The Ethical Dilemma: Blessing Meals, Blessing Sneezes

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Bless This Sneeze: What do I say instead of “bless you” when someone sneezes? It feels rude to say nothing, but I can’t bring myself to say “bless you.” I also kind of hate saying “thank you” when someone says “bless you” to me, even though I appreciate the concern shown. Please advise!

—It’s A Sneeze, Not A Call To Worship

Dear Sneeze,

This is probably one the first questions I posed as I transitioned from apatheist to activist, and it seems to come up all the time on nonbeliever sites. Although it’s just a little thing, so is a mosquito bite—and both itch and annoy and can fester, particularly if you happen to be particularly sensitive.

I’ve found that I can resolve to say something more appropriate the next time someone sneezes, such as salud or gesundheit (both of which wish the sneezer good health), but when the moment arises, “bless you” just pops out. I have managed to morph it into “bleshoo,” which has no meaning, or “blast you,” which I occasionally find amusing, especially when someone sneezes really loudly.

At this point, some (like me) will wonder why we don’t say anything for coughs, burps, farts or hiccups. In fact, when I was growing up, my family always said “bless you” or “excuse you” for all of those. People with better manners are taught to ignore belches and passed gas as though they momentarily lost their hearing and sense of smell. Coughs tend to inspire claps on the back, glasses of water, and suggestions to look up or raise your hands in the air (like you just don’t care) or a Heimlich maneuver. And hiccups are met with a dazzling array of remedies of dubious efficacy.

Then there’s part two of your question: What to do when someone blesses your sneeze? A simple thank you is the go-to response. Although some will retort with an anti-religious put-down, that smacks of unnecessary rudeness (especially since atheists like me can’t always suppress knee-jerk blessings but don’t need to be dissed for it).

It really does seem gauche not to say anything when someone sneezes or when someone wishes you well, no matter how they express it. So just say thank you to the blesser, and kindly acknowledge a sneeze (or cough, belch, fart or hiccup) however you see fit.

Readers, what do you say?

No Praying At My Table: How do I politely respond to family members who want to say a prayer before eating at a meal we invited them to at our house?  In the past, I’ve felt like we’ve been bullied into allowing such prayers (i.e., over Thanksgiving dinner) because we couldn’t come up with a polite way to say, “We aren’t religious, we don’t believe in prayer and don’t want our children exposed to it.”  I’d like to have a good response ahead of time to prevent this from happening again.  I’d appreciate your thoughts.

—Please Don’t Bless This Meal

Dear Don’t,

How about politely saying, “We aren’t religious, we don’t believe in prayer and don’t want our children exposed to it”? But say it really ahead of time–before the event—such as when you extend the invitation or when the guests are asking what they can bring (appetizers yes, proselytizers no). It’s your house and you make the rules, whether it’s no wet glasses on the table, or no prayers at the table.

Thanksgiving poses an extra dimension since you are likely to hear, “Well, who do you think Thanksgiving is thanking?” You can reply with things you are thankful for: A country that supports freedom, including religious freedom (which includes freedom from religion); your family and friends; the agriculture and technology that enables you to enjoy such a bountiful meal. And then sidestep the inevitable but fruitless debate about where all that comes from, and say all you have to say is you’re thankful for it.

What if your guests insist that they can’t partake of the meal until their own children have said grace? You can counter that your desire for your children to be spared takes precedence in your own house, and that you’ll be happy to sit through grace when you are sitting down to dinner at their house. Suggest that on your turf, the holy family might like to gather for a private moment of prayer before joining everyone at the table.

Or perhaps you’ll decide it just isn’t worth the conflict and instruct your family to sit quietly, eyes open, heads upright, while the others perform their ritual. You can have the last word by adding a few words of secular thanks as you raise a toast to all.