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.
and
> 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.

  • Art Vandelay

    I decided to cheapen Lent by quadrupling my intake of red meat and alcohol for 40 days. It’s been absolutely delightful. Thanks Christianity!

    • Nick Johnson / Remijdio

      Hell, someone has to make up for the economy taking a hit on red meat!
      Atheists, making sure the economy doesn’t crash because of catholics since…well always

      • Sids

        It can’t really be called cheapening if it makes it more expensive.

        I guess the same goes for presents on Christmas.

  • B-Lar

    “…Religions are outdated and I don’t think we have a thing to learn from them.”

    We can learn how not do do things. Learning from mistakes is wise. Learning from the mistakes of others is wisest.

  • http://reasonableconversation.wordpress.com Kaoru Negisa

    “For Lent, how about giving up virginity or religion?”

    I was giving up Catholicism for Lent for years before I became an atheist. I mean, the point is to give up something meaningful, and what’s more meaningful to a Catholic than the Church? Chocolate? That’s also why I would love all those people who have given up coffee or whatever until abortion is illegal to give up something that they care about and stop going to church until that time.

    • Kodie

      That’s what I don’t get about Lent. It’s supposed to be some martyrish thing. It’s not “hey I should cut out carbs” or walk to work one day a week. It’s nice to improve yourself if that’s the goal, but doing without something meaningful is not great. I mean, if people give up their church, I can’t say that’s a bad thing, but on the other hand, will they never shut up about what they’re doing and why? Give up chocolate if it’s proving a hindrance in your life. You can’t say that it’s “important” to you. Religions are often about some holy deprivation thing… let’s take premarital sex for one thing. I think sex can get in the way of your life, certainly, but it’s unusual. From a religious perspective, it’s more about how much better they are than the rest of us because they deprive themselves of something there’s nothing wrong with and then boasting about it, like a martyr. Giving up something that’s important to you likewise – what’s the purpose of that? So you feel suffering and then use it to demonstrate why you’re a better person than someone who doesn’t voluntarily suffer. There are harms in this world that one should recognize and work out of their lives, but that would work toward a goal of reducing suffering. If you want to get healthy and fit, then you are reducing your suffering. If you want to join causes that raise money for school supplies in low-income areas, then you are reducing someone else’s suffering. Just suffering for the sake of it is pointless. Being deprived of chocolate or coffee or church to the end of only suffering to prove you care is the stupidest thing about Lent.

      Eating things you don’t want to eat because of some magical suffering thing is also weird. Eating fish on Fridays in particular is weird, as if fish aren’t animals, or cows and chickens are Jesus? I never understood why it’s ok to eat as much fish as you want but not eat a hamburger. Perhaps I misunderstood something my neighbor told me when I was little about associating cows’ death with Jesus, but for the rest of the year, it’s ok to bash vegans for caring about cows all the time, while substituting fish on a technicality. I could also be wrong about why people got the idea that it’s ok for vegetarians to eat fish comes from this “cross my fingers, I’m not eating meat!” deal that the Catholics have going on during Lent. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

      • Nate Frein

        Eating things you don’t want to eat because of some magical suffering thing is also weird. Eating fish on Fridays in particular is weird, as if fish aren’t animals, or cows and chickens are Jesus?

        It’s more of a humility thing. Fish is “humble” food. (At least, this is how I was taught in church). Anyone can go out and fish. To be able to eat your source of eggs or milk, on the other hand, means that you have money, and is therefore a luxury.

        • Kodie

          That makes even less sense than I thought.

          • Nate Frein

            It’s more of a “mortification of the flesh” thing. It’s just another luxury being given up. Fish isn’t a luxury, so it isn’t given up.

          • Loqi

            But it makes about as much sense as I’d expect from the church that brought us transubstantiation, assumption into heaven, and and old guy proclaiming the value of modesty while sitting on a golden throne, holding a golden staff, and wearing a personalized golden ring. Oh wait, this pope had his made out of silver so as to be less ostentateous. OH THE MODESTY!

