Stedman and Chituc observe a silly religious practice.

Hey, check it out!  A couple of passive aggressive, dishonest atheists (Vlad Chituc and Chris Stedman) are trying to show solidarity with religious people by abstaining from some bad habits for 40 days at a particular time of the year.  How quaint.

Meanwhile, the rest of us work on self-improvement year-round, because it’s good for our lives.

“I really like the idea of Lent,” said Chelsea Link, 23, a Boston-based Humanist who is abstaining from alcohol. “It’s giving yourself a set amount of time to break a bad habit or form a new good one, and that seems like a really healthy practice. But we are not doing it because God told us to; we are doing it because there is a benefit to us.”

If you’re not doing it for religious reasons, why do it at a set time as if you’re lending credibility to the people who don’t do it because it’s a benefit to them, but because it’s part of a set of thoroughly unreasonable beliefs they hold?  It seems a better message would be to engage in healthy behavior at some other time.

“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 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.  Chris Stedman is a gay man, so I wonder when we’ll hear him say that religions have been working on how to live as a good human being for thousands of years, so surely they’ve got something with this whole “keep gay people from having the same rights” vibe they’ve got going.

Or what about the next time the Discovery Institute is trying to get creationism into public school science classes?  Will Vlad say “Religions have been working on the origins of the universe for thousands of years, so it made sense to me that they have figured out some stuff that we can learn from”?  It’s not about how long something has been around, it’s about the degree to which their conclusions are reasonable and wise.  If a particular religion had spent the last thousand years smearing feces on their foreheads, it’s still a dumb idea regardless of how long they were doing it.  And that’s the nub with religion: it convinces people to do things that are neither reasonable or wise.

You know what rocks for living as a good human being?  Not having ridiculous beliefs and not waiting until the appointed hour, when it’s the perfect time to send the message to religious people that their erroneous beliefs are hip, to make improvements to your life.

“Atheists love to talk about abstract intellectual values like logic and reason,” he said, “but I realized that there were other things I needed to think about and I started being more aware of them.”

Logic and reason don’t prevent us from entertaining thoughts of the abstract.  And what were these other things Vlad must think about (that the rest of us presumably don’t)?  Did Vlad think about them without logic and reason (probably, because it’s Vlad Chituc)?  We never find out in the article.

Fortunately, Tom Flynn at the CFI called them out already.

Their posts have upset some atheists, including Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. He wrote an online column refuting the idea and calling Lent, “one of the most profoundly anti-humanistic features of Christianity.”

In a telephone interview, Flynn singled out Lent as dangerous because it suggests atonement can be gained by giving something up — like meat on Fridays — instead of by making amends to those who have been wronged. And because atheists are not bound to a liturgical calendar, they can practice abstention any time.

“More broadly, we have to be cautious in borrowing traditions and forms from the churches,” Flynn said. “There is an awful lot in congregational practices that hark back to an earlier pre-democratic, pre-Enlightenment time and that can bring a lot of baggage that is contrary to secular ideals.”

Bingo.

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).  I’m not the type who says that every atheist must be an activist my way.  In fact, I’ve said the exact opposite.  However, my goal is a more reasonable world, and the biggest roadblock to such a world is a bunch of people running around saying it’s ok to be irrational if you just call it faith or religion.  I have no problem saying that those people have their hearts in the right place, but it really rubs me the wrong way when people will prop up the errors of others and call it respect/bridge-building. Be as nice as you want, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that encouraging erroneous ideas in the interest of being friends is nice.  It isn’t; it’s placating.

“They might think it is trivializing to say all Lent is about is giving something up,” he said. “It is obviously more than that to them, so I am trying to say we are not trying to capture the meaning of your tradition, we are trying to make the most of our lives, and we have found something meaningful and useful in what you are doing.”

Vlad seems to think it never occurred to anybody to try kicking bad habits or to try and live healthier, so doing it for 40 days at a pre-appointed time is a revelation we can take from religion.  He actually has it backwards.  We’ve actually figured out that self-improvement is a good thing, and reducing it to an arbitrary window is actually a step backward.  That’s the problem we have with religion: it causes people to be less good than they would be without their dogmas.

And it’s especially depressing when atheists fall for the trick.  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.  But hey, at least they’re getting along, right?

  • Rikiitiki

    “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,”
    No, the great philosphers would surely point out how wrong this whole thing is – you absoluly do not need a set time / number-of-days to give up bad behavior. Letting go of what’s detrimental / wrong happens when we realize those things are detrimental / wrong, not because it’s that time of the year! Sheesh!

