Secular Sunday I – Of Sneezes and Other Bodily Expulsions

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Welcome to the very first Secular Sunday. Unlike my Friday Fundays, Secular Sundays will not be written every week; they’ll be written whenever one comes to mind.

I’d like to start off this new series by talking about sneezes and other bodily expulsions. What do they have to do with religion? More than you might think.

This all began a few months ago at work. Whenever I sneeze, at least one of my co-workers will say, “bless you” (short for “God bless you”). Being a Bright, I had perused their list of potential responses to find one that I liked. In the end, I decided just to say, “thank you,” but I was left with a bigger question: What should I say to people when they sneeze?

After talking it over with Morah, I’ve come up with the perfect answer: Nothing.

That’s right, nothing. Why should I say anything at all? Let’s take a quick at why people say bless you to begin with.

Milhouse seems pretty sure he knows why we say it (about 3 minutes in), but he’s wrong.

When Pope Pelagius II died from the plague in 590 AD, Gregory Dialogus assumed the papacy.

Gregory called for litanies, processions, and unceasing prayer for God’s help and intercession. Columns marched through the streets chanting, “Kyrie Eleison” (Greek for “Lord have mercy”). When someone sneezed, they were immediately blessed (“God bless you!”) in the hope that they would not subsequently develop the plague. [source]

So for over 1,400 years, we’ve been blessing people whenever they sneeze. I think it’s safe to say this has become ingrained in our society to the point where we say it (A) as a knee-jerk reaction, and (B) without actually meaning it (for the most part). If that’s the case, why say anything at all?

What do you say to someone when they cough? Burp? Fart? Nothing, right? Well, most people don’t say anything (although there may be a few sideways glances), so why say anything when someone sneezes?

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  1. After I read this, one of my students sneezed during free-discussion in class.

    Nobody said anything about it.

    I thought of you. ^_^

  2. Ben

    If you ever do feel compelled to say something try “gazoontite.” I believe it’s German (Gesundheit) for “good health.” So, I guess it still means, “I hope you don’t die from the plague. Or Bird Flu.” Which I believe is a very neighborly sentiment.

  3. Actually, I used to say “salud,” which is the Spanish version of gesundheit.

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