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.
This piece originally appeared in the Yale Daily News.