Keeping an Atheist Lent

daffWhat started as a plan to take a break from alcohol for Lent has developed into something deeper.  I started to consider the value of religious rhythms to life – not as a believer, but as an atheist.  So, while I am still giving up alcohol for Lent, I am also going to use this self-denial as a tool for contemplation and to consider my relationship with consumption and appetite satisfaction more generally.


Life with two small children has reduced my alcohol intake dramatically.  No more lost afternoons in the pub, far fewer evenings out on the town, and an earlier finish for the remnants in the sure knowledge of an early and noisy start the following day.
It is also just very tiring, and I have found myself turning to a drink at home in the evening as a prop, though ultimately a false one that leaves me even more wiped out.  I’ve also found that since my youngest has started nursery I’ve had a near permanent cold of one kind or another.
So a couple of weeks ago I decided to take a break from alcohol altogether, in the hope this will bith increase my energy and my immune system.  As Lent was approaching this seemed a convenient frame to use to do it.  I like that it is not a calendar month and doesn’t have a stupid gimmicky name (like Dryanuary, or Stoptober etc.). I’m not a religious person, I have no belief though I was brought up in the Church of England, but nonetheless the connection to an older rhythm of life appeals to me. Even its very irregularity from a contemporary point of view seems to me part of its value: it is not convenient, a ‘moveable fast’ (Lent being the period leading to Easter and Easter fallings on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox around March 21).
As I started thinking about it, this element of rhythms of life developed for me.  I realised that as we have moved to a secular society we have kept only the feasts as markers of time and season, and dropped the fasts and periods of abstinence.  The whole of Lent used to be a period of fasting, with this aspect slowly dropped and even Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasts increasingly rare.
This is a shame for two inter-related reasons to do with losing a sense of ourselves as embodied and part of nature, and losing a sense of ourselves as part of a community of common human experience.  Modernity has meant a moving away from nature’s rhythms, with the significance of the seasons for many of us restricted largely to weather (or school holiday times).  There is a permanent plenitude of food – we can buy pineapples or tomatoes at any time of year – with no natural cycle of feast and relative scarcity.  From this we lose some of our sense of what we are, of a real sense of being embodied:  ‘unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature’ we become ‘cut flowers in a vase’.  To bring it back to fasting and abstinence, in a time of constant consumption hunger and thirst are not real for most of us.
Consumption has also replaced other communal considerations of what might constitute a good life – if not already there, we are in danger of entering Fukuyama’s post-Historical ‘sad time’ dedicated only to ‘the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands’  – with any such ‘other’ considerations of a good life pushed to the margins and restricted to the private sphere. In the main the move to a secular society is a good thing.  However in losing communal practices dedicated to abstinence, rather than consumption, I think we have also lost something of value. External actions and practices can and do shape the forms of our thinking and emotions, and a practice that forces one to take the mind off external satisfactions of appetite(s), and to perhaps consider other purposes and other satisfactions in life, is both useful and necessary.  Moving from an individual to a common effort to take the mind of external satisfactions magnifies and transforms this practice, towards a communal contemplation of the meaning of our shared human experience.
The abstinence of Lent can help link us both to a season, and to ourselves as part of a slowly cyclical nature.  Losing this link means we tend to think of a balanced life as a constant thing – something that looks the same month to month – rather than a balance over time. Thinking of balance over a year to allow for cycles, seems more human to me.

—————- A Note on Atheism —————-

While deciding what to call this non-Christian Lent – if the concept is not too oxymoronic to be nameable – I discovered a discussion of the idea of atheist or secular lent from about five years ago (for example here, and here).  Some of the thinking from those proposing it was similar to elements of my ideas above.  But what I found helped clarify things for me was the central objection from some of the more militant, strongly anti-religious atheists.  For them atheism is anti-secular, with no concession possible to religious thought or practice as it is a ‘poison’.
This has always seemed to me rather self-defeating. One can identify the ills of religious thought, and celebrate our freedom from their institutionalisation in our secular state, while also recognising that religious belief has deeply structured our thought and society in both positive and negative ways.  John Gray perhaps goes too far in making escape from religious thought near impossible, but he is surely right to say that our idea of atheism, contemporary Western atheism, develops out of and is ultimately part of a Christian tradition (I haven’t read his latest book, but it is an argument he has made before).
Beyond this, we can also respect and look to some elements of religious thought as representing a long history of thought on wise ways of living (though I suggest not in the way Jordan Peterson does). Humanity has always grappled with how to live well, and much of this thought has inevitably been recorded and codified in religious thought and practice.  For me, the bathwater is not so distasteful as to find defenestrating the baby a price worth paying to be free of it.
Of course some religious strictures reflect the social norms of the time (think of the damage of institutionalised and sacralised homophobia and misogyny), and some are only really wise if you are living in the desert in pre-modern times.  Deeper still for Christianity there may too be a problem of thinking only from the position of the oppressed (and again, for the more militantly anti-religious atheists, it is worth considering the implications of the role of this slave morality in the roots of our own liberal democratic systems).  Others though are surely transcendentally human, and fasting, and periods of self-denial and retreat are a strong repeating motif across time and place.
Atheism leaves us the question of how to live one’s life when we no longer have externally given instruction.  Using all of the tools available is surely wise in the face of such a difficult and terrifying task.

—————– An Atheist Lent —————-

I agree with much of Giles Fraser’s take on secular Lent.  He argues that Lent is not a simple giving up of things. It’s about self-denial as part of a process of inward assessment, ultimately even of the inevitability of death, and not simply a further burnishing of the self.  A shallowly conceived secular Lent runs the risk of turning:

a period of self-denial into one of self-regard. It makes it all about me, and most especially, the cultivation of my own beauty or sense of worth. This sits rather oddly with the message that most Christians received last Wednesday [Ash Wednesday] when they were marked with ash and told that they were going to die: “Know that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

I think though Fraser is here using secular to mean stripped of all meaningful content altogether; a deracinated lowest common denominator Lent that asks nothing serious of you, and that is thereby acceptable to all.  I agree such an idea is little e more than a second bite at New Year resolutions.
I’m thinking of an atheist Lent here as one that treats the tradition with respect, that tries to find the value in the practice and its underlying meaning, but without a belief in God.  Ideally of course we would have a truly secular equivalent – a set period given over to inward reflection, and even meditation on our mortality, bolstered by a sympathetic, reinforcing outward practice.  Such a thing is notably absent; as I noted earlier our culture has kept the feasts and even expanded on them, but dropped any periods of restraint or retreat.
While my main Lenten practice will still be giving up alcohol I will be using this as a tool. I hope that as well as any physical benefits it helps promote reflection. Firstly, to think about the rhythm of life (feeling it more, developing a closer relationship with natural rhythms), and its inevitable ending, and to consider also what it is I’m actually missing when I crave (is this desired consumption because I am lonely, bored, tired, missing particular people).  Secondly, as a period of reflection on what withdrawal from consumption and appetite satisfaction might mean.  This might not all be entirely clear to me from here – but no matter, that gives me plenty to be thinking about. In between pining for the pub.

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