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(RNS) What would an “atheist Lent” look like? A group of young nonbelievers are finding out, observing the Christian practice minus its religious context.

57 Comments

  1. I suppose what bothers me is that atheists celebrating Lent don’t realize that they can celebrate it within the Church. I’d guess that about 10% of lay people in the Episcopal Church are atheists and that the number is much higher for clergy. Mainline churches accommodate this sort of “spiritual” practice. I with non-believers would recognize that.

    • Who says they don’t realize it? They likely simply far prefer doing it separate from a major organized religion. They are borrowing part of the ritual, but that doesn’t mean they want to spend any time listening to the religious portion of it. You do not need to be within any church or organization in order to be “spiritual.”

      • Understand. And I’m all for tailoring one’s practices to suit and not suggesting that organized religion suits everyone. Just noting that you don’t need to be a religious believer to use the facilities and enjoy the ceremonies, and that in mainline churches no one really cares. I’m selfish: I enjoy the architecture and music, and want it funded so I’d like to drum up business. I don’t believe for a minute that you need organized religion to be “spiritual”–I don’t even thing that “spirituality,” or religion are particularly good things, or benefit all people. I just enjoy religion and want the buildings and ceremonies financed. They are public amenities that all can enjoy without buying in.

        • Blake Seidler

          I have no problem with attending church and taking advantage of good live music, beautiful architecture, and pleasant company, along with adopting useful traditions and rituals that have historically been religious, but I part ways with you on wanting to encourage attendance.
          You seem to be suggesting that there is no way to achieve these things with secular institutions, and you want to see high church attendance to gain funding for these things. I think that funding an institution that spends the bulk of donations promulgating a false message, in order to gain some peripheral benefits, is horribly inefficient and slightly immoral.

          I don’t mind taking advantage of existing institutions and the infrastructure they have developed, but I feel strongly that we can and should eradicate the irrational aspects of religion and spirituality within those institutions.

          • First, while you can get much of this stuff from secular institutions church is one more flavor. You don’t tear down a beautiful building or allow an endangered species to die out because there are other beautiful buildings or other species. In any case, church provides something that concert halls and theaters don’t provide: the opportunity for ordinary people to PARTICIPATE in art, in ceremony.

            Secondly, there are innumerable organizations devoted to sending messages that are controversial, and likely false. There are Hegelians, Platonists, Post-Modernists, Post-Structuralist-Neo-Deconstructionists or whatever and societies devoted to the discussion and their promotion of their various doctrines. Christianity is just another metaphysical theory and, like all metaphysical theories, controversial. And probably false. So what? Do you want to close down the Hegelians, the Platonists, etc?

            I think you underestimate the pleasure religion provides for people who have the taste for it. I, for the life of me, can’t understand what people like about spectator sports. But I see lots of people get something out of it so fine with me that they’re available. I, and other people, just plain enjoy religion. And by religion I mean liturgy, buildings, art, ceremony, music and metaphysics–not “community” or ethics.

    • Most of us believe church and the majority of it’s practices are harmful, though. Most atheists do not celebrate Christian holidays, or things that people think that are Christian, but are not.

  2. Thomas Lawson

    We have to take the kids’ attitudes as progress. The harmful indoctrination, closeted living, then possible shaming from friends and family that older atheists have been through is obviously a thing of the past. That is inspiring. The kids will heal the wounds.

  3. It’s great to read about young people seriously thinking about how to live a good or better life. And, in this case, deciding on it themselves rather than waiting for someone (or Someone!) to tell them what to do. Good on them!

    • We cannot claim something is “good or better” without there being an objective standard to compare it to. Since there is not a god, there is not an objective standard, just our preferences and biological/social conditioning that we can choose to try to overcome.

      If we are going to be consistent, we need to use correct wording, such as “It’s personally satisfying to read about young people seriously thinking about how to live a life they want.” Otherwise, we are showing an incongruity in our thinking by claiming there is no objective standard of morality and then acting and speaking as if there is.

