My chum Liz DiNunzio the atheist and I have been chatting

She’s an atheist who has found herself of late surprised to discover a number of Catholics that she, well, likes. We’ve been chatting back and forth about all sorts of stuff over the past few months and natural sense of fairness (as well as curiosity) has compelled her to get to know this gaggle of Facebook Catholics and try to grasp what makes us tick. In the course of it, she periodically make wry comments on the distance between her and us, but typically in good humor, like this:

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This particular cartoon sparked an interesting conversation that I thought might be fun to post here as a sample of a reasonable conversation between an atheist and a bunch of Catholics.

Andy: Liz, you can get ashes without being Catholic, btw.

Me: Andy’s right. Pop up to St. Patrick’s and get your ashes free of charge.

Liz: I feel like that’s appropriation on my part, if that makes sense? I also didn’t give anything up. Just sat around atheisting.

Beth: It’s not. Or anyway, it doesn’t have to be. Wash off the ashes of they make you uncomfortable. It’s a symbol.

You can give something up too, if you want. I don’t see why being an atheist precludes that. It changes it, obviously, but not entirely.

During Lent we focus on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. All appropriate year-round. The way I think of it (and I’ve never seen this written, so it’s possible it’s just me) is like this: prayer is communication with God. Fasting with self. Almsgiving with the community. In a Christian frame, all three are aspects of the same, right? All three are directed toward God, but the focus is different.

Anyway. If you want to do this thing with your friends, I don’t see why you can’t as an atheist. It could be very meaningful. Fasting is like tuning. It’s a decision to do something difficult which helps tune your self. I tune toward God; you could tune toward being more present and loving. (I’d argue similarity) Or whatever makes sense to you.

I’m not pushing. But if something in you is pulling you toward this, why not? Lots of faiths practice fasting and I don’t see why atheists shouldn’t.

Me: Actually, the point is not so much giving stuff up as anticipating getting something good from God. Thing is, God is miuch more interested in people who do his will than in people who talk about it. So if you live in obedience to God (even if you feel silly about it) the odds are actually pretty good he will reward you with a sign of his Presence anyway. You just need to be willing to grant “I think that may have been Him” when it comes. And it will typically come in some way clear only to you: what the Jews called a “still, small voice”.

Beth: Mark, I disagree. Not entirely, obviously. I’d leave it alone if you hadn’t set your comment up as a counterpoint. The only real piece I take issue with is, “Actually the point is not…”

I was thinking about what I am doing when I’m fasting and whether, if an atheist were to do it, we’d be doing the same thing in any real way.

I think the answer is yes, with minimal qualification.

Fasting is certainly different things to different people. For me, the discipline is the important thing.

Theologians talk about reasons to fast. Reward might be on the list, but it’s a list. Discipline, greater than normal but with an end point, for me is like exercising. It’s hard, but generally positive. It might hurt. I might screw it up. The end in sight is an important piece, psychologically. When I’ve done this spiritual boot camp style work out, I will be stronger. That’s a reason.

Another is that fasting makes you more acutely aware of dependency. Being hungry. Wanting. Feeling these pains can make you aware. Grateful.

Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, Muslims… Most if not all religions have fasting built into their practices in some way. There’s something fundamentally human about it. Controlled or controlling desire. We can talk about Adam eating the apple, thus breaking a fast, and understand the essential link between fasting and sin. That’s a reasonable way to think about fasting.

Another, not wholly different, is to think of it as flexing weak but essential muscles.

Me: Beth I don’t think we are disagreeing. Discipline, strength and gratitude are all rewards. I’m not talking about things extrinsic to the practices of Lent, as though God gives brownie points. In the Christian tradition, the punishment for sin is the sin itself in fruition. The reward of virtue is the virtue itself in fruition. There are, to be sure, super added rewards as well sometimes (so we are promised, not merely happy spirits in heaven, but the resurrection of the body as well as a new heaven and a new earth, none of which are the fruits of our virtue). There are reward that are proper to virtue (as you just noted). A general who received victory is receiving the reward proper to his discipline. The man who marries for money is not getting a proper reward for his sin, the lover who marries for love is.

Liz: Beth “During Lent we focus on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. All appropriate year-round. The way I think of it (and I’ve never seen this written, so it’s possible it’s just me) is like this: prayer is communication with God. Fasting with self. Almsgiving with the community. In a Christian frame, all three are aspects of the same, right? All three are directed toward God, but the focus is different.”

That’s cool. I like stuff in 3s. What you call “God”, I translate that as the universe and everything that has existed and will exist. I learned this great tip from a Vonnegut book. Whenever you notice something nice, no matter how seemingly small, take the time to say, “if this isn’t nice, I don’t know WHAT is!”. (I sincerely believe I am a happier person because of this habit.)

