CHITUC: Lent for atheists

I walked into Commons early yesterday morning and saw blue-gray smears dotting the foreheads of a handful of my classmates. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was strangely surprised. Of course, I knew that it was Ash Wednesday. I knew that the beads and colored drinks from last night’s Feb Club party were to celebrate Mardi Gras — the last great celebration before the temperance of the Lenten season. But it still felt odd to see my classmates wear their religion so prominently on their foreheads. It was hard not to feel self-conscious on their behalf.

But I can’t say that I didn’t feel a little bit jealous, either. I’ve been an atheist since I was old enough to drive, and I don’t find the stories in the Bible any more believable now than I did when I was 16. But atheists still miss out on a comfort provided by religion — not necessarily in the beliefs per se, but in the ritual of it all.

I love Christmas far more than I have any right to, and I’d guess that I love it for the exact same reasons most Christians love it: there’s something really special about spending time with family, giving thoughtfully to those in need and those we care about and listening to nostalgic music while drinking hot cocoa by the fire with your cats (or dogs, or grandparents). I don’t see why Christianity is necessary to enjoy any of that, and I refuse to let the faithful have all the fun.

So it bothers me when other atheists are too quick to do away with the beauty religion cultivates, as if it were necessary to toss the beauty out right along with the cosmology. I think we make a mistake when we fail to distinguish the form from the content of religion. Doing away with both is like smashing a glass because we don’t like the drink inside it.

Depending on context, the exact same techniques can serve propaganda when used by fascists or public service announcements when used by our government. The form is all the same, of course. Good advertising is good advertising. But what matters is what the advertisements are about. Goebbels was an evil man, but he could sure sell a point. If we can use his talents for good, why not?

I see the practices of religion a lot like how I see advertising. If there’s one thing religions have gotten down since the Agricultural Revolution, it’s enriching the human experience through ritual. So why not borrow some of that, even if the content that currently fills it leaves something to be desired? Not that I’m comparing Christians to fascists.

Something along these lines is the premise of the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton’s upcoming book, “Religion for Atheists.” And while his ideas have been violently opposed by atheist bloggers (about as charming a group as you might expect), I actually find them pretty compelling.

So I was sitting in Commons yesterday looking around at all my classmates, and I began to think about Lent. Not about Jesus wandering through the desert for 40 days and 40 nights while being tempted by the devil, but about my Catholic friends’ yearly test of willpower, sacrifice and self-improvement. I realized that was something worth doing on its own.

I decided then that I’d take part in Lent. I’ve been mostly a vegetarian for the last two years. But the reasons I object to eating beef and chicken apply equally to drinking milk and eating eggs: I don’t necessarily object to consuming flesh per se, but rather how we treat livestock and how factory farming impacts the environment. So while I’ve been finding the transition from a vegetarian diet to a vegan diet particularly daunting, the Catholic Church provides me a perfect and relatively low pressure avenue for a brief period of self-improvement. I don’t see any reason not to try it out.

Is picking and choosing religious rituals and practices a bit irreverent and patronizing? Probably a little. Is it a potentially great way to enrich secular life? Definitely. That’s as good a reason to practice Lent as I can think of.

Vlad Chituc is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at vladimir.chituc@yale.edu.

Comments

  • GeoJoe

    Wonderful column! :)

  • RexMottram08

    Not bad, Vlad, not bad.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “I see the practices of religion a lot like how I see advertising”

    **So does the Roman Catholic Church: St. Peter’s Basilica was the first Disney World— of a much higher artistic quality, mind you; the stained glass stations of the cross, the first theme park; the monastic chanters, the first mass concerts; the calendar of sacred holidays, the first billboards.
    Prescient. Clever.**

    PK

    • RexMottram08

      If Disney World was built by donations….

  • River_Tam

    Even the High Priest Dawkins celebrates Christmas.

  • penny_lane

    As an atheist and clinical psychologist, I’ve always admired the healthful benefits of religion: social support through a community, a more mindful state of being through meditation and prayer.

    This is a nice, thoughtful piece.

    • yayasisterhood

      I think Penny_Lane, like most atheists, misunderstands religion and religious people. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

      • penny_lane

        Actually, I think it makes me largely more objective. But thanks for the condescension, it’s so very appreciated.

  • public_editor

    Although the support and community that one can derive from religion can certainly be divorced from belief in a God, why adopt a Catholic practice (lent) to achieve a secular goal (not eating animal products)? Why not build a community of atheists, who can come together in common purpose? It seems more atheists (although not you) are more concerned with tearing down religion than building up their own foundations.

  • Hieronymus’ Bosh

    Perhaps UU is the sect you seek: secular humanists with a social bent (or just head on up to DIV). All the trappings of a religion with none of that pesky religiosity.

    (I was going to write “guilt,” but guilt those UU’ers dole out in spades–are you green enough? Do enough for Social Justice? Reproductive Justice? Human Rights such as housing and food? The list goes on and on…)

    Going JewBu might also suffice–you can have all the “rules” with none of the (alleged, in your case) “benefits.”

    The problem with placing Man as the Highest is that you can never do “enough” (and the gap can never be “covered”: You Dwight Hall folk know what I’mma sayin’).

    • RexMottram08

      I’ve missed you, Hieronymus!

    • River_Tam

      Hieronymus! Nice to have you back!

  • Leah

    “I love Christmas far more than I have any right to, and I’d guess that I love it for the exact same reasons most Christians love it: there’s something really special about spending time with family, giving thoughtfully to those in need and those we care about and listening to nostalgic music while drinking hot cocoa by the fire with your cats (or dogs, or grandparents). I don’t see why Christianity is necessary to enjoy any of that, and I refuse to let the faithful have all the fun.”

