What with Wednesday being Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the 40 day countdown to Easter, I wrote about the tradition of Pancake Day. The idea with Pancake Day, and its much more fabulous cousin Mardi Gras, is to get all of your indulgence out of the way before the fasting of the Lent period, with Easter Sunday itself allowing for a feast to end all of that. While many don’t necessarily utilise Lenten fasting as an opportunity to be closer to God, it remains a chance to give up, say, chocolate before Chocolate Day itself at Easter.
The religious element of this five and a half weeks of abstinence may be a little debatable for many people, but Lent still does pay lip service to the Christian message. So, what should us non-believers be doing? Is there a place in Lent for atheists?
For many there is still an appeal of a life adjustment that is limited to a specific time period, making it somewhat more achievable: “Lent for me is like a New Year’s Resolution, but 5x better, for one important reason – it has a significant, time-sensitive goal, and that makes it more attainable,” writes one atheist blogger, “With Lent we have an end in sight – it’s only 40 days. We have that goal to work towards, and that goal makes it easier to stay focused. Similar to New Year’s, lots of people are doing it at the same time, so you should have a sort of social support group encouraging you to stick to your plan or a boom in newcomers at gym classes or quitting groups – lots of people will be going through a similar routine to you and can offer you support.”
For many younger atheists in America, this sense of community and belonging has created a greater uptake of Lent. In the sort of Humanism put forward by Alain de Botton, observance of religious rituals among non-believers allows those people to have shared interests and goals and support. Other atheists, though, often those who have been pursuing the secular life for much longer, feel quite the opposite. “We have to be cautious in borrowing traditions and forms from the churches,” says Tom Flynn of the Council for Secular Humanism, “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.”
In fact, the Council for Secular Humanism goes one step further, with the group’s Austin Cline advocating an “Anti-Lent”. “The principle behind Lent is asceticism: denying material, physical pleasures for the sake of the soul. Atheists reject Christian mythology and can turn Lent on its head by observing anti-Lent,” Cline writes, “If Christians do penance for their sins, you can rack up new ‘sins’ by test driving new material, physical pleasures. This life is the only one we have, so expand your comfort zone by trying new things.”
So, instead of packing in the chocolate this Lent, how about using the limited time of the Lenten period to experiment with some fatty or unhealthy foods?