Wednesday, February 17, 2010

An Atheist's Guide to Lent: Part One, Fasting

     The translucent skinned, crusty monsignor looked down his pepper-pitted, crimson, and drooping nose and sternly asked the meek seven-year-old, "And what are you giving up for Lent, my dear?"

     She looked up through the curls hanging like half-closed curtains around her heart-shaped face.  Her black licorice eyebrows squeezed together over her malted milk ball eyes that rose and accepted the monsignor's cloudy sapphire eye's dare.  

     "Mass, Father.  I'm giving up going to Mass."

     As a child in Catholic school, that was always the joke that my friends and I shared.  When Sr. Mary Something or Father Homily asked us what we were giving up for Lent, we always wanted to say Mass.  We dared one another to do it, but none of us ever had the guts.  

     Well, the days of living in fear of some fallible cleric are over.  The dare remains.  What are you faithful Christians giving up for Lent?  This atheist dares you to give up god for forty days and forty nights.  Try it out.  See what it's like.  Your faith will still be waiting there for you in the end, if you still want it.  You have nothing to lose but your chains.

     This is An Atheist's Guide to Lent: How to Lose god and Find Peace in Forty Days or Less.

     Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian season of penitence: Lent.  To kick off the festive season over the next three days, I will focus on a different tenant of Lent (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) from an atheist's perspective.  

     During Lent, a penitent soul is supposed to commit to (1) exercising extra prayerful practices, (2) fasting/self-denial from something they enjoy, and (3) giving of their time or wealth to those in need.  This practice lasts for forty days and night, and on the other side of the Lenten desert one will find resurrection. 

     Today, we focus on:

  1. Start by giving up fear.  This is not a simple fear, such as being afraid to step in front of a moving bus, this is giving up those deep, darkest, soul-shaking fears, such as being afraid to ask the hard questions, to be honest about who you are and what your doubts and limitations are, to take risks to do with your life what you've always wanted to do, and to let go of things you are not sure you will be able to live without.  The key to finding your deepest fears is to follow your resistance. You have nothing to lose but your false faith, because real faith cannot be based on fear.  Fear is an animal instinct, simple fight or flight.  To believe in some god out of a simple animal fear is not a choice.  Faith must come from a higher human state than fear: awe or gratitude.  So, even if you believers are not going to take this atheist Lenten practice all the way, you can still purge yourself of your fear-based, automatic reaction to believe.
  2. Give up your distortions about god.  Reflect upon what you've been taught to be "true" about god: omnipotence, unconditionally loving, beneficent, forgiving, wants to be known, revelatory, male, three persons, etc. etc.  Honestly ask yourself the forbidden questions.  What if my god isn't the only god?  What if other religions are right?  What if we're all wrong?  Why does god have to be all-loving?  What if god doesn't love me?  What if god isn't all knowing?  What if god doesn't reveal itself to the world?  What if the scriptures were not inspired, but just people's projections of their personal fears and distortions of what they needed to believe for their own benefit?  What if there is no afterlife? What if there is no god?  And so on.  Pick one of these questions and try out the hard answer for a few days.  See how it feels.  Does it change the way you live?  Don't worry.  You can always go back to your beliefs.
  3. Fast from shame.  What if you don't need a savior?  What if you are fine just the way you are?  Are you are capable of doing good because it's the wise and peace-giving choice, not because of some divine prescription for avoiding eternal damnation?  Quit beating yourself down and actually love and accept yourself as someone who is capable of both great good and great harm.  Turn those self-centered, self-pitying shame and guilt energies outward, and do something productive with it.
  4. Fast from pride and the belief that your puny human brain has the ability to understand the greater mysteries of the universe.  Don't try to define the unknown.  Just let it be.
  5. Give up prayer.  Don't pray for forty days.  Try it.  Quit asking for the universe to bend to your will.  Quit looking for the deus ex machina in your life's struggles.  Quit projecting your own fears and needs onto god in your prayer.  (See tomorrow's post for the continuation of this point.)
     If any of your other free thinkers, post-theists, agnostics, and atheists have other prescriptions for these "Lenten" practices, please add them to the comments below.
     So, what do you believers have to lose?  You can always quit and return to your pre-Lenten ways at any time.  So, what's holding you back.  I dare you.   Give up god for Lent. 

     Tune in tomorrow for An Atheist's Guide to Lent: Part Two, Prayer.


Justin said...

Awesome post and series.