Ask A Skeptic

Dear Skeptic: I was reading at the library recently when I let out a loud sneeze. A gentleman nearby gave me a very heartfelt “God bless you!” I told him I didn’t go to church.

After a few awkward seconds, he responded, “God bless you, anyway!” What’s an agnatheist to do? This is no sneezing matter.
— Ed in Florida   

Dear Ed: Truly, you are “bless-Ed”! The believers assume we all believe as they do, or even if we don’t, what’s the harm in a little gratuitous grace? What they ignore: God’s too busy sending tsunamis to swamp sodomists and gomorrahists and she doesn’t have time to monitor the 6,787,682,806 people on Earth in case somebody is about to sneeze.

Jeez Louise, where did this silliness get started? How come Sneezy gets a blessing and not Dopey, Doc, Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy or Bashful? Like so much inanity, look no further than Vatican City, where the great and powerful Oz, also known as Pope Gregory I, reigned in the 6th century during one of the Great Plagues. Gregory’s antidote included lots of public prayers and processions in lieu of inoculations. Legend says that if someone sneezed during a parade, people hedged their bets against the Black Death with a hearty “god bless you” interspersed with a whole lot of “lord have mercy.”

Another explanation comes from the “Bart Sells His Soul” episode in the seventh season of “The Simpsons.” Bart and Milhouse trick the church organist into playing “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and later argue whether humans have souls. Bart scoffs at the idea and sells his soul (a piece of paper with the words “Bart Simpson’s Soul”) to Milhouse for $5:

BART: Well if your soul is real, where is it?

MILHOUSE: (touching his chest) It’s kinda in here, and when you sneeze, that’s your soul trying to escape. Saying “God bless you” crams it back in. And when you die, it squirms out and flies away!

BART: What if you die in a submarine, at the bottom of the ocean?

MILHOUSE: Oh, it can swim. It’s even got wheels, in case you die in the desert and it has to drive to the cemetery.

“Seinfeld” fans will remember “The Good Samaritan” episode:

GEORGE: Oh yah, like there’s something wrong with saying God bless you. I was raised to say God bless you.

(Jerry sneezes)

GEORGE: Ah, shut up.

ELAINE: What does it mean anyway, God bless you? It’s a stupid superstition.

JERRY: You know, if you want to make a person feel better after they sneeze, you shouldn’t say God bless you, you should say, You’re so good-looking!

(In August in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the “good-looking” substitute was making the rounds at a company retreat and a man eventually got fired for sexual harassment because he carried it too far.)

Ed’s “no sneezing matter” also made headlines in 2001 in Washing­ton, Ill., where a graduating high school senior at the podium craftily sidestepped a judge’s prayer injunction like this, according to the Chicago Tribune:

“During his speech, Ryan Brown faked a sneeze, to which many students shouted, ‘God bless you.’ They would abide by the law, Brown said, but they wanted everyone to know where their hearts were. ‘I don’t understand why we can’t have God everywhere, including my graduation,’ Brown said after the ceremony.”

Where there’s a will, it seems, there’s a way. The “blessers” will bedevil us no matter what. 

— Bill Dunn

Freedom From Religion Foundation