Secularizing religious practices: respectful or reductive?

Secularizing religious practices: respectful or reductive? February 24, 2013

I shared a brief reflection with the  Huffington Post the other day about practicing Lent as an atheist. I encourage those who might have missed it to read the whole thing (you know, if you want), but there was one part in particular that I think might warrant some broader discussion.

You can criticize an atheist taking part in religious practices from two fronts. There’s the “everything-attached-to-religion-is-really-really-bad-and-you’re-a-bad-atheist-for-trying-it” style of argument that comes from some atheists, and I find that to be pretty weak. But there’s also the idea that religious practices really aren’t ours to take, and that we’re in some sense mistreating sacred and religious holidays, either in a bare utilitarian way, as I seem to be looking at Lent, or in a trivial way, as many atheists treat more casual holidays like Christmas or Easter. I wrote:

I realize that, to a Catholic, this must seem rather like a stranger taking an urn full of your relative’s ashes and saying to himself “this would make a really nice paper weight.” It’s trivializing and reductive, I think, to secularize religious holidays and traditions.

As often happens, James Croft of Temple of the Future and I disagreed (at length) on this point. We hashed it out on Twitter,[ref]I’m finding the “no internet comments” part of my Lent commitment somewhat tricky to navigate. Just about all of the internet can be construed as some kind of comment—tweets are basically comments, all blogs seem to be at least commentesque, and there are comments all over Facebook. Which if any of all that do I ignore? I probably should have thought this out better and made a clearer commitment, but I think I’m definitely (i) committed to ignoring blog comments and (ii) trying to avoid pointless internet fighting. I’m having more success with the former than latter. [/ref] where he seemed to make two points: first, that copracticing a ritual or custom is a way of showing respect (by say, covering one’s head when entering a temple); and second, that Lent doesn’t belong to Catholics to begin with—it’s a human holiday.

This second point strikes me as weird, since Lent seems indelibly tied to Catholicism. I feel that the head covering analogy breaks down, though I can’t quite pinpoint where.[ref]I’m thinking it has to do with the fact that Sikhs might, for example, request that you cover your head when visiting their temples. But I can’t think of any Catholics asking atheists to show respect to Lent or Christmas by joining in.[/ref]  The first point, though, strikes me as more interesting. Issues of cultural appropriation are always somewhat sensitive, particularly when the reappropriation seems to remove such a vital element of the original practice. I like the comparison I made between an atheist using Lent as a lifehack and a stranger using a relative’s urn as a paper weight—there’s a sense that outsiders are taking a shrewd, utilitarian look at something sacred.

I don’t think the right way to handle this objection is to minimize the religious aspect of the holiday—just as we wouldn’t say “oh it’s just superstitious nonsense that you think this urn is special, anyway” to a concerned relative.[ref]Though I don’t doubt that there’s a certain subset of atheist who would.[/ref] Instead, I think it’s best to just admit the inherent insensitivity of what we’re doing so we can smooth it out from there.

But I’m hardly an expert at this, and I can’t say I have much experience tactfully handling situations like these.[ref]Though there’s an element of cultural appropriation in hipster circles, I think it’s much less blatant than “hey, I’m going to take this holiday you celebrate that I don’t believe in and do it anyway.”[/ref] I’m not sure why Lent feels so much different to me than Christmas does—I have almost no problems at all celebrating Christmas, but maybe just because I celebrated Christmas growing up. Maybe I’d feel less bad if I were a cultural Catholic.

Anyway, I’m always curious to hear other’s thoughts, since mine are so clearly jumbled.


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