Honesty is a big part of finding a genuine sense of belonging and creating authentic community. Intentional and honest communication helps build authentic connection between people. When we choose to use words that have vague meaning -- especially when we know that other people often mean something different by the words we choose -- we compromise our ability to communicate honestly and clearly. This is why I've written elsewhere that it doesn't make sense to "define the word God however you want to," as some communities suggest, because that word already means something in our language. There are other words that have other meanings, so it makes sense to find some word that actually means what you want to say, clearly and honestly.
Bless is a word that gets a lot of use in American society. We are expected to say, "bless you," when someone sneezes. Someone often offers a public blessing before a dinner or sporting event. When people want to express gratitude, they often say, "bless you," as well. And of course, there are sarcastic uses of the word, like the euphemistic, "bless your heart," when what is really meant is closer to, "I'm baffled by how you even function in the world." An evangelist once quipped that the silence must be deafening when someone sneezes in a room full of atheists, implying that there is no other response to a sneeze other than to offer a theistic comfort. When we set aside sarcasm and consider what we actually mean, though, there may be better choices.
None of this is to imply that we should avoid any word altogether. If we are thoughtful and intentional about what we are saying, every word can be useful. When we are thoughtless or deceptive in some way, we most likely aren't creating the kind of community or world we most value. So, let's explore what the word bless actually means and see if there are other, more accurate ways we might express what we actually mean.
A blessing, by definition, is an appeal for divine approval. Whether it is formulaic or spontaneous, to bless something is to "confer or invoke divine favor." In the case of sneezes, back around 600 CE, a sneeze was thought to be the first sign that someone was infected with a plague, so asking for God to bless an individual who sneezed was, in essence, praying for supernatural aid to make an infected person healthy. In the case of this "Justinian" plague, about half the population of Europe died anyway. Even further back in human history, though, it was believed that the soul vacated the body when a person sneezed. Although it may only be for a brief moment, people feared that demons could enter the vacant, soulless person, so a petition for God to bless a sneezer was intended to attract the supernatural's attention to an imminent threat of demon possession. In this case, it would appear that asking for blessing is quite effective, as no person has ever been objectively demonstrated to be possessed by a demon.
A blessing spoken before a sporting event, on the other hand, is perhaps intended to express gratitude to a supernatural and to appeal to that supernatural for the safety of the players. Oddly, whether or not there are any injuries in the course of the competition seems not to be a reflection on the supernatural in question. A great many Christians in the United States also believe that their god influences the actual outcome of sporting events, so an injury on the other team might be seen as favor from their barbaric divine. Either way, the blessing is an appeal to some external supernatural.
We also sometimes use the word to indicate human approval. When we go to someone and say, "I want your blessing on this plan," we aren't always asking for the other person to invoke divine favor, we just want to know that the person approves of what we want to do. "I give my blessing," expresses one's personal approval. "Lord, give us your blessing," requests approval from a non-entity.
In addition to reflexive answers to sneezes, asking for divine favor, and expressing approval, blessing is also synonymous with conveying gratitude. When I hand food to a panhandler, the response is often, "bless you," or more even more accurately, "God bless you." This always strikes me as odd, that this person who has literally nothing but the clothes on their back, believe that they have the ear of a divine being enough to invoke favor on my life, but not enough for that divine being to meet their actual physical needs. I've decided to believe that these individuals don't actually realize that it would be more appropriate to say what they actually mean, which is, "thank you."
It's the subject of the sentence that makes the whole affair murky. When we say, "bless you," we are actually leaving out the subject of the sentence. It isn't a command, like, "Close the door." When a sentence is a command, the unstated subject is always "you." (You) close the door. But not (You) bless you. The unspoken subject in the case of a blessing is "God." (God) bless you. And I can accept that some people sincerely mean to invoke their imagined supernatural when they offer a blessing, even if I'm confident that their petition isn't being heard by anything superhuman. The problem is that they fail to honestly express what they mean, and that actual human connection suffers as a result.
Human connection may only suffer a little bit in the case of a compulsory sneeze response, but it suffers much more when people are unable or unwilling to vulnerably express gratitude and say, "thank you." Consider the unspoken subject of the sentence, "Thank you." It isn't a command: (You) thank you. That doesn't make any sense. It's actually a very personal expression: (I) thank you. "I feel gratitude for you," must seems worlds more vulnerable than, "May God bless you." When I express my gratitude clearly and honestly, I'm conveying my own emotions, my own connection to you, perhaps even my own need for you as a fellow human being. When I ask that God bless you, it's out of my hands. I don't have to reveal my feelings or my needs. The idea of a god makes a safe and convenient veil behind which people hide their own values and ideas.
Again, if someone has thoughtfully considered what they mean to say and decide that they authentically and sincerely want to request that their deity of choice show favor in a particular situation or on a particular person, the words "(God) bless you," seem quite appropriate, even if they always keep a safe barrier between people. For example, if a principal wants to tell their students, "God bless you," that seems to be an expression of that individual's beliefs and hopes for their students. It's that part that conveniently goes unsaid that bothers me. If a principal hopes for great things in the lives of their students, it's irresponsible to leave it up to a supernatural. Saying, "I will work really hard so that your time in this school prepares you for success in life," is more vulnerable, but it's a much more compelling commitment than, "I hope someone up there is looking out for you, because I don't have a clue how to help you and you kids are just a mess." It's fine to hide behind a theistic veil, but unless some convincing actions accompany that blessing, a blessing in and of itself accomplishes nothing in terms of human well-being.
I contend that when we are grateful, we can tell people that we are grateful. When we hope for people's safety, we can say, "I care about you and hope you stay safe." When we want our team to win, we can just say, "I want my team to win." Even when we choose to be blindly patriotic, we can just say so without making petitions to a supernatural to favor the part of earth we happen to live on more than other people in other parts of the planet we all share. When we are honest and clear about what we mean to say, we create more authentic connection with the people around us. This is even true of invocations before sporting events or other public celebrations. Rather than "invoking" a supernatural's favor, one can easily invoke a sense of gratitude, and the shared values and common purpose for people to be together. This might be a little more work that a typical "blessing," but saying something meaningful, clear, and honest is worth a little bit of effort.
The real question, though, is: What do we say when someone sneezes if we're trying to be authentic, honest, and clear? The truth is, there are already many other things that people say in response to sneezes that have integrity with their deepest values without invoking anything supernatural. One could take Penn Jillette's approach and say, "That's funny," although some people may not find that particularly connecting. In Spanish, people say salud; in German, people say Gesundheit; and in Irish, people say sláinte, all of which essentially mean "good health," which is a way of expressing, "I hope you stay healthy," without invoking divine providence.
In fact, many cultures have traditional responses to sneezing that have more to do with a person's health than with divine petitions. On the most vulnerable end of the scale is the typical Vietnamese response, which translates to, "Are you alright?" On the most honest end of the scale is the typical Australian Aboriginal response, which is basically, "You have released nose water!" Some cultures hold to the superstition that a sneeze means someone is talking about you behind your back, and in Japan it's common for people to ignore a sneeze altogether.
Basically, say what you mean to say, not just what you are in the habit of saying, and you will more effectively create satisfying connection with people, find an authentic sense of belonging, and build meaningful community. When we are willing to examine our automatic responses, like using the word bless when we really mean something else, we will also get better at saying what we mean in the rest of our speaking. And if you really want someone to feel "blessed" -- to feel the actual sentiment behind what you are speaking into their life -- take some personal responsibility for acting on that wish for their well-being. If you aren't willing to do that, maybe the most honest thing really is not to say anything at all.