As a former religious person turned super religious person turned nonreligious person, I feel that I have run the full gamut of devout experience. I was a Catholic child; a fundamentalist Christian pre-teen (and attended a church where people were moved to speak in tongues and writhe on the floor); a Seventh-Day Christian teen (“seventh-day” is the belief that the Sabbath is on Saturday, not Sunday); and my family even toyed with Scientology at one point. The story of my rejection of religion is a gradual one with a long arc, and I’ll save it for another day. Having now been on both sides of the religion pendulum, I can say that I feel more clear-eyed, compassionate, and realistic as a nonreligious person.
(Just for the purpose of this post: I don’t consider religion and spirituality different sides of the same coin. You can be spiritual and non-religious, or religious and non-spiritual. You can also be neither or both. You can believe in a god and not be religious. I am, at this point in my life – mid-thirties, citified, liberal – what you might call “agnostic.” Agnosticism is the taupe sweater at The Gap. It’s the “get off the fence already!” spirituality, the “meh” of the belief world. It’s also the most truthful label for me at this stage in life.)
Religion is a powerful force in this country – it can sway political opinion and define the rules of living for many people. It forms the foundations of our holidays and family gatherings. It owns many of our rites of passage. It’s no surprise, then, that only 16% of the population of the United States is nonreligious. Indeed, it can be difficult to live outside of religion because that road is, to borrow a phrase, less traveled.
Religion has the power to seep into our lives, right down to the mundane. Consider, for example, how often religious terms or phrases enter our lexicon on a daily basis and how often we use them. Language matters to me, and I try to use words carefully. If you’re nonreligious, you likely try to live outside the zones set by religion. For the nonreligious, the challenge then becomes about finding a secular way of communicating the same thoughts that the religious can so readily.
“Bless you/god bless”
When someone sneezes, you’ve been taught that the polite response to this involuntary bodily function is to say, “bless you” or “god bless.” I was taught that, too. The origins of this phrase are fuzzy, but its history is undoubtedly religious. Personally, I don’t want to associate sneezing with demons flying out of my body – unless “demons” is code for “contagious boogers.”
The nonreligious response: Trying to come up with a nonreligious version against the “bless you” behemoth is a challenge because it’s so indoctrinated in all of us. My husband has been trying the Irish phrase, “Good on ya!”, but I think it just confuses the sneezer. I have once or twice tried saying nothing at all, but that can be perceived as quite rude.
In sum: I’m still working on this one.
“I’ll pray for you/sending prayers your way.” Also: “I need your prayers right now.”
Listen, I’d be an enormous turd if I rejected anyone’s good thoughts and wishes for me in a time of need, or if I used someone else’s pain and anxiety as a platform to preach (heh, intended) about the illogicality of prayer. So if someone tells me they’re praying for me when I might need it, I thank them. After all, their intention is what matters to me. They’re sweet, I love them, please do pray for me, goodnight.
But I don’t personally pray – not for others nor myself. It makes no sense to me that any god would need a reminder that one of his children is in need. And if there is an all-powerful god, it makes no sense to me to pray to the guy who might have done this bad deed to you in the first place. That’s called extortion, and it’s only entertaining when mobsters do it in movies.
The nonreligious response: I usually send as many positive thoughts and wishes as I can muster to the person, hoping that putting positivity out into the universe will actually make a difference. And if I ever ask you to pray for me, please call the police. It means: a.) I’ve been hypnotized, or b.) the body snatchers got me.
“Hate the sin, love the sinner”
I hear this one a lot when it comes to religious conservatives referring to gay, queer, or trans people. It makes no sense that a religious person might love a gay person while condemning them to their version of hell at the same time. Love means never having to say you’re sorry because you condemned someone to hell. So stop it. No one needs your perverted version of love.
The nonreligious response: I don’t have a version of this, because it shouldn’t exist. Hate the bigoted statements, hate the bigots.
“Everything happens for a reason/whatever happens is meant to be.”
Really? Like that tsunami? Or jeggings?
The understood assumption here is that god – or something sentient – is in control and that we shouldn’t question the motives, even when we’re saddled with something crappy. There’s a plan – don’t worry! Does anyone ever worry that this “planner” is like the world’s worst project manager who can’t find his glasses when he puts them on top of his head? And that his history has shown him to be a racist, classist, sexist jerk?
No? Just me?
The nonreligious response: Everything that happens just happens. Sometimes there’s an intentional reason, sometimes not. Life is chaos. Would you like a hug?
“But for the grace of god go I…”
This is my least favorite of the religious phrases. It smacks of myopic privilege. Yes, god loves you so much he decided not to drown you and your loved ones in that hurricane, but he killed your neighbor. That’s grace for you. You’re meant to live on so you can spread the word about… how incredibly egotistical and privileged you are.
The nonreligious response: I got really lucky.
If you’re nonreligious, I would love to hear your thoughts on these religious phrases and how you might make up your own versions.