          • baal

            I was taught (as a catholic) that the answer to ‘why fish’ for Friday was that fish was the food of the miracle of the loaves (and fish).

          • Nate Frein

            Oh, I find the idea completely ridiculous. The idea is one of penance. “Lets give up a luxury we can afford to show how nice and humble we are. We’ll give it up every friday, and then for the whole of lent”. Then, a little later, Vatican II comes along and says “Oh dear, that’s really hard. Let’s just give up this luxury on Fridays…during lent only.”

            Which is why I don’t really see the value in observing Lent. It certainly doesn’t cheapen it — certainly not in the way we “cheapen” xmas with our secular xmas carols, crass overcommercialization, and santa claus.. If anything, as JT points out, it lends credence to the notion that Lent is a “special time” for fasting.

            Further, I reject Kelly’s notion that quitting cold turkey is always a healthy way to kick an addiction. All data I’ve read on quitting addictions says that this is not the norm, nor the generally healthy way to approach quitting.

            The purpose of Lent is to give up something you enjoy, that you can afford to do, because religion. I find this ridiculous. If you can afford to enjoy that activity or food or booze, then denying it to yourself is silly.

            If you cannot afford that luxury, giving it up is meaningless. There’s no point in saying “i’m denying myself tickets to the O’s games” when you can’t afford the tickets in the first place. If you have a habit of indulging yourself with money that’s needed elsewhere (like spending next month’s rent money on season O’s tickets) then you shouldn’t wait for the Catholics to tell you it’s time to give it up.

            If that luxury is hurting you (like an addiction), then giving it up should be imperative and should be taken more seriously than “Oh, I’ll give this up for lent”.

          • Nate Frein

            I was taught (as a catholic) that the answer to ‘why fish’ for Friday was that fish was the food of the miracle of the loaves (and fish).

            Which goes to prove that even the church doesn’t have a unified message. Two people raised Catholic, taught in church (or in my case, multiple churches) giving two completely different “taught” explanations.

          • Kodie

            They should get with the economic times and suggest eggs and chicken thighs. Fish is expensive. Real modest people eat beans and rice. I also think they should save the money they were going to spend on cookies and steak, instead of spending it on fish, donate it to someone who doesn’t have the luxury of choosing their diet according to traditions but to how much it actually costs.

            Easter and Christmas are weird that way. At Christmas, people spend a lot on themselves and loved ones and it’s a great time to appeal to them to feed needy people also. But it goes like this: they feel bad because some poor family can’t afford a lavish turkey feast with all the fixin’s on Christmas Day. Who gives a fuck the next day or the day after that. Lent would be a good time to actually care about being modest and living modestly, eating modestly according to what is cheap at the store – not about fish and meat, not about giving up chocolate or donuts for 6 weeks to feel deprived and suffer. They are just doing it for the sport of it, and do not seem to institute the meanings they protect from criticism. It’s so beautiful and meaningful and deep and traditional, that’s why $12/lb salmon instead of $3.89/lb chopped hamburger (and any processed breaded fish that isn’t a huge bag of fish sticks still ends up more expensive than bone-in chicken parts), also for people who give up chocolate, I guess there are a lot of sweet treats that don’t include chocolate they can technically eat instead. And then end this symbolic fast with a fat pile of ham. Lamb? Stuff nobody would eat unless it’s Easter. I like asparagus, though. It’s been on sale for feast purposes, but it hasn’t looked any good.

            Modesty in dietary choices seems to derive from rationing, you know that thing where you eat less so everyone else doesn’t go without? That thing where you spend less so you have cash to give away. Not everyone can afford to be modest. You have to have something to give up and then where does it go? For Catholics, not very far. Why are atheists copying this idea like it’s good? It can be better.

        • RobMcCune

          Because Jesus specified evryone’s diets according to the standards of agriculture in the middle ages. Yeah, that make’s a lot of sense.

          • Nate Frein

            Jesus didn’t. A pope certainly did. A pope in the middle ages, I’d think.

