This is the first in a short series of articles aimed at examining some of the religious rituals and practices that originated many centuries ago and which have persisted into the modern world. The series aims to examine the historical roots of these practices and evaluate the relevance of their continued practice.
Let me start with a very mundane example. The first ritual I want to examine is the practice of saying “bless you” to someone who has sneezed. This continues to have widespread use throughout the general community, yet many people are unaware of its deeply superstitious, religious origins.
The saying originated during the dark ages when people’s superstitious dread of demonic possession was at an all-time high. It was thought that when a person sneezed, a window to the soul was momentarily opened, through which an evil spirit could invade and possess a person. The words “God bless you” were invoked as a means of warding off any invading evil spirits. Other variations of this superstition evolved over time, including the belief that a sneeze was the body’s attempt to expel an invading evil spirit or that the soul could be forced out of the body through a sneeze. In all these views, the verbal response, “God bless you”, or the shortened, “bless you”, were intended as a shield against evil and a preservative for the soul.
A further iteration of this superstitious practice developed during the bubonic plague of 590 AD. As the plague swept across Europe, Pope Gregory issued an edict that anyone sneezing be immediately blessed, since sneezing was one of the early signs that accompanied the onset of the dreaded disease. Pronouncing the blessing was thought to help protect people from contracting the plague.
Much earlier superstitious beliefs regarding sneezing, dating back to as early as 500 BC, include the Buddhist belief that a person’s lifespan could be significantly extended by having the words “live long!” shouted at them when they sneezed.
What are we to make of all this? Obviously, we no longer hold to these ancient superstitious beliefs. While many religious variants still adhere to a belief in angels and demons, they no longer subscribe to the naïve view of sneezing as a gateway to the soul or a means of demonic invasion.
Personally, I am quite happy to say “bless you” when someone sneezes. In a world filled with increasing censure, hostility and vitriol it is refreshing to speak words of blessing over someone. And when I say, “bless you”, I try to actually mean it. It is a way of wishing the person well and speaking positive words into their life. Do those words have any deep, profound spiritual power? No, not in the spiritualised sense in which they were once used. I have no power to bless someone: only God can do that. These simple words are merely an expression of kindness and goodwill towards another – a wish that they might be blessed by God in some way.
Atheists, however, have a problem with the term “bless you” or the fuller term “God bless you”. I have actually heard some atheists express offense and indignation at being “blessed” when they sneeze – as if the person doing the blessing is forcing their religious worldview upon the sneezing atheist.
It just goes to show; you can’t please everyone, even when you’re trying to be nice!
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He is the author of 14 books, and his latest, “Reconnecting with God”, is now available. Connect with Kevin on Facebook or his website, SmartFaith.net.