‘Atheist Lent’ and False Unity

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I’m always pleased with the traffic bump that comes with a link from the Daily Dish, but the headline Sullivan used on my block quote gave me pause: Why Atheists Should Observe Lent.

Look, let me be blunt: I try to be shamelessly opportunistic when it comes to reforming my character, and the Lenten season with attendant ritual and social reinforcement seemed like a good tool at hand.  But making a change during Lent is different from making a change for Lent, and though I might encourage other atheists to do the former, if it helps, I think it’s impossible to do the latter as a non-Christian.

Both sides are ill-served if we try to find points of overlap by papering over foundational disagreements.  Talking about Lent as a time of self-improvement that anyone can get behind is a pretty shallow reading of Lent, and it means we’re skipping over the face that Catholics have a pretty strong opinion of what self-improvement looks like: it’s dressing up like Christ.

In a post titled “Lent: New Year’s Resolutions for Jesus” Shannon Burgdorf at Friendly Atheist gave suggestions for charity work, writing:

My proposal this Lenten season: Instead of publicly declaring one’s devotion to a specific faith by making empty gestures loudly, let’s start a list of good deeds that we can do in anticipation of the coming Spring. Who’s with me?

By doing good things that actually matter, we can make our world a better place. And isn’t that what Lent is all about? … No? Well, it should be.

The trouble is that both sides want to spend Lent (and the rest of the year) doing “good things that really matter.”  It’s just that we have radically different beliefs about which things are good (metaphysics) and how we double check (epistemology and empirics).

There are Christians I disagree with who act out of homophobia or misogyny, but plenty of others who are trying to help others as best as they know how. In a conservative Christian framework, encouraging a gay friend to live a celibate life is willing their good, since having sex isn’t a good in itself, and is certainly trumped by an eternity with God.  It’s better to have the real fight about what telos we’re supposed to live out.

We all want to improve ourselves, but there’s no use in celebrating unity on that point unless we’re agreed about the model we’re aiming at.  So put your metaphysical and ethical cards on the table and come prepared to scrap.

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  • Maiki

    Do you think there is no value in giving up a good thing temporarily as a way of building “virtue muscles” so to speak? E.g. giving up your daily cup of coffee (when one cup is unlikely a horribly strong addiction and is unlikely to negatively affect your health if no other confounding conditions) is giving up something good to practice at being strong without coffee and strong in the face of coffee. If someone can do that, would it help them to be strong without other vices/things we might *need* to do without later in life and strong in the face of difficult choices? Maybe you don’t believe the brain works that way (I’m not a cognitive scientist, I don’t know), but it seems like a valid hypothesis even an atheist can accept?

  • Ray

    “It’s just that we have radically different beliefs about which things are good (metaphysics)”

    Isn’t this ethics, not metaphysics? Are you claiming the two disciplines are the same thing (I think this is a metaethical claim, and a controversial one at that)?

    • leahlibresco

      Sorry for confusion. I think of metaphysics as defining the structure of the world and the Good and ethics our approximations of the constraints we live under. So metaphysics:physical reality::ethics:theoretical physics.

      • Ray

        I’m still somewhat confused by this. “Metaphysics” is generally understood as being a discipline, while “Phyiscal reality” is generally understood as being the object of study of a discipline. Do you mean “metaphysical reality” or are you claiming “metaphysics” isn’t a discipline?

        It seems like a more natural analogy in the former case would be

        metaphysical reality: physical reality :: metaphysics : physics