            Lots of shit the Catholics do doesn’t come from Jesus.

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

          Chickens are way easier to keep than going fishing … especially in Medieval Europe, where ponds stocked with fish were the property of the local lord and fishing in them was poaching, punishable by death. Serfs didn’t have the time to go line fishing or even net fishing, so those were idle noble pastimes.

          They could set up seines in some rivers, but not all serfs lived by rivers with lots of fish. Any protein was a luxury to a serf, including fish.

        • MikeyM

          I remember it differently. We had to abstain from meat from birds and mammals. It wasn’t necessary to eat fish, but many Catholics thought that was a good substitute. At our house, vegetable soup and grilled cheese was our standard Friday dinner.

          • Nate Frein

            The question wasn’t “what do catholics eat during lent” but “why is fish allowed”. Hence the nature of the responses.

            I’ve eaten my share of lentil soup on Fridays.

        • Gwynnyd

          It also helped that, in most places, the church in Europe held a monopoly on fishing rights. Forcing people to eat only fish several days a week was very good for their bottom line.

        • Kelly Bodwin

          Sorry I can’t figure out how to respond to your other comment. Herp derp technology. Hope this will do.

          > Further, I reject Kelly’s notion that quitting cold turkey is always a healthy way to kick an addiction. All data I’ve read on quitting addictions says that this is not the norm, nor the generally healthy way to approach quitting.

          I was very careful to say that Lent-style quitting is helpful *in my experience*. I would never claim it works for everyone, nor would I claim that it’s a healthy approach to serious addiction.

          I’ve used it, with great success, for more frivolous things. Last year I gave up reddit, not because I never want to go on reddit again (the horror!) but because I thought I was doing it too much, as a habit rather than a hobby. Quitting temporarily allowed me to learn to fill in my time with other stuff. When I went back to it, I was visiting the site when I wanted to, and not neurotically as some kind of auto-response to procrastination.

          Also, for picking up good habits as opposed to dropping bad ones, the data is generally on my side: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.674/abstract.

    • iknklast

      Of course, Lent used to be a lot more rigorous, more like Ramadan. Now it’s just a way for believers to feel morally righteous by giving up something they like for a little while, while still indulging in all the other things they like.

      • Andrew Kohler

        This reminds me of how Coca-Cola makes a product that’s kosher for Passover: this strikes me as tantamount to saying, “Well, we want to be pious, but don’t want to be inconvenienced while we do it.”

  • Rain

    The only difference is that non-believers don’t feel obligated to go sit through four chord music twice a week…

    “Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave. By their works and their theories they infected the masses with the presumption to think themselves adequate judges. ” –Plato, complaining about ancient new-wave music.

  • Kelly Bodwin

    Hi JT,
    Thanks for taking the time to respond in full; it’s much appreciated. Predictably, I still disagree with you on a few points.

    >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?

    Okay, so this is one of your arguments, and I already responded to it. In brief: Lent time is when large portions of the rest of society are also partaking, and there is benefit to the group effort. Chelsea Link actually said a very similar thing in one of the NPS posts.

    But your above response doesn’t address the objection of mine that you quoted. In your original post, you said a lot of things that implied, basically, “Religious connotations aside, picking 40 days out of the year to self-improve discourages self-improvement as a year-round life habit.” I got the impression that you think Lent is stupid not JUST for it’s religious connections but ALSO because the basic idea is undesirable. If this is not your position, by all means correct me – I don’t see another way to read some of your quotes, especially the “step backward” one.

    If it is your position, well, that’s fine, but I don’t see it supported. I stated, in my comment, that it’s a big assumption that doing Lent decreases self-improvement at other times. I’d like to see you either support that claim or drop it and focus on “Lent is bad” over “Giving things up for a set amount of time is bad”.

