Should Atheists Give Up Anything for Lent?

I’m thinking about giving up religion for Lent. Well, to be more precise, I’m giving up hope for religion for Lent – I gave up religion itself, including Lent and other Christian rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, prejudices and such of guilt-inducing Catholicism, about 60 years ago – when I was fifteen. But, after watching the bizarre events associated with the selection of a new pope, which dominated the news for at least a week, I’m giving up hope that religion will ever be sensible or do more good than harm. The very fact that the pope-a-drama got so much attention suggests the world needs more sarcasm and less reverence. Where religions are concerned, good-natured mockery and merciless hooting would be a mental health tonic.

Besides hope for religion, what else might I give up for Lent this year? As a kid doing what everyone else was doing in my Irish-Catholic culture, I dutifully followed Catholic traditions and practices. This included denying myself something during the 40 days of Lent. I usually gave up things I felt I easily could do without. One year, I gave up cigar smoking; in my final year as a Catholic, I gave up Marilyn Monroe. Inasmuch as I never smoked cigars and had no chance to get far with Marilyn, Lent was not a difficult time.

The other day, I read an article that asked, “What would an atheist Lent look like?” (See Kimberly Winston, “After giving up religion, atheists try giving up something else for Lent,” Religion News Service, March 18, 2013.) That seems a bit like asking, What would an atheist Holy Communion look like? It’s an oxymoronic question.

Atheists would not do Lent or eat Jesus. That’s why we’re atheists – we don’t do gods, thus no religion, Lent, communion or the rest of it.

But, let’s go along with the spirit of the question, so to speak. What might a reason-based person relatively free of superstitions choose to do without for a period of time in order to advance some good, personal or global? What might he or do without for 40 days just as a character-building exercise of sorts, to enhance a capacity for sacrifice or delayed gratification? Let’s define do without as refraining from something that is actually valued, not doing without that which is either undesirable or beyond the realm of reality, as in my youthful Lents concerning cigars and Marilyn.

The article by Ms. Winston in the RNS featured atheists switching to vegan meals (a sensible thing to do any time of year), giving up alcohol, animal products, the Internet or cellphone usage. Some simply resolved to be nicer, such as telling good friends how important they are. These, too, seem to be worth doing at any time, though for some alcohol, Internet and cell phones might be just fine.

The focus of the RNS piece, however, was the notion, put forward by the author, that there was some kind of schism amongst atheists about whether to borrow a concept like Lent from believers. This seems illogical – few atheists give a flying hoot what other atheists do during Lent or otherwise. Of course, there are lunatic atheists out there who might care about something like this, which of course is none of their business, but I doubt if many would care about such a thing, let along got involved in arguments about it.

I don’t believe there is conflict amongst atheists over borrowing religious traditions antithetical to nontheism, as the author suggests. For one thing, there is no “thetical” to be anti about. Why would someone who finds no evidence for gods care if others who find no evidence for gods adapt something found in a religion to entertain themselves?

In her piece about atheists involved in disputes amongst themselves on this absurd issue, the writer or alleged atheists she interviews offer a variety of interesting assertions, including the following:

* A divide exists in the nontheist community –  between older atheists who see religion as inherently evil and younger atheists who are more open to interactions with religious belief. I had no idea there was such an age-based difference among non-believers. Have you read or heard about such a dichotomy?

* Alain de Botton, author of “Religion for Atheists,” has suggested that atheists adopt religious rituals to create community and meaning in the context of their non-god beliefs. Why would rational people given to reason copy practices from ancient superstitions? Don’t freethinkers find community and meaning in other ways?

* That “religions have been working on how to live as good human beings for thousands of years…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.” Wow. Like what? How to burn people alive for blasphemy? How to slaughter, enslave and impoverish those who don’t consent to the right religion? I wonder what stuff this fellow had in mind.

I have not paid any attention to Catholic rituals for a very long time, as noted, but maybe I’ll get in the spirit of those few atheists who see some value in the Lenten tradition. Let’s see, what shall I give up? Hmmm. I’ve done cigars and Marilyn is no longer around.

I’ve got it. For Lent, I shall refrain from being too polite to tell others what I think is the truth about the Holy Bible. I think the truth about this book was captured perfectly by Robert Green Ingersoll in 1894. Here is part of what he said in one of his numerous eloquent orations.


There are many millions of people who believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God — millions who think that this book is staff and guide, counselor and consoler; that it fills the present with peace and the future with hope — millions who believe that it is the fountain of law, Justice and mercy, and that to its wise and benign teachings the world is indebted for its liberty, wealth and civilization — millions who imagine that this book is a revelation from the wisdom and love of God to the brain and heart of man — millions who regard this book as a torch that conquers the darkness of death, and pours its radiance on another world — a world without a tear.

They forget its ignorance and savagery, its hatred of liberty, its religious persecution; they remember heaven, but they forget the dungeon of eternal pain. They forget that it imprisons the brain and corrupts the heart. They forget that it is the enemy of intellectual freedom.

Liberty is my religion. Liberty of hand and brain — of thought and labor, liberty is a word hated by kings — loathed by popes. It is a word that shatters thrones and altars — that leaves the crowned without subjects, and the outstretched hand of superstition without alms.

Liberty is the blossom and fruit of justice — the perfume of mercy. Liberty is the seed and soil, the air and light, the dew and rain of progress, love and joy.