  • invivoMark

    ““I really like the idea of Lent,” said Chelsea Link, 23, a Boston-based Humanist who is abstaining from alcohol.

    A perfect example of the dangers of Lent! I’m a lot more impressed with the ones who give up everything but alcohol, and go on a beer diet for a month.

    (Slightly) more seriously, taking vices in moderation is a whole lot healthier and more important than giving them up altogether for a lengthy period. After all, we know that Lent leads to a whole lot of binging before and after, and the point of it isn’t long-term improvement of oneself. Practicing Lent forces you to not learn the healthy habits of moderation, and that can’t be anything but counterproductive.

  • Rebecca Hensler

    Huh. So what will you say about the fact that I won’t be eating leavened bread at the AA Convention in Austin? Not for religious reasons, but because the family tradition of keeping Passover (in our halfassed, “tortillas are unleavened,” sort of way) feels sweet and familiar. I know the Jews were never slaves in Egypt and I never believed any of the supernatural parts of the Haggadah, but I also know that my atheist mother keeps Passover and her secular mother before her, and I like feeling connected to them. Is it possible to engage in a ritual that emerged from religion in a way that is purely secular?

    • Art Vandelay

      I don’t know anything about Passover but I’m guessing that this ban on unleavened bread is a direct command from a deity. So in spite of it making you feel connected to your mom, no it’s still not anything resembling secular. (But I do think it’s innocuous.)

      • Bryce

        Nope, no deific command. The holiday is one of family and remembrance with no God involvement. The unleavened bread is because in the folk tales the Jews fleeing Egypt didn’t have time to cook leavened bread, so we eat it out of solidarity. It’s one of the tribal holidays rather than the religious ones.

        Come to think of it, a lot of Judaism’s holidays are tribal in nature. Passover, Hanukkah, Sukkot, Simhat Torah is kind of both, Purim, the only definitively religious holidays I can think of are Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, what with the whole “written into the Book of Life or the Book of Death” thing.

        • Art Vandelay

          Ah. I stand corrected then. Thanks.

        • invivoMark

          Huh. Well that certainly changes the impact of Rebecca Hensler’s post. I wonder what her point was?

          • Art Vandelay

            Well, Lent is sort of the same thing. It just represents Jesus fasting for 40 days in the desert where he fought Satan or some shit. He never says that we have to do it. Just like this claim about the Jews fleeing Egypt though, it’s only source is still a Holy Book and not a History Book, so I’m not sure how you can classify it as being secular.

        • baal

          I’m probably getting the holiday wrong but a yearly reminder to seek forgiveness for the wrongs you’ve done (Yom Kippur) seems like a good idea. I wouldn’t hold that day (week?)at the same time as the Jewish holy day to avoid the confusion of support or apparent expression of shared identity.

    • invivoMark

      “Is it possible to engage in a ritual that emerged from religion in a way that is purely secular?”

      No, and if you celebrate Christmas, you will burn in Atheist Hell!

      Of course it’s fine to engage in rituals that originated from religion, as long as they’re healthy rituals and done for the right reasons. The fact that it makes you feel good and is a family tradition is enough. But as JT and I thoroughly point out, there’s a lot of baggage with Lent, and it isn’t a healthy tradition to start with.

      You’re still not a bad person if you “celebrate” it because of family or other tradition. Just beware the baggage, and don’t celebrate it for the wrong reasons.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      Rebecca,

      If you read what Vlad says, he’s very much channeling Du Botton and saying there’s something we can learn from religion. That’s not what you’re saying. You’re doing this for your family, not because you think there’s any particular wisdom in it.

      And what’s more, you don’t have a history of telling people that their religious beliefs are beautiful.

    • Andrew Kohler

      I agree with the assessments of JT and invivoMark, especially the latter’s that “Of course it’s fine to engage in rituals that originated from religion, as long as they’re healthy rituals and done for the right reasons. The fact that it makes you feel good and is a family tradition is enough.” This is something with which I personally struggle still–how to preserve traditions while rejecting the problematic ideologies therewith associated. And there are other traditions that require rather more drastic alteration–for but one of many examples, Google “Brit Shalom” for the project to welcome Jewish children into the world without taking knives to their genitals and/or ignoring them if they’re non-covenant material, i.e. girls.

