H/T Atlas Obscura.

To sneeze is human, to respond “Go away, kitten” is divine.

A detail from the Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, 1894. LIBRARY OF CONGESS/ LC-DIG-PPMSCA-35347

THROUGHOUT THE ATHEIST CORNERS OF the internet, there are attempts to deal with one of the most involuntary and pervasive intrusions of religion into social interactions. What do you say when someone sneezes, if not “God bless you?”

Perhaps even more odd than the actual phrase is the impulse to say anything at all. There is no universal response to the other instances of bodily expulsion of air (cough, burp, fart). And yet around the world there are similar sneeze responses. Typically these come in one of two forms: either an invocation of God, or a reference to one’s health.

There are multiple explanations for why so many cultures offer an instinctive response to a sneeze, none of which are particularly compelling. A common story holds that around 750, the pope Gregory I believed that a sneeze was an early sign of contraction of the bubonic plague. Saying “God bless you” was a sort of deathbed prayer: may God see your worth and help you, because you’re definitely about to die. This also ties in with the “to your health” variations; it’s all based on noting the very bad omen that is a sneeze, and attempting to avert it. Have good health! Because you’re definitely at a high risk of imminent death.