      • It all depends on how one defines good. I believe that the words good and better are applicable to conscious actors or their actions. My definition would be that good actions or actors are those that improve human health, well-being, or happiness, or those actions or actors that reduce unnecessary suffering.

        Grounding the definition in those terms does give us an objective method for measuring the goodness or badness of actions and actors. We can compare courses of actions and their impacts on suffering, happiness, and well-being. We can objectively say one is better than another.

          • While “choosing”to improve human health, etc., may be a personal preference and while there may be different concepts of what constitutes “well being”, economics has had an objective standard for “better” for many decades. A “Pareto move” is a change that results in at least one person gaining and no one else being worse off. This is the basic concept behind voluntary cooperation and it is now being support by evolutionary psychology which finds that we appear to be hard wired for what is called “reciprocal altruism”, or colloquially, “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours.” There is also a growing literature that argues that science can provide an objective basis for moraliy.
            For more, just Google the concepts in quotes.

          • @Larry
            I’m already aware of all this. We might even agree if you could you could explain the meaning of “objective” in your usage, Meanwhile, It’s clear to me that moral behaviour exists in the world to oil the wheels of societal co-operation which in turn promotes the survival of shared genes, As a fair amount of moral behaviour, including reciprocal altruism, is instinctively motivated it would be hard to marry this to at least some definitions of “objective”.

  4. I found myself intrigued and greatly appreciative of the comments made the various young nonbelievers on this post,particulary the closing comment by Ms.Link.I am a moderate evangelical Christian,and I sometimes find it extremely difficult to engage in dialogue with some atheists.I try to be humble and respectful,and sometimes that is reciprocated;but I must confess I find many atheists incredibly rude,arrogant,condescending,and just downright unpleasant!! Especially on these websites;they do indeed,as Ms.Link so astutely observed,practically”foam at the mouth”!! I usually end conservations with atheists that are heading south with”well,we’ll have to agree to disagree,and you have a Blessed day!” At anyrate my point is this:as a servant of The True and Living God for over 35 years(I’m 58),that is my identity,and I’ll never be anything else.But the young still give me hope;they are passionate,caring,loving,and can be very sweet,even when they think they don’t believe. We should nuture and treasure them,and I for one applaud and appreciate our non-believing youngsters. I love you,and you’ll be in my prayers,whether you like it or not!! So there!-PEACE & LOVE IN CHRIST!

    • “I find many atheists incredibly rude,arrogant,condescending,and just downright unpleasant!! Especially on these websites;they do indeed,as Ms.Link so astutely observed,practically”foam at the mouth”!!”

      It’s a mutual feeling. I have my religious friends that I can converse with about theology, or lack there of. But, for the most part, when I say I’m atheist, I am greeted with “You know you’re going to hell” and then an horrible comments about how my son should be taken from me and my husband and what a terrible, ignorant, impossible person I am. As I’m being lectured about my intolerance, I sit quietly and think “try looking in the mirror, ever?”. I’m not a militant atheist. I go about my life quietly and lead by example – just as religious people should. Not all of us are Maher and Dawkins, but for every one of us that are loudmouths, Christianity has at least an equal amount of them…likely, because of pure numbers practicing, they have more.

    • I think the reason you believe in a god is because you are infected with outdated poisonous doctrine that you pass off as true scripture.

      True Scripture has more relevancy for the 21st Century :)

      GAMEOVER 7:7–If all knowledge of religion and science was unknown, way back when Homo Habilis was making tools 2.3 million years ago, without ever finding a single piece of religious doctrine or even a thought of a god idea, we would still discover the science. Thats because science is Not about beliefs, its all about understandings. We understand the earth rotates, believing it or not will not change the outcome. Water is 2 parts Hydrogen and 1 part oxygen, saying “well thats just Not how I see water”, makes you look idiotic. The same goes for cumultive evolution by natural selection. Saying, “well thats just Not how I see life”, does Not automatically mean the reason for everything walks on water, creates the sub atomic world and DNA, uses dirt for man, and his rib to make a woman.

