people with little or no warning. At least a hiccup has some comedic value.

If I could make a hard and fast decree for all of society that we stop blessing people for sneezing and instead cheer them on for burping or hiccupping, I’d wave my scepter (I’d surely have a scepter in this scenario), and make it so. As it is, social values are entrenched. For those of us on the outskirts, we confounded rebels seeking to live just on the edges of society’s laws, who want to be polite but avoid invoking an unseen deity, switching to a more health-centric sneezesponse may be the only option.

Such was my inner monologue while driving, right up until the point that I sneezed again and made my wife jump so high that she hit her head on the roof of the car. I won’t tell you what she said to me, but it certainly had nothing to do with wishing me good health, benefit, or blessings.