Atheist lent, why it matters, and also what should I (and maybe you, if you’d like) give up?

Atheist lent, why it matters, and also what should I (and maybe you, if you’d like) give up? February 18, 2015


It wasn’t until I started studying psychology that I began to see religion from less of a partisan stance and more from a scientific one. It’s too easy to be stuck in an “atheism good, religion bad” mentality, but I started to see religion in functional terms once I was out. Why do religions promote the beliefs they do? Why do certain rituals stick and not others? How did this collection of beliefs and practices help people become the people they want to be?

There’s a tendency in some atheist circles to treat religion reductively as a series of statements you just say “yes, I believe this” or “no, I don’t” to. There’s an even worse, more dogmatic strain of atheism that sees anything at all similar or connected to religion as inherently negative and something to be avoided at all costs. But religion evolved over literally thousands of years to solve a host of problems, satisfy a broad array of needs, and contribute intimately to living a better and more meaningful life.

Looking at religion in these terms isn’t just important for more accurately understanding a hugely important social phenomenon, it’s also critical for figuring out what to do with our lives once we’ve left a religious context. Religion doesn’t just offer answers, but a way to live your life and, when it comes to living your life, it’s harder to start from scratch.

With the relevant context in place, I hope it’s a bit clearer why I’ve been practicing Lent for the last few years. The benefits seem pretty obvious to me—a lot, if not most, of our problems stem from not doing what we know we should. (A quick list off the top of my head: eating healthier, exercising more, donating more to charity, not sleeping with your ex, volunteering, calling your mother, studying for that test coming up, staying away from Reddit, not reading the comments, and so on). That is to say, our problem oftentimes isn’t so much figuring out what to do but figuring out how to actually do what we know we should.

I interviewed Senator Cory Booker a few months back, and he illustrated this really well for me. A vegetarian for more than two decades, Booker knew that there’s a bit of tension and hypocrisy in vegetarianism (the dairy industry contributes to veal production and the egg industry kills spent hens not long into their lives, let alone all the male chicks killed shortly after birth). He first became vegetarian by creating a little experiment for himself—go a few weeks being vegetarian to see if he could do it—and he found it sticked. As he started to feel more tension in his vegetarian diet, he decided to try again. He became vegan for a few months as an experiment, and it worked.

I think little experiments like these are really important, and I became a vegan in a similar way. I gave it a try back in the Lent of 2012, and it finally took root during the Lent of 2013. Experiments like these can be really powerful, because they last a short, low pressure span of time and serve as a nice trial-run for long-term habits. Lent has something over and above this, though—a moral community going through the same thing and rooting for your success.

So that’s what I’m going to try to cultivate here. I’m going to openly invite anyone wanting to take part in Lent this year to share their goals, track their progress, and bounce ideas off one another. Since it’s a bit last minute—Lent always sneaks up on me—I wont begrudge anyone who wants to start tomorrow.

This year, I’m tossing around a few ideas for goals that I’ll settle on by the end of the day, but I would love a few suggestions:

  • Giving up drinking. I tried this for drynuary (it did not go great) and I think my blogging and writing more broadly suffered for it (turns out I’m pretty much always drinking when I write, whoops). That said, that’s maybe a good reason to give it another go.
  • Giving up coffee. I’ve been drinking 3-4 cups of coffee pretty much every day since I was 17, and I’m thinking it’s maybe time I should cut back. I’ve also started drinking more tea, which is a nice substitute and typically has a much lower caffeine content.
  • Meditating every day. Not exactly a sacrifice in the typical Lenten sense, but I think daily goals should count. I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness more, but I still fall off the wagon every so often and would love to make it a daily habit.
  • Journaling every day. See above, mutatis mutandis.
  • Rigid digital Sabbaths. This one’s a bit of an amalgam but hey, why not. I realize being on the Internet kind of stresses me out sometimes, and often gets in the way of things I realize are more important. I think instituting a “no screens after 9 PM or at all from sundown Friday to sunup Sunday” sort of rule might help with my sleep hygiene but also provide some time for meaningful reflection and all the things I typically don’t get to do when I’m wasting time on Twitter.
  • No social media from 9-5. I think everyone wastes too much peak-productivity time on Facebook.
  • Keeping my phone out of arms’ reach when I’m with people. I have a habit of being glued to my phone in a way I realize is probably pretty rude. This might be nice to encourage living more in the moment and also not being a rude jerk.

Any other suggestions are open and welcome. I’ll keep updating on my progress, along with anyone else who’s interested.

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