02/23/2013 02:39 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2013

Why This Atheist is Observing Lent

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This is my second year practicing Lent. It's not that I've recently converted to Catholicism, or that I'm only now reflecting on the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, fasting and resisting temptation from the Devil. I don't actually believe in much, if any, of that--I'm as much an atheist now as I've ever been. But I find something really compelling and human in the practice of Lent, and I think it's something a lot of other atheists, if they'd like, can find enrichment from.

Atheists talk an awful lot about abstract intellectual values like Logic or Reason, and, insofar as these words mean something above simply denoting vague and feel-good smart-person-signifiers that We have and They (believers) don't, these values are certainly important. But so many human failures, particularly my own, aren't failures of rationality or clear thinking. Rather, what seems to trip us up is a more human failing -- we lack the willpower, strength, or foresight to do what we already know is right.

There's not a person alive who doesn't know there's something they should be doing: eating healthier, giving more to charity, spending more time with family, not sleeping with your ex, and so on. What inspired me was eating vegan -- I knew, knew, that the exact same arguments I gave for not eating beef or chicken logically applied just as well to eating eggs and dairy. But the transition to a vegan diet is so much more difficult and daunting than the transition to a vegetarian one. So I decided, somewhat on a whim, to try out being a vegan for Lent last year.

It was hard, and I made a few missteps. Most importantly, I discovered just how difficult it is to eat, and otherwise live your life, deliberately. It's hard to notice how much of our living is automatic until, vegetable-in-mouth, you realize that, yes, ranch dip has dairy in it.

I don't know what other secular alternatives there are for a brief period of more disciplined and self-conscious living. So, partly inspired by Alain de Botton's "Religion for Atheists," I couldn't see any reason not to try the perfectly good religious practice right in front of me.

I've decided to keep up the tradition this year, and as I've shared what I'm doing with other atheists, I've noticed a really common response -- something along the lines of "I've always wanted to do that." There are the predictable naysayers from the atheist fringe, but for the most part I've noticed that atheists like traditions and rituals and practices, and they don't mind trying out secular alternatives.

I realize that, to a Catholic, this must seem rather like a stranger taking an urn full of your relative's ashes and saying to himself "this would make a really nice paper weight." It's trivializing and reductive, I think, to secularize religious holidays and traditions. I feel really sorry about that, everyone, I really do.

But I want to make it clear that I don't think that an atheist celebrating Christmas or Lent or whatever else is purporting to capture the full spiritual and theological and transcendental experience of the holiday that might make these rituals important to believers. Even though it might be trivializing, we're just trying to make the most out of our lives, finding inspiration from traditions who have been working on this problem a lot longer than we have.