      Intriguing 3:4–Development of the Laws of Thermodynamics actually began thousands of years ago :)

      CaptainObvious 12:51–The more amazing the scientific discovery, the less likely the reason for that discovery made an appearance in the middle east thousands of years ago, to let us know he is in any way, especially concerned with what humans are doing naked, then after laying down the rules, uses human sacrifice to demonstrate virtue :)

      Evolution 7:44–Everything is fine, janitor chalkboard problem solvers are all over it. They have been all over cumulative evolution by natural selection for over 150 yrs now. Its moon landing true and rib woman is false :)

      FunFacts 9:9–Look up Aveling, he was a thorn in Darwins side. Darwin was obviously, extremely intelligent, but a pansy. Agnostic Darwin whined about Aveling’s approach to religious beliefs. Aveling decalring that agnostic is simply atheist writ respectable and atheist is agnostic writ aggressive :)

      DevientGenie 8:35–Although its extrememly frightning to be diagnosed delusional from indoctrination of religious poisons, and even though it seems scary to get rid of your religion, its important to understand, that together, we can find the cure :)

      SOLDIERS 7:57–The majority of the brilliant minded scientists are not outspoken. They have the attitude “religion will always be in the way of the truth, there is nothing I can do about it, plus we cant tell the people everything we know, they cant handle it, it’ll break their hearts” Fortunately, the few who do stand up and fight for logic and reason, are diligent and wholeheartedly sincere in their quest to discourage religion from infecting its poison into our government, our schools, and anywhere else influential in a childs development :)

      CaptainObvious 7:33–Morality is nothing more than a trumped up word for common sense. Congratulations, you have designed your life around an idiotic jewish zombie resurrection story that promises eternal happiness for obedience written by violent sexist control freaks with a severe lack of common sense. Well played, christian nation, well played :)

      CURES 1:2–”Thinking”, if it doesn’t cure you of your religion, you’re not doing it right :)

        • Too many people try to pass off disgusting outdated tripe as True Scripture.

          Everyone needs to understand that True Scripture is relevant to the 21st Century :)

          Brainiacs 6:18–Theres more talk of supporting slavery than talk of condemning homosexuality in the word of god written in the holy binky, yet we outgrew slavery but got hung up on two girls kissing. Sounds like a bunch of cry baby pansies cherry picking what to suckle out of the binky :)

          WISHES 3:7–We just need to raise our conciousness. Just a simple small step, and all agree that questioning the origins of human life becasue of our current scientific knowledge is NOT somehow inherintley wrong, or rude, or offensive in any way just because those truths contradict words in a holy book. Once we all agree on that, we will begin to embrace the beautiful truths and explanations for the complexity of life and ultimitley have the conciousness to let go of the dull lazy answer that “god did it” :)

    • Well, you could start by being less condescending with phrases like “even when they think they don’t believe”.

      Meanwhile, it might pay you to realise that the vast majority of the world’s atheists don’t contribute to blogs on the matter, don’t belong to atheist organisations and don’t spend time worrying about the “purpose” of existence. They simply don’t care.

  5. While the debate on whether to adopt religious traditions may illustrate a divide in the nontheist community, it is not between older atheists who see religion as inherently evil and younger atheists who are more open to interactions with religious belief. There are many older atheists who are open to religion and religious tradition. Just look at the more senior members of your local Ethical Society (under the American Ethical Union), the Unitarian Universalists, and the Humanistic Jewish groups. Some atheists are also anti-religious, but this has nothing to do with their age. I’m afraid I have to call Kimberly Winston to task for stereotyping and agism. I would welcome her correction.

    • I should think it depends more on whether you’re a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist, a Jewish atheist, Buddhist atheist or whatever.

      If you come from a gathered church tradition in which religion is a matter of belief, and the purpose of churchgoing and religious practice is to learn, to affirm one’s religious beliefs and have these beliefs supported then you’re not going to want anything to do with any of it if you’re a non-believer. If you come from a tradition in which religion is a matter of ethnic affirmation, rites of passage and other ceremonies, even as a non-believer you will likely be more sympathetic to religious practice.

      About half of Americans who identify as Jewish are atheists. And in Japan, which is highly secular, shrines do a good deal of business.

