Response to Kelly Baldwin.

Kelly Baldwin left a comment disagreeing with much of my post on atheists observing Lent.

> Meanwhile, the rest of us work on self-improvement year-round, because it’s good for our lives.
> We’ve actually figured out that self-improvement is a good thing, and reducing it to an arbitrary window is actually a step backward.

You’re assuming that doing Lent and working on self-improvement at other times are mutually exclusive. When I find something in myself that needs to be better, I don’t say, “Well, damn, Lent isn’t for another three months, guess I’ll have to keep up this bad habit until then.” That said, I’ve found that some habits that I’ve struggled to crack have finally been beaten via Lent – more on that in a sec.

If you’re promoting the idea that self-improvement is good for self-improvement’s sake, why make it a point to do these things during Lent?  I realize they’re not mutually exclusive, but it wasn’t coincidence that the people in the story wound up giving something up during a pre-appointed religious hour.  They said they were specifically doing it for Lent.

He says that as if humanity hasn’t also been working on how to live as a good human being, or that religions cannot try and fail.

I didn’t hear that. I heard him say that religion does, sometimes, get some things right, and we ought to co-opt them for our own nefarious gain. Okay, maybe he didn’t say it quite that way. But you jump pretty fast from his quote to (tongue in cheek, I realize) accusations of New Earth Creationism and homophobia, which is a huge leap.

What did the quote actually say? “It made sense to me that they have figured out some stuff that those of us trying to live good secular lives can learn from.” That makes sense to me too. Would you disagree with this? Do you think we have NOTHING to learn from religion? I mean, certainly it would be wrong to say religion is MORE LIKELY to be right about a given topic (fortunately, nobody is saying that). I believe it would also be wrong to say religion is NEVER right – and a great thing about atheism is that we can pickpocket the nice things away and leave the bad stuff behind.

I bolded that part because it needs to be taken in context.  Why did he think religion had figured stuff out that we seculars can learn from?

Religions have been working on how to live as good human beings for thousands of years,” Chituc said. “So it made sense to me that they have figured out some stuff that those of us trying to live good secular lives can learn from.”

He didn’t say “This practice makes good, reasonable sense because of x, y, and z.”  He didn’t say “Look, I know people do this because they think it’s the will of a guy who rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, or because I take behavioral cues from god’s vicar on earth (who just so happens to be another old white guy, surprise!).”  That’s why I put in creationism and homophobia.  It’s clear that religions, despite their lengthy history, can have abysmal ideas that should not be adopted by anybody.  We should evaluate them based on how much sense they make, rather than letting religion drudge credibility based upon how long they’ve been around (and, for the record, this is precisely what they do…virtually every Catholic commenter on this site ignores the substance of arguments and accuses me of not acknowledging the richness of Catholic tradition, as if that makes them even an iota more likely to be right).

And do I think we have anything to learn from religion?  No.  Not at all.  Religion does not own the deeds to getting together and listening to music (in fact, the Catholic Church vastly delayed the advancement of music theory by outlawing the tritone for centuries), that’s a human value.  The only difference is that non-believers don’t feel obligated to go sit through four chord music twice a week – we can go to concerts whenever we want.  And no music is forbidden from us.

Neither does religion hold the deeds to community building, or anything else.  These are all human innovations.  We can learn what not to do, and the dangers of lazy thinking I suppose.  For instance, we shouldn’t send bibles to starving children when oranges are available.  That’s a no-no, but I don’t think we would learn that from a particular religion.  We just see their example and decide not to follow it, which is hardly learning.

So no.  Religions are outdated and I don’t think we have a thing to learn from them.

It’s pretty clear that regardless of what they say about doing this for secular purposes, the atheists engaging in Lent are doing so to lend support to the faith that requires it (otherwise, they’d do their abstaining at other times). That’s a big assumption. Lent, when I do it, means nothing beyond “changing a habit I’d like to change.” I know the faith bit has a lot more meaning than that – and I support none of that garbage.

The people in this story have a long history of encouraging people in their religion.  What’s more, look at the quote at the bottom of the post.  That’s precisely the reaction their stunt was meant to provoke.

Read the story and it’s pretty apparent why the atheists were observing Lent.

Secondly – and I’m sure Vlad would disagree here – I LOVE cheapening religious traditions. Christmas used to be about Baby Jesus (okay, well, after the whole solstice business got coerced). Nowadays it’s more about visiting family, eating a lot, and exchanging presents. Atheists are like, “We love family, food, and presents!” So we celebrate Christmas that way and contribute to the new – better – tradition. Similarly, Lent is supposed to be about sacrifice and atonement and some shit. We’re all like, “Actually, now it’s about self-improvement!” and we laugh evilly while Christians watch their Guilt Trip tradition turn into a productive one.

Can’t argue there.  I also love cheapening religious traditions.  However, I don’t think you cheapen them by observing them to the letter.  For Lent, how about giving up virginity or religion?  Or how about injecting our own traditions, like picking one day during lent and getting plastered and wearing pink?

I think there is a fair debate to be had with Vlad, etc., and it’s with the way he is worried about “trivializing” the tradition. It’s one thing to be concerned about offending people in person, but in his blog he ought to be willing to say, “Well, the rest of this Lent stuff is crap so I’m only keeping the good bits.” Or, alternatively, he ought to have a reason to defend the other parts of the tradition. I’d like to have that conversation with him. But you don’t really address this beyond reiterating the whole “Lent means no self-improvement at other times” assumption.

Wrong, I addressed this directly:

It’s even more sad when they treat religions as if their dogmas represent the pinnacle of human wisdom and wind up encouraging lazy thinking in others.  And that’s exactly how religious people are seeing it.

“I give every credit to these young people who are humanists and atheists because they are sensing that human life is more than just animal processes and that is worthy of the great philosophers,” she said.

Absolutely not.  Natural processes are all there is, and it’s awesome!  You can bet, upon reading that line, that none of the Lent observers will say to this woman “Hold on now, we never said that.”  They’ll just nod, let her keep being wrong, and consider that respect.

Religious people will see these atheists following Lent to the letter and take it as validation for the rest of their crazy ideas about people walking on water.  Vlad and Stedman could correct them, but they won’t.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.