It seems that our group commitment to practice a secular Lent has raised a few eyebrows, and I can’t say I’m particularly surprised. There’s a somewhat small fringe among atheists who seem to recoil at anything that might have the slightest taint of religious baggage, even on topics most of us are mostly ambivalent about—for example, Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine and Executive Director of The Council for Secular Humanism, not only thinks that atheists shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, he even goes so far as to reject the Humanist knock-off versions, too.
I don’t think many nonbelievers have a problem with celebrating a ritual or holiday in a completely secular way, and I don’t think this compromises anyone’s secularism.
But Tom Flynn seems to disagree. That’s not too surprising given the above, but it’s not just him: a reader was so concerned that they emailed Flynn noting that we were “going out of [our] way to bring back religious backwardness” (emphasis theirs). Anyone who has exchanged presents, spent time with family, and decorated trees around the holidays can tell you, though, that rituals are neutral. Theology isn’t, and we’ve done nothing at all to touch it.
Which is why I’m so confused by Flynn’s response, since it’s almost like he didn’t bother to read what we wrote, let alone to make a good faith effort to understand what we’re doing and why. One of our participants, Paul Fidalgo, said that he wasn’t sure why we were doing Lent, in what I think was a tongue-in-cheek post. But I think we made it pretty clear, and another blogger at CFI, Cody Hashman, had the same idea last year, too. He also explained his reasoning rather straightforwardly.
For me, at least, my interest in Lent stems from a nuanced perspective on the human condition. Our failures aren’t always failures of rationality, but instead of willpower and habit. Sometimes we don’t do things we know we should, and other times make decisions we know we shouldn’t. This is an interesting psychological puzzle with serious human implication, as anyone who has slept with an ex in a moment of weakness can tell you. Lent helped me last year, so why not try it again?
Flynn gestures vaguely to some problems with Lent as a practice—it’s an arbitrary stretch of time, we can do goals whenever we want, we shouldn’t follow a calendar for a religion we don’t believe in, secular humanists shouldn’t be bound by religious rituals, and so on.
But anyone who has studied the relevant science will tell you that Lent has most everything we might want to make and complete a goal—there’s a clear and distinct goal that lasts long enough to break or solidify a habit, but short enough not to seem daunting. There is built-in support from your moral community, a group aware of your goal that is practicing one of their own. There’s an (admittedly) arbitrary time of year, from the non-religious perspective, when everyone takes part, together.
So all of those problems Flynn raises actually make Lent a compelling and successful ritual. If you want to make a change in your life, a practice like Lent will stack the odds about as high in your favor as they can get. Who cares if it’s a practice that comes from Christianity, set to a Christian calendar? That’s not promoting religious backwardness, that’s recognizing and appropriating what religion does well.
Flynn seems confused about this point, because he spends a good third of his piece railing against Christian dogma. Yet we make it clear that we’re not interested in that at all, only the ideologically neutral practice. We think Humanists should be able to practice whatever they’d like—be it Christmas, meditation, or Lent—but it seems that Flynn frowns on this with distate. There’s only one proper secular humanism, apparently, and the rest are just varieties of the religious kind. And as we all know: Secular Good, Religious Bad.
We cut off our noses to spite our faces when we insist on irrationally ignoring the possibility that religious rituals might have positive secular benefits. I don’t even think an attitude like this makes me a religious humanist, since I’m not even sure if I’m an actual humanist. I’m definitely not a Humanist in the philosophical sense.
I look forward to finishing up Lent, since it’s been rewarding so far. I made some delicious quinoa tabbouleh today and haven’t even read a single comment on Tom’s post. I’m sure I missed out on some great and original “I gave up religion/irrationality/Lent for Lent” jokes, but such is the nature of sacrifice.
To me, Lent is about trying to form good habits, train my willpower, and be a better person in general. If that’s too wild and religion-like for Tom Flynn, then I think he’d be comforted to know that my feelings won’t be hurt if he and other Humanists don’t take part.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.