      Re: Bryce’s comment above–in fact, Passover is in the revised, post-Golden Calf version of the Ten Commandments: see Exodus 34:18 (and 34:28 for the only reference to the use of the phrase Ten Commandments–the first list in Exodus 20 is not described as such). So, it *is* scripturally commanded–in fact, ten-commanded!! I don’t think this really changes anything as far as Rebecca’s comment, though: if one does it for a family tradition divorced from religious meaning, one can ignore Exodus 34 as easily as one can ignore the rest of the delightful Exodus story. BTW, I would suggest skipping the verse in Dayenu thanking God for committing mass infanticide against the firstborn sons of Egypt. Singing about the Ten Plagues to the tune of “She’ll be coming around the mountain” (as I did growing up) also seems to be a bit in poor taste. Then again, I’m the wicked child >: – ) (This is a reference to part of the Seder that refers to four kinds of children and how to explain Passover to them–the wicked child asks “What does this mean to you?” thereby excluding him/herself from the proceedings. This following explanation says that no one can ever REALLY lose his (or her?) Jewishness, which is a mite totalitarian for my likes and, ironically, makes me feel considerably more disenfranchised from Judaism: http://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1486118/jewish/The-Four-Children-Explained.htm )

      • Andrew Kohler

        Addendum: see also Exodus 12 for another scriptural commandment to celebrate Passover.

  • Randomfactor

    I’d thought the point of Lent was the church’s reinforcement of necessary privation at the end of winter, as stored food and animals began to run out. Grain was needed for planting and animals for breeding stock, so it helped to put a theological threat upon those who might otherwise be tempted to eat them.

    Of course, today we have greater access to food and far better storage and production methods. There are other reasons for cutting back–but they’re year-round, not tied to a particular agricultural calendar.

  • Loqi

    Any word on if S.E. Cupp is joining them?

    • Jeremy Shaffer

      Loqi- If she does she’ll probably go the route most Chritians do and give up something they don’t do much anyway, so in Cupp’s case it’d be something along the lines of giving up making rational statements.

  • Kelly Bodwin

    As an atheist who has “observed” Lent for years, I think several of your criticisms are rather unfounded.

    > 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.

    > 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.

    > 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. But there are plenty of good reasons to time your “habit changing” with the Lent tradition. I can give you two:

    In my experience, Cold Turkey-ing a bad habit for 40 days is a good way to get rid of it. Also in my experience, this kind of thing is much easier when it is a shared venture with friends and acquaintances. Lent is very convenient in that tons of people around you are also giving something up, and everyone is generally aware of it. You can have fun with it (“Ha, ha, you can’t eat this chocolate!”) and also police each other (“I saw you on reddit, you cheater!”). For me, it’s also sort of a challenge issued by society, and being unhealthily competitive that helps motivate me. In short, the Mass Movement aspects of Lent time make it a more effective time to go about quitting a habit.

    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.

    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.

    TL;DR – These things are implied in the article and they are wrong: (1) Doing Lent means that is the only time you can self-improve, (2) Taking advice from religion in one respect means supporting it in all respects, (3) The only reason to do Lent at Lent time is to support it’s religious meaning.

  • Kodie

    I think it’s weird that they are borrowing Lent.

    It’s also ok to start a course of moderation or deprivation and call it something else because you are using it for something different. I have heard of people fasting for a short time as some sort of “stunt” demonstration to raise awareness and possibly money for hungry people. I guess it works like walking to cure breast cancer, which is not as effective as medicine they are raising money to pay for. Lent, as I understand it, when it’s been explained to me, is a fasting period leading up to Easter, during which McDonald’s really pushes their Fish Filet. Like anyone’s eating a rewarmed fish stick sandwich because they can’t have a Big Mac. I am still working up the nerve to wear my vintage Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” shirt this Friday, because I happen to work somewhere I can wear t-shirts (and sweats!). When you want to stop doing something that you feel is not helping, or doing something new to help more than you were, even if it suddenly occurs to you to start in February, call it something other then Lent. I got the healthy health-kick urge lately to eat more fish than usual and it happens to be on sale at the supermarket for some reason. I am thinking of switching to the pills.

  • Kodie

    I don’t see atheists having the fortitude to suffer Ramadan. I see these Catholic posers (including actual Catholics) performing the symbolic Lent, the one where you can still eat meat and pastry; I don’t see a single one of them voluntarily starving themselves during daylight in one of the months with the longest hours of sun just to kick a bad habit. I also love these little rituals where you develop unhealthy eating patterns of gorging yourself on a thing you make a ritual out of depriving yourself. Apparently, Allah can’t see you binging after dark, but loading up on pancakes and booze for Mardi Gras can’t possibly be fooling anyone.

  • Pingback: Response to Kelly Baldwin.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X