As for fasting, I could get away with it when I was in a different industry. Now, I have to be mentally sharp at all times. I do keep to a strict, low carb, hi fat diet. Very little meat, if any.

I love the almsgiving part. We’re not supposed to be isolated, we’re supposed to be all in this together.

I figured Lent was like some reminder/initiative to not just do these things for the allotted time, but that time span is there to convert the new actions into habits. So far, just swapping “God” with my long phrase, and I’m still nodding my head in agreement.

Mark “So if you live in obedience to God (even if you feel silly about it) the odds are actually pretty good he will reward you with a sign of his Presence anyway.”

I’m pretty slow IRL and am kinda stereotypical programmer in the social awkwardness and missed cues. I have weird reasons for believing people are supposed to be “good”.

1. Life’s not fair
2. Everything is random
3. Order can naturally evolve from seeming chaos
4. There’s enough beauty and good that’s worth the suffering
5. We only got this one chance and are capable of great feats

I’m missing other factors, but they are all intertwined. Life isn’t fair. I feel that many good people do not get rewarded or credited or relief. But we can learn and build things to try to make things better. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime. You don’t know how different someone might be had they not experienced x, y, and z. But there’s always people putting themselves out there. And you never know who that might inspire, and maybe cascade into great things. Yeah, the odds are against us individually, but if we all tried, then shit… Star Trek level of humanity. ­čśÇ

Me:┬áLiz, ┬áThe Catholic Tradition (borrowing from the great Jewish insight) agrees about the eternal self-existence of God (summed up in the profound Name “I AM”), but distinguishes between Creator and creature (i.e. the universe). Exactly what creatures do not do is last forever. Even the universe has a beginning and is radically contingent. So while creatures have their own intrinsic potencies and potentials, they always wind down (entropy). Eventually, it all ends in heat death. Nothing gold can stay. Only what is rooted in the I AM and what the I AM pours his life into has life. That said, one doorway into the Life is precisely gratitude. Vonnegut’s point is well taken. Chesterton saw the same thing: that thanksgiving was a lifeline to Life. It suffuses everything he wrote. He was a man who came within inches of despair and suicide at one point in his life and thread he followed out of the Pit was the realization that he was grateful and the pursuit of the question “Who am I grateful to?” is what led him at last to God.

Re: fasting. The idea, of course, is not primarily about dieting etc. but about, as Paul put it, “offering your body a living sacrifice”. Sacrifice always involves a real good. So it’s not about despising yourself or pleasure as evil, but about presenting a real good to God for the sake of another. In the Catholic tradition, Jesus offered the greatest thing that could be offered–his own divine and human life–not in contempt of it but for the sake of love. He “handed himself over” to us and let us do what we would with him. The love was all on his side. The violence was all our choice. And in the mystery of this exchange, he swallowed up our violence and death and returned only love and life in exchange at Easter. Fasting is about our attempt to conform to that self-offering now in the hope that God will bring out love and life from it in our lives too.

You get the almsgiving part. :)

Your take on goodness is interesting and you get a lot there too, it seems to me:

1. Life’s not fair
A religion that begins with the kangaroo trial and brutal execution of the most innocent person who ever lived underscores this observation pretty effectively. And yet, the question remains, how is it that we have a sense–and a demand–that life be fair? The Tradition says, “Because God is just and we are made in his image and our hearts demand justice.” The mystery, of course, is why a God of justice lets grave evil happens and his reply is not so much an “answer” as simply the mystery of himself, nailed to a cross and answering still with love and life that makes even our choice to do evil the slave of his will to do still greater good.

2. Everything is random
3. Order can naturally evolve from seeming chaos

2 and 3 seem to be in contradiction. Random seems to be word that ultimately means “We don’t understand the underlying order” not “There is no underlying order.” St. Thomas would certainly affirm that “emergent properties” exist in created things and that God has invested creation with a certain self-organizing power. Augustine used the word “evolvere” (unroll) to describe how creation happens. Neither he nor Thomas thought that meant that God could not also, when he chose, act upon creation in ways we would describe as “miraculous”. But for the most part the assumption of both was that the picture was of God making creatures in whom potencies existed and “unrolled” over time rather than of “dead matter” that God had to continually dink around with in order to whomp up new creatures.

4. There’s enough beauty and good that’s worth the suffering

St. Paul says substantially the same thing, except the beauty is, for him, the life of the world to come, already apprehended in sign and sacrament in the present life.

5. We only got this one chance and are capable of great feats

The Christian tradition is close to you on this, except that the “one chance” is not “this life and then its oblivion” but “this life and then the Judgment”.

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