I have a weird story/confession. Before today I’ve only ever spoken about this to the few people I mention in this story.
I’m hearing so much talk lately about the words people use surrounding gender and thinking about how easily the wrong words can offend. I personally don’t understand a lot of the emotion surrounding gender, but I do have one thing in my life I use as reference to try to help me understand.
I didn’t attach my identity to my gender. Instead, for whatever reason, the main things I attached my identity to were smoking pot, my support of the space industry, and atheism. I have no idea why, but to me, these are the major identifiers that make me who I am.
When it comes to being atheist, I do have something that upsets me in a way that may be similar to what nonbinary people feel when being misgendered. It will seem very weird and different, but I find it offensive and dehumanizing when people say “bless you” when I sneeze. It feels like an attack on my identity, on my very soul. I know that sounds really crazy, so let me explain.
When I was a kid, “bless you” just seemed impractical, like a waste of words. Then in grade school I learned it came originally from people believing your soul could escape. So I interpreted that as them saying that my soul was so weak and pathetic that I could lose it with a sneeze and be saved with two words.
So after high school I had a fellow atheist friend who one day went on a rant about how he found it hurtful and insulting when people say “bless you”. He said something like, “They are hijacking your personal bodily function to force you into a non-consensual Christian prayer and doing it when you are most vulnerable dealing with allergies or a cold.”
So I looked it up online and found that this is an ongoing debate in the atheist community about whether or not we should be offended by this. Then I learned that many churches were actively campaigning against the use of “gazuntite”, since at the time, “gazuntite” was gaining popularity as a more respectful and inclusive version of “bless you.” But many religious groups wanted it stopped specifically because it was inclusive and respectful of other beliefs. And they seem to have won. You never hear people say “gazuntite” any more.
So the next time someone said “bless you” to me I politely asked her to stop. That didn’t go over well. She felt censored and got offended. After that, every time I sneezed she made a big production out of saying “bless you”, and would even repeat it over and over again until I acknowledged it.
So I bottled up my feelings and told myself there’s a million more important things than getting people to stop saying “bless you”.
Ten years later I was with my girlfriend at a state fair. I sneezed a big one and blew snot all over my hand. A stranger yelled “bless you!” at me, drawing everyone’s attention toward my already embarrassing situation. I put my head down and just kept walking as I tried to figure out how to clean my hand. Then my girlfriend told me she overheard the stranger say something like, “Did you see that? I just said ‘bless you’ and that asshole just ignored me!”
So I told my girlfriend about how I find “bless you” to be offensive. She said something like, “I actually agree with them. You are kind of an asshole. I’ve noticed you just ignore people when they say ‘bless you’ and it’s just rude. They’re just trying to be nice. I’m an atheist too and I don’t find it offensive. It’s not intended as a prayer or an anti-atheist statement so you really have no right to be offended.”
We stayed together for two years after that and for the whole time she made a point of saying “bless you” absolutely every single time I sneezed, when she hadn’t been saying it very often before this. We even got in a couple fights over it. She believed that intent shouldn’t matter when someone is offended and wouldn’t let me eat crunchy foods in her presence, but I couldn’t convince her to stop saying “bless you”.
So again I bottled up my feelings. I should be fair though and say that after we broke up, she did suddenly stop.
Just a couple years ago someone would say “bless you” when I would sneeze. At first I just ignored it. People will almost always stop if I ignore it. But it continued, so I started glaring every time I heard those words (I know, that was a poor choice). Then finally the subject came up naturally and I told them that I find it offensive and said the “It’s hijacking a personal bodily function to force someone into a non-consensual prayer” line. They said something like “That actually makes sense. It does seem offensive, but I’m going to continue saying it to you anyway because it’s just a really ingrained habit.” This was a person who believes intent shouldn’t matter and is also deeply condemning of every other kind of offensive speech, particularly certain types of gendered language. Again, I should be fair and say they did taper off from saying it and eventually stop.
So that’s my story of being really sensitive about something and being afraid to talk about it.
When I go to atheist forums that discuss this, the consensus seems to be that, while there is sound logic behind being offended by this, it’s still a non-issue. If everyone puts their foot down about every little thing that offends them, we’ll have to ban pretty much all language. We have so many more important issues to worry about as atheists, like how some surveys show us as more hated than al qaeda and many churches still teach that we are inherently evil. These are bigger issues. No matter how emotional this is for me, my atheistic logic forces me to admit that intent does matter here. People are not trying to insult me when they say it. And making people stop saying “bless you” is not a productive use of my time.