I’m sure they all meant well. I’m sure they had good intentions. I’m sure they’re nice people who called their mothers last Sunday, doing the socially-acceptable, polite thing despite the radical wishes of the creator of the holiday.
With that out of the way, an earnest discussion of how acts and words coded as polite, socially correct, nice, and/or helpful can be weaponized may begin.
Seems nice, doesn’t it? For a religious person, their deity’s blessings mean positivity. Why would I take issue with someone wanting their god to give me good things? As a formerly religious person who used to fervently pray for the blessings and salvation of my friends and family, surely I must understand.
That’s just it, though. When I was a Muslim, I prayed in private and never would have dreamed of acting like Christians do in public about their beliefs. The idea of assuming that other people would understand — let alone accept or share — my religious convictions was preposterous to me. I understood that my friends didn’t want for me to pray for them to come to Islam. I knew that saying “May Allah grant you peace” was a no-go with non-Muslims, not even the ones who follow Abrahamic faiths, even though Allah just means “God.” I kept all that to myself.
If we fast forward to the present day, I’m far happier as an atheist than I ever was as a believer. Following my religion was a life-hindering, guilt-inducing, miserable experience for me, for the most part. I had to suppress good ethical and moral impulses I had in favor of adhering to an out-of-context set of guidelines and rules and prohibitions. When it comes to people struggling with aspects of their religions, just as I had, I, in total good faith, hope that they eventually become apostates rather than continue on in pain and anguish. However, despite this sincerity of feeling on my part, I doubt all those who clamor to defend the blessed-day wishers would read me as aggressive and militant if I said “Have a guilt-free day.” It’s the same logic that leads people to cry “That’s offensive!” when I say that I’m an atheist but to not bat an eyelash at questions like “What church do you go to?”
Further troubling is the invoking of a deity to “bless” someone like me. The god of the Old Testament would sooner smite me than bless me. In order for that god to be okay with blessing me, everything about me would have to change. I’m quite happy in my unblessed and unblessable state and would rather not be someone else, thank you very much. Not to mention the fact that the sneezing variety of “bless you” is based on an understanding of health and medicine that’s questionable, at the very least.
All this reminds me of the conversations that happen around the less blatant and crude forms of street harassment. There is, ostensibly, nothing wrong with saying “hello” or “beautiful” or “God bless.” Someone saying those things might mean no harm and perhaps even well. Contextualize it in a street harassment situation, however, and such “polite” utterances aggregate into a disturbing full picture of gendered treatment and unending unwanted attention.
Wishing someone well with the assumption that they not only accept your beliefs but also that, if they don’t share them, will not be offended and might even bend over backwards to defend your actions, is Christian privilege, plain and simple. In the United States, no non-Christian expects that level of acceptance, to the point of defense, of their beliefs. If anything, atheists, Muslims, and other religious minority members expect hostility and hatred for the mere mention of our respective affiliations (or lack thereof).
The broader issue is that there are people who, unwittingly or with full awareness, are able to game the “kindness” system. Accusations of a lack of civility are often used to shut down the voices of the marginalized. Politeness can be a tool of manipulation. Good intentions aren’t everything. To rely on factors like volume and lack of so-called “swear” words to determine whether words are kind or not is to fall for the ruse.
Inspired in part by a friend’s Facebook post (and the responses. Good lack-of-Lord, the responses).