Religious Humanism (Or Something) Gone Wild

February 14, 2013

Now I've seen it all. NonProphet Status (NPS), the blog of Faitheist author Chris Stedman, is inviting seculars to give something up for Lent!

Under the headline "NPS Does Lent, 2013," NPS panelist Vlad Chituc revealed that last year he became a vegan for Lent. This year he's doing it again -- and also, um, swearing off reading online comments during the Christian period of self-flagellation (link at bottom of this post). Further, he's invited others who seek a "nice religious practice that could be easily translated into secular life" to join him, making the 40-day sacrifice of their choice. So far a few movement folks outside of NPS's own blogging stable have signed on, including (perhaps curiously) CFI's Paul Fidalgo.

Color me dubmfounded. I was alterted to this initiative by a secular humanist who emailed me complaining about "atheists ... going out of their way to bring back religious backwardness" (italics in original), and I can't help but agree. For starters, Lent is one of the most profoundly anti-humanistic features of Christianity (and yes, that is saying something). It's all about reminding ourselves of how depraved and sinful we are, and taking on added sacrifices so we can purify ourselves to be worthy of contemplating the wonder of the resurrection forty days hence. As a secular humanist, I don't believe in sin. I don't believe that people are inherently depraved -- we are capable of both good and evil, surely, but not "depraved" in a way that only makes sense in comparison to a perfect god who, by the way, doesn't exist. Finally, I don't believe there are any external moral balance scales out there in the cosmos which adjust themselves when human beings make arbitrary sacrifices.

That spotlights another deep moral problem with Lent, one shared with the whole Christian idea of vicarious atonement, which I find frankly repellent. If I've been a bad person, if I've harmed others, then it is ludicrous to imagine that the best way for me to try to make things right is to take on some arbitrary, unrelated privation. "I've harmed others, so I'm going to spend forty days not eating meat" makes zero sense -- unless, of course, one believes in a celestial lawgiver that is impressed by such a stunt. If I've been a bad person and harmed others, I need to go to the people I've hurt and apologize and take actions that might actually do something toward making my victims whole. Giving up meat, or going vegan, or giving up alcohol, or whatever -- those are just cop-outs, feel-good strategies that might make oneself feel better about having been hurtful, but do nothing to help the people one hurt.

Vlad Chituc doesn't seem to buy into the moral value of arbitrary sacrifice either. He claims he has a good, prudential reason to go vegan for a while: the supposed health benefits. So he's not really sacrificing for the sake of sacrifice. It's more like he's borrowing the Lenten meme of self-denial as a handy framing device to make it easier for him to try a bit of therapeutic self-deprivation that he's wanted to tackle all along.

Which brings me to the other problem with Lent. It's an arbitrary stretch of time distinguished primarily by its centuries-long tradition within Christianity -- a religion we don't believe in -- its dates yoked to the annual observation of an event we don't think ever happened. (Lots of secular folks may accept that a man named Jesus was crucified, but I doubt very many of us take seriously the part about his rising from the dead.) I won't even go into the absurd way Christianity sets the date of Easter each year, which has more to do with pagan moon worship than anything alleged to occur in the Gospels.

One of the great advantages of being secular is that no one needs to be bound by traditional calendars to tell us when to celebrate, or sacrifice, or do anything else. As secular people we're free to, say, go vegan for our health any time we want to -- in March, or August, or December, for that matter -- and for any length of time we choose. The fact that forty was considered a magic number by the ancient Hebrews is no reason why people today ought to go around choosing forty-day intervals in preference to any other length of time. If forty days a vegan is good, wouldn't fifty days be better? Or how about sixty-three?

I guess what we're seeing here is the difference between secular and religious humanism (admitting that "religious humanism" is a vexed term with multiple overlapping meanings). But surely one of the meanings of "religious humanism" encompasses a desire among some naturalists to import chosen observances or traditions from congregational life and splice them into their humanist practice. As a secular humanist I view most such efforts with distaste -- consider the source, and all that. As a secular humanist I find the concept of Lent particularly objectionable, and I see no reason why any non-Christian should consult the Christian liturgical calendar when planning his or her life.

This secular humanist doesn't give anything up for Lent. I gave Lent up for reason.