Blessing an Atheist Isn’t Nice, It’s Passive-Aggressive

South Park's Kyle saying to Cartman "That's not being nice, that's just putting on a nice sweater." with Cartman replying "I don't understand the difference."

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.

Take, for instance, Christians who tell my polyamorous, queer2 ass to “Have a blessed day.”

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).

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Blessing an Atheist Isn’t Nice, It’s Passive-Aggressive
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10 thoughts on “Blessing an Atheist Isn’t Nice, It’s Passive-Aggressive

  1. 1

    I know several people who regularly use the ‘blessed day” phrase. These same people throw quite a fit if they are wished “Happy Holidays” towards the end of the year and will go out of their way to inform everyone it’s okay to wish them a “Merry Christmas” instead. Despite that they look at me strangely when I tell them it’s okay to tell me to “Have a good/ nice day” instead of a “blessed” one.

  2. 2

    Now that you mention it, it is rather presumptuous when someone who doesn’t know me says “Have a blessed day.” I mean, it’s better than saying “Go fuck yourself,” but telling me to have a blessed day does assume that we both believe in the same Fount of Every Blessing.

  3. 3

    Blessing someone in god’s name was an act I avoided even when I was a Christian. Commandment #3 (Exodus 20:7 or Deuteronomy 5:11) forbids its adherents from invoking god’s authority for their own vanity (taking his name in vain). Since the purpose of extending his “blessing” is condescension toward suspected outsiders, it casts doubt on their sincerity of belief in a deity who holds his followers accountable for their smite-worthy actions. The verses I cite specify that offenders will be judged guilty, after all.

  4. Ed
    4

    If they’re doing it to make a comment on my lack of beliefs, It bothers me. If it’s mainly their culture`s way of expressing concern or wishing me well, it doesn’t. I know every unbeliever develops their own set of feelings and standards on things like this.

    What bothers me more for some odd reason are pompous announcements of a relative’s death in a usually secular environment like work along the lines of, “Last night, my mother who had faith in Jesus Christ went home to live eternally with God.” I mean, I feel bad about their loss, and they really have a right to talk about it however they wish, but it is pushing their metaphysics on everyone else in an awkward way.

    I guess part of it is the automatic assumption of salvation they don’t grant the general public. Plus only conservative Protestants seem to do it in mixed company, oblivious to how weird it feels to everyone else.

    When I die, I want someone to send out a mass email to these folks with the premise that I practiced the ancient Egyptian religion with a lengthy description of how offerings to various gods and the possession of magical amulets allowed me l to find my way to Osiris`throne where my heart was weighed on his scale and found to be without sin thus avoiding the fate of being thrown into the crocodile pit. đŸ™‚
    In lieu of flowers, please make lavish sacrifices of food, wine and gold at my grave to ensure my comfort in the next life.

  5. xyz
    5

    Like Trav says, it IS presumptuous. Like… there are Christians and pagans in my life who are very important to me and with whom I’m close, and so THEIR blessings, prayers etc. are just fine with me – and they respect and appreciate it when they say something like “prayers please” about a difficult issue and I respond that I’m there for them and am keeping them in my thoughts. But that’s because we are friends, or the type of family members who actually respectfully discuss these things with one another. Everyone else can GTFO with their blessings. Or, the worst type of passive aggression: “I’m praying for you.”

    1. xyz
      5.1

      This has also made me realize that in fact, Muslim friends of mine have never made any religious references towards me. So yep – absolutely a function of Christian privilege, and the fact that my subcultures are way more accepting of pagan faiths than Islam.

  6. 6

    I used to have a co-worker who would say, “go with god” top me at the end of the day –he meant it kindly and likely had no clue I was an atheist.

    It’s a little weirder that I often am mistaken for being Jewish. I’ve had hasidim come up to me and start speaking in Hebrew.

  7. 7

    The christians I knew mostly didn’t say that particular phrase. It’s not a subtle one and they were well aware of it. I would say that going to Catholic schools from first grade through to the end of highschool taught me a lot about christian privilege (among other things, it also taught me enough about religion to become an atheist). As far as I could tell they all (correctly) assumed they had christian privilege so ostentatious displays of it were not really appreciated. Even among other christians when you start pushing religion into more and more aspects of life it looks like a power grab of sorts – because it is. It’s an authoritarian religion so any action to move closer to the authority is automatically moving above other people and getting into holier-than-thou issues.

    So long story short, they shouldn’t be saying things like that to you or anyone else. It’s almost always rude and at it’s innocent best it enables other people to be rude by copycating and power grabbing.

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