  6. Seems like even atheists need God….in some way.

    Frances Thompson called Him the “Hound of Heaven”.

    Beware, you who call yourselves “atheist”. In Latin it simply means “away from God”. He is pursuing you. He will find you.

    • at Jim Stagg, telling people that, “God is pursuing you. He will find you.” is not really true or productive… God looks for those who’s hearts are complete toward him and he is there for them (2Chronicles 16:9). Atheists have free will to “not believe” and on “the last day”, when they are about to perish, they will have to know that their death is a judgement from God. They didn’t care to know him so he won’t save them from death…. that is all…. no Hell-fire or eternal torture, just everlasting death with no hope of Paradise. (Psalms 37:9-13)

    • That’s arrogant. Not everyone needs a fictional deity to be happy. Besides, you only want me to find YOUR God. You’d likely prefer that I stay atheist than convert, say…Muslim?

  7. I am a 66 year old religious atheist. I am in my second year as President of my local Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation. I have been an atheist for all my adult life an an active UU for 35 years. UUs welcome people who find meaning in any religious tradition including atheism that affirms the worth and dignity of their fellow humans. It is because I and the many other UUs who are atheists find meaning and community in an open minded religious tradition that we belong and participate and support it with our time and money.

    Three years ago, I decided to observe Lent by abstaining from alcohol. It was a spur of the moment thing inspired by another non-believing professor who told me at lunch on Ash Wednesday he had decided to abstain for Lent. I found it rewarding and part of the reason was that for me, the timing was arbitrary. I repeated it the next year and again found the self discipline satisfying. This year, I decided to change and abstained for the month of January. For me, it has more to do with Buddhist mindfulness than Christian atonement.

    I commend the young atheists that are trying this practice. Religion for Atheists is a good book. I commend it to all readers of this blog. Religious traditions do have some useful techniques even for those of us who reject the supernatural. Buddhist meditation and other practices are an excellent example. I would also suggest that any atheist, agnostic or liberal theist reading this blog and desiring a supportive spiritual community check out their local Unitarian Universalist congregation. You can find it through uua.org

    We do not need to believe alike to love alike.

      • Thanks for your brief note. It gave me great joy to know that I was helpful. We UUs have a saying that “To question IS the answer.” Best wishes as you continue your quest.

        We need not believe alike to love alike.

    • Thank you, Larry! I know many Atheists, young and old, who enjoy religious traditions, or who consider them an important part of their personal culture. I know Atheists who sing in choirs that perform hymns, Atheists that sit Shiva, and others that celebrate religious holidays and feasts. Other atheists have created rites and traditions for use in their own small communities. Religion is part of our culture, and adopting parts that work for us makes sense. We still know the Greek myths and tell the tales of Nordic gods. We need not discard all of humanity’s past to make a bright future.

  8. No hellfire or damnation eh? So in essence, you are saying Jesus is a liar? What else do have you decided is a lie found in the word of God? Why in fact do you believe there is a God at all if the bible is just a pack of lies to you? What difference is there between that and an atheist?

    • Quite possibly there have been thousands, if not tens of thousands, of gods that have been worshiped by man throughout history, most of which had nothing at all to do with the book you place so much faith in. Yet those worshipers were just as devout in their own way to their own gods as you are to yours. That’s quite possibly the only significant difference between them and an atheist.

    • KATY BEADLE,
      While i am confident that you believe that your version of Christianity is essential for salvation, many religious seekers, and young seekers especially, are so turned off by the narrow minded, strident, self-rightous attitude presented by the loudest voices in Christianity that people of all ages, but especially young people, are leaving organized religion in droves now. “None” is the fastest growing response to religious affiliation surveys for the last 10-15 years and it is growing extremely fast among young people. The God I learned about as a child loved his most complex creation, humans, and would never be so cruel and vindictive as to condemn people to damnation just because they used the gift of reason he bestowed on them, looked at the evidence and found it inadequate to justify belief in any of the narrower versions of Christianity or “God” so vehemently aspoused by the Christian right.
      That version seems to me to be a slander upon the good names of Jesus and God. But as they are loving beings – if they exist – they will forgive both that slander and my doubt in their existence.

      We need not believe alike to love alike.

  9. Willie Rhodes Fess

    I don’t see a reason to link anything we do as atheist to religious nonsense. As thinking human beings, we shouldn’t need a reason to do something that makes our life healthier or better.

  10. Atheist lent??? Just adopt a healthy lifestyle, healthy food, exercise etc. year-round. No religion, gods, customs, voodoo or other hokus-pokus or time limits like lent needed.

    Just be in-sync with yourself, enjoy socializing with other humans, respect nature around you, be curious in philosophy and you will live well with a happy mind and body. It’s as easy as that.

    Vivifiant, Ohio

  11. I am an atheist, who was raised Catholic. My birthday is on the same day as that of Eric Clapton, well-known guitar God. Some years ago I started giving up listening to all things Clapton at the end of January, up until our mutual birthday. I celebrate by listening to Clapton in all his wondrous forms all day! I realize now that it is a practice taken from my childhood indoctrination. I usually jokingly say that I love EC more than Catholics love Jesus, because I give him up longer. Next year I may change the practice to celebrate the love by included EC everyday for two months, rather than excluding. I find something more pleasant about the idea of positive inclusion, to negative exclusion…….silly, but that’s what religion did to me.

  12. So atheists disagree about how to live their life. What else is new? There is no atheist rulebook, no tenants, no dogma. The only way you can screw up being an atheist is to have a belief in a God. Period.

    • Believers in god do good for the sake of getting a reward or avoiding punishment after death, big kids do good because they are Nice.

      JH, why is there no name for people who do Not believe in leprechauns?

      Are there a-leprechaunist?

      A-asrologist?

      a-unicornist?

      Then why when there is no evidence for any gods, is there a word for those who question lifes origins?

      Because humans who think the reason for everything is concerned with who, why, when and where humans ejaculate, inherently claim moral excellence :)

      Arrogance, the only ingredient in the religious mind that rivals the ignorance :)

  13. Deidre Kennedy

    I would not presume to tell anyone how to be an atheist or anything else, for that matter. If you want to give something up, go ahead. If you don’t, don’t. Why would I care? Just don’t start telling me what I HAVE to do.

    • the only thing you HAVE to do, is be the best human possible.

      If that means dedicating your life to an outdated doctrine, and teaching your children eternal torment is possible in their future, then the best human possible isnt an adjective you deserve :)

  14. I had a co-worker who grew up on the north slope of Alaska. She told me once that the whole idea of fasting or voluntarily giving up a certain food for a period of time was completely alien to her. Her family lived a subsistence lifestyle and there were days when they had nothing to eat. She couldn’t understand the point of not eating food when it was available.

  15. Mike in Wisconsin

    I’m not a religious person; I’m a None, but I cannot understand why so many of my fellow nontheists would have a negative reaction to anyone trying to improve their lives with a little self discipline. In a world where consumerism and self-indulgent consumption are destroying the environment and human health, this can’t be anything but good.

  16. I don’t care what any atheist wants to do as an individual but I agree with Flynn when he said, ““…we have to be cautious in borrowing traditions and forms from the churches…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.”

    Rituals can be seen as natural human behavior just like imagination and fantasy life are. It is with this very human propulsion…rituals…that so many are indoctrinated into religion. While it may be true that certain folks would possibly have an easier time giving up on religion if secularism/atheism included or promised comforting things like community/spirituality and even some form of ritual, it may also work against the process. Incorporating these tranditional pacifiers/comforts gives nonbelief the appearance of religion or even a faith. Unfortunately, many of our dissenters like to hold to the highly illogical view that atheism is a faith of sorts because it makes them feel better about keeping theirs. With this view, they assume that even those who profess atheism still really, deep down must have some kind of faith thereby giving the false sense that everyone really has a religion/faith even if they claim not to so why should they even consider life without it. The more we publically embrace naked truth without any candy coating, the more we demonstrate that truth isn’t about comfort/reward but that it CAN and IS being done.

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