    > We should evaluate [ideas] based on how much sense they make, rather than letting religion drudge credibility based upon how long they’ve been around

    I agree, and I suspect Vlad would too. I think you and I are reading the “thousands of years” thing differently. I read it as “Hey, these people have been working hard on the same thing as us, they might have figured something out that we didn’t.” And I would agree with him – a broken clock is right twice a day! You, I think, read it as, “Because they have been around for so very long, religion must be more likely to be right.” I can definitely see why the latter interpretation would frustrate you, as it’s something we battle against so hard in this movement.

    Without some input from Vlad (which, amusingly, is impossible since he’s given up commenting for Lent), we can’t say whose reading is correct. To avoid turning this conversation into a prototypical Stedman Debate Cesspool, I’ll leave it at this: You and I have very different impressions of Vlad and Co’s beliefs, and it probably colors our reactions to their statements.

    > And do I think we have anything to learn from religion? No. Not at all.

    Alright. I strongly, strongly disagree. But I have neither the time nor the writing chops to be the one to fight that battle, especially not here. Thanks for the direct answer, and for elaborating on your position.

    > 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.

    The only response I can find to that quote is Vlad saying it “made his day.” So you may be right that he, at least, is pleased to be bonding with Catholics at the cost of a misinterpretation. That said, I would disagree, and so would many atheists partaking in Lent, including ones at NPS. In fact, if you can get Chelsea Link to call me up and say, “Ms. Kimball’s quote made me happy,” I will write you a personal concession. In iambic pentameter.

    My point is, it’s not fair to condemn the whole idea of Secular Lent because you disagree on some points (as do I) with some of the participants.

    > However, I don’t think you cheapen them by observing them to the letter. For Lent, how about giving up virginity or religion?

    I’m not observing Lent to the letter. If I were, I’d give up something that makes me happy so I can suffer and show Jesus my awesome sacrifice (or something like that?). Instead, I’m stealing the mechanic – give up something for 40 days – and using it to get rid of something I actually WANT to give up.

    So yes, you could also cheapen it by essentially mocking it. Go crazy, wear pink and sleep around, whatever. But you can also cheapen the religious part by Dopplegangering it: extracting the good bits and proving you can create meaningful traditions without religion. Personally, I think the second method is more effective as a message, but that’s beside the point. I’m not necessarily saying your way isn’t cool – just that mine also works, and maybe you should support it.

    >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.

    Which is why I would never follow it to the letter. Which is why I don’t do Ramadan, like some of the NPS folk do. There is a very, very legitimate argument that participating in parts of religious tradition validates the whole shebang. We have a careful line to walk, making sure we are co-opting a tradition because it is good, not because it’s there and we’re used to it.

    If only that were the article you had written.

    In short my opinion: Vlad and Chris are wrong on some things. Specifically, Vlad and Chris are too optimistic about religion for my tastes. However, Vlad and Chris (along with Chelsea and the rest) are doing a lot of things that are very good for the atheist movement; among them, learning to adapt aspects of religion to positive Humanist traditions. It saddens me that open-mindedness about these new ideas, as well as legitimate criticism against them, are so often overshadowed by hyperbolic vitriol over particular people or particular points of disagreement.

    Anyways, thanks again for the response and for the conversation.

  • Kelly Bodwin

    Just to respond to a comment quickly:

    > Further, I reject Kelly’s notion that quitting cold turkey is always a healthy way to kick an addiction. All data I’ve read on quitting addictions says that this is not the norm, nor the generally healthy way to approach quitting.

    I was very careful to say that Lent-style quitting is helpful *in my experience*. I would never claim it works for everyone, nor would I claim that it’s a healthy approach to serious addiction.

    I’ve used it, with great success, for more frivolous things. Last year I gave up reddit, not because I never want to go on reddit again (the horror!) but because I thought I was doing it too much, as a habit rather than a hobby. Quitting temporarily allowed me to learn to fill in my time with other stuff. When I went back to it, I was visiting the site when I wanted to, and not neurotically as some kind of auto-response to procrastination.

    Also, for picking up good habits as opposed to dropping bad ones, the data is generally on my side: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.674/abstract.

    • Kelly Bodwin

      Ack double post fail. Feel free to delete this.


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