    If that’s all Christians get out of it, they’re not really Christians. If you believe, it’s about God entering the world as Man, not about fun times under the tree. Acting as though Christians are just a little more sentimental in December is bad for them and bad for us. Ideas have consequences, and we shouldn’t paper over the big metaphysical (and therefore ethical as well) chasm between believers and atheists.

    • penny_lane

      To be fair, up through the industrial revolution, Christmas was seen as a minor holiday, much the way many Jews view Hanukkah. With the advent of greater technology and wealth, as well as booming capitalism, Christmas became a big gift-giving holiday, and the charitable and family traditions followed from that. Before that, Easter was a much bigger deal for Christians than Christmas ever was. The Feast of Steven was the big eating day (26th of December, remember good King Wenceslas?) in the middle ages, and the other important holiday related to Christ’s birth was the Epiphany (Jan 6th.) The Puritans actually forbade the celebration of Christmas because they found it much too intemperate a holiday. It only really falls where it does because of pagan solstice celebrations and Saturnalia, not because Christ was actually born on December 25th.

      The chasm you describe is not nearly as big as you claim. The celebration of Christmas represents the strange tension between consumerism and the certainly universal values of peace on earth and goodwill towards mankind. Genuine worship of Christ as God incarnate has never been the true purpose of the holiday–there are other days for that. Christmas is about exactly what the author describes, whether you are atheist or a Christian.

      • RexMottram08

        Even granting the horribly broad concession that consumerism came later after the Industrial Revolution, you are seriously claim that earlier Christmas celebrations weren’t a big deal?

        Riiiiiight.

        I’m sure Counter-Reformation Catholics just sat around on December 25 looking at their hands.

        Penny, why don’t you go ask Keith Wrightson to recommend a good history on popular medieval religious customs?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Greetings Hieronymous!

    Read Ralph Waldo Emerson and shrivel in shame at your straighjacket view of deity.

    PK

  • tomago

    It has become a particular challenge of late to follow the canons of Catholicism and not beat the piss out of yet another snotty, patronizing, putz, who in a lame attempt at intellectual masturbation, has no problem with the “in-vogue” habit of disparaging the largest organized religion in the world…it’s so common, it’s almost boring.

    Lent is a lot more than giving up Ring-Dings, Vlad…

    It’s an insult of the highest magnitude that you smugly assume you’d benefit from a practice that means more than giving up…what is it that vegans give up again?

    Try going to a mosque and play this kind of game, and see what happens…

    Unfortunately, the parochial tenet of “turning the other cheek” usually results in just another slap in the face.

    It’s an accepted insult “a la Gaga/Madonna” to garner a nun’s habit and fishnets, and be considered “edgy”. Consider Ofili’s Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung, and Serrano’s Piss Christ. [supported by the National Endowment of The Arts and the Supreme Court]

    It’s all art…right?

    A crucifix is cool in a music video, but not on a wall, as “Christ” is what you say when you’re angry, not someone whose example of selfless-ness changed history.

    Here in Yale-ville, a Hindu Bindi or Tilak is sacrosanct to those progressives well versed in political correctness, but a symbol on the forehead during Ash Wednesday elicits smarmy comments.

    Your smug intellectual elitism would never dare utter a similarly offensive comment to our Jewish brethren, that would be anti-semitic. Never make a comment to someone wearing a burqa, that’s bigotted and intolerant.

    …but Lent is a cool gimmick you’ll take a whack at…all for personal growth, of course.

    It’s considered humorous to deride the Catholic faith, as Professor of Humanities at Penn State University Phillip Jenkins titled his book: “Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.”

    Just turn the other cheek…right?

    Read about what you write, Vlad, unless being adamant about what you don’t eat, and what you don’t believe in is something you really take pride in.

    As for the comment that St Peter’s is like Disney…shove it, sonny boy.
    You both make me ashamed of my alma mater.

    • penny_lane

      What you’ve written here is entirely unnecessary–and for that matter, far more disparaging than anything in the above article.

      • River_Tam

        The problem is that he’s right. Mr. Chituc is willing to be openly hostile and derisive towards Christianity most of the time. For him, Lent is like a mini New Years’ Resolution, not an expression of faith and devotion to Jesus Christ. And to top it off, he expects us all to applaud his open-mindedness.

        Mr. Chituc also is “surprised” to see students wear their faith on their foreheads? For someone who spends a lot of time standing around signs for his Humanist and Secular Student clubs, he doesn’t seem to grasp how important religious faith is to people. Is he equally surprised when he sees classmates in yarmulkes or Hijabs? Of course not. Those people get passes.

        And yes, the above commenter’s also also right that no one would pull this stunt on Ramadan (or Yom Kippur). They wouldn’t pretend to “take part” in it without actually embracing the theology.

        Why? Because Ross Douthat is right and Dan Brown Theology has taken hold and the Catholic Church’s sacraments are viewed as a cultural remnant rather as religious practice. I’m not a practicing Catholic, and even I see it.

        The above commenter might have been harsh or even nasty; he’s not wrong on the facts.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “If Disney World was built by donations….”

    You must be reading RCC text book histories.

    Donations extorted from peasats through terror of going to hell and the desire to buy dearly departteds a reprieve from same fictional house of fire.

    Donations?

    The devils’ “donations,” perhaps.

    PK
    M.Div. ’80, etc. blah

  • The Anti-Yale

    “If Disney World was built by donations….”

    You must be reading RCC text book histories.

    Donations extorted from peasats through terror of going to hell and the desire to buy dearly departteds a reprieve from same fictional house of fire.

    Donations?

    The devils’ “donations,” perhaps.

    PK
    M.Div. ’80, etc. blah

    • RexMottram08

      The medieval history faculty at Yale disagrees with you.

      C’mon